This interview is a companion to Behind the Book Burning, a closer look at the public affairs marketing around the 2011 Troy Library Millage. For the whole story, check out the main post.
After I had heard a lot from city employees, library workers and members of the various community organizations around Troy, I got a chance to talk to Rick Bennington, the director of operations at Leo Burnett Detroit. I wanted to try to figure out how the agency felt about entering the campaign into awards shows as the work of the Troy Library itself, rather than as the work of their separate group. And maybe Bennington would know who Tom Ball, the founder of Safeguarding American Families, is, and what his relationship to the agency is.
Bennington was clear that the effort was devised out of kindness and concern for the community, but explains the issues of authorship, accountability and representation as just semantics.
So how did all this happen?
RB: When the campaign came about there was a lot of contention. There’s a lot of political unrest in Troy where we work, and where our people live, over the Tea Party, and the city manager or supervisor, and all the budget fights. And this was going on last year, and there was a lot of contention around their library. The first time it came on my radar, one of my creatives came to me and said ‘Hey, there’s these people, they wanted to help in saving the library, how can we take up this cause and do something?’ We, at Publicis, by code are not to get involved in partisan politics. And it was more of a civic issue, in terms of saving the library. Which, I agreed with.
I thought, wow, this could be a really good fit for Humankind, and maybe we can make a difference in saving an institution that we all fundamentally believe enriches the community itself, and the people that live in it.
And what I pointed out was, somebody put together a political action committee, we can support that, if their intention is saving a civic institution. That’s the way it was posed to me. This group that they put together, Safeguarding American Families, they positioned it as such, and the next thing I knew they asked me for a go-ahead, because it was going to be a benevolence project, they don’t have any money at all. Can they donate their time. Of course, in Troy, this office is here solely for the purpose of servicing GM, these guys wanted to get involved in our Humankind mandate. It was more of a thing where I have some of my employees that come forward, there was a civic issue to it, a lot of my people, my direct reports live right here in the city of Troy. So from the support outside I thought, wow, this could be a really good fit for Humankind, and maybe we can make a difference in saving an institution that we all fundamentally believe enriches the community itself, and the people that live in it. To me personally, the library goes hand in hand with police, education, etc.
That’s how it all started. For me personally, how I manage the operation, is if I can help people where they live and work, and it gets us connected more with this community, this was a key opportunity for us to get involved with this community.
Central to what makes this interesting to me is the fact that the library never knew about it. And the stuff you guys did, while arguably effective, was never made clear to the people that worked at the library, or the Friends of the Library, who had worked years and years to get this millage passed. Did the creatives say why they didn’t work with the Friends or the City of Troy or any of the community groups to get this stuff going, and why they kept them in the dark?
RB: Honestly, on that side, I don’t know. I didn’t know what that group was doing on the outside at all, and whether they were working with those groups at all. I had no knowledge of that.
When I first started looking at it, I was interested in seeing that the library would stand behind this effort. It uses pretty controversial. It’s strange that the library would advocate, even in a satirical way, the burning of its own books. I saw it entered into awards shows as having the Troy Library as a client. But I talked to them and they said, a) as an institution they’re not able to campaign on one side or another, and hire an ad agency to help pass a millage and b), we had no idea this was happening. So how do you guys justify entering the case into all these awards shows with the Troy Public Library as a client?
RB: It’s funny you ask that, because at Cannes, I’ll give you a direct example, because I was involved with that. We put it in, when we entered at Cannes, as the Troy Library with the Safeguarding American Families. They called from France and we had a long conversation about it, about what the setup was with it, and we were talking that the actual client was Safeguarding American Families. The benefactor, the recipient of the benevolence, in terms of the good intentions of saving the institution, was the Troy Library. And that happened with a few of the awards shows, where we explained it to them that we were representing a political action committee in saving the Troy Library. So we had a discussion with them, and they didn’t want them entered as Safeguarding American Families. They wanted it entered as the Troy Library, because that’s what the story was.1 There was no bad intentions on our side to misrepresent it, it was because of the way our political system works. Political action committees are formed to save entities, for or against, or civic institutions that can’t save themselves. That’s how we do it. So there was no bad intentions.
So you’re saying this was changed by the awards shows?
RB: Yeah, we had the discussion with them, and I was directly involved with some of that. In Cannes, it came up that way. They don’t understand what this political action committee is, because we explained it as such. We had to get on and do a conference call with them. In Europe they don’t have these political action committees vis-a-vis the way we do in the United States, so we had to explain it to them.2
Initially when I saw it at the ANDYs it was entered as having Leo Detroit as the client, but that was later changed, is that the same sort of situation?
RB: Yeah, exactly, we didn’t do it for our own good, we always represented the political action committee. I would have never approved it if we were just doing it ourselves. If we were doing it for a political action committee, that’s fine. But we cannot represent it ourselves.
So, all the awards shows require a client contact. Who was the client contact?
RB: It would have been the contact from the political action committee.
Who was that?
RB: I don’t know right off the top of my head.
Well, there’s a guy called Tom Ball that registered the Safeguarding American Families group, I don’t know if he’s an agency employee, or what.
Do you know what Tom’s role in the legal operations are, beyond registering the group?
RB: No, I don’t.
Some people in Troy were upset the agency was taking credit for this whole thing, and seeking awards, based on what they feel is some of their hard work. Do you think that’s fair?
RB: I think, I wouldn’t use the word seeking, I think we’re proud of the work that happened, I don’t think our creatives get recognized enough. They’re here in Detroit, not in a primary ad city. They work their ass off for GM, and do a lot of great quality work. This was one they felt impacted people’s lives. I think we’re most proud of it, and I’m speaking for my creatives, too that the Humankind purpose of it really changed something in the community. I think, saying, are we taking 100% credit? No, I think we’re taking credit for the work we did. I don’t think any intention on our side is to take away from any other group in the city at the time. Seeing the video of the Library project, we stated the fact of what the turnout was, how overwhelmingly it turned over, how it won by a large margin, and I think we’re a piece of that. I don’t think Leo Burnett Detroit is trying to seek any attention for our entity. Our awards shows, yes, they bring a lot of prestige, they bring a lot of credit to the institution. But I think in this office, the psyche of this office is a job well done by our people, and they’re proud they made an impact in the community we live in.
Most of these awards, I didn’t attend Cannes, I attended the Clios, the Effies, the Addys, and everyone I talked to I told the story the same way. They all asked, how did you get involved with a local library, and I told them the story of the political action committee, and everything else, of how we went about it. Part of that, too, the way that campaign went through, for 4-6 weeks, was to stir controversy. Part of that was pretty deep sixed. We were really quiet about it. Everything was legal, and done properly, but it was very below radar, to cause controversy, to get so much attention for the cause, because we couldn’t have afforded it for the political action committee for their budget, which was nothing, and us volunteering, without media support.
I can understand why the library people might be upset, if they feel like we’re taking all the credit, and I don’t agree with that view. At the end of the day, we saved the institution, or, I should say, we contributed to saving the institution. So overall, I don’t know why there could be a lot of contention. We’re arguing over how we saved it, or who’s getting credit for that. The best credit is that it’s still there, and these people still have their jobs, and it’s a vibrant part of the community.
So right at the run-up of the campaign, you guys were responsible for the mobile billboards, yeah? And those didn’t make mention of the book burning, they were just straight slogans?
RB: Yeah, the slogans, I don’t know. I saw a mock-up of what the trucks were going to look like, what was actually done I don’t know right now.
The budget on the Cannes entry was stated as $3,500 but the Free Press reported you guys funded a total of $70,000 in advertising material in addition to that $3,500 in cash to that Safeguarding American Families group. Is that just billable hours, and the media for those mobile billboards and things like that?
RB: Yeah, I think it was in-kind or time donated, and any other things we donated. A lot of times, I think with the media trucks and stuff, that might have been in-kind favors from vendors, we do a lot of one-off things for clients that I pull favors for, Boy Scouts, Cancer Fund dinners, things where we get involved and it’s not necessarily an advertising thing but we’re providing a design of a book or a poster or some kind of a stage backdrop or something.
But that was money declared to the state of Michigan that was used in funding that campaign?
RB: Yeah, cash or cash equivalents. They wanted us to value our time of staff, too. That’s how we did the Detroit Public Schools. We got a small stipend from DPS to do a lot of work
But the difference is that DPS has given you a mandate, where you’re sitting across the table with somebody from the public school system or somebody from a community group.
RB: Right. On DPS we were employed by the public schools to get an awareness campaign together about increasing enrollment. The political action committee was drawing attention to the referendum. They wanted to to draw attention to the millage to save the library and the operating budget. I think there was a lot of contention, and I’m not an expert on local politics, but that the Tea Party believed there was a lot of money in the budget and a political game was being played. Political chicken, that’s the way it was positioned to me. Our stated intention in supporting a political action committee was to get people out and vote yes on the referendum.
Yeah, it’s a difficult situation. A librarian says that when the case study video emerged, he was pressured, through Leo Burnett, to remove comments from the YouTube page that say the library was not involved in the case, as the video states, and that they were so unaware of who the author of this thing was initially that when there were videos posted saying “here’s where we’re going to go and burn the books” that Troy stepped up policing around that area at the Library, which is maybe an overreaction, but speaks to the cross-purposed that you and the library were working at.
RB: Are you talking about civic employees that were working for the library?
Yeah, a librarian, someone that works inside the library.
RB: I think that would be violating their job if they were doing that.
RB: Cooperating with an outside group trying to sway the referendum. Are they allowed to do that? I don’t even know if that’s legal.
There are all sorts of legal questions.
RB: I wouldn’t even know if it’s legal. I don’t know.
I don’t know if they put themselves in jeopardy doing that. I know we could have talked to them, I guess we could have. Our client was a political action committee. So we’re working at their discretion. We pass the materials through them.
But the political action committee was composed of Leo employees?
RB: No Leo employees were part of the political action committee. This isn’t ours, this is somebody from the outside who put a political action committee together and we represented their intentions. That’s what I’m saying. Are there Leo employees that had a vested interest? Yes. But they didn’t run the PAC.
So Safeguarding American Families was not a creation of the agency?
RB: No, it’s a real PAC by people who have an interest and are interested in the library staying alive, and they came to their neighbor friend, who’s one of the creative directors, and said ‘we want to do something’. Now, is he close to it? Does he have an interest in it? Yes. But he was not the political action committee. Nor one of the members of it.
So why was the donation happening?
RB: When they brought it forward to me, they wanted to get involved in this political action committee to save the library. They posed it to me as a great expression of a Humankind act, it’s where we live and work in the Troy area, our offices are right on here Big Beaver, the creatives that were involved actually lived in Troy, and they asked me, ‘Could we do this?’
So who is running the political action committee? That’s the actual client, right? Who is that?
RB: That’s Tom Ball.
And that’s an actual person?
Who is he?
RB: I don’t know who he is. I’ve never had direct dealings with him. He’s not a Leo Burnett employee, he’s somebody from the outside.
So Tom Ball is the only name I’ve ever seen, the PAC is registered to an address in Detroit, but the office is a commercial mail drop in Ferndale? It seemed to me this Tom Ball guy was made up, a convenient person who signed a paper and then stepped away. Nobody’s ever been able to really figure out who this dude is.
The biggest question for me is how a library that never hired an ad agency came to be recognized as one of the most innovative, award-winning clients ever, based on something it had nothing to do with. That’s my big question. How did an ad agency take the megaphone from a community group and start blowing it.
RB: We represented a political action committee with a stated purpose of saving the library and turning votes into Yes votes and driving awareness. The number one intention of that campaign, and the way it came off of Book Burning, was to make people aware. It infuriated people to no end, and when people realized what the real intention was, it turned into a positive campaign. It started negatively because that’s how you get people’s attention, sometimes you have to raise their awareness by getting them angry about something so they actually pay attention to things. Here in the community, from what I heard, there was a lot of apathy, and people were taking it as saber-rattling, and it wasn’t actually going to happen. And the stated purpose was to wake people up and get attention.
Did they work with the library? I don’t know how that would come together, I’m on the outside of that. But any political action committee can be formed to support anything, and the entity involved, whether good or bad, doesn’t have to have any input.
But you wouldn’t create a political action committee called Pro Green Cars and then create an ad for an electric car, for the Chevy Volt, and enter it into awards shows as having come from GM or Chevy.
The Troy library benefited from the work, and whether it’s stated as the Safeguarding American Families or Troy Library as a client, I don’t think it changes the quality of the work, or the recognition from it.
RB: I don’t see the parallels to that. If you’re trying to get at the client is Troy Library, and the client should have been a political action committee, that’s semantics. Nothing was misrepresented. We talked to the juries and their entry and awards people on how this actually was laid out. If that’s a big story, I’m pretty shocked by it. It’s not going to change anything. The Troy library benefited from the work, and whether it’s stated as the Safeguarding American Families or Troy Library as a client, I don’t think it changes the quality of the work, or the recognition from it.
I’m just talking right off hand. We didn’t put it through as Troy Library, in and of itself, without stating the political action committee, because we talked to the awards juries. I don’t think that would have changed anything. And I’m not the one making the decision on the award committees side of how they want to put it up there.
- I’m not entirely sure I understand how this worked. Frequently award shows do change categories or areas campaigns are entered into them, but to assign a completely different entity as a client is something I haven’t heard of happening. As I said in the main story, my research doesn’t square with this. A list of Cannes entries obtained May 15, over a month before the show, lists the Troy Public Library as the client on that entry. The One Show information is the same. [↩]
- This is unclear too. The precedent is The Great Schlep, from Droga5, which won a bevy of awards in 2009, including at Cannes. It was entered as the product of a PAC, the Jewish Council for Education and Research, because that was the client standing behind the work. Cannes didn’t have any problem understanding that. If someone from any of the awards shows where the case won wants to step forward explain that change, I’ll gladly note it. [↩]