I met Jason Bourne in a Moscow metro station. His suggestion. It was freezing cold, and the elegant chandeliers hanging from the arched ceiling made an odd contrast to the trudging rush-hour commuters below. “This is an unusual place for a school of marketing,” I observed.
“Don’t be obvious. Call that lesson one.” He jammed an electric toothbrush up my nose and manhandled me into an alcove. “Who are you and what do you want?”
I answered as well as I could. “I’b Charles Kingsbill. I wanted to know: how did you take on Bond?”
“Bond? James Bond? I didn’t take on Bond. I’m Jason Bourne. We’re in separate story universes. What sort of dumb question is that?”
“I didn’t bean that. I beant… with the filbs. Your filbs. They’re great. So buch better than his.”
Bourne stared at me for a moment, paused, then withdrew the toothbrush. “You mean movies, right? My movies.”
I nodded, with my nose smarting. “Yes. Yes. I like your movies. And I wanted to ask: how did you establish a viable competitive position vis-a-vis the James Bond franchise, given its enduring dominance of the espionage-action genre space?”
“Lesson two is speak English” he growled.
“I’m sorry. I meant, well, Bond is very successful. Even back in the early noughties, before the good one took over. How did you manage to do it better? Nobody does it better.”
He sighed. “Lesson three. Don’t be better. Be different. If you just try to be better, you’re in for a lot of expense, a long battle and no guarantee of success. Don’t copy. Be different, that’s the secret.”
“But in lots of ways, you’re the same. You’re both spies, licensed to kill, running around in exotic locations.”
This seemed to displease him. He brandished the toothbrush at me. “And the differences?” he asked.
I thought fast. “Uhh. No invisible cars. No ice hotels. No NSA agents in orange bikinis.”
“True, but that’s all surface. Tropes. What are the fundamental differences?”
“Is it the baddies? Bond fights mis-shapen foreign megalomaniacs. Your enemies are elements of the US government.”
“Go deeper” he said, gesturing with the toothbrush.
I squirmed. “Er, er. The chases. Bond’s are flamboyant. Yours are gritty.”
“Erm. Hunter versus hunted!”
“Ah ah. Bond’s from an old imperialist world – he wants to be visible – ostentatious. You’re in a world of smart and ruthless paranoia. You want to stay hidden. So do your foes. But you have to break cover to destroy one another. The whole worldview is different!”
“So what do I have that Bond doesn’t have?”
“All the emotions that follow! Not spectacle, but anxiety, agitation, ferment… You made a play for all the things Bond couldn’t feel – vulnerability, the fear of being exposed, cat and mouse – and you made us feel them too. No wonder you scared Bond into a reboot!”
Bourne stepped back and relaxed. “Stand down, soldier. Someone said that marketing is the tax we pay for being unremarkable. That’s smart. You wanna be unremarkable? Go ahead, but brace yourself for a hefty marketing bill. My advice: be different, from the ground up. Make people feel something. You just graduated. Keep the toothbrush.”
And with that, he was gone.