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Turning Memes into Gold: An Interview with Ben Lashes, the World’s Premier Meme Agent

From Fortune 500 companies to Presidential campaigns, it seems everyone has bought into the power of memes to move a message.  And nobody bought in earlier than Ben Lashes, the world’s premier, and perhaps only, meme agent.  Ben’s work is a perfect embodiment of a trend we’ve been tracking called Kidult – namely, the phenomenon of adults acting like kids. (See our recently released Kidult Content Network Deep Dive here).   After the most recent Presidential debate spawned yet another unexpected meme (anyone seen our missing binder full of women?) we decided it was high time to sit down with Ben for a peek behind the curtain:

1)  Ben, you have a pretty unique job. You are a meme manager.  First of all, for those of us who may be unfamiliar with memes, tell us what is a meme and how does a meme start?

Well, this could easily turn into an hour long conversation about how everything in the world is a meme, but in the simplest terms, it's the information that gets passed around from person to person, changing along the way, and ending up as a part of the culture.  These days, most people associate memes with the funny pictures you see on Facebook.  But that's really just scratching the surface.

2)  Tell us a little bit more about some of the memes you represent such as Scumbag Steve and Nyan Cat? How did these start?

Behind every meme is a great story.  I don't think we're too far away from Robert Pattinson in The Scumbag Steve Story.  With Scumbag, the Internet got ahold of a picture of Blake Boston, taken when he was 16 by his mother for a photography class she was taking.  Blake was thugged out to the max, extremely rosy cheeks, and the quintessential pissed-off teenager look on his face.  The Internet named him Scumbag Steve, and started adding caption jokes to the picture that portrayed him as everyone's lovable douchebag friend.  Luckily, Blake is a hilarious guy with an admitted slice of Scumbag in him already.  Now he's a celebrity at conventions, has merchandise in Hot Topic and Urban Outfitters, and makes music videos as his Scumbag Steve persona.  His first video, "Scumbag Steve Overture," received 2.2 million views in the first 48 hours of its release.

Nyan Cat is another crazy story.  Chris Torres, aka PRguitarman, was in an online "draw for charity" event for the Red Cross.  Things were going a little slow, so Chris told everyone to tell him what they wanted him to draw and he'd do it.  A number of random ideas flowed in, and Chris started drawing.  He based Nyan Cat around his own Russian Blue feline named Marty who's always at his side, and added some of the ideas from the chat room.  After drawing his first sketch of Nyan Cat in cartoon style, he decided to make an 8-bit GIF of it to use as his Twitter avatar.  In the process, he uploaded the image to his Tumblr page, where it started getting passed around like a more fun version of the flu.  A YouTuber named Saraj00n took the animation, paired it with a Japanese vocaloid hit by DaniwellP, and over 85 million views later, it's become The Beatles of Memes.

3) What’s the most-popular meme on the Internet to date?

That's a hard question, and it also depends on the day that you ask it.  Some memes become legends that will live on for years, and some are so topical that they lose their flavor like baseball card bubblegum.  But I do believe that we are in this beginning era of memes becoming mainstream pop culture.  The big memes of today will be the real forefathers of the movement.  If I had to pick one that I don't work with, I think it would have to be Troll Face.  I think that's something that we're going to be seeing for a long time.

4) Let’s talk a little bit about your job.  What do you tell your parents when they ask you what you do for a living?

I tell them I'm a doctor.  Ok, not really.  My parents are actually very hip for old people.  Plus they were around for 10 years of me playing music for a living.  So this is far from the most shocking thing they've seen me do.  Charlie (Keyboard Cat) and my Dad have been friends for years as well, so he was actually one of the first people to see Keyboard Cat back when it was just a Beta tape in the mid 80's.
 
5)  You obviously saw a need for meme managers.  How did you start this career?

In 2009, a long-time family friend of mine, Charlie Schmidt, called to ask me for some advice about a video he had made, known to all as "Keyboard Cat".  I had spent years playing Rock 'N' Roll in a band called The Lashes, and had learned a lot about the entertainment industry putting out records with Lookout! and Sony/Columbia.  Charlie and I had great chemistry and similar ideals, so I started working with him on a daily basis in addition to my day job in A&R at an independent music distributor.  Over time, as we were seeing success, I started talking with other meme creators that I was a fan of, and adding some as full-time clients.  By last year things had started to become so busy that I quit my job at the music distributor - where I was then in marketing - and took on meme management full-time.

6) What are some qualities needed for someone who wants to become a meme manager?

I don't know if I should give away too many trade secrets!  But above all, you need to think big, keep on your toes and stay cool.
 
7) What do you enjoy the most and least about your job?

I think this is the first job I've had where there's nothing about it I don't like.  It's fun, challenging, and there’s always something new and crazy to work on.  Plus, I've been able to make some amazing friends with my clients.  
 
8) In the world of remixing, auto tuning and mashups, how do you protect the intellectual property of memes?

I see a real difference between someone adding to the art and culture, and someone trying to steal something for a quick buck.  It's pretty easy to discern between the two sides.  When someone or someplace is on the wrong side of that divide, we usually have a conversation to see if we can be friends.  Most of the time, it ends up being a fan and we're able to work it out amicably.  In fact we've made some great partners that way.  But there have also been some times when the lawyers have had to take it further. 

9) At ROFLcon, Scumbag Steve shared with us how Pepsi essentially stole and replicated his meme identity by hiring another actor, which was poorly produced and not very authentic.  Are there examples of brands that have used memes well?

Wonderful Pistachios and Nokia have made great spots featuring Keyboard Cat that people loved.  Vitamin Water and Sprint had awesome commercials featuring Nyan Cat. Brisk Ice Tea got a lot of attention for their Scumbag Steve ad.  And that's actually just a start.  There are a few bad examples out there that my clients aren't involved in, but I'm not in the business of offending anyone.  

10) What advice would you give to brands that want to capitalize on either existing Internet memes or want to create their own?

Respect the audience, respect authenticity and keep it cool.  You just can't argue with cool.

11) How can brands get in on memes early before they hit critical mass and become too mainstream?

Become a nerd about memes.  Watch culture websites like the stock market.
 
12) If I create a meme tomorrow and want to promote it, what’s the best way to ensure the maximum number of eyeballs?  
         
 
First off, make it good.  It doesn't matter how many times you post something.  If it sucks, it sucks.  Quality counts.  Second, stay up late and post it on all the websites that you can't look at from work.  4Chan especially.  And lastly, set it free.  Let the Internet have its way with it.  If that means a McDonald's #hashtag suddenly turns into a nightmare, go with it.  

What do you think about brands like Nokia and Brisk trying to ride cultural waves in their marketing efforts?  How does a brand’s deeper engagement with culture make you feel?  Please share your thoughts with us.

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