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Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Agency: Rick Webb’s Manual

IMG_1927

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.

Written by Nick

February 1st, 2015 at 11:56 am

The Soderbergh List: 2014

Around 2011, inspired by Steven Soderbergh, I started keeping track of notable works I read or watched. Here’s my list from 2014. I left a lot off, because a lot wasn’t notable. I didn’t include magazines or longer web reads Suffice to say I enjoyed all the stuff on this list because I don’t finish things I don’t enjoy, unless I’m forced to give criticism of them (which I did rarely last year).

Can you tell I wrote a book from January to July, and moved across the country in September? (Hint: I had a lot of movies to catch up on to relax.)

All caps, bold: MOVIE
All caps: TV SERIES
Italics: Book
Quotation marks: “Play”
Italics, bold: Comic
*: Re-read

 

1/1, FARGO

1/4, BREAKING BAD (S1-6)

1/5, SAY ANYTHING, HANNA

1/8, BOYS FROM BRAZIL

1/9, The John McPhee Reader, John McPhee

1/11, ARCHER (S1, E1-3); PORTLANDIA (S2, E3-6)

1/17, SALINGER

1/30, Dreaming in Code, Scott Rosenberg

2/4, 97 Things Every Programmer Should Know, Kevlin Henney

2/15, The Boy Kings, Katherine Losse

2/17, GAME OF THRONES (S1)

3/24, “Ice,” Thomas McGuane

3/24, “The School,” Donald Barthelme

3/24, “Game,” Donald Barthelme

3/26, WORLD WAR Z

3/28, THE COUNSELOR

3/28, THE END OF THE WORLD

 3/29, GAME OF THRONES (S2)

4/4, “Shakespeare’s Memory,” Jorge Luis Borges

4/20, FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF*

4/22, The Tyranny of Numbers: Why Counting Can’t Make Us Happy, David Boyle

5/1, LONE SURVIVOR

5/22, The Ballad of Dingus Magee, David Markson

5/26, GAME OF THRONES (S3)

5/27, Rude Kids: The Inside Story of Viz, Chris Donald

6/11, Sex Criminals, Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky

6/13, Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco

7/25, JODOROWSKY’S DUNE

7/29, TINY: A STORY ABOUT LIVING SMALL

7/31, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER

8/5, The Wicked + The Divine

8/16, Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace

8/23, CHARIOTS OF THE GODS

8/23, SONATINE

8/23, MY LEFT FOOT

8/24, THE GODFATHER

10/04, HER

10/04, JFK

10/10, SNOWPIERCER

10/10, THE LEGO MOVIE

10/10, BROKEN FLOWERS

10/26, EDGE OF TOMORROW

10/26, MONUMENTS MEN

10/26, LA GRANDE BELLEZZA

10/31, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY

10/31, DALLAS BUYERS CLUB

10/31, VEEP S3

10/31, DON JON

11/1, BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR

11/2, Trout Bum, John Gierach

11/5, Vanishing Point, David Markson

11/9, AKIRA*

11/18, X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE

11/18, Lee Kuan Yew: The Gran Master’s Insights on China, the United States and the World, Allison and Blackwill

11/19, X-MEN: FIRST CLASS

 11/24, Wool Omnibus, Hugh Howey

 11/25, The Third Policeman, Flann O’Brien

 11/28, HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE

 12/6 DIE HARD*

 12/12 LOST IN TRANSLATION*

12/12 ELF*

12/12 ANCHORMAN 2

12/26 IN A WORLD

 

Written by Nick

January 30th, 2015 at 10:47 am

2013 Media Consumption

Around 2011, inspired by Steven Soderbergh, I started keeping track of notable works I read or watched. Here’s my list from 2013. I left a lot off, because a lot wasn’t notable. I didn’t include magazines or longer short reads (ie short stories not part of a collection) because that’s turned out to be  too much notation for me. Suffice to say I enjoyed all the stuff on this list because I don’t finish things I don’t enjoy, unless I’m forced to give criticism of them (which I did rarely last year).

All caps, bold: MOVIE
All caps: TV SERIES
Italics: Book
Quotation marks: “Play”
*: Re-read

 

1/1, WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN

1/15, The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson

1/18, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

1/19, FOREIGN INTRIGUE (1956)

1/20, TERMINATOR*

2/7, KLF: Chaos, Magic, Music, Money, JMR Higgs

2/9, JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI (2011)

2/10, Wittgenstein’s Mistress, David Markson

2/11, Blank Spots on the Map, Trevor Paglen

2/15, KLOWN (2010)

2/17, The Fish’s Eye, Ian Frazier

2/20, “The Cripple of Inishmaan”, Martin McDonagh

2/23, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Phillip K. Dick*

2/26, THE LONG GOODBYE* & PRIMER*

3/2, KNIVES INTO FORKS

3/3, A Governor’s Story, Jennifer Granholm and Dan Mulhern

3/6, Diary of a Superfluous Man, Ivan Turgenev

3/9, Endgame, Derrick Jensen

3/12, Good News, Edward Abbey

3/15, Earth House Hold, Gary Snyder

3/31, SPRING BREAKERS

4/9, The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day

4/12, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery

4/20, Friends of Eddie Coyle, George V. Higgins

4/21, STAND CLEAR OF THE CLOSING DOORS

5/11, Going Down, David Markson

5/19, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, David Sedaris

5/26, Capital, John Lanchester

6/14, BEHIND THE CANDELABRA

6/15, Crow, Ted Hughes

6/15, SENNA*

7/26, The Shape of Content, Ben Shahn

8/10, Collected Stories, Richard Ford

8/14, I, Partridge, Alan Partridge

8/14, THE SHOUT

8/24, Fire in the Hole, Elmore Leonard

8/28, Pronto, Elmore Leonard

9/5, Riding the Rap, Elmore Leonard

9/7, UPSTREAM COLOR

9/9, DJANGO UNCHAINED

9/11, PACIFIC RIM

9/13, The Human Front, Ken Macleod

9/13, ELYSIUM

9/15, Consolations of the Forest, Sylvain Tesson

9/17, Changing the World is the Only Fit Work For a Grown Man, Steve Harrison

10/3, ANDROMEDA STRAIN*

10/6, La Place de la Concorde Suisse, John McPhee

10/31, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST

11/2, ROOM 237

11/4, The Vagrants, Yiyun Li

12/2, Short Stories of Jack London: Authorized One-Volume Edition, Jack London

12/8, The Red Men, Matthew DeAbaitua

12/14, My Traitor’s Heart, Rian Malan

12/14 DOWNFALL

12/25, QUEEN OF VERSAILLES

12/26, HAPPY PEOPLE

12/28, DREDD

Written by Nick

January 2nd, 2014 at 10:52 am

PATRONYM teaser issue

Patronym

I’ve gotten a few questions about our holiday zine exchange and what I put together so I figured I’d post it here.

PATRONYM is a photonovella-style story about a rich industrialist’s last wishes in a post-famine world.

Anyway, enjoy it, complete with mock-inside-front-cover-ad, after clicking through.

Read PATRONYM

Written by Nick

December 28th, 2013 at 5:16 pm

The Contagious Holiday Zine Exchange!

contagious_zines

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.

Written by Nick

December 17th, 2013 at 9:48 pm

Serendipity, Memory and Technology: Ted Chiang, Jack London and me

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.

  1. Charlie Brooker trod similar ground with “The Entire History of You” in Black Mirror’s first set of sketches []
  2. And all of his stuff, really. This Metafilter post is a great start. []

Written by Nick

September 7th, 2013 at 7:13 pm

Posted in Books,Technology

All Folded Pages: The Shape of Content, by Ben Shahn

All Folded Pages. Blogging the corners I’ve turned down while reading a book. It’s a fun format 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.

Written by Nick

July 28th, 2013 at 4:13 pm

Posted in Art,Books

Lewis turns a phrase…

Written by Nick

June 25th, 2013 at 6:55 pm

Posted in Books

Creativity, and how ideas evolve

2006:

1996

19861

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…

  1. 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. []

Written by Nick

February 11th, 2013 at 8:25 pm

Posted in Advertising,Art,Books,TV

Behind the Book Burning Party

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?

 

Social media sizzle: the Book Burning Party Twitter account

 

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.

 

The Case Study Hustle: How Scam Works

Advertising has a history of work created solely for awards shows, oftentimes unauthorized, or unknown to the client. A recent case is this scam print ad, purportedly created on behalf of the World Wildlife Foundation by DDB Brazil which featured an insensitive depiction of 9/11 and a comparison to the environment.

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 Tea Party had grown in Oakland County. As the county’s largesse diminished (a $42,000 decline in median household wealth in the 10 years to 2008, dropping from Forbes’ fourth-wealthiest county in America to unranked) people became unnerved. “As Detroit wobbles,” a Wall Street Journal headline said about neighboring Bloomfield Hills, “even its toniest suburbs feel ripples from the woes of GM and Ford.” Country clubs, private jets, lavish parties–all became less accessible.

The old-fashioned letter writing campaign brought out scads of support for the Troy Library, including one art director, Dr. Seuss.

“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.”

The committee’s application to the Michigan Department of State Bureau of Elections

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.

One of the mobile truck billboards–not encouraging the burning of books–the agency sprung for on election day, part of the $70k “advertising materials” budget for the campaign reported by Leo Burnett to the state of Michigan.

 

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.

Not everyone was ready to say the Book Burning Party saved the library.

 

 

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.”

Safeguarding American Families founder and ‘client’ to the campaign, Tom Ball

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.”

The creatives behind the campaign, named as Ad Week’s ‘Givers’, posing with a lit match inside the Troy Library

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.

 

The video, then of unknown origin, that caused Troy librarians to reach out for police patrols

 

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.

 

 Read the full interviews with Philip Kwick and Rick Bennington.

 

  1. Awards the campaign has won (incomplete)

    Andy Awards
    Gold, Social Marketing

    Clio Awards
    Gold, Facebook Integrated Media
    Gold, Interactive
    Silver, Integrated Campaign
    Silver, Innovative Media
    Silver, Content & Contact

    One Show
    Silver, Entertainment
    Silver, One Show

    Effies
    Gold, Goodworks – Non-profit
    Gold, Government / Institutional / Recruitment
    Gold, Small Budgets – Product & Service

    Cannes
    Gold, PR, Public Affairs
    Silver, PR, Best Use of Social Media []

  2. 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.” []

  3. “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.” []

Written by Nick

January 20th, 2013 at 9:46 am