How did you two end up working together? And what’s the story with this name “Blark!” that follows you everywhere?
Blake: “Blark!” started as an inside joke. It’s a play on our two names.
Clark: In case that wasn’t obvious.
Blake: We flash it at the end of each video as a production credit in the Owen Podcast Series. We didn’t think anyone would notice, but as our first year progressed, our classmates co-opted “Blark!” and began referring to us as a single entity. So I guess at least a few of them had been watching.
Clark: We suspect they started using it because they hadn’t bothered to learn our individual names yet.
Blake: Well, to be fair, we didn’t exactly make it easy for people to differentiate us. We’re both from Texas and we both majored in marketing as undergrads at Texas A&M. We both joined OwenBloggers at the beginning of our first year and started working for the school’s Marketing and Communications office as social media consultants. We both have dark glasses and wives who are arguably out of our leagues. People act like we must be lifelong friends, but one year ago we’d never met.
Clark: Well, that’s not exactly true. As we’ve recently pieced together, we apparently met at a house party as undergrads, just after Blake started dating his future wife, Kristi, who happened to have a couple of classes with me. More than likely, we were loitering around the keg and talking about music, since Blake was in a popular local band at the time and I secretly idolize musicians. And that was it.
Blake: After the chance encounter, we went our separate ways. I had a pretty unique hybrid background of marketing and design, and so I worked for two successful startups in Dallas as their one-man marketing machine. Clark … I don’t even know why he got a marketing degree.
Clark: Yeah, I put it to good use. I started in state and local tax at KPMG and then joined the internal strategy group at Texas Children’s Hospital.
Blake: But Owen brought us back together.
Clark: It was very much like the movie Serendipity.
Blake: Strikingly similar. My wife recognized Clark’s name on the list of admitted students, which prompted an email, which prompted calls, which prompted meeting up before school even started.
Clark: All of which prompted lots and lots of scheming. We definitely both have an innate drive to create stuff when we think there’s a need. Or, in the parlance of our peers, to “blue sky” it.
So how did the Owen Podcast Series come together?
Blake: Early on, we agreed that Owen, and just about every other business school we visited, could have a more robust media library. This would allow prospective students to feel like they really know the school’s people and culture during their search process, even before visiting the campus to experience it firsthand.
“Everyone in this era has built up a natural layer of skepticism, and when you feel a sales pitch coming on, you immediately put up a mental barrier. We wanted the podcasts to avoid that sheen.”
Clark: This notion was the seed of the Owen Podcast Series, which built upon previous Owen podcasts by adding an interview format and bringing in an eclectic mix of guests, ranging from faculty members to community leaders to local business owners. The goal is to showcase everything that makes Owen and the surrounding community unique.
Blake: Prospective students don’t just care about the curriculum and pedigree of the schools they seek out. That’s important, but they also care about the culture and social activities outside the walls of academia. It’s a package deal, something we were keenly aware of after talking our wives into dropping everything and moving to Nashville. Based on that, we knew that prospective students and their partners want to know they’ll have some fun during the whole grad school experience.
Clark: The city of Nashville has a strong creative class and a strong entrepreneurial spirit. It’s a lot more than a country music scene, or even a health care scene, although it obviously has all of those things, too. We really believe the city is a key part of the Owen value proposition.
Blake: We found the school to be incredibly fertile ground for organic, student-led innovation. Before stepping foot in a classroom, we brought our podcast idea to the admissions team, who saw it as a great marketing tool, not only for prospective students but the Owen community at large. We were then put in touch with Yvonne Martin-Kidd, Executive Director of Marketing and Communications.
And how did the idea go over?
Clark: We were two anonymous, overeager students. They could have easily scoffed. But after presenting our vision, the response was overwhelmingly supportive.
Blake: It was, “What do you need to get going? Cameras? We have HD, Flip, handhelds and studio lights. Microphones? We have lapels and handhelds, all wireless. Anything you need is at your disposal whenever you need them. And, by the way, once you get going we can give you a prominent spot on the new website we’re creating for Owen and possibly include featured podcasts in our newsletters.”
Clark: It was pretty unexpected. They not only signed off on the project, but they wanted to become actively supportive in its success. Blake and I both came from an undergraduate school with almost 50,000 students. Texas A&M has a strong culture of student involvement, but there’s a lot of red tape. In this case, the speed of approval and level of encouragement was incredibly refreshing.
We have a lot of precious commodities right now: time, resources, administrative champions and lots and lots of smart people around us. It’s a recipe for doing some really fun stuff.
How did you become affiliated with OwenBloggers?
Clark: OwenBloggers has always prided itself in leaving off the veneer, so to speak. It’s far less engaging as a member of an audience when you feel like you’re being pitched to. Everyone in this era has built up a natural layer of skepticism, and when you feel a sales pitch coming on, you immediately put up a mental barrier. We wanted the podcasts to avoid that sheen. It needed a home within the constellation of online touch points at Owen, and it found a kindred spirit in OwenBloggers.
Blake: We were both familiar with the site after visiting it many times as prospective students, and we were excited about the opportunity to partner with something that had a built-in audience and an established brand. The site was flush with material and had a broad international readership, but had outgrown the blogging platform it was created on. We met with the current and past leadership of the site, who were already tossing around the idea of moving the site onto WordPress (a popular blog publishing platform).
So you do some programming as well?
Clark: This was all in Blake’s sweet spot. When we found out about the WordPress initiative, I basically volunteered Blake’s Web design and programming expertise to build the new site. The only thing I more willingly offer than my own time is someone else’s.
Blake: We had the opportunity to combine the veteran OwenBloggers site and the yet-to-be-tested Owen Podcast Series into a multimedia conglomerate, the likes of which had never been seen before … at least in graduate student-led media circles … in the southeast United States … to our knowledge.
Clark: We are basically young Rupert Murdochs. I hope he doesn’t do anything stupid before this article appears.
And all of this is in your first month or so as students?
Clark: I think it sounds more ambitious after the fact. At the time, we just wanted to create content. We were excited about starting the next chapter in our lives and about having access to some really great minds. Honestly, the podcast series was mostly an excuse to reach out to interesting people and pepper them with questions, all under the guise of content creation.
“When you see a professor speak passionately about something, it helps you uncover what’s behind the syllabus and understand why Owen students are regarded not only for their spreadsheets
but also their convictions.”
How do you decide on which guests to interview?
Blake: We started looking for guests here at Owen, which is ripe with passionate personalities and big thinkers. We wanted to provide a relaxed, intimate look into people whom incoming students would be interacting with their first year. Faculty such as Michael Burcham, Lecturer of Entrepreneurship; Dave Owens, Professor of the Practice of Management and Innovation; and Larry Van Horn, Associate Professor of Management; as well as Read McNamara, Executive Director of the Career Management Center, all sat down with us to talk about what drives them personally and professionally. While we touch on the requisite questions regarding their roles at Owen, we’re really looking to establish the people behind the message and create a real experience for the viewer. Simple lighting, one camera shot, natural settings, and, with the exception of raucous bird squawks and ambulance noises, very few edits.
Clark: In one of our first episodes, Bart Victor, the Cal Turner Professor of Moral Leadership, mentions the Carnegie Bargain, which is the mindset that one must first do well financially in order to have the means and freedom to do good philanthropically. And then we talked about the misplaced focus of many organizations on fixing the suffering of poverty instead of alleviating the poverty itself, which is a key tenant in the Project Pyramid courses here at Vanderbilt. It was, at least in my mind, genuinely interesting stuff, and I think that’s when we realized the true potential within the series. Our litmus test has always been: If I’m a prospective student and I stumble upon this, is this compelling? Does it flesh out my opinion of the school? And if the answer is yes, it has some value.
Blake: I think people really connect with genuine passion. It comes through the screen and grabs you as a viewer. When you see a professor speak passionately about something, it helps you uncover what’s behind the syllabus and understand why Owen students are regarded not only for their spreadsheets but also their convictions.
Clark: Once we had our sea legs, we started looking into the community to find local business leaders who are focused on making Nashville unique. No one would call us shy, but it was still daunting to essentially cold call someone to ask them to be on a podcast that’s still more of an idea than a product.
Blake: As it turns out, we had an ace up our sleeve: being students. People are definitely more receptive to the idea of sitting down with students, especially if they can tell you’ve done your homework and know their craft a bit.
Clark: Blake and I have a certain aesthetic, and that aesthetic is good beer and good music.
Blake: We reached out to local companies like Yazoo Brewery, Third Man Records (Jack White’s label) and Hatch Show Prints and asked for an hour of time with the owners. These are all small shops, so their time is valuable, and they’re not hurting for media coverage, not that we even qualify. But when we prefaced the request with “I’m an MBA student from Vanderbilt,” they gladly opened their doors to us.
Clark: I think that’s a testament to two things—the cachet of the Vanderbilt name and the tremendous sense of community here in Nashville.
Blake: At the end of the day, we really enjoy it. We meet incredible people and talk about great ideas. When our podcast with Ben Blackwell, Director of Operations of Third Man Records, was picked up by the local media, there was an admitted sense of pride in knowing our efforts helped raise the local profile of the school.
So what’s next for “Blark!”?
Clark: The hardest part is not coming up with the ideas, or even initially bringing them to fruition. That’s easy because it’s thrilling and somewhat finite. The hard part is sustaining something once the newness and the sense of accomplishment has worn off a bit. So a big focus for us this year is making sure the podcast series and the website are sustainable. The quick turnover at business schools can kill a lot of good ideas because capturing that institutional knowledge is so challenging. But we are blessed to have some really great peers at Owen right now. There’s a palpable eagerness among the student body to make Owen a better place while we’re here.
Blake: We recognize that this is a unique point in our lives. We have a lot of precious commodities right now: time, resources, administrative champions and lots and lots of smart people around us. It’s a recipe for doing some really fun stuff that’s not only personally rewarding but also reflects well upon the school.