Digital Mad Man: ‘You Don’t Know Jack’ Founder Harry Gottlieb

harry-90sIf you remember the “You Don’t Know Jack” snarky interactive trivia game, you know Harry Gottlieb, its creator. If you don’t, YDNJ was a popular CD-ROM game that debuted in 1995 and featured a comic narrator who read aloud offbeat questions that combined pop culture and high culture trivia. It was one of the first interactive products to take the mass market by storm.

Gottlieb was a fledgling Chicago filmmaker in his late 20s when he founded the game company that became Jellyvision Inc. and created the YDKJ game. As its first host, he gave the contest its signature sarcastic personality. Sales immediately took off, especially on college campuses. To keep up with the demand Gottlieb sought out writers and performers from the improv community that Chicago is known for.

Photo: In the 1990s, Harry Gottlieb (R) with two of his early employees Terry Hackett (L) and Alison Blanc.

In the late 1990’s, the game’s publisher Berkeley Systems tried to use the nascent Internet for “You Don’t Know Jack,” but downloading the audio was just too slow. Gottlieb and his colleagues also tried to sell digital ads that would appear between game rounds. But advertisers were barely grasping the concept of banner ads, let alone interactive in-game advertising. So instead, the inventive group inserted advertising parodies, where real ads would have gone. Game fans relished the joke.

So far the original YDKJ series has sold about 5 million copies, generating $100 million in sales. It can now be played via video game consoles and Roku boxes while its smartphone app is being revamped. In May 2012 it was unveiled as a free Facebook game with extra episodes for sale.

In 2002, Jellyvision Games was joined by a new sister company, the Jellyvision Lab, an interactive marketing agency with clients such as Microsoft, Clorox, and Comcast. Gottlieb, 47, is chief creative officer at both Jellyvision Games and the Jellyvision Lab, but spends most of his time at the Lab, crafting friendly online conversations between the brands and their audiences. He notes that many CMOs and CFOs at client companies vividly remember being addicted to “You Don’t Know Jack” when they were in college, which breaks the ice at innumerable pitch meetings.

ClickZ: What made you look at interactive technology back in the 1990’s and think: hey, this would be good for comedy?

Harry Gottlieb: I didn’t. I thought it would be good for education. I had wanted to be a filmmaker since my dad gave me a Super 8 camera when I was 13. I grew up making little movies. After college at Brown University I focused on educational films – trying to make boring subjects really fun.

In the early ’90s a friend from college went to work for Apple and invited me to visit his office at Apple’s Cupertino headquarters. There I saw video on a computer screen for the first time. It was only about 10 frames a second and the size of four postage stamps, but he told me it would be full screen soon and the computer could become like a video jukebox.

CZ: Did a light bulb go off after you saw that primitive interactive video?

HG: It was more like a question went off: What could we do with this kind of technology? One answer, of course, was video games. But I came from film, so I thought about words. I thought of a person asking you questions and responding to your answers – like a conversation. You could hear the voice and on-screen you’d see written text that you could click on. We would script out the answer possibilities so that no matter what the direction the conversation took, the machine would have a streamlined, personalized response.

CZ: Why a trivia game?

HG: I was doing an education video called “That’s a Fact Jack” and friends were after me to do an adult trivia game. Well, I don’t like trivia, so I thought it had to be cool and funny, as well as be about trivia. Like, what if we put stuff about Shakespeare and TV’s “The Brady Bunch” in the same question? So that’s what we did.

When I went looking for a publisher, I knew people at Berkeley Systems. When I met with them over lunch, they asked about my engineers and artists. The fact was, I had nothing, but I tried to bluff. I asked for $80,000 for the game, which I thought was a huge amount. They countered that they would supply the engineers and artists and would pay me $250,000 in advance. I realized I was such an idiot about business.

Then Berkeley spent $1.5 million marketing the game and it just took off.

CZ: How did you find staff that could do what you needed?

HG: It was really difficult. We started with lots of nepotism. I hired my brother and my best friends from high school and college. Being in Chicago we had access to the improv community of writers and performers, which was great. But in Chicago we were also our own little island, without the [support of the] huge tech industry around us like San Francisco, which made it hard.

The first years we had a very democratic hiring process. Applicants were interviewed by all the employees and anyone could veto a hire, so we ended up with amazing people who had ownership of our culture. All of us were in our 20s and early 30s, with slightly more women than men, including in senior positions. Basically we were all having a second college experience.

CZ: What were your offices like?

HG: They were pretty casual, filled with junky furniture. For example, the conference room had several old couches from my parent’s house; we called it “Couch World.” So when there was a staff meeting you would go to Couch World and hang out with all these funny people.

CZ: With the company’s growth, how did you keep the energy going? It seems like you can’t force being funny.

HG: Actually, you CAN force funny. When you walked in our office doors you’d see everyone at their desks with their heads down, writing. And the place would be quiet. Visitors would ask, why aren’t people laughing, and I’d say, because comedy is being done here. We had deadlines like anybody else and had to produce quality material, quality questions for all these games. It was exhausting. More than half the questions we wrote did not get into the game.

I was the host of the first version of the game, so after creating [questions and answers] all day, at 2 a.m. I’d go into the sound booth and record scripts. Thankfully, the material was funny enough to keep me going.

CZ: What lessons from the games do you use when you craft marketing conversations for clients?

HG: We understand we are working for the client’s customers, not the client. We also have the balls to guide clients away from a bad idea.

For instance, often companies say their customer base is diverse, so customers should be given a selection of hosts for the [marketing] conversation. That way each customer can pick a host who is like themselves. But we say no. The demographic of the host doesn’t matter. What matters is if the host can help them.

To explain, I tell them this story. Once I had a great bottle of wine at a restaurant and the next day went to a wine store to buy a bottle. The store clerk is this pimply-faced, 22-year-old, and I’m thinking no way can he help me. But I describe what I can remember about the picture on the wine label and part of the wine name. The young guy then walks past all the shelves to a box of wine in the back. I tell him that’s not the bottle I remember. He says, no this wine is from the vineyard next door to the grapes that were in your wine last night.

The kind of digital marketing we do is based on a person who listens to you and is knowledgeable, like the wine clerk – and our games. The lesson is that when the communication is so responsive, you forget the technology.

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