When I had to report on every little coming and going in the agency world I learned real fast that Rick Webb was a great quote. He’s got a lucid brain that can make the complex pretty clear and cut through most any flavor of bullshit. Rick’s compiled the breadth of his experience at The Barbarian Group into Agency: Starting a Creative Firm in the Age of Digital Marketing, essentially Rick Explains It All.
It’s a must-read if you’re thinking of starting an ad agency, and it’s great information that might corroborate other prejudices or processes you’ve developed if you work with them already, either as a supplier or a freelancer. Give it to your colleagues—I know I’ve got a few destined for mine. And keep a highlighter handy.
The book is essentially a more buttoned-down version of the KLF’s “The Manual (How to Have a Number One the Easy Way)” and if you followed all the instructions inside and were halfway decent at making ads you could probably succeed. The only thing missing, and maybe this is because Rick is savvy enough to leave room for a follow-up, is answering the question Why.
Why would anyone want to start an agency in 2015, when it’s easier than ever to build a brand from scratch, or take a novel technology to the stratosphere with free money from VCs? Maybe I’ll ask him and let you know.
A while back I read a post somewhere, I think on the IDEO blog, about their experiment with a saddle stapler. There was a story about how they furnished an alcove at the back of the office, and put out the stapler, commonly used to make crude staple-bound zines, and lo, amazing rainbows of creativity happened.
We ain’t them, so I decided to steal part of this idea, with 100% more <shudder> forced creativity, and lo the Contagious Holiday Zine Exchange was born. Everybody had a few months to conceive and execute a zine, using the tools at their disposal, and we’d swap them at the end of the year.
Counting our own issues of Contagious, Most Contagious, and all the the client-commissioned stuff, we made probably 10+ print publications this year. But not everyone has the chance to get dirty with pagination, design, concept and all the other fun parts of making their own magazine. Hell, I’m an editor and I don’t feel like I always do.
I can’t tell you how impressed I was when we exchanged them today. Writers, sales folk, whoever, it didn’t matter. The publications were from the heart and fun, which is all you really need for a good zine.
Here’s a quick rundown:
Noelle: Drink More Whiskey, a primer on everyone’s favorite brown liquid, its characteristics and varieties, where to drink it, recipes, etc., with samples Kyle: Pittie’ful Zine, a look at the pit bull terrier’s origins, evolution and characteristics, including info on pits in American history Erin: les hashtags en francais, a study of this year’s top celebrity Twitter arrivals, with hashtagged critiques of their work in French Arwa: Notes From Goats: A pun-filled literary magazine, as authored by goats (ie critique of The Great Goatsby) Chris: A Hell of a Lot of Mice: Music and miscellany, including an article on Willis Earl Beal, photos from NYC venues and part of Chris’ top 52 albums of 2013 summary.
I did a short sci-fi photonovela called PATRONYM on the JP Morgan of the clone era coming to terms with his legacy.
Methods as far ranging as In Design and Comic Life and even old fashioned cut-and-paste and hand-lettering brought these to life.
Best of all, they really did what every good solo publication should do: convey something about the creator.
I was having lunch today with a guy who runs the innovation department at a really large package goods company, and one of the things he said stuck in my mind. “We have the tools,” he said, “we just don’t use them.” Sometimes you have to figure out a way to get people to use the tools.
One of the benefits of living in my part of Brooklyn is you can essentially pick up a graduate-level humanities education in books your neighbors discard on their stoops. I’ve been working my way through a stoop find, the collected stories of Jack London, and was earlier this week on “The League of the Old Men,” about Imber, a tribesman from the north who confesses to slaying dozens of pioneering whites to stem their corrosive effect on his culture.
Imber goes to town to present the white authority with his list of crimes, and finds that Howkan, a younger member of his tribe, is the chosen translator. The way Imber comes to understand Howkan’s literacy is exceptional; he relates it to the signals he reads from the land.
Howkan shook his head with impatience. “Have I not told thee it be there in the paper, O fool?”
Imber stared hard at the ink-scrawled surface. “As the hunter looks upon the snow and says, Here but yesterday there passed a rabbit; and here by the willow scrub it stood and listened and heard, and was afraid; and here it went with great swiftness, leaping wide; and here, with great swiftness and wider leapings, came a lynx; and here, where the claws cut deep into the snow, the lynx made a very great leap; and here it struck, with the rabbit under and rolling belly up; and here leads off the trail of the lynx alone, and there is no more rabbit,—as the hunter looks upon the markings of the snow and says thus and so and here, dost thou, too, look upon the paper and say thus and so and here be the things old Imber hath done?”
Meanwhile, I live for Ted Chiang’s work. His sense of how to mesh the prosaic of the everyday with the fantastic elements derived from possible futures is always totally enthralling. And, on the train yesterday, I dove into his newest, “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” published here.
There are some thematic similarities in the two stories: memory, cultural dominance and the inevitable march of technology. Chiang’s is more about augmenting memories, and the possibility that technology will remember it for you, wholesale (couldn’t resist). It’s not quite virgin territory1, but Chiang covers it with the mastery he usually displays. But largely what jumped out at me was this description of literacy. Jijingi, from a tribe that’s without literacy, is learning from the missionary, Moseby, how to read. But first he must understand written language.
The missionary spoke as if his tongue were too large for his mouth, but Jijingi could tell what he was saying. “Yes, I understand.”
Moseby smiled, and pointed at the paper. “This paper tells the story of Adam.”
“How can paper tell a story?”
“It is an art that we Europeans know. When a man speaks, we make marks on the paper. When another man looks at the paper later, he sees the marks and knows what sounds the first man made. In that way the second man can hear what the first man said.”
Jijingi remembered something his father had told him about old Gbegba, who was the most skilled in bushcraft. “Where you or I would see nothing but some disturbed grass, he can see that a leopard had killed a cane rat at that spot and carried it off,” his father said. Gbegba was able to look at the ground and know what had happened even though he had not been present. This art of the Europeans must be similar: those who were skilled in interpreting the marks could hear a story even if they hadn’t been there when it was told.
The coincidence struck me as a bit ironic. No doubt I’ve read and forgotten other connections, other expressions of writing described to the illiterate. And no doubt, if I couldn’t forget, it would have only further lessened the impact of Chiang’s story, as I would have been constantly comparing variations on the same theme, a bizarre mental loop. Sometimes, like both authors contend, it’s better not to know.
Go read the Chiang story2 and tell me what you think.
All Folded Pages. Blogging the corners I’ve turned down while reading a book. It’s a funformat which I’m happy to respectfully copy. Here are a few notable passages from Ben Shahn’s The Shape of Content.
While the title would be at home in a 2013 thought leadership seminar, the topic area is on the shaping and governing of a mindset related to the appreciation and creation of good art, specifically painting, and came from a series of lectures Shahn gave at Harvard. The relationship between form and content, noncomformity, the education of an artist—all are key elements in Shahn’s talks.
The first passage is about novelty and motive as ascribed to judgement of art (p. 102).
So we have begun to accord to scientific terms and phenomena an almost mystic potency. When we read of the quaint and ancient practice, as described by Cennino Cennini, of saying specific prayers for the mixing of specific colors and paints, we are charmed and amused. But we are not at all amused by the claims to scientific potency which run along the side of our toothpaste tube, or which herald the latest hormone cream for the arresting of old age. We perceive little humor in vitamin-enriched bread; we take the idea of personal travel to the moon as a matter of course; we carefully guide our automobile toward the nearest gasoline station that happens to advertise super-octane gas, although I doubt that many of us have the slightest notion of what super-octane is—I am sure that I haven’t.
In our contemporary criticisms of art we are not unlikely to read of the time-space continuum as a property of painting at hand; we come upon such terms as entropy and complementarity; and a number of modes of painting take their names from biology or psychology. Still others take their cue from these sciences, and we have “automatic painting,” “therapeutic painting,” and the like.
I do not mean to imply that an interpretation of the sciences, or an evaluation or even a participation, is out of order in contemporary art; indeed I think all that is very much the point. But at the moment I am speaking of the present tendency of art to borrow glory and to borrow value by a purely romantic self-association with scientific terminology. And one can imagine how ill fares that kind of painting, devoted to capturing the modes of nature or to some idea of craftsmanship, in the hands of those critics who are schooled in the terminology of Biomorphism, or Geometric Expressionism, or who look upon art as compulsive or unconsciously motivated.
On complexity (p. 106):
But it is not the degree of communicability that constitutes the value of art to the public. It is its basic intent and responsibility. A work of art in which powerful compassion is innate, or which contains extraordinary revelations concerning form, or manifests brilliant thinking, however difficult its language, will serve ultimately to dignify that society in which it exists. By the same argument, a work that is tawdry and calculating in intent is not made more worthy by being easily understood. One does not judge an Einstein equation by its communicability, but by its actual content and meaning.
What lasts (p. 110)
If any single kind of value or evaluation has tended to survive the many tides and reversals of taste, belief and dogma, I imagine that value consists in some vague striving for truth. … Whatever our momentary concept of it may be, it seems as through truth itself is that objective which awakens the purest passion in man, which stimulates his mind and calls forth his heroic endeavors. It is in pursuit of truth perhaps that we are able to sacrifice present values and move on to new ones.
What I loved most were Shahn’s exhortations to younger artists, clearly the audience he was addressing. Here is his “capsule recommendation for a course of education,” which remains one of the more inspiring passages of the book (p. 113):
Attend a university if you possibly can. There is no content of knowledge that is not pertinent to the work you will want to do. But before you attend a university work at something for a while. Do anything. Get a job in a potato field; or work as a grease-monkey in an auto repair shop. But if you do work in a field do not fail to observe the look and the feel of earth and of all things that you handle — yes, even potatoes! Or, in the auto shop, the smell of oil and grease and burning rubber. Paint of course, but if you have to lay aside painting for a time, continue to draw. Listen well to all conversations and be instructed by them and take all seriousness seriously. Never look down upon anything or anyone as not worthy of notice. In college or out of college, read. And form opinions! Read Sophocles and Euripides and Dante and Proust. Read everything that you can find about art except the reviews. Read the Bible; read Hume; read Pogo. Read all kinds of poetry and know many poets and many artists. Go to and art school, or two, or three, or take art courses at night if necessary. And paint and paint and draw and draw. Know all that you can, both curricular and noncurricular — mathematics and physics and economics,logic and particularly history. Know at least two languages besides your own, but anyway, know French. Look at pictures and more pictures. Look at every kind of visual symbol, every kind of emblem; do not spurn signboards of furniture drawings of this style of art or that style of art. Do not be afraid to like paintings honestly or to dislike them honestly, but if you do dislike them retain an open mind. Do not dismiss any school of art, not the Pre-Raphaelites nor the Hudson River School nor the German Genre painters. Talk and talk and sit at cafés, and listen to everything, to Brahms, to Brubeck, to the Italian hour on the radio. Listen to preachers in small town churches and in big city churches. Listen to politicians in New England town meetings and to rabble-rousers in Alabama. Even draw them. And remember that you are trying to learn to think what you want to think, that you are trying to co-ordinate mind and hand and eye. Go to all sorts of museums and galleries and to the studios of artists. Go to Paris and Madrid and Rome and Ravenna and Padua. Stand alone in Sainte Chapelle, in the Sistine Chapel, in the Church of the Carmine in Florence. Draw and draw and paint and learn to work in many media; try lithography and aquatint and silk-screen. Know all that you can about art, and by all means have opinions. Never be afraid to become embroiled in art of life or politics; never be afraid to learn to draw or paint better than you already do; and never be afraid to undertake any kind of art at all, however exalted or however common, but do it with distinction.
Well, often I did unpremeditated things in those days, as I have said. Once, from the top of the Spanish Steps in Rome, for no reason except that I had come upon a Volkswagen van full of them, I let hundreds and hundreds of tennis balls bounce one after the other to the bottom, every which way possible. Watching how they struck tiny irregularities or worn spots in the stone, and changed direction, or guessing how far across the piazza down below each one of them would go. Several of them bounced catty-corner and struck the house where John Keats died, in fact. – David Markson, Wittgenstein’s Mistress
Off to 1976 we go…
Approximately, as it is near the beginning, and Markson had the novel rejected 55 times before it came out in 1988. It took a while in the days before email. [↩]
The American Dream is riding low in one of the America’s wealthiest suburbs. The city budget is a mess. Gentle suburbanites are turning rabid anti-tax activists, denouncing neighbors as communists as they pass each other in the supermarket parking lot. Politics and culture rarely collide as hard as they did in 2011 in Troy, Michigan, where rival local ideologies warred over funding for the town’s library. But when the local office of one of the world’s best-known ad agencies decided to solve the problem (and use their media savvy to get all the credit), the situation got a lot stickier.
While this story initially came to me while I wore a Contagious hat, it branched into an area that was broader, so I put it forward here, on nickparish.net, as a product of my own pursuit and interest, not those of my employers.
It’s a not-too-uncommon scene these days in America: a cash-strapped municipality has to make a tough choice between taxes and services for citizens. In 2011, the Troy Public Library library had to ask for more funding. It had already lost one millage, a few months earlier. The town was divided.
But then a funny thing happened. An advertising agency best known to the public for creating the Marlboro Man and Tony the Tiger created a political committee and launched a campaign to encourage a No vote, suggesting when it passed the library books should be burned. The group put up lawn signs and tried to whip up a fury around burning the books on Facebook and Twitter. They called it the Book Burning Party, and thought, by creating a hyperbolic end-days situation, offending Troy citizens, they could have a big reveal and remind the town how important libraries are.
Fast-forward past the election, to the 2012 advertising award season. The time of year when agencies parade their best and most effective work into awards shows to be judged by their peers. The agency has held up its effort as particularly effective, with a very slick video and special awards site, spending tens of thousands of dollars to show off its effort. And it’s won winning a lot of awards.1
Go ahead and watch it now. Almost half a million others have already, on YouTube alone.
But it didn’t go down quite like the agency says it did. The satire was lost on many, including the volunteers and Friends of the Library, who figured they were now besieged by another group of crackpots. And, to top it all off, the library never asked for the help. They never hired the ad agency.
The purpose of this article is to dig deeper into the events and the community and find the context for the action. This is harder to digest than a three-minute case study video. But watering down grown-folks issues to a least-common-denominator level for viral success doesn’t begin to address the complexity of the situation. And what does it mean about the ad industry?
There were multiple levels of deception at play in Troy: first, of the townspeople, preceding the vote. Then, of the ad industry, and the greater web, when the case was presented as client work with the Troy Public Library. Ultimately, the library was saved. The agency was celebrated. But did the ends justify the means?
Why do I care?
I love the library. It takes care of people who are the most vulnerable in our information society and stops them from falling through the cracks, teaching them to email or fill in public assistance forms on the web. It’s a place where anyone can better themselves. My values are the library’s values. My mom is the treasurer of a Friends of the Library, in a small Michigan town with a meager budget. I could see this happening to her.
I also care about reputation. It’s my job to tell others about great communication campaigns. And when a campaign comes along that isn’t really what it purports to be, it erodes my reputation, and my publication’s reputation, when we’ve relayed it to our readers. This has gotten increasingly complicated with the diffuse power of new media.
I also care about advertising. Not in the affectionate sense, the way I care about the library. I care about the misuse of the power of advertising. When does advertising become propaganda? What is the difference? How far are you willing to go to meet a goal, or bring yourself or your company plaudits? How does advertising exploit and abuse our attention, and even our own institutions?
The relationship between advertising and awards is fraught with conflict, too. Awards can swing massive amounts of money for agencies, and consume massive amounts of budget. Even at the periphery, we at Contagious are involved. Our coverage contributes to juries’ decisions. We sit on juries ourselves. Sometimes, our work is even entered. At the ANDYs, this year, a cover we collaborated with Leo Burnett Iberia to develop won in the illustration and graphic design categories.
But if we’re not asking questions about the whole process, we’re doing the people who work in it every day a disservice.
Does it matter if those you intend to help, and claim to have helped, didn’t ask for it in the first place? What about when they consider it an active detriment to their efforts? I hadn’t thought about this before. But after hearing enough rumors about the origins of this campaign, I decided to do some looking around. I found while you can argue the ethics of the group’s tactics in the community of Troy, the agency has certainly been deceptive in how it’s presented the effort to the advertising community.
At the ANDYs: Something’s Fishy
As I mentioned, part of my job is to go to advertising awards shows. One of the highlights is to be able to see the year’s best work on display and connect with the people who made it. I was at the ANDYs, the bellwether first show on the circuit, watching the case studies, when a juror, one of the most respected creative directors in advertising, whispered something in my ear.
“Watch this one. I think it’s a scam. I went to the site, and the stats don’t check out. It looks like nobody really cared or reacted, but they’re making out like it’s the best thing in the world.” That was the first time I saw the Book Burning video.
The effort won a Gold that night, and the next day I began to compare the claims made in the case study video to the actual visible results on the web. I didn’t have to dig hard before I found a bigger problem than any exaggerated stats about the number of Twitter followers they’ve gained or Facebook Likes, or whatever social metric they could quote.
I found a blog comment from an employee of the library who was clearly upset about the claims in the video. “You did nothing to help support the Troy Public Library on August 2. All you did was cause confusion that Library supporters have been trying to avoid at all costs, as the previous elections were confused enough,” he wrote. “All you did was add more divisiveness and bickering in a community that should be united on its love and need for a library. All you did was violate election laws in pursuit of political satire. And all you did was add No signs on the streets and avenues in Troy where none existed.”
I got in touch with the author of the comment, Philip Kwick, and talked to him about what happened. (Here’s a long interview with Kwick I did with lots more backstory.) I talked to members of the community who had advocated on behalf of the library in this and previous instances, through all the ugly politics. And I found out a lot.
Most of what Kwick told me suggested Leo Burnett Detroit was actively working at cross-purposes to the Troy library, the organization it named as its client in the awards entries. According to Kwick, the library was not even legally allowed to hire an ad agency to promote the millage. And as volunteers for the library objected to the idea of burning books, the agency deleted librarians’ comments. To the librarians, the behavior, including posting a video “Scoping out the best place for the book burning party”, was insidious enough to prompt library employees to petition and receive extra police patrols. The agency may have even violated Michigan election law in creating the campaign, they say.
Just a few days earlier I had understood the work to have been a product of the Troy Public Library, and was shocked to learn all this went on against their wishes.
At the same time, though, it’s more complicated than just what the librarians thought. Sure, the agency was wrong in comandeering their name and using it to enter into awards shows when a client relationship never existed. But some in Troy credit the campaign with shaking up the community and helping it escape the apathy that’s come in a series of three millage votes. Another deep question is what that’s worth. Politics divided the town. It’s been besieged by Tea Party-affiliated anti-tax crusaders. Even the library supporters that seem tolerant of the Book Burning tactics aren’t over the moon about how it happened–mostly they’re pleased it all didn’t backfire. But we’ll have to dig deeper to get to these questions.
Sadly, this isn’t a new thing. It’s gotten easier in a lot of instances, especially in print work, where an ad can easily be produced on the side by a Photoshop phenom and given a client nod for publication in an exceptionally limited run in a niche publication. Stuntish, patched-together campaigns that seem too good to be true are most common in undeveloped advertising markets, where there’s very little scrutiny.
Every show has dozens of print ads for highlighters or condoms or weird beer brands that ran once in an obscure periodical. Creative directors have built careers on scam, bending over for clients on difficult, real work, only to get stuff for awards shows produced and run. The client may reject the main creative work, but that’s not the end of the world: “Just let us run a few of these concepts for awards shows,” the eager creative director asks.
In the social media world, animation has gotten cheap enough that it’s easy to whip up a seamless case study video and give the illusion of mass participation. In the video above, commentary for actual grassroots efforts to save the library are presented as if they were part of the Book Burning group’s cause. Ambiguous language and the sizzle ad agencies are great at makes this easier. Throughout the industry, the animation of a Facebook Like counter rocketing upwards is well used.
But the sort of rogue approach embodied by the Book Burning Party campaign depends on a powerful, experienced media manipulator overwhelming the limited resources and figurative lung-power of a small community organization. In terms of budget, strategy and tactics, it’s the World Series champs versus the sandlot squad.
Troy’s Metamorphosis Through History of Library Activism
The community we’re talking about here is the Detroit suburb of Troy, in Oakland county. Troy citizens were facing a difficult choice in July 2011, a referendum: should the belt tightening (yes, even the wealthiest have budgets) force the library to lose part (or all?) of its budget?
“The whole library issue is a symptom of a much larger issue we’ve had in Troy for a number of years: this huge anti-tax, anti-government contingent that rolls up from the corners of the city and takes a stronghold,” says Troy resident Ellen Hodorek. Hodorek worked in community and government relations for General Motors and supplier Delphi for 17 years, helping coordinate things like corporations sponsoring the town’s fireworks and working alongside the Chamber of Commerce. “[Troy city services] very much at risk from this political group.”
This isn’t the first recession, and the Friends of the Library responded the way they usually do: rallying support to keep the library open. In this case, groups like Save Troy, the Friends and others banded together, enlisting librarians from around the world. Support extended onto the web, reaching blogs like Boing Boing. Citizens gathered around community journalism hubs like Patch and activist blogs like Keep Troy Strong to share information and stay energized.
The Troy Library has a fantastic history, and as recently as 2010 it was ranked 10th best in the country. Funding has always been an issue, and leaders like Marguerite Hart, the first children’s librarian, came up with creative solutions. She petitioned dozens of celebrities in 1970, including Dr. Suess and Issac Asimov to write notes to the children of Troy to ask them to continue to love the library and tell them about the influence books had on their lives. Letters came from then-Governor of California Ronald Reagan, astronaut Neil Armstrong, Helen Gurley Brown, editor of Cosmopolitan and authors like E.B. White, Dr. Ben Spock, Issac Asimov and Dr. Seuss.
But in the last few years the librarians have come up against even more than Hart could have anticipated. They were up against hardened political tactics the local alt weekly called “dirty tricks”. Misinformation is the name of the game. Multiple parties can create ballot measures that may not actually create the funding for the library the Friends and their allies are looking for, essentially clouding the ballot and making it difficult for people to decide who’s stands for what. And the Book Burning Party became another player in the swarm.
The Election: The Library Endures
As the campaign toward the library millage dragged on, the atmosphere among the library supporters was tense. A lot was at stake, and they hadn’t quite recovered from the earlier millage defeats. Then the Book Burning Party proposal arrived.
Emails I received from the librarians’ listserv show diligent researchers springing into action immediately, looking for facts. They pointed out the signage on public property was a violation of city code. They found out that the group had registered as a political committee, Safeguarding American Families.
Soon, the librarians linked Safeguarding American Families back to a realtor named Tom Ball who had registered the group to an address on Iroquois in Detroit. The lawn signs, placed around the library and other parts of the town, bore the address of a commercial mailbox unit on Woodward in Royal Oak, which the librarians quickly caught as a violation of election law.
But Ball’s name and address were hastily scrawled, possibly by a confused clerk, who had initially checked the box for “oppose” on the ballot proposal, but scrawled it out and changed to “support.” This got the librarians thinking, just hours after they found out about the group: is this a bad attempt at satire?
“The whole thing was very suspect to me,” says Kwick. “Nobody really understood it. We assumed it wasn’t an actual no campaign, it wasn’t an actual book burning campaign, but it was completely unclear what it was.”
Looking back, subtle Leo Burnett Detroit links aren’t hard to find: The bank that held its funding was the Fifth Third Bank on West Big Beaver, across the street from the agency. Leo’s Chicago office was pitching Cincinnatti-based Fifth Third at the time and would win the account later that summer.
It had nothing to do with the city. The city didn’t hire them. We had no knowledge of it, nor did the library, nor did the Friends of the Library
But whoever was funding the committee, or behind its organization, it had nothing to do with the library, or the City of Troy. “It had nothing to do with the city. The city didn’t hire them. We had no knowledge of it, nor did the library, nor did the Friends of the Library,” says Cynthia Stewart, community affairs director for the City of Troy, who runs all the city’s PR. “We didn’t hire them; we had no knowledge of it.” As for the cops’ involvement? “[Leo Burnett] put a video online that showed them videotaping through the windows at night. The police were made aware of this, and the police did check it out.”
Friends volunteers were shaken by the campaign as well. “The Friends and the library had absolutely nothing to do with Leo Burnett’s book burning thing,” says Rhonda Hendrickson, president of the group. “I was very upset by it. There was so much ugliness going on in Troy that I thought it was just one more really ugly move on someone’s part.”
Hendrickson estimates there were hundreds of volunteers involved, and she personally spent over fifteen hours a day working on the issue. Previous millages were defeated by very thin margins, so “the Friends had a boots-on-the-ground campaign in place for the second effort and the infrastructure for them to move forward. Plus, our separate PAC gave them money to get going.”
“I was in advertising for twenty-some years, and my husband is in advertising,” Hendrickson says. “We both were somewhat surprised about the revelation by the agency. It’s not surprising that they are trying to parlay it for some award or another.”
Did it work?
Despite deceiving the public, and, eventually, the industry, is there a real chance the campaign moved the needle, if a little bit? It depends who you ask. Certainly the agency thinks so. And some citizens agree.
“That book burning thing, as awful as it was, as troublesome as it was, it got everybody’s attention,” Hodorek says. “If it had failed, it could have been really bad for their agency. It worked tremendously well. But to the people that are really close to the library, the librarians, it was such a heinous idea.”
It’s very likely a last-minute ad push from Burnett actually did move the needle as well. The agency saturated the town with “Vote Yes” truck-mounted billboards with slogans like “Vote Yes or you’ll never know if Everyone Poops”, a reference to the children’s book. The trucks were noted by the Troy Patch blog, a good source of local information, for their visibility. The Detroit Free Press reported that, based on its campaign filing, Safeguarding American Families spent $70k on “advertising materials,” in addition to a cash donation to its pressure group, some of which likely influenced voters. But this last-ditch effort made little mention of the Book Burning Party.
Hodorek doesn’t think library supporters could have done it on their own. “Do I think that we could have won? I don’t think so. Do I mind that they did this on the side? Oh, heck no. They were a business that stepped up; they had an idea and thought, ‘Maybe we can help this community.’
“I know how dicey it was and how at risk the library was. I can’t believe the political realities I’ve come to know. It’s a very dirty business. I’m very disillusioned by it. We won that fight, and I’m still getting over how ugly it was. There was a tremendous sacrifice.”
Cynthia Stewart, inside the city government, emphasized the people of Troy’s role. “Maybe [Leo Burnett] played a part in the whole thing, but there was a huge portion of the city council that was behind it: the volunteers, the city staff, the residents that came out to vote,” Stewart says. “It was not the work of one PR company playing a prank.”
There’s dissension even among allies in Troy over who, exactly, deserves credit for influencing the vote. Clearly it takes a community effort to pass any political legislation. But how the Book Burning Party is talked about presents an interesting thought experiment.
Does advertising without clients mean anything in the broader sense? To the community it would seem yes. And it affected the community, much like the way the Great Schelp helped raise awareness for young people to pressure their grandparents in Florida to vote for Barack Obama. But the main difference is this: The Great Schlep did not purport to have originated from the Obama campaign as it was presented to its peers for evaluation. It was entered into awards shows as the work of a political action committee, the Jewish Council for Education and Research. When Hal Riney wrote the famous “Morning in America” ad for Ronald Reagan, he was actually working for Reagan. He didn’t just come up with a script, shoot it, then unleash it on the airwaves in the President’s name.
The Awards Circuit: How Adland Bought In
When the librarians first saw the case study, they tried to react but were silenced. “I don’t think we pieced it all together until we saw the video, a while after the campaign, and thought, ‘These people are taking credit for this,’” Kwick says. “People were, after the fact, angry about it. I posted some comments on the Leo Burnett YouTube page. ‘This didn’t save the library. This caused more harm than good. This potentially jeopardized the library.’
“And the city manager’s office here got a call from Leo Burnett saying, ‘We’re really a good corporate citizen here, you should probably take down those comments.’” So Kwick says he removed his comments.
But the ad industry lapped up the well-crafted case study. It won multiple gold awards and many special mentions. Press releases crowed: Leo Burnett Detroit’s Book Burning Party to save Troy Library won Gold in Social Media for its unique ability to create action among a community. The Facebook Integrated Media Award, intended to “recognize innovative campaigns that incorporate the social networking site with traditional media,” was even presented onstage to Leo Burnett Detroit at one show “for their work with the Troy Public Library.”
In May, at the Effie awards, I sat at a table with the Grand Effie jury at Cipriani in Midtown. The Effies celebrate real, verified effectiveness of marketing. The Grand Effie jury consisted of some of the most powerful people in media and marketing. I was surprised to hear the members at my table had been a coin toss away from awarding the campaign the Grand Effie, the measure of the most effective campaign of the year. This didn’t seem possible, as the Effies are notorious for requiring detailed entries exhibiting just how the marketing accomplished its objective.
The jurors I spoke to couldn’t believe the work wasn’t authorized–and wasn’t legally able to have been created–by the client it purported to belong to. The Book Burning case had been seen by multiple rounds of judging, passing in front of the eyes of dozens of judges before it even got to the Grand jury. It never would have reached them, they said, had this been known. They were relieved they hadn’t awarded it the top spot (which went to the Chrysler “Made in Detroit” work, featuring millions of dollars spent for a real client, with real, tangible car sales based on a partnership between creative companies). Later in the evening my previous employer, industry trade bible Advertising Age presented the Book Burning campaign its Goodworks award, the highest honor for a nonprofit. Not even Ad Age had bothered to do the cursory internet research to vet it.
Later, when I asked Rick Bennington, the director of operations at Leo Burnett Detroit, how the agency got to entering the case with the Tory Public Library as a client, he dismissed it as a semantics issue. “The benefactor, the recipient of the benevolence, in terms of the good intentions of saving the institution, was the Troy Library,” Bennington says, saying, in the case of the Cannes Lions festival, he got a call from France asking for an explanation, but they had entered the work with Safeguarding American Families as the client. “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.” (You can find the entire transcript of my talk with Rick here.)
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.2
Bennington was proud of the work and how it saved the library, but I asked him, why the didn’t the agency just work with the Friends of the Library in the first place? He didn’t know.
“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,” he says. “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.”
Many of the facts and figures in awards entries wouldn’t stand up to rigorous fact checking. Fuzzy math rules the day. And the Book Burning Party is no exception. But a few elements in the campaign’s Cannes Lions entry stood out, especially in the setion called Results and Effectiveness:
“In a city of just 80,000 residents, we ignited a social media conversation that generated over 650,000 impressions on Facebook and Twitter alone, and over one million impressions worldwide.”
As of July 2012, the campaign had 568 Likes on Facebook, 1 person “talking about this” and 63 followers on Twitter. It’s hard to imagine how the message was amplified enough to make those numbers during the election, and managed to fade so far so quickly afterward.
“Voters flocked to the polls at numbers 342% greater than projected and the library won the election by a landslide.”
It’s unclear who made this projection, but looking at previous election turnout numbers can put this into context. Millage proposals in November 2010 failed, one by a margin of only 600 votes, 15,061 voters for, 15,736 against, a difference of fewer than 700 votes. Over 10,000 fewer voters participated in this election, which passed 12,246 – 8,799.
If that turnout–21,000–was 340% higher than expected, then the projected turnout was only 4,750 people compared to the over 30,000 who voted the previous November.
“All with a budget of only $3500 (US).”
The Detroit Free Press‘ Bill Laitner reported:3 “Leo Burnett Detroit in Troy funded $3,476.44 in cash and $69,120.31 in advertising material to Safeguarding American Families, according to an Oct. 3 document from Oakland County. The documents also show the secretive group owes a $500 fine for filing campaign finance forms late.” More semantics, according to Bennington. That $70k was employee wages, in-kind time or time donated, cash or cash equivalent.
What is To Be Done?
What does this all mean? Certainly more than just semantics.
Advertising agencies do tons of legitimate work, some of which deserves to be awarded. But in the quest for awards, they’re not unlike marauding banks. Unless constantly checked, they’ll continue to evolve their habits of deception. The most farcical campaigns can deceive juries–as long as they have well-crafted case study video. And it means legitimate work misses out on its chance in the spotlight.
Juries see hundreds of cases in each show. I haven’t seen all of the Book Burning Party’s entry forms, but it’s likely “Tom Ball” could have been the contact point, and vouched for the campaign in whatever, if any, cursory phone call checked up on the campaign.
I believe the ad industry needs results to be vetted in a better way than the easily-comped social media quotes that fly by, and the Facebook Like numbers that ramp up, animated to the stratosphere in the latest video montage. It’s just too easy to fake quality.
Additionally, having an ombudsperson on a jury, someone who can dig on anything fishy and report back, should be obligatory. I was on the One Show Interactive jury this year, and we were able to quickly discredit work which made similar oversized claims, but that seemed like a new concept to many jury members.
“Our advertising changed the world” is a claim we see more and more. The world is changing, but it’s very unlikely to have hinged on a campaign.
The groups that sought to see the library de-funded aren’t going away. This was the third time recently a vote on the library’s fate has happened. If I were writing the Tea Party script next time, I’d talk about how, even with the massive image-makers that created the Marlboro Man and Tony the Tiger in their court, the library was only able to earn their budget by a margin of 3,500 votes. That’s just about $21 contributed by the agency to Safeguarding American Families per vote.
According to Laitner’s report, the agency connection has already come up in the Troy City Council: “Troy anti-tax protester Debbie DeBacker spoke … to the City Council about Leo Burnett Detroit’s funding. ‘Why would an international company care about a library millage in Troy? There is no way to know who really funded the burning-books campaign,’ DeBacker said.”
I have many colleagues and friends in the Leo Burnett network which is, by and large, made up of honest, hard-working people who take pride in what they do. My boss worked there, and loved the place. It’s not on Leo Burnett, it’s on the whole industry. The nature of migration in advertising means the people at Leo Burnett who worked on the Book Burning Party campaign and fattened their portfolios with awards will eventually be on to other jobs in other towns and are unlikely to come to Troy’s aid in a real, meaningful way–and the deception will have a secondary effect.
On June 18, the Friends of the Troy Public Library received an award from the Association of Library Trustees, Advocates, Friends and Foundations at the Troy City Council for their efforts. Each winner of the award received a $1,000 check and a plaque. In July, Rhonda Henderson went to California to accept an award from the American Library Association for outstanding Friends group. Only three were given out, nationwide. “Our peers nationwide are very aware of our efforts to save our library,” she told me.
Gold, Facebook Integrated Media
Silver, Integrated Campaign
Silver, Innovative Media
Silver, Content & Contact
Silver, One Show
Gold, Goodworks – Non-profit
Gold, Government / Institutional / Recruitment
Gold, Small Budgets – Product & Service
Gold, PR, Public Affairs
Silver, PR, Best Use of Social Media [↩]
Here’s the whole text of that entry: “Due to a struggling economy, Troy, Michigan could no longer afford its nationally recognized library, so it scheduled a vote for a 0.7% tax increase. With no organized support for the library, a vocal and well-funded anti-tax group was waging a dominating campaign against it. In order to win the vote, we knew we had to get voters to stop talking about the impact of paying a tax increase, and start talking about the impact of losing their library.
With little money and only weeks until the vote, we knew we had to do something extreme to disrupt the conversation and change the topic from ‘taxes’ to ‘library’. Posing as a clandestine political group, we posted signs around Troy that said, “Vote to close Troy Library Aug 2, Book Burning Party Aug 5.” Along with Twitter, Foursquare, flyers and more to help drive engagement, our signs invited a shocked and infuriated public to our Facebook page where a lively conversation about libraries and books ensued.
In the first two weeks, with less than $100 in paid media to assist, we generated almost 50,000 visits to our Facebook page. For an audience of 80,000 Troy residents, the campaign generated over 650,000 impressions from Facebook and Twitter alone, not to mention impressions generated by other campaign touch points such as Flickr, Youtube and blogs as the campaign went from local to international news. In the end, not only did we get Yes voters out of their pools and in to the polls, they turned out at levels 342% greater than projected. The library won by a landslide.” [↩]
“A secretive political action committee that incensed Troy residents by calling for a “book-burning party” before the city’s Aug. 2 library millage vote submitted documents to county election officials showing a major Detroit advertising agency funded the group.
Leo Burnett Detroit in Troy funded $3,476.44 in cash and $69,120.31 in advertising material to Safeguarding American Families, according to an Oct. 3 document from Oakland County. The documents also show the secretive group owes a $500 fine for filing campaign finance forms late.
Safeguarding American Families put out scores of yard signs on public property that said, “Vote to Close Troy Library — Book Burning Party, Aug. 5″ — the date the library was scheduled to close if the millage failed. The group drew international attention with inflammatory Facebook and Twitter postings, including a tweet just before the Fourth of July that said, “When you’re lighting fireworks, think how much more fun it will be to light all those books! Book Burning Party — Troy library!”
The anonymous organizers later said that the campaign was satire, meant only to spur “passionate discussions … to save our precious library.” Troy voters passed the millage.
Leo Burnett Detroit is known for high-profile ad campaigns, including the “I’m In” ads for Detroit Public Schools and Buick and GMC advertising. An agency employee named on campaign documents said she merely faxed materials to Oakland County.
“I was helping a friend — a friend of a friend. I’m just a secretary,” Judy Meissen said. “But Leo Burnett did donate. We did make a donation,” Meissen said. Only agency managers could say why the agency funded the library campaign, she said. Calls to the agency’s Detroit office and Chicago headquarters weren’t returned.
Safeguarding American Families has no listed phone. Its address on public documents is a Royal Oak post office box, and the only listed official lives in Detroit.
The incident shows how secretive organizations can influence even local elections.
In Rochester Hills, a group based in Auburn Hills spent thousands of dollars on campaign literature for a 2009 city election and has since fought disclosure demanded by the Michigan Secretary of State. In the campaign for Royal Oak’s November election, a Lansing-based committee, the Committee for a Better Tomorrow, paid for flyers for three candidates after getting donations from West Bloomfield, Washington, D.C., and Flint, but none shown for Royal Oak, state election documents show.
Troy anti-tax protester Debbie DeBacker spoke last week to the City Council about Leo Burnett Detroit’s funding.
“Why would an international company care about a library millage in Troy? There is no way to know who really funded the burning-books campaign,” DeBacker said.” [↩]
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.
Very soon after I began looking for the facts behind the Book Burning Party awards case study, Phillip Kwick‘s name stood out. Kwick was one of the loudest voices speaking about the library’s role in the Book Burning campaign, and has been an active participant in community issues in Troy, where he works as the library’s assistant director. When library advocacy blog Books for Walls Projectposted about the campaign, Kwick’s comment cut to the heart of the matter:
You, the Book Burners, claim you wanted to ”turn the rational conversation into an emotional one.” Clearly, you have not followed this issue as closely as you claim. This is not an emotional issue?
Then you have never spoken to one member of the Friends of the Troy Library who poured heart, soul, and donations into trying to win the November millage. Nor to the current Save Troy organizers, who have gone door-to-door with tireless zeal, explaining to their neighbors the importance of a library to the community.
You have never read the Books for Walls Project blog, whose writers – though they live 250 miles away – have championed the cause of the Troy Library, not only to the State but in Europe and beyond. You have never read any of the posts on the Letters to the Children of Troy on blogs around the world. You have never read one of the hundreds of comments on the Library’s website.
You have never stepped foot into the Troy Library to see children streaming in, with their parents unable to catch up. Or the lines of unemployed waiting to register for computer classes.
And certainly, you have never talked to a Library staff member who has spent the past two years listening to this outpouring of emotion for the Library from the public, while riding her own emotional roller coaster.
And now your comment seems to be taking credit for some “new” emotional response you have imagined you created: “Today, people are talking. They’re talking online, talking on the phone, and talking over their fence. They’re talking about books and what it means to lose a library.” And you think this is because of you?
I am appalled.
You did nothing to help support the Troy Public Library on August 2. All you did was cause confusion that Library supporters have been trying to avoid at all costs, as the previous elections were confused enough. All you did was add more divisiveness and bickering in a community that should be united on its love and need for a library. All you did was violate election laws in pursuit of political satire. And all you did was add no signs on the streets and avenues in Troy where none existed.
You have done nothing to help support the Troy Library. Do not take any credit from the hardworking women and men who have.
Next time, I would suggest you try your political theatre in Royal Oak, where your signs claim your office is. Or in Livonia, where your treasurer works. Or in Detroit, where your committee is registered. That would help support the Troy Public Library more.
P.S. While I am employed by the Troy Library, these comments reflect my own views.
Clearly, someone with a bone to pick with the campaign. But it was perplexing to me at the time–wasn’t the library the one who set up this campaign?
So I tracked Kwick down, and he gave me the lowdown on how everything appeared to have happened from where he sat inside the library.
How long have you been working with the Troy library?
PK: I’ve been here since January of ’98, this is my 15th year. I grew up in Hamtramck, I still live there.
I started digging around, and found some of your commentary, and it seems like this thing didn’t go down as it’s purported to have. So I’m trying to dig around and see if this was sanctioned by the library.
PK: I think your initial sense is correct, from my point of view. It’s a weird situation in Michigan. We are actually prohibited from taking an official position, yes or no, on the millage. So that’s why there’s no official position, because technically we didn’t play a role in the millage. It was run by the Friends of the Library, a political action committee set up specifically to pass the millage, so the city has to be hands-off and our role is to only to be putting out the information on the millage. “This is what would happen if there was a yes vote, this is what would happen if there was a no vote.” But not any advocacy. So any role that I played, I played as an individual, not on work time, as a supporter of the groups that were doing the millage.
Now, again, I’m an interested party because I work in Troy, but I don’t live in Troy so it didn’t impact me as a member of the public. So in that case I was very aware of my role as a library staff member, but not as somebody who would have to pay the millage.
The City of Troy and the Troy Public Library is listed as the client of the campaign. It implies the ad agency was employed and engaged, on however small a budget, by the city of Troy to develop this Book Burning Campaign. You’re listed as the client in all this work.
PK: That’s absolutely false. We became aware of it because we were driving down the street and the signs appeared in the middle of the boulevard in Troy. It happened fairly late in the game. The first we caught wind of it was July 6th, less than a month before the millage. It was almost two months after the millage date was set, so it was fairly late in the campaign. The millage went on the ballot in mid-May, because we thought we were going to shut down May 1st. The council gave us some reprieve, gave us some bridge funding, and put it on the ballot. That was all wrapped up before May 15. This campaign actually came pretty late in the game, in terms of organizing for the millage.
We had no knowledge of it. I used to be on city council in my community, so I’m pretty familiar with local election laws, and I tried to find out exactly who was behind it. The paperwork they filed with the county, their election paperwork, and the disclaimer on the material they were putting out had different addresses on it, which is a violation of campaign law. I tried to investigate some of the addresses that were on there, and the treasurer, who’s the only person you need to have on your campaign finance documents, had a Detroit address, so I had several people try to call him, to figure out who he was. He was listed as a realtor, not as a member of this ad agency. I drove by the Detroit house [the group was registered to], it looked like it was unoccupied, it could very well have been a house he was prepping for sale. The address that was actually on the printed material was a Royal Oak address, again, odd because it’s a Troy campaign. I drove by it, it’s a Mailboxes, Etc. type thing, they were renting a box.
The whole thing was very suspect to me. And I couldn’t understand why. Nobody really understood it. We assumed it wasn’t an actual no campaign, it wasn’t an actual book burning campaign, but it was completely unclear what it was. It caused mass confusion. They were filming, they were going outside the library after the library was closed, filming the books, posting them on YouTube, saying things like “These look like a good place to start the fires,” so much so that the police got involved in it, and were investigating, and looking at it, because it was unclear what was going on.
What were initial reactions around the library when they saw this Book Burning Party stuff? What were your peers saying?
PK: Mostly it was confusion. There was some outrage, by the people working on the campaign. The initial reaction by people who were working on the campaign was “Is this another No campaign?” I think the initial language was “Vote No on August 5th, then join the Book Burning Party” or something, so any appearance of a No sign created initial anger on the part of people working on the campaign. Within the library, and people I talked to a little more closely, there was a lot of confusion.
We couldn’t believe that somebody on the No side would actually undertake a campaign like this, although it’s been a vicious couple of years here. There was a lot of Tea Party involvement. We didn’t believe it could actually be a campaign like that, and that it must have been some kind of bizarre psychological thing that was completely unclear. There was either anger or confusion about it. And that persisted for a long time. We tried to contact those people, we tried to figure out who it was, but every time we did it seemed like there was some kind of a front thrown up. The treasurer wouldn’t return our calls.
So we started to go onto this guys website, post comments, things like that, trying to “out” him. This is the treasurer of the committee, we had his name, so we’d go on the Book Burning Facebook page, and on the Book Burning Twitter feed, and we’d try and ask these guys questions, and name him by name, and all of our comments were being taken down. Whenever we said “is this real? What’s your point? What are you doing with this?” They’d take them down, they’d remove our comments immediately from the social media pages.
From reading the Facebook comments, it sounded like a college sociology experiment.
My initial thoughts, from reading the Facebook comments, it sounded like a college sociology experiment. Because lots of the comments were coming from younger people who did not live in the city, so I’m thinking maybe these people used to live here, and maybe they went to school, and this is a fun experiment, or something. But it caused a ton of confusion.
The worst part was that the previous two campaigns on the library millage were very dirty, and full of dirty tricks, basically, on the part of the No vote. It was really very nasty. They put competing ballots on the ballot to cause confusion. It was just a mess. In fact, in the previous election, in July of ’10, the Friends put a ballot issue on, and then those voting No put on four different ballot issues, with all slightly different millage amounts. And you only need 50 signatures, so they all got on the ballot. And so it caused a ton of confusion. That millage only lost by 300 votes, out of 18,000.
So you guys were already running uphill essentially at this point, against actual political operatives.
PK: There was already confusion, the previous year and a half had been very nasty, the library had taken a lot of shots, the city manager had taken a lot of shots, the Tea Party folk, the No folk, were very aggressive. So when this campaign popped on the scene, the Yes people started blaming the Tea Partiers, saying “Look how nutty the Tea Partiers are.” The Tea Partiers were saying “we had nothing to do with this, this is the Yes people trying to drum up support.” It even muddied the waters further, it created a more negative campaign in an environment where the Yes vote was trying to create a positive one. I think that was the most damaging part.
When did you realize a big ad agency was behind this?
PK: It was near the end. I was watching the financial reports very closely. In Michigan you have to file a campaign committee report ten days before the election. I think at that point they filed one that said there was a donation from Leo Burnett, like $7,500, a ton of money for a one-person donation. At that point we realized ‘This is an ad agency, what’s going on?’ It was quite late in the game, and it was about that time that they came clean, through a letter posted on a website called Books Without Walls.
But at that point, they guy sort of came clean, he said “Oh, we’re running this campaign to show how absurd it is to close the library,” but at that point they never mentioned mentioned they were from Leo Burnett. So it was very late in coming out.
The Books for Walls project, booksforwallsproject.org, these were supporters of the library, that’s the first place where they sort of came clean, and at that point it was “Well, we’re just library supporters who want to make sure this passed.” They said nothing about a tie to an ad agency.
So what was the reaction then?
PK: Well, again, I think it was really late in the game. When people felt they were duped was a couple of months later was when we saw the YouTube video they put up. The case study.
On July 14th, the millage was August 5th, they posted on this website, basically, coming clean, and at that point they signed themselves Safeguarding American Families, which was the name of their committee. They didn’t say anything about it being an ad-funded campaign, nor funded by the city, certainly, because that’s not true. They basically said it would lead you to believe it was a group of people who put this together thinking that this was a cool thing, they were just well-meaning. That was the way it came out. There was no mention of them being tied to Leo Burnett. Then we found that out within a week, six or eight days before the election, when they had to file their first report. We thought, “Wait a minute, what’s going on here?”
I don’t think we pieced it all together until we saw the video, a while after the campaign, and thought “these people are taking credit for this.” It came out quite a bit, several months afterwards.
They were taking credit for saving the library.
They were taking credit for saving the library. People then had a level of annoyance, the campaign was over, and people weren’t quite as angry as they might have been if it failed, or if it was still in the middle of it. People were, after the fact, angry about it. I posted some comments on the Leo Burnett YouTube page, basically, what I’m telling you. This didn’t save the library. This caused more harm than good. This potentially jeopardized the library.
And the city manager’s office here got a call from Leo Burnett, saying “we’re really a good corporate citizen here, you should probably take down those comments.” I’ll say I was asked to take those down. When your boss asks you to do something, you do it. So those comments lasted about a day on their site, and then I was asked to take them down, so I removed them from the YouTube site. They didn’t want anyone to have a negative opinion of this campaign. I didn’t realize at that point they were going after awards, that pissed me off even more.
So that was the only time the agency tried to contact you, was to ask you to take down negative comments?
PK: Yep. The tie to Leo Burnett didn’t make a lot of sense to any of us. Why did they fund this? What happened to these individuals who seemed to be taking credit for this? Why was it funded by this agency? It was only after the fact that we started to piece things together.
Not only was it impossible for them to be Troy Library’s ad agency…
PK: Legally, it was not possible.
Not only that, but also they didn’t even consult you, they didn’t say “Hey, we want to do this thing,” they didn’t ask for permission?
PK: As a local community activist in my own community, aside from the confusion that the campaign created, and the bad feelings it created, and the negative vibe, my personal feeling when it was going on, especially when I realized one address was Detroit and one address was Royal Oak in a campaign that has to deal with Troy, my personal reaction was “this is a lousy way to do politics…”
You don’t just move in and think that you know better than a community does in how to run a campaign, and move in without asking anybody, and working with the players. Even if you want to be anonymous and do a cute idea, you come in and you work with people, you don’t come in and try to take over a campaign. That’s what I felt. Why is this group coming in, and pretending to know better than us, and running this campaign that may or may not be helping the issue itself. What arrogance, what chutzpah, what bad politics, to think you know better than the community does in how to reach its members, how to reach the community.
What arrogance, what chutzpah, what bad politics, to think you know better than the community does in how to reach its members, how to reach the community.
So, what happens now? When will the next millage take place?
PK: Our millage is for five years. City government thought that they couldn’t sell anything longer than five years. So we’re going to be gearing up for it soon, it’s been a year, so we’re going to be gearing up for it in another three years. So we have a bit of a reprieve, but unfortunately we thought some of the nuttiness was going to die down, but the council has a majority-Tea Party presence over the last few years, and it’s gotten even crazier. Even though the library has not been the focus of the attack over the last year, the public workers and city services have been.
We have a bit of a respite, but if the political situation doesn’t change with the next election or two, who knows what it’s going to be like in the next few years before we have to go back before the voters.
Every one of these advertising awards shows is listing the Troy Public Library for the client of this work, and based on what you’ve told me that seems patently false.
PK: It is. There may very well be some library supporters who are kinder to them, because it’s after the fact, who will say “Well, they tried to help out, they were well-meaning,”1 but what I can definitively say is that this hit us out of the blue, and unless someone did it very secretly, nobody authorized it, not the city, not the Friends, not the Yes voters. I can say that very definitively, because nobody knew what was going on.
This was a sentiment several library supporters shared, almost glad that the whole thing was over, noting how especially irritated Kwick was over the whole thing. They all kind of echoed the ironically frequently misquoted aphorism “It’s amazing what you can get done if you don’t care who gets the credit.” [↩]
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. [↩]
Junger started by telling the 30 or so attendees it was his first time teaching, but he was a natural. The class flowed through the broad topics and touched on standout passages most recent work, WAR, as well as some of his favorite work from other authors.
I’ve never been to a writing workshop before, and have a real aversion to Big J Journalism’s self-important hand wringing, but I didn’t encounter that here. Junger had a lot of practical, simple advice, the sort of stuff a self-taught craftsman can relay after some successes and failures.
For the most part, these are direct quotes. Sebastian’s delivery and my typing speed made for easy transcription. I skipped a lot of the stuff where he read specific passages to illustrate a point, or used anecdotes to underline certain elements. The session was videotaped, and the BDC guys said they’ll post it, so I’ll surely link to it, or embed it, once it’s up, so you can get the whole feel. In the meantime, head up and check the BDC out, they’ve got loads of screenings and exhibitions on tap. So, without further ado: Sebastian Junger on Writing.
Write it down, don’t just record it.
Your intuition is an incredibly valuable tool. In the process of taking notes you’re already filtering out stuff that’s going to be less important to you.
Memoir is journalism.
Our society is filled with a leeway for misrepresenting the truth and getting away with it, and I think that’s infected writing. There’s fiction, there’s nonfiction, and there’s a very bright line.
That bright line is doing you a favor You have to get that interesting stuff out of reality and into words. That’s the craft of writing. If a writer fictionalizes a little bit in memoir, it’s a petty crime. You steal a ten-dollar watch from the store, and you have a ten dollar watch, but it could cost something a lot more than ten dollars. It’s a bad bargain. It does this thing that jeopardizes the power and veracity of every word, it’s cast into doubt. It’s not worth it.
Truth is when you’re not distorting things intentionally.
Acknowledging that is important. Another truth is people see you in a certain way. No person can actually understand that clearly. It’s too distorted by your own fears. The most important thing is your striving towards truth. It should be the thing you try and head towards.
Style is what gets people to keep reading.
It doesn’t have any inherent value. It’s like clothes. Ultimately it’s not the person, and not the point. It betrays a lack of interesting in the world. Your writing is not more beautiful than the world is. One of the dangers of being a really good writer is you’re more at risk of becoming enamored of what you can do with the words. You don’t want the facts of the world to serve as a platform for your skill. It’s the other way around. Your skill serves the world.
Adopt a mindset of humility.
Say ‘Look, I’m bewildered by this topic, but I’ll spend some time learning about it, and will report back to you what I found out about it.’ Communicate ‘I don’t have an inherent advantage over you, but I want to report back what I found out about. I want to talk to people you didn’t have time to talk to, and I’m going to come back and tell you what I found out.’ You want to look the readers in the eye. You’re discovering secrets of the world that are available to anyone, you just spent the time to talk to the experts. You’re not in a position of special knowledge.
The conversation with readers about how subjectivity works is interesting, more so than unobtainable objectivity. Once you’re into first person nonfiction, just go for it. You can kind of do anything as long as you tell the reader about it.
Your intuitions about writing will be really, really accurate.
The first reaction you have is probably the right one.
Reality is your best friend.
It’s not an adversary. You’re never going to outdo it.
Do more research, whatever that research might be.
For me, writer’s block means I don’t have enough information. I don’t have the goods, and I’m trying to make up in words what I don’t have in facts.
You will not get everything right. You should go back and check with the people you interviewed if it’s anything personal, or political, or charged. Once you go back, ask them, you don’t have to read the quote back, ask if you’re still good with that. Do the decent thing to do and save incredible hassles and hurt feelings later. You’re way better taking it out then living with their anger and your guilt. Public officials don’t matter. But you don’t want to ruin an old lady’s day with an unflattering description of her. People’s feelings are important, particularly people who are the victims of circumstances, not the perpetrators of circumstances.
Deeper truth is often the pretext people use to fictionalize.
There is none. The story is truthful only to the extent that the details are truthful. The story’s not true if the details aren’t.
If you’re going to put someone in a poor light, you’re honor-bound to investigate further.
You’ll know when you’re being unfair.
You are a lens that serves to focus the image for the reader.
You’re not supposed to tell them what to think. You’re supposed to tell them what to think about.
The things that you want to conceal are probably the most interesting things you’ve got.
Figure out how to talk about it in a way that feels beneficial, and illuminates the world.
You can’t describe everything.
What you want to do is pick revealing details to give an illusion of completeness. The weather. The street address. Small details. It doesn’t matter, but it means you were there. Go back as soon as possible and write it down so you can remember. If you’re not sure, you can say you’re not sure. You can say that. That means when you don’t hedge you’re absolutely true and they can trust that. They get a sense that you’re a real human being. You’re not god, and not a robot. Use details in an emblematic way. Pick things out that are revealing in some way. In the essence of things, things get more intuitive and artful. What is the essence of it?
Don’t overload it with poetic essence.
For a sentence or two. More than that it gets cloying.
Edit in every state of mind.
Writing is a weird intuitive act. Editing is a lot more rational. That’s its strength, but it’s also its weakness. Lets say I go running. I’ll run and come back and read the chapter I just wrote. You’re upset? Go edit something. The stuff you don’t like, it comes right out. If you’re reading something, and your mind starts to wander, pull it out. That section is in doubt; it’s in question.
Words are really precise.
You can’t be sloppy with the words. There’s one for everything you need, it’s like a set of wrenches. There will be a perfect word for what you’re saying. Just think about it. The pleasure of reading is when someone uses a word in a unique way. You want to surprise the reader a little bit.
It’s pleasurable to see things differently, in a non-rational way.
It’s why people take drugs.
Write in a visual style.
You’re setting a visual scene. You can write to some loftier part of the brain that’s not visual, but it will probably engage people less. We go through the world with our eyes open, and you have to write to that.
When you describe characters, think of one thing that describes their face, or body language.
Cinemagraphic writing style appears to our visual understanding. If this was a film, how would I start the film? What would I want to see?
Shortcuts bleed the power out of words.
People will put your work down and not even know why. Mortars are always ‘slamming’, but after reading that word 20 times you don’t want to hear about mortars slamming ever again.
Give people periods of work and rest when they’re reading.
When you stop a reader, you’re stopping them to think. There’s other sentences where you don’t want to do that.
Rhythm in prose is the primary thing that keeps people reading. It’s this essential thing that probably shouldn’t call too much attention to itself.
There is no good writing without good rhythm. Pick those moments where you stop them, but don’t do that too much. You want a rolling, long-distance pace.
Things said with rhythm seem true. There’s a power to them that seems unassailable, and that you tapped into a higher truth, and that’s coming out in words. IT is flowing through you, and you’re not impeding it.
No one writes in perfect rhythm, but you have to be attuned to it.
In a long sentence you can get into a filmic feeling.
You’re asking the reader not to stop and think, but to go with it. You’re in a situation that’s flowing past you. Long sentences are less about ideas and more about experiences and perception.
Expand and contract the pace, but you have to keep with the flow of reality.
At my desk is where I put words together, not ideas. The conceptual leaps a piece requires will come to me in the oddest places. Places where I’m lightly engaged with something else.
Fictional devices in nonfiction…
…are not an excuse to invent, they’re strictly structural.
End sections on unstable moments, where there’s a lot of unexpressed potential.
If it’s too complicated to remember verbatim, you really should say to the reader how it happened.
‘Even if the words aren’t exact, that’s what he was saying.’ There’s a very specific value to recorded information, and you don’t want to muddy the waters.
Free to use fictional tricks, as long as that trick isn’t invention.
You have a relationship with the reader, you can tell them whatever you want. As long as you’re honest. You can tell the reader the thing that you’re trying to protect them from.
On Beginnings & Endings
…should be really easy to get into. It should be an easy can to open. But also set you up for something important. You have to give a signpost that says it’s coming.
Start in a way where the person doesn’t want to leave you.
Endings partly feel like endings because of rhythm. You can tell when a movie’s getting ready to end.
You want a feeling of eminent change, that you’re revealing the truth.
Endings should be a big book, thump it down on the table, there, that’s the end, thunk. It’s a little bit like the end of a relationship. You’re having coffee and you can talk about the details, but you know it’s ended. You know it’s over.
Junger’s friend Mike Kamber opened the BDC after a highly-awarded career as a photojournalist. One of the writing assignments was to create the lede paragraph of a profile on Mike and the BDC. I won’t share it, but it’s easy to say after a gnarly career around the globe Mike’s doing important work helping transitioning community tell its most interesting stories. [↩]
From “Thirteen for Centaurus”, from The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard
Tell me, Abel,” Dr. Francis began, “has it ever occurred to you to ask why the Station is here?”
Abel shrugged. “Well, it’s designed to keep us alive, it’s our home.”
“Yes, that’s true, but obviously it has some other object than just our own survival. Who do you think built the Station in the first place?”
“Our fathers, I suppose, or grandfathers. Or their grandfathers.”
“Fair enough. And where were they before they built it?” Abel struggled with the reductio ad absurdum.
“I don’t know, they must have been floating around in midair!” Dr. Francis joined in the laughter. “Wonderful thought. Actually it’s not that far from the truth. But we can’t accept that as it stands.”
The doctor’s self-contained office gave Abel an idea. “Perhaps they came from another Station? An even bigger one?”
Dr. Francis nodded encouragingly. “Brilliant, Abel. A first-class piece of deduction. All right, then, let’s assume that. Somewhere, away from us, a huge Station exists, perhaps a hundred times bigger than this one, maybe even a thousand. Why not?”
“It’s possible,” Abel admitted, accepting the idea with surprising ease.
“Right. Now you remember your course in advanced mechanics the imaginary planetary system, with the orbiting bodies held together by mutual gravitational attraction? Let’s assume further that such a system actually exists. O.K.?”
“Here?” Abel said quickly. “In your cabin?” Then he added, “In your sleeping cylinder?”
Dr. Francis sat back. “Abel, you do come up with some amazing things. An interesting association of ideas. No, it would be too big for that. Try to imagine a planetary system orbiting around a central body of absolutely enormous size, each of the planets a million times larger than the Station.” When Abel nodded, he went on. “And suppose that the big Station, the one a thousand times larger than this, were attached to one of the planets, and that the people in it decided to go to another planet. So they build a smaller station, about the size of this one, and sent it off through the air. Make sense?”
“In a way.” Strangely, the completely abstract concepts were less remote than he would have expected. Deep in his mind dim memories stirred, interlocking with what he had already guessed about the Station. He gazed steadily at Dr. Francis. “You’re saying that’s what the Station is doing? That the planetary system exists?”
Dr. Francis nodded. “You’d more or less guessed before I told you. Unconsciously, you’ve known all about it for several years. A few minutes from now I’m going to remove some of the conditioning blocks, and when you wake up in a couple of hours you’ll understand everything. You’ll know then that in fact the Station is a spaceship, flying from our home planet, Earth, where our grandfathers were born, to another planet millions of miles away, in a distant orbiting system. Our grandfathers always lived on Earth, and we are the first people ever to undertake such a journey. You can be proud that you’re here. Your grandfather, who volunteered to come, was a great man, and we’ve got to do everything to make sure that the Station keeps running.”
Abel nodded quickly. “When do we get there the planet we’re flying to?”
Dr. Francis looked down at his hands, his face growing somber. “We’ll never get there, Abel. The journey takes too long. This is a multi-generation space vehicle, only our children will land and they’ll be old by the time they do. But don’t worry, you’ll go on thinking of the Station as your only home, and that’s deliberate, so that you and your children will be happy here.”
He went over to the TV monitor screen by which he kept in touch with Captain Peterr, his fingers playing across the control tabs. Suddenly the screen lit up, a blaze of fierce points of light flared into the cabin, throwing a brilliant phosphorescent glitter across the walls, dappling Abel’s hands and suit. He gaped at the huge balls of fire, apparently frozen in the middle of a giant explosion, hanging in vast patterns.
In reverence to a tradition embraced by Jesse Schell and supported by Matt Webb, here’s the first of an ongoing series of posts titled ‘Things I Finished’, a kind of catch-all for media bits that took some effort and are worth mentioning.
Stories of Your Life: and Others, by Ted Chiang
I’d read a lot of Chiang’s stuff online, and finally picked this up to get through the last two I hadn’t seen, “Stories of Your Life” and “Understand”. Both didn’t disappoint. Chiang has a way of developing complete, convincing characters and worlds in a very compressed period of time, which makes it feel like he stretches the space of his stories. I’m excited to dig into his novella, The Lifecycle of Software Objects, as soon as the library delivers it to me.
Broker, Trader, Lawyer, Spy: The Secret World of Corporate Espionage, by Eamon Javers
I was hoping this would be a little less mass-market, which sounds kind of stuck-up, but there it is. Javers details how private security and detectives have turned into freelance spooks and ex-Federal agents working in shadowy Washington corridors on behalf of any and all interested customer, securing all sorts of valuable information at whatever price. Very interesting stuff, yes, and a difficult world to get access to, but I was hoping there’d be more nuts and bolts attached, that he’d get into those corridors to figure out how these guys do their jobs.1
I’m way behind on Oscars viewing, but wanted to get this one out of the way while it was still in theaters. As always, the Coens know how to write dialogue, but I felt some of the thematic elements were a bit unformed, for instance the snake motifs.
It’s fairly indicative of the NYT’s own brand of ostrich-in-sand journalism that this story on a massive publishing supply problem focuses entirely on physical books and neglects any interesting data (or at least mention) of ebooks. I guarantee Kindle users aren’t having a difficult time finding this title–or lugging it around.
I’m kind of a nut for ephemera like this, and think the best way to make connections between artists is to follow what influenced them.
So when I read in this Newsweek article that around 300 ‘heavily annotated’ personal books were part of the David Foster Wallace archive the University of Texas’ at Austin’s Harry Ransom center bought and recently revealed, I felt inclined to make a big list of them to see if there were any things that seemed interesting and unknown.
With a flyer boasting quotes from both J.G. Ballard and Colonel Kilgore of Apocalypse Now, by the time my chum Luis and I arrived at NYU a few weeks back for a special lecture we knew we’d be in for an interesting discussion.
Steve Goodman, aka Kode9, dubstep producer and owner/chief curator of the massively great Hyperdub record label, was talking about his new book Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear. (MIT Press)
My buddy Dan posted this on Facebook the other day and it reminded me of one of the key points in Scott Berkun’s excellent “Confessions of a Public Speaker“. I read “Confessions…” late last year and have been talking about it to anyone who frequently presents or is involved in speaking in front of an audience; its a great resource.
Anyway, a point Scott makes is amply illustrated here: The audience wants you to succeed.
In Dan’s heartwarming case, he got a heads up on his fly being open, and probably went into that talk knowing he at least had one guy in the audience rooting for him.
Dan writes “Today I had to speak in front of about 70 people at this pharmaceutical company near Jersey when this fine older gentleman nonchalantly got my attention and passed me this note:”
You must hold the reigns tighter than you have ever held them before but let the chariot head over the cliff top. The abyss is calling.
Clutch at straws. Build castles on clay. Let the quick sand tell you lies. Take the scenic route. Be there on time. Use two drummers if need be. Fill out forms. Seconds. Minutes. Hours. Days. Midweeks and predictions. Fall, spin, turn and dive. Sign cheques. Solicitor doing deals with “Hits” and “Now”. Sleep at night. Black to white. Highest new entry. Good to bad. Fast forward. Top of the Pops. Re-read this book, whatever it takes. No, don’t. You already know all there is to know. Faster. Faster. Faster. Give everything. Just give everything. This is the beautiful end.
I just finished The Manual and everything is clear.
(ps., turns out, as you can see above, I made the website, alongside Stefan Ruiz, a photographer and briefly creative director of the iconic magazine Colors.)
(pps. In other eminent Brooklynite news, Jim Hanas, my predecessor at Creativity/AdCritic, has a nifty full-pager explaining why you’ll never be famous in the Post today. The story is based on a talk Jim recently gave at his lecture series, Adult Ed, which I have shamefully yet to attend. Congrats, Jim–if they didn’t tell you about the perks, by dint of the Post filing you in the Opinion/Op-Ed columnist bin you’ve earned a one-year trial membership to the John Birch Society and a 2010 copy of G. Gordon Liddy’s ‘Stacked and Packed’ calendar.1
I kid, but while working on the desk at the Post I got into a protracted phone conversation with one of Liddy’s radio producers that called for some esoteric sports stats and he sent an autographed, dedicated copy of the calendar to me at the paper in thanks. I put it in my mail cubby to take home later, as I was due at the bar that night and didn’t have safe transport, but the next day it was gone. [↩]
I’ve been anticipating the movie adaptation of Roberto Saviano’s landmark piece of journalism, Gomorrah, since I finished the book about a year ago and proceeded to recommend it to anyone who’d listen. Unfortunately, while it’s a good enough movie by itself, compared to the book it falls short.
First, a word or two on the book. Saviano, a native of the Naples area, lived and breathed the Camorra, the network of clans of organized criminals growing up, and after twenty-something years had enough and wrote a blow-by-blow account of all the different ways it infects the region, from its fashion output to the mozzarella it eats. Saviano, who narrates the book while hopping from murder scene to murder scene on his scooter and detailing his own family’s determined path around the muck, published the work to the dual accolades of it becoming the most-requested tome in the Italian prison system as well as drawing death threats from the clans whose foibles and excesses it chronicles. And it made him a very rich, well known (both deservedly so) man, at the price of his own safety and freedom–a true commitment to the cause.
It’s always interesting when punks get old. That’s why my emphatic finger-point this week is towards a story in Vice by former Born Against frontman Sam McPheeters. McPheeters ventures into one of the Midwest’s strangest regions, the wealthy suburbs of Michigan’s capital, Lansing, to profile Doc Dart, former frontman for hardcore group Crucifucks. Dart, who calls himself “26,” appears to be suffering from several forms of mental illness, and has become a suburban pariah in the Mason-Okemos area.
For me, one of the more fun and exciting parts of meeting people who write stuff for a living comes when you skip onto something, appreciate it, and, looking back at the byline, realize a respected colleague has written it. That’s more or less what happened the other day when I followed a link from Arts and Letters Dailyto this article, “Becoming Halldór Laxness” at the incipient The National out of the UAE. Turns out, it’s pal (and old roommate) Sam Munson reviewing restless Iceland native Laxness’ The Great Weaver from Kashmir. Munson says it bears resemblance to “other works of hectic spiritual heroics” such as Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, which is enough for me to check it out.
To continue this terribly tenuous connection, I had an icy landing on Friday, barely escaping New York’s snowfall to be blown headlong into a huge Michigan dump. And guess what was on TV that night? Well, Johnny, nothing but a beautiful documentary about an Icelandic band Sigur Rós, Heima.
So, Nick, you ask, what’s the takeaway? And of course I ignore you because “takeaway” is one of those terrible beige middle management words we should actively conduct disgust towards. I guess, though, check these books out, if you’re interested, or have some late-game gift-giving to do for someone who loves reading.
I’m in my own private Iceland in Michigan for a few weeks, but I’ve recently uncovered some childhood treasures I want to bring to you soon, a little treasure trove you can consider your holiday treat.
Self reference time! Post-Euroswing I’ve had to relearn the most basic human motor functions, including complex cognition and not expecting chilled bottles of champagne lurking at every turn and beaches packed with delirious hedonism. Unravelling? No, I’ve tied up several loose ends in recent weeks in several strange twists of fate.
The first came in Cannes, a few days after I left the techno madness of Barcelona behind. I was dining at a quaint Italian restaurant called Arcimboldo when I noticed a guy at the table next to me was wearing a M.A.N.D.Y. T-shirt. I had to mention something, and when I did he introduced himself as Peter Hayo, a founding member of Get Physical and producer of many fine dance records. He was in town as part of his other concern, Perky Park, a company that does music production for commercials and otherwise. His two co-conspirators, Walter Merziger, Arno Kammermeier are also known as Booka Shade. So, naturally, I asked him about a rumor I’d heard, that they produced Aqua’s “Barbie Girl.” The rumor delighted me–that the popularity of a silly Danish pop song I’d found so much delight in could have been been responsible for the genesis of one of the biggest forces in contemporary dance music would have been an utterly fun piece of cosmic coincidence. Alas, not so, entirely. Hayo and chums just remixed the track for Universal Music, and, as you know, it spent a significant amount of time on the charts, and, subsequently, fattened the Perky Park synth fund.
The second weird, ‘What the?’ techno moment came after I returned, and got a tip from a diligent German about the closeness between the group awarded the Titanium Lion at Cannes and work done by pfadfinderei, Bpitch’s design gurus. Turns out, shaping barcodes to make them look cool while still functioning is a pretty routine concept in graphic design. So kids, don’t believe everything the awards shows tell you.
Also worth noting, on recommendation from this man I picked up some Hans Fallada, which, some months and many pleasurable pages later, turned out to be appropriate here:
Hans Fallada wrote The Drinker over two weeks in 1944, while residing in a a criminal asylum near AltStrelitz, Germany. He was confined there for the attempted murder of his wife. Given these inauspicious beginnings, the book has been especially troublesome for critics. It’s disingenous, however, to look at The Drinker as anything but the personal reflection of an author torn asunder by a turbulent society in collapse.The novel begins as narrator Erwin Sommer’s successful grocery concern teeters on the brink of collapse. With sparse language, the book composes an intimate psychological profile of an obsessive who would fling everything to the wind sooner than ask for assistance. He empties his savings and steals his wife’s silver — anything for another moment with his muse, Elinor, a village barmaid he fixates upon during his initial jag and who becomes his queen of schnapps, ruler of a woozy and throbbing world.
All his life, Fallada — a pseudonym chosen by Rudolf Ditzen — has inflicted tortures upon himself and others. During a melancholy childhood, he killed a chum when a suicide pact disguised as a duel went awry. Ditzen later grew into morphine addiction, alcoholism, and a carton-a-day smoking habit, with eventual trips in and out of institutions and prisons. Astonishingly, Ditzen found time to write nearly two dozen books during his dissolute life, very few of which are available in English. While Little Man, What Now? is justly famous for its excavation of pre-War German consciousness, The Drinker is an equally profound exploration of the author’s own demons of substance abuse.
While the book’s spare tone, lack of flashy language, and stark portrayal of German society are all signature marks of Ditzen, The Drinker more closely resembles Evelyn Waugh’s The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. The novel is clearly founded in life experience, yet its narrative flights of fancy cultivate readers who place confidence in the narrator’s inner turmoil, but remain wary of the details. – Nick Parish
Sports books generally aren’t very good. At least for the sort of people who prefer reading to sports. But Jeff MacGregor nailed the crossover in his most recent, Sunday Money. It was by far my favorite sports read last year, and if you’re looking for an introduction to NASCAR you’d be hard pressed to find a better primer.
For the uninitiated, NASCAR can seem a set of baffling unknowables — or just 300,000 rednecks in the grandstand, braying at death-frenzied hayseeds. Lacking the pastoral sophistication of baseball or the strategy of football, for as many adherents NASCAR claims (around 75 million) there are sports fans set against its inevitable rise.
Jeff MacGregor’s first book serves as a shot across the bow for those staunchly in the “stick-and-ball world;” Sunday Money is a primer on the history of stock car racing and a vivid portrait of the season MacGregor and the Beep (his “Beautiful, Brilliant Partner,” photographer Olya Evanitsky) spent crisscrossing America in a motorhome, clocking 47,649 miles on the Winston Cup tour.
But more than offering race descriptions, anecdotes, or driver hijinks, more than recounting life in the NASCAR tent cities or parking lots of Wal-Marts, MacGregor examines the sport’s commercial machine — the squadrons of flacks regulating image, the promotional juggernaut packing logos and endorsements into sports columns and TV highlights. Incorporating an analysis of consumerism into his book, MacGregor shows NASCAR as larger than the sport and its myth. It is the inexorable Tony Stewart, Orangeman of Home Depot; Mark Martin in the Viagra Ford; Jimmie Johnson in the Lowe’s Chevy. It is Will Ferrell as Official Spokesman of NASCAR Day. It is the scads of products bearing drivers and their cars, it is the cardboard cutout of Dale Jr. in the beer aisle with a pile of Bud. As MacGregor argues, in buying widgets, shopping at Home Depot, or seeing Will in his new movie (coming this fall with Sacha Baron Cohen), you’re anteing up, so you might as well learn how to enjoy it. To that end, short of attending a race, track down this primer. The depth of description and insight jacks it head and shoulders above the ordinary.
– Nick Parish
In what amounts to true insight in these days of false comprehension, the editors of Boldtype have deigned to include blurbage on Larry McMurtry (who could just grab an Oscar for his work on the “Brokeback Mountain” screenplay) by yours truly in their current issue, on Film.
If you’re not hip to what they’re doing, well, they’re preachin’ great books. And if you’re not like me and are less than a decade from clearing out your reading list, subscribe, take some recommendations, and count yourself all the wiser.
Cruising through James Agee’s greatest hits, I found an essay he wrote for Fortune‘s August 1935 issue, titled “Saratoga.”
Surprisingly, it concerns Wellington Mara’s father, who was then one of the major bookmakers, as well as the an owner of the New York Giants. This was before all betting was parimutuel and you could shop your horse picks to different bookies while at the Spa. Here’s what Agee has to say:
“Tim Mara is a large, curly-headed, thick-fleshed Irishman with the wide, relaxed, dimpled, big-mouthed, and keen type of Irish face. Timothy James Mara’s life is too colorfully involved to bear writing on a thumbnail. He was born forty-eight years ago in Greenwich Village; sold papers, Madison Square programs, candy in a Third Avenue Theatre; was a Ziegfeld usher; sold lawbooks. Became a bookie in 1910. Of late years has been in and out of bookmaking. Some of his avocations: customers’ man in Wall Street for Al Smith’s pal Mike Meehan (1927-30); coal business (Mara Fuel Co., still listed); liquor business (Kenny-Mara Importers Co., 1933, still listed; a Scotch labeled Timara); owner of New York Giants (football, he has never played the game). He has been often in court, most spectacularly in a row over what Gene Tunney owned him for Build-ups, political lubrication. Has two sons: John, president of the Giants, and Wellington Timothy, who is at Fordham. He is a fight promoter (Schmeling-Baer, the second Ross-Canzoneri); plays golf; has never driven a car since, twenty years ago, he was in a bad accident; has a place at Lake Luzerne, near Saratoga. He is variously known about the tracks as (a) just a big good-natured guy and (b) the ultimate truculent mug. But everyone agrees that as a mental mathematician he’s second only to [Long Tom] Shaw and, as a bookie, among the most imminently successful.”
Selected Journalism and Agee on Film have been collected into a handsome Library of America edition, which will no doubt torpedo any remaining sales of the University of Tennessee edition. But shelling out thirty bucks isn’t such a bad idea, so long as some of the standout essays from Journalism, “Cockfighting,” “Roman Society,” “The American Roadside,” “The U.S. Commercial Orchid” and “Saratoga” remain.