Will Brierly : Interview 45
Will Brierly is the owner of Snowrunner Productions, a full service publicity & marketing company, a public relations guru, a seasoned and well-travelled musician, a video game designer (his most notable game is the world’s only first-person soda drinking simulation, Soda Drinker Pro), and most recently, the impetus to save Benny’s, an iconic Rhode Island retail chain by starting a petition for Amazon to buy it and keep it in business. Oh, and if that’s not enough for you, he’s also a husband and father.
We met up in his fresh new office space outside of Boston and talked about collaboration across creative outlets, getting burned in business, adjusting to fatherhood, mentalism in marketing, and his bid to get Gwar to perform during the Super Bowl halftime show. Meet Will.
How do you approach collaboration?
It’s bringing out the best of what people have in themselves. A good way to think of it is through the elements of what makes good improv work. They’re both listening to each other, they can move and react quickly to things, but you’re taking it somewhere. And if you’re making art, hopefully it’s a place that’s surprising to people. In all of it, whether I’m making a game, collaborating with my brother—he’s got his set of strengths and I’ve got mine and they’re complementary to each other. Ultimately being able to communicate your goals and get done what you need to do.
Me: You’ve collaborated with a bajillion people. Have you ever had a moment where you thought, “This is not going to work”?
Will: Yeah. Definitely. I’ve gotten better over time where if I see red flags, I try not to get in the situation. Usually if I’m working with someone, I already know it’ll probably be good. I’m still getting better at it. But if there are bumps along the way, I like to put myself in their shoes and see what they might be seeing, and listen to what they’re trying to get out of it. In any situation, if everyone wins, you’re better off. You can get more stuff done in general that way. I try to put myself in situations where I know it’s going to work out.
Me: Mutually beneficial for everyone.
What’s your greatest fear?
Things that are out of my control. Say I’m walking one day and a wrecking ball hits me and I didn’t see it coming. Stuff like that. My friend—a couple days ago—died in a motorcycle accident and no one saw it coming. Stuff like that… You never know when something bad could happen. Those are my fears. When you see unfortunate stuff like that happen, you just want to keep going and get as much done as you can.
I remember when my dad passed away a few years ago—he had a really interesting life, he did a lot of cool stuff. Wish he was around longer, but he had a good, full life, but however long it is it’s too short. So you have to do as much fun stuff as possible and hopefully do stuff that’s good for everyone, that’s not messing with people… Making cool stuff.
So yeah, that’s my biggest fear.
Me: Getting hit with a wrecking ball!
Will: Yeah! But there’s also exciting stuff that we don’t know that usually tends to happen more. You can only die once, as far as we know, but you can do things that can drastically change your life every day. I can think of a million things—like this space here, that came in through LinkedIn through my wife. She was working on economic development for Brighton and a fellow asked, “What does Brighton Main Streets do?” And she wrote back, “Let’s get a coffee and we’ll talk about it.” And then she tells me that I have to meet this guy, we would be buddies. So if she didn’t answer that email or I didn’t follow up with him or any of these things, nothing would’ve happened. There’s a million little things like that. The most interesting ones are when you just put yourself out in the world and see what happens.
Me: Absolutely! That’s a cool thought. I definitely appreciate that thought. Taking the risk and throwing yourself into it. Generally, you have no idea what’s going to happen so you have to throw yourself in—not necessarily head first, because that’s dangerous, but feet first for sure.
Me: But I feel that. That’s really important.
Will: And it’s fun! It doesn’t always work out. I’ve had a bunch of things totally fail, but, ya know, it happens. And you get better at it…hopefully.
What does failure look like to you?
Hopefully just learning stuff. Hopefully not getting hurt. Financially or physically. Now with my son…
Me: You’ve got a boy? How old is he?
Will: He’s a year-and-a-half.
Me: Awesome! Congrats!
Will: Thanks! So now I’m a little extra careful, but also a little extra driven. I’m going to make stuff happen, but I’m not going to mess around. Hopefully you just learn stuff. Every time I’ve had things not work, you just take something from it and try something different. Don’t let it get you down too hard. I’ve had some stuff—I remember the first time I got burned really bad by a business and I was really bummed out by that. But now I don’t let that happen as much. Or I learn from it. And I learned a lot from that. It could’ve been one of those things that could’ve been a much more expensive learning experience. They don’t teach that stuff at college. Which is more expensive than what I lost! [Laughter]
Me: How did you get through that experience?
Will: It was a bummer in a bunch of ways. I lost a bunch of money from it and did a ton of work, so I lost a lot of time. I also got some friends involved and I didn’t know that the business was bad at the time. It was a record label that just did bad stuff to the artists. I saw some red flags, but at first I was like, “Oh a record label! This is cool!” I was really young. But then they started doing some weird stuff. So we were sending out [public relations] packages to folks, and I put some people I knew on the list so I could see when the packages would arrive and make sure they were getting them because no one else was saying they received them. So it turned out no one ended up getting the PR packages we were sending. The artist we were sending the packages for were my friends that I brought into this—and I really loved their work—so it was sad that it happened. Everything’s OK with them now, but it was just tough.
From that I learned that it’s easy to get excited about something. And I know myself and I love getting excited about things! Like, “Come on, let’s do this!” Sometimes folks’ll take advantage of that and I found—especially in the PR world as I’ve become better at it and more people want to become clients—sometimes I’ll set people up to take advantage of me, on something that I don’t mind if they do take advantage.
Me: You’re testing them?
Will: Exactly! I do a lot of stuff like that just to see how they’ll respond. With PR, I have to turn down most of the people that I want to work with. Not because they’re bad, but because I don’t want to take on a million clients. I only want stuff that I can make super huge. The big prerequisites are that they have to be really nice to work with, I have to love the product, and it’s good for people. So from that bad experience, I learned a lot of stuff. They all looked like they were really good, and they were saying all the things, but I found out later that were saying them just because they knew I wanted to hear those things.
I haven’t had a ton of really bad ones like that. Most things have been really good. I try to be around really nice people and not people who will put out bad stuff. There are a ton of PR companies in the world who will take your money and sell whatever you want. And people will sometimes buy it. It’s weird.
Me: If there’s a market for it, someone will sell it to that market. They won’t necessarily care if it’s beneficial or great or whatever. It’s important to take that into your work. And it’s good to hear that a PR guy does care! Like you said, it’s easy to throw junk out there, and there’s a lot of junk out there. But it probably feels good for you to choose. Nice people, fun to work with, have a good product, and dedicated. And it’s going to be important for the audience. What great check boxes to tick.
Will: It’s fun. In the end, would I be OK showing this product, or using the techniques, to my mom or my family? At the core of what I do is I’m eliciting emotions and then attaching them to products that you can then repeat. With a song, you bring out these feelings in someone and then you change the air pressure around their ears that they can feel for three minutes and repeat if they need to. Same thing we’re doing with products.
In college, I worked as a professional sleight of hand magician and mentalist. So I use all those same techniques in a different way. It’s so crazy how much of that stuff—and it’s not about tricking people, no one likes to be tricked.
Me: They want to be in on it.
Will: Yeah, people want to share in experiences that are surprising. Like how a great song can—any of the great Beatles songs may have the 1, 4, 5 progression throughout, but then have this weird thing that you never saw coming. So at some point in every song, you’re like, “Oooh!” You’ve got the chord progressions that [the audience] might recognize, so you’re entering into their world for a bit, but you can take them to your world quickly, and safely return them feeling better that they’ve been on that ride.
Me: Funny enough, Sgt. Pepper is turning 50 this year. So that’s relevant! But that’s an interesting way you just put it. That idea of safety in music… Because you don’t want to get your ass kicked all the time. You don’t want to be like, “What the fuck am I listening to?” You do want to have some sense of home. So you have to lull them in, then “Uh!” [smacks hands]
Will: Exactly! And that’s a technique you use in mentalism. So a lot of the stuff we do are based on techniques we use in hypnosis. You’re doing all these things to make them feel comfortable in the situation, and leading them down a path that they’re going to feel like they chose on their own, and they did choose on their own, but they’re more likely to choose what you want them to. And if they happen to choose these other ones, you have an out for every single possible thing.
With the improv comparison: no matter what you do, it’s going to work. Or let’s say you’re playing a jazz solo, you can play any note after another as long as you believe in it enough. [Laughter]
Me: There’s a book I love called Zen Guitar.
Will: Oh! One of my favorite books!
Me: No way!
Will: I don’t know anyone who’s read that!
Me: That’s awesome! I have it on me all the time! Except for right now of course. [Laughter]
Will: That’s so awesome!
Me: But you know [the author, Philip Toshio Sudo] has a quote from a famous musician begin every chapter, and one of the quotes that somebody said was, “If you hit a wrong note, then make it right by what you play afterwards.” The author extrapolates it like if you hit a wrong note by accident, hit it again like you mean it. And I fucking love that idea! Because everyone messes up, but believe in it when you do.
Me: Believe that you did it on purpose and it will work.
Will: So much of what mentalism is… It’s that they don’t realize that the thing didn’t work 50 times because you have an out. And if you don’t, you just figure it out as you go. Same thing with any kind of performance. When I’m doing PR and marketing, I treat it with the same care as art. People should feel good having worked with me as a client. I want it to be an experience.
What's one thing you don't know now, but feel compelled to know before you die?
One thing I’ve always dabbled in is learning another language. I’ve done a little bit of Japanese, but it’d be so cool to think and talk in another language. I can barely talk in English. [Laughter] I have a lot of respect for that. I feel like it would open up different parts of my mind that I don’t know.
I have no idea what the future’s going to be like. I hope I do a good job raising Fred. It’s something I don’t know much about other than what my parents taught me, but that’s been a set of cool new things. I’ve never experienced anything like it. I just hope I do a good job.
Me: What’s the most difficult thing about being a dad?
Will: Before, I would do a lot of all-nighters for work—I actually did that last night, but I hadn’t done it in a while—so finding the right schedule. So now, it’s not like I don’t want to be up late doing stuff, it’s that I really really like hanging out with him. It’s wicked fun! There’s a new set of financial challenges, so I take on more work, so I have a lot more stuff I have to do, but when he’s home on weekends, I like to just play with him constantly. There are challenges, of course, like waking up in the middle of the night—which he doesn’t do that much—but I have to wake up and solve whatever puzzle is happening. Does he need to eat or be changed or rub his back or whatever.
It’s really neat though. It’s changed my sleep schedule a lot. I get up every day at 5 or 6am. I didn’t do that before.
Me: Were you living the college life before? Waking up at noon?
Will: I’d get up at 8:30 or 9am for work. It wasn’t that bad. But now it’s going to be—the crazy thing is, it was just a few miles to my place from my other office, but it’s 30-40 minutes in traffic. But here it’ll be 10 minutes. I’m still going to keep the place over there because it’s good for fancy meetings, but this is where I can come to do weird stuff and no one sees it.
Me: No judgment in this space!
Will: I can make crazy games and shows. But over there it’s mostly the PR work.
What will you miss the most when you’re gone?
Family and friends would be the main thing. I think about that Harry Nilsson song “The Most Beautiful World in the World.” It’s a neat place. There’s a lot of weird stuff going on, but I’d say the majority of people are pretty good. Hopefully in the next 20 years we don’t all get killed by autonomous bots or something. [Laughter] I think in 30 years, we won’t have to worry about that because we’ll all be in weird vats of goo and [virtual reality] and just living in there being fed through tubes.
Me: Matrix style?
Will: Exactly! So as long as some solar thing that creates the goo we can live in exists, we’re good! And then when we get hit by a meteor we won’t even notice it.
There are so many nice people around. My wife and Fred, my family. But hopefully it’s not any time soon.
One of the most famous publicists to ever live, Edward Bernays [November 22, 1891 - March 9, 1995], he lived to a 103, and he finished his life right down the street from where I lived. He’s a neat inspiration. He’s a really weird guy, but he was the publicist to three presidents on both sides of the aisle. He pretty much shifted the culture in the United States more than any politician. So he’s a guy I studied a lot and it’s kind of neat that he lived right down the street.
Me: You’re in his shadow. Not in a bad way.
Will: Exactly! Living around here is cool because I’ve met people who went to his 100th birthday party. He was Sigmund Freud’s nephew too. He coined the term public relations. He thought that people needed propaganda or else they would be at war all the time. But, as I think about it, we’ve been at war this whole time. And he thought that people need to be led and there’s a lot of stuff that I didn’t really like with him, but the techniques were solid, so you need to know how to do it…
Me: And use it for good…
Will: Exactly. And for the most part he did a lot of good stuff, but he did some weird stuff too. He did tons and tons of stuff for the cigarette world. He knew they were bad for people—he wouldn’t let his wife and daughter smoke cigarettes—and there was already all this research out there that showed it was bad. There’s a famous one… it was a women’s rights group in New York. They got a bunch of models to do a protest where the women would show their torches of freedom which were the cigarettes…
Me: Oh my god.
Will: So they were connecting the idea that for women to be free, they needed to smoke cigarettes.
Me: Wow. Manipulation.
Will: Totally. So I like to use those techniques, but for good. I helped out my friend get 75,000 people to sign a Change.org post to get Gwar to play the Super Bowl halftime show.
Me: I definitely saw that on my Facebook feed!
Will: Yep! We got on [Keith] Olbermann and a ton of other places were covering it. It was crazy. During that push, the keyboard player of Gwar passed away, and my buddy who came up with the idea passed away right after it happened. And after that, Dave from Gwar passed away. So there was all this death around it. It was crazy.
There was another one. My buddy had an idea a few years ago during a huge blizzard. Tons and tons of snow. He said, “Let’s make a business that to get the snow out of here we’ll sell the snow.” So he made a shipping company to get the snow out of here. I ran the campaign, he made the business, and we got him on the Today Show and NBC Nightly News. You just turn it into a story. You can’t change the world, but you can make aspects of it move in the direction you want to. Through PR you have access to—let’s say if I was a writer for a publication, I’d only be able to write for that publication and my editor would be my boss, but working in PR, I have access to every publication that exists, and can get stories of things that I want in the world out there to shift the whole story. Then I have access to hundreds of millions of people as opposed to the maybe hundreds of thousands that one outlet would have. That’s why you have to be super careful of what you’re putting out there because you don’t want to make something that hurts people.
It’s a weird business. But it’s all the same thing. It’s the same as music and soda simulations, you’re just making a thing and hopefully sharing it with people in a way that they’re going to enjoy it.
Me: It’s important to have good intentions.
Will: I try! And I still get fooled every once in a while.