It began, like everything did last summer, with Carly Rae Jepsen.
That's when UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman, the bespectacled, perpetually red-tie-wearing leader of this state's flagship university, watched as Jepsen's “Call Me Maybe” and countless lip-syncing young fans seized control of the Internet.
The U.S. swimming team posted its “Call Me Maybe” spoof video on YouTube. It got 11.1 million hits.
Perlman has lectured on torts, written a book titled “Intellectual Property and Unfair Competition,” run a law school and for the past 13 years has guided the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to record levels of federal research funding and newfound prestige.
That's a long way of saying that he has never, ever gotten 11.1 million views on YouTube.
Perlman watched the swimmers' video and thought, “What the...?”
And then he thought something else. He thought, “Hey, how can we do this?”
Which is why, on a January morning, the 71-year-old chancellor sat down in a leather chair, surrounded by UNL's 27-year-old digital marketing guru and several similarly youthful employees of Lincoln marketing firm Archrival and taped what they eventually named "Harvey's Perls of Knowledge."
If you are a UNL student, an alum, a donor or — maybe most importantly — a high school student, chances are you might have heard of this.
The series of short, offbeat videos has given the sneakily funny Perlman a two-week ride 'round the Internet.
Clips of Harvey refusing to do the Harlem Shake, a mustachioed Harvey protecting students from the Zombie Apocalypse, Harvey faux-challenging Northwestern as he drops the (lapel) mic, and others, have received nearly a quarter-million YouTube views.
A companion website has gotten tens of thousands of clicks.
The “Perls of Knowledge” spots have been tweeted and re-tweeted and re-re-tweeted. The ad campaign has gotten a mountain of free publicity, courtesy of media outlets from Sioux City to San Francisco and from Columbus, Ind., all the way to China.
The jury is out on whether “Perls of Knowledge” will result in more students for UNL — Perlman, when he's not fighting zombies, has vowed to get UNL's current enrollment of 24,207 to a nice round 30,000 in the next four years.
But what seems clear is this: For $40,000, a tiny fraction of the university's marketing budget, UNL has gotten the kind of publicity that most wannabe Carly Raes — and most universities — would kill a whole zombie army for.
“It worked because of (Perlman's) really bitey sarcasm,” says Dan Kohler, UNL's senior assistant director for digital marketing and the aforementioned 27-year-old. “The tone actually speaks well to a younger generation ... and it's packaged in a way that takes a traditional brand and throws it into this very nontraditional environment.”
I figured I would pull back the curtain on “Perls of Knowledge” and learn that the chancellor was just a glorified prop in this digital marketing strategy, a willing and able participant in an experiment hatched and run by people younger than I am.
But the real story is stranger: Perlman himself came up with the general idea. He enlisted allies, including Amber Hunter, UNL's admissions director, and Kohler.
“He had been paying more attention to pop culture, spending more time with the admissions office — we're one of the youngest offices on campus — and asking a lot of questions,” Hunter says. “A lot of this comes from him just trying to understand how we could share something all over the country.”
They brought in Archrival, a Lincoln marketing firm that cultivates an edgy reputation.
Archrival employees and UNL's five-person digital marketing staff together wrote the video's scripts. And then Perlman took those scripts with him on a long, long flight to China. When he came home, he had rewritten every last one.
On taping day, Perlman nailed most of the scripts with one or two takes.
“He's a pretty funny guy,” admits Clint! Runge, Archrival's creative marketing director and a man with a “!” purposefully embedded in his first name.
Much of the fun is watching the serious leader of a serious institution act decidedly not serious.
A recent interview with Hunter and Kohler devolved into us talking about our favorite video in “Perls of Knowledge.” During the shoot, Hunter couldn't stop laughing whenever UNL's chancellor said “YOLO!” (For the uninitiated, that's the abbreviation, now used ironically, for “You Only Live Once.”)
I am strangely drawn to Perlman very seriously telling the camera how many degrees he is separated from Kevin Bacon.
Kohler likes the intros to each video, when Perlman does things like goofily point at a globe and says things like, “We need more chairs.”
Runge, who teaches an advertising class at UNL in addition to running Archrival, says the “Perls of Knowledge” campaign is modest compared with much more expansive (and presumably more expensive) campaigns that his firm has done for clients such as Red Bull.
Runge does think Perlman and UNL have gotten a serious bang for their buck. He's heard UNL students and Lincolnites buzzing about the campaign both on Twitter and at the coffee shop.
Both he and Kohler have watched the Internet response — Runge admits he was a little worried that the campaign might backfire — and have detected current students and potential future ones giving props to a bespectacled chancellor old enough to be their grandfather. Except this Harvey guy is way cooler than their grandpas.
So here's my number, Chancellor Perlman seems to be saying. Call us maybe?
“This isn't designed to get you from Point A all the way to campus,” Runge says of the campaign's effectiveness as a recruiting tool.
“But what it can do is awareness. It's people watching these videos and thinking, 'Hey, let me check out this UNL a little bit.'”
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