I was asked to write a “Double Lives” story on Vice President, Chief Marketing & Enrollment Officer of Walsh College John Lichtenberg. In addition to being a big-wig at the state’s largest graduate business school (considered second only to University of Michigan in the court of public opinion), I was told this 47-year-old Royal Oak resident was also a rickshaw driver. And that just sounded too good to be true.
It was. Turns out the rickshaw was a marketing strategy that Lichtenberg rolled out on behalf of Walsh, and due to some pesky insurance and liability issues they can’t drive it on the roads anymore. And he didn’t even drive it. Well, he did once, and he described that experience with a loud scoff and a look that said, “I could tell you that story but I think the scoff pretty much sums it up.”
The whole thing with the rickshaw started out as part of Lichtenberg’s … let’s call him John, he’s a first-name-basis sort of guy … guerilla marketing strategy. “I thought it would be really cool to drive people in Royal Oak and Ferndale from restaurant to restaurant and bar to bar for free in a rickshaw.”
So he bought one (and had a fun time explaining that $4200 expense to his boss), painted it yellow and put the Walsh logo on the side of it. They can still use it for parades but have to actually haul it to the parade site; currently it’s held in the school’s storage area.
“They won’t let me take it home,” he pouts. “They don’t trust me.”
See, John’s not really the type to run a pretty ad with a toothy model indeterminately between the ages of 25-35 with a lot of negative space around her and the school’s logo in understated Helvetica in the upper right corner. In the three years since he’s been at Walsh he has completely re-branded the school’s image, using notice-me yellow backgrounds made to look like legal pads with simple stick figure drawings to communicate who they are and what they do.
“Walsh has a really cool story,” John explains. “They’ve been here 89 years and are the largest graduate business school in Michigan. [It was a shock to me] that people had heard of it but didn’t know what it was… They had a brand that was stale but had a very good product.”
And so he came up with a three-year marketing strategy to show the world who and what Walsh College is. Year 1: Tell people “we’re here and we’re a business school.” Year 2: Get deeper into the different business courses and programs offered. Year 3: Show the kind of credentials the working professors have (example: Sheila Ronis, the director of the MBA program at Walsh, also works with the National Defense University).
“We can own being the exclusive business school in Detroit,” John says. “We can add on under our business umbrella but we never want to lose our business focus.”
Coming out of 13 years as the Vice President of Global Marketing at Kelly Services, John’s corporate background was a bit of an adjustment for him and his new bosses in the historically conservative field of higher education.
“Those first couple of weeks I’d drive home and say ‘that was a short career,'” he quips with a mischievous grin (although it’s worth noting that he says most things with a mischievous grin). “I could have shown dogs on the front lawn playing with children and made people cry and blown a million out the window. Instead I spent a million telling people we’re a business school.”
What he really did was bring his manic energy to the buttoned-up world of higher ed, greenlighting campaign slogans like “Friends don’t let friends study French” (which didn’t last long after a furor was raised by local French teachers) and $4,200 rickshaws (he claims there was money left in the budget at the end of the year). “My boss called me irreverent after I was here for a month. I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing.”
It’s damn sure a good thing when your Hawaiian-shirt-wearing (“It’s not Hawaiian! It has elephants on it!”) head of marketing gives your stuffy old brand a face-lift and gets you international recognition. In 2010 John was named the International Brand Master for Education. You can read his submission letter here. “Some of the things I said in that write-up made people queasy.”
But it worked. “And I got a really nice crown. I’m waiting for the plaque.” Thanks to his progressive campaign, Walsh is at the highest enrollment it has ever had in its history.
He starts to show me some of the print and video materials that were part of his award-winning strategy. But first he sees a picture of Johnny Rotten. “He yelled at me once.” And some random picture of a fat guy. “Heh; fat guy.” He shows me pictures and videos of the Yellow Suits, performers dressed in Zoot suits in what has become Walsh’s trademark yellow with pinstripes reminiscent of legal pads. They go to the Auto Show, sing Christmas carols… they’ve even photo-bombed a wedding party.
“I love the big stuff,” he admits with a sheepish grin (though admittedly his sheepishness is suspect). “Education is serious but that doesn’t mean you have to take yourself so seriously.” Then his phone rings. He dismisses the caller by saying, “I’m in a very important meeting because I am a very important person.”
He hangs up the phone, turns to me and asks, “Now what? Oh, I know!” He leaps up and starts showing me around his office – the walls are covered with a variety of his and his competitors’ ads, artwork from his children, anecdotal work slogans and what would best be called scrapbook materials from his life. “I snowboard! I was ranked 26th in my class at Nastar.”
He shows me the clipping, then tells me a story of stealing a couch from the medical library at U-M in his sophomore year. “God I am random today,” he pauses. “Today!” he exclaims, reflecting on the irony of his previous statement. “Today…” he trails off.
So what’s the secret to his success? “I can’t get lazy. It’s very dangerous to have any success,” he observes. Then a bit more manically, “I don’t usually sit this long. I have A.D.D. I need Lunesta to sleep.”
And he’s up and running again. “You wanna see my Vespa Car?” Uhhhhhh YEAH. “Cool. Let’s go. It’s Friday; I don’t really feel like working.”
And so it was I found myself riding around in the tiny cabin of a Vespa Car on a sunny Friday afternoon talking about Bates’ hamburgers with my new friend John. As it turns out, John does have a double life after all: he is an aspiring Vespa Car advertising mogul.
“I drive around in this thing in Royal Oak and Birmingham. People stop and take pictures of it everywhere I go.” This is because it is powder blue and looks like an old motorcycle with a Smart Car-sized cab and a small flatbed. “You should have seen me try to get it through Homeland Security!” (he bought it in Canada). Because it’s such an attention-grabber, John thinks it would be perfect for advertising.
“I just have to find the right person who will see what it can do,” then describes everything from being a beer-bed for a brewery at a summer festival to a traveling food truck for a place like Slows. Still, he does
draw the line on how far he’s willing to go.
“I drive the thing,” he points out. “So I don’t want it to be Paul’s Plumbing with a big plunger in the back.”
“Have you sold any ads yet?” I ask.
“No,” he says loudly, sounding genuinely hurt. But he’s over it within seconds, launching into an overview of his short-lived career as a blogger, which pondered his tendency to bark at strangers, his disdain for joggers, and something he calls “intestinal anarchy.”
Tangents? Probably. But also the sign of a mind that’s constantly engaged. And it’s that creative engagement that’s paid big dividends for the school that employs him.