Arlene Dickinson is not your average dragon. As one of five Canadian business moguls on CBC’s hit show Dragon’s Den, Dickinson is the only female. She’s the only one with a distinct white streak running through her hair. And she’s the only one that comes to the entrepreneur-focused reality show from a marketing background. The show just started its fifth season (Dickinson’s fourth as a Dragon) and the CEO of Venture Communications is front and centre in all the network publicity materials. She’s often portrayed as the voice of reason in the Den, which includes Boston Pizza owner Jim Treliving, The Herjavec Group’s Robert Herjavec and loudmouth venture capitalist Kevin O’Leary, coming off a Season Four audience average of 1.8 million weekly viewers.
Marketing spoke to Dickinson about her marketing background, how the show has affected her agency, why being accountable to business goals doesn’t kill creativity and more.
How does your marketing background make you different from the other Dragons?
They all have their areas of expertise but the marketing background I’ve got and how I look at it through a business lens is quite a bit different from their perspectives. They are often far quicker to shut down something that isn’t immediately obvious to them and as a result, I don’t think they’re thinking about the trends in the marketplace. They rely more on historical data than trends. They are sheltered a bit from what’s going on in social media, in culture, consumer trends and patterns and how things are changing in how we interact with brands. I’m lucky that I’ve got that perspective.
With the show becoming a hit, do people come on to use the appearance as an earned media play, whether any Dragons bite or not?
That’s actually a phenomenon that’s happened over the last two seasons, where we’re seeing businesses that are actually quite purposeful in getting on the show in order to get those few million eyeballs on their business or idea and then leveraging that opportunity if they don’t get a deal from us. Really, it’s smart marketing from that perspective. This season I could really tell the difference between when someone was there to make sure they were positioned in the best light possible to get the media attention. Some didn’t even want the investment, they just wanted the exposure.
How has being on Dragon’s Den affected your agency?
It’s been really positive for us. We certainly get a lot of interest and attention from businesses from across the country now, simply because they know the name Venture and that it’s part of what I am. That I’m a marketer from Venture sitting at that table illustrates how important marketing is in business.
Viewers know me from a persona that is projected in the context that is a reality television show. But on the other side, brand recognition of me and Venture is significantly high, which provides a warmer introduction to potential clients. We still have to win the business, but I think any agency president in the world would love to have the platform I’ve got and I’m blessed to have it.
You’re known for talking about how marketing must be accountable to business objectives. In a time when new strategies are in play–particularly with social media and mobile–when is it OK to make room for experimentation?
It’s a great question and not one that’s asked often enough. Business fundamentals haven’t changed. Speaking to a business model and executing really well generates opportunity for growth and opportunity for some experimentation in your marketing efforts. But that experimentation has to be purposeful. When we talk about accountability, we talk about purposeful accountability. It’s almost impossible sometimes to quantify certain efforts but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be purposeful. You can choose to allocate some dollars to riskier ventures as long as they tie in to your overall strategy. We all want work that is recognized, but it’s more important to have work that is recognized and proven to be effective. There’s beautiful work and then there’s beautiful work that accomplished something.