3 Marketing Lessons From HBO's 'The Wire'
Updated: Oct 30, 2022
HBO’s hit series The Wire is arguably the greatest show of all-time (it’s definitely #1 on my list) and is an undeniable classic series. One of the ingredients that made The Wire such a great show, and the reason that it resonated with so many people was all of the layers to the storyline-- as well as the intricacies of each character in the series.
There’s a myriad of life lessons that everyone can learn from watching all five seasons of the series. But I affix many of those lessons to marketing and entrepreneurship.
For those unfamiliar with The Wire, it was a series created by author/journalist David Simon that focused on the Baltimore drug scene, as well as the various branches of government connected to the city’s drug trade...both directly and indirectly.
For the sake of not going on a diatribe about how great and well-written the series was, and not to further spoil the plot for those of you that still haven't seen it yet (although it’s been off the air for over 13 years now...crazy right?). Here’s three lessons from The Wire that every entrepreneur and marketer can utilize.
"If you come at The King, you best not miss"
This is one of the most memorable lines from the series and was a great piece of advice from the character Omar to Wee-Bey (who was one of Omar's many enemies) after a failed assassination attempt by Wee-Bey. It’s true in business just as it was in the streets of Baltimore. If you decide to go at The King, you better not miss.
As a marketing manager, if your goal is to disrupt an industry or take a top competitor’s spot in the marketplace--you better not miss.
For example, in 1964, a young entrepreneur named Phil Knight had a dream when he founded his shoe company, Blue Ribbon. That dream was to penetrate the running shoe market and take the top spot from The King of the running shoe market at the time (which was Adidas).
Knight identified Adidas as the top competitor in the market and made it his mission to topple the brand. It took 16 years of hard work and plenty of setbacks before his dream was realized, but Blue Ribbon (which eventually went on to become the iconic brand that we now know as Nike) took the athletic footwear crown in 1980 and haven’t let go of it yet.
Since then, many other athletic shoe companies have tried to take the top spot from the Swoosh and failed. Unfortunately, most of them have folded in the process or had to pivot to smaller markets in order to remain afloat. They came at The King and missed, something that Knight didn’t do when he came for the crown.
Wee-Bey paid for his failed assassination attempt with a shotgun blast to his leg. In business, a brand can end up paying the ultimate price for a failed takeover of a market.
"Don’t play away games"
Ambition is a great thing. But there is such a thing as being overly-ambitious--which could be extremely costly. Case in point, in season three of The Wire, we saw street entrepreneur Stringer Bell try to transition and scale the Barksdale empire more towards legitimacy by aligning himself with Senator Clay Davis.
Stringer, being the overly-ambitious street entrepreneur that he was, thought that he could bribe the politician into giving him state licenses and permits in order to skip the line. To make a long story short, Senator Davis finessed Stringer out of his money without delivering on his promises.
Stringer lost the Barksdale organization a lot of money by playing “away games,” as Avon Barksdale (the organization's CEO) put it. Which was simply his way of saying Stringer wasn’t playing the game he knew on his own turf. He was playing Clay’s game. On Clay's turf...and lost.
In the year 2000, a multi-million dollar startup made the same fatal mistake of playing an away game like Stringer did when its overly-ambitious executives thought that they could make a splash by having one of their commercials air during Super Bowl XXXIV.
The marketing department for Pets.com was probably giddy from excitement when they found out that their commercial would actually air during the big game. However, the commercial did absolutely nothing for the brand besides expedite its demise because the company folded less than a year after the commercial aired.
The executives at Pets.com made the mistake of trying to do too much, too soon with ad spend. Their brand wasn’t structured to spend the reported $1.2 million that it cost to air their ad to create the push strategy the company's execs believed they could execute.
A two-year-old online pet food distribution company had no business having a commercial air during the Super Bowl next to established brands like Mountain Dew and Budweiser. The brand would’ve been much better served by taking a lean approach and gradually allocating that budget towards a multi-channel marketing campaign. Their marketing approach should've been much more Pet-Smart (bad pun I know...but I couldn’t resist).
"Do more with less"
In season five of the series, we saw both The Baltimore Sun newspaper and The Baltimore Police Department hit by budget cuts. The message from those in charge at City hall as well as at The Sun was to, “Do more with less." In other words, get the same results as you did prior to the budget cuts--but with less resources. In marketing, there’s a term for that--it’s called Guerrilla Marketing.
The term guerrilla marketing, as well as the philosophy behind it, was created by the late Jay Conrad Levinson. A writer that also taught classes at UC Berkeley based on his marketing philosophy.
In his book Startup Guide To Guerrilla Marketing, Levinson defined guerrilla marketing as, “Going after conventional goals using unconventional means.” According to Levinson, the main investments of a guerilla marketer is time, energy, and imagination.
I’ve adopted this marketing philosophy and so have many others. A great example of an entrepreneur that did more with less by utilizing guerrilla marketing tactics is Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx.
Blakely started the apparel company with a $5,000 budget that she bootstrapped from selling fax machines door-to-door.
In an effort to get her brand in the high-end retail chain Neiman Marcus, Blakely had a pitch meeting with an executive for the retail chain. However, while in the meeting, Blakely realized her pitch wasn’t going so well.
Rather than just accepting that she struck out during the meeting and take her loss, Blakely got creative and improvised by inviting the executive to the restroom, where she showed her the footless pantyhose that she was there to get placed in the retail chain--which the exec loved and led to her adding the product to the chain’s store shelves.
Once her product was in Neiman Marcus, Blakely got extra creative. She didn’t rely on fate or chance to sell her product. Instead, she reached out to her friends in the cities of all seven of the retailer’s locations that sold her product at the time and asked them to purchase Spanx at all of those locations...which they agreed.
The cool thing is that unbeknownst to the folks at Neiman Marcus, Sara paid her friends to buy Spanx at those locations, which made her brand seem bigger than it actually was at the time--serving as a one-woman marketing and sales team.
It’s that type of thinking out-of-the-box thinking and doing more with less mindset that helped Spanx generate an estimated $400 million in yearly sales and which also helped make Sara Blakely the youngest female self-made billionaire in the world at the time.