Rhubarb wine? I’ve been into fermenting ever since my Harlem kombucha-making days, but now that I’ve got a little more land to work with I’ve made smoked, fermented hot sauces, sauerkrauts, and beer with self-grown hops.
Most recently, though, I’ve been interested in wines, specifically country wines. So what better way to celebrate the first year of your child’s life than a sassy vintage of a dry country wine?
The garden threw off a substantial surplus of rhubarb, so I fermented it and bottled a few cases of a dry country rhubarb wine. I followed a hybrid of John Wright and John Seymour recipes, both loosely. Fiddling with InDesign to illustrate and design the label was probably the hardest part.
Well, my research project on El Paquete Semanal is finally out in the world, and I’m happy people are digging into the content. I got to know EP and understand the cultural context over the course of two trips to Cuba, and really appreciate how the system has grown up under the island’s unique constraints. Take a look at the report and some more analysis from Quartz, which featured it as an “Obsession,” or Reddit, where it came up
That’s what the epitaph on legendary Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s headstone, erected recently in his home village in County Derry, advises.
The lines come from his Nobel Prize speech, delivered in 1995. He explained more:
That line is from a poem called “The Gravel Walks,” which is about heavy work—wheeling barrows of gravel—but also the paradoxical sense of lightness when you’re lifting heavy things. I like the in-betweenness of up and down, of being on the earth and of the heavens. I think that’s where poetry should dwell, between the dream world and the given world, because you don’t just want photography, and you don’t want fantasy either.
A few weeks ago I was able to make good on a promise and participate in the second installment of the Design Museum of Portland’s Story Hour series. The premise is quite simple: a group of storytellers have a short period of time to tell a story around a specific prompt. There are a few constraints, though: the time period is very short, either four or eight minutes, and you get a single image as your background, no slides or other a/v trickery.
The theme was ‘invisible design’ and while a bunch of kind of pop-design podcast fodder (Can you see the arrow in the FedEx logo?) came to mind I felt the constraints and format leant themselves to a little bit of meta tomfoolery.
So the whole thing was series of stories inside a talk inside an elaborate setup.
The effect was better experienced in person, but I’ll try to set it up here for you before sharing the substance of the speech.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about customer experiences.
We’re kicking off our U.S. Now / Next / Why swing on Wednesday in NYC (followed by May 16 in Chicago and June 11 in San Francisco) and the event is all around the idea of “obsessing experience.” And there’s a ton of stuff to talk about around your typical Brand Experiences, but I wanted to isolate one specific instance that might not feel immediately relevant but is.
My wife, Juno, is passionate about food. You could say she obsesses the experience. Whether it’s going out to try new restaurants, reading about chefs and cooking, organizing an intricate weekly meal plan and now writing about food and nutrition full time, Juno’s got it covered.
One of our running chuckles is around an entirely condescending phrase we’re becoming accustomed to hearing in variation, when we eat out:
“Are you familiar with the concept of sharing?”
Forget about the fact that we all learned to share at age four. When a server asks this, it’s a snapping flag to me that we’re in for a less-than-perfect experience. Because it validates something very important in the restaurant power dynamic: that the kitchen rules.
It doesn’t matter if we’re eating together, and each of us order one thing that we want to eat exclusively: the food comes when it’s ready. And Juno’s even experienced instances where her dining companion has finished her meal before Juno’s even arrives. It’s becoming commonplace to put the food before the people.
To me, this is emblematic of the celebrity-chef-obsessed, ego-driven foodie culture that’s bred a new generation of restauranteurs. Many careers have been launched and pockets have been lined by the idea of the kitchen as altar.
But it annoys me, needless to say, and I wanted to pass along an attitude that’s the antidote, one I hope more restaurants will adopt, and one that might be relevant to how you view edge cases, or needy customers, in your work, whomever your literal or metaphorical customer might be.
Brooks Headley is the executive pastry chef at Del Posto, a fine dining restaurant in New York.
Our mission is to make people happy—think of us as your surrogate grandmas for the next few hours. I want you to come in to Del Posto and have the grandest, amazing-est time of your life, shooting the breeze with your date, the mom, that boss you’re trying to impress, swirling the wine in your oversize goblet, utilizing your purse stool. And if you’ve got some dietary issues you wanna toss my way? Bring ’em on!
It’s a great little essay, and an even better attitude. You can say what you want about the identity politics of food, which tires me to no end. But this isn’t about identity—it’s about humility and service.
Let’s make a movie called Dinosaurs in the Hood.
Jurassic Park meets Friday meets The Pursuit of Happyness.
There should be a scene where a little black boy is playing
with a toy dinosaur on the bus, then looks out the window
& sees the T. Rex, because there has to be a T. Rex.
Don’t let Tarantino direct this. In his version, the boy plays
with a gun, the metaphor: black boys toy with their own lives,
the foreshadow to his end, the spitting image of his father.
Fuck that, the kid has a plastic Brontosaurus or Triceratops
& this is his proof of magic or God or Santa. I want a scene
where a cop car gets pooped on by a pterodactyl, a scene
where the corner store turns into a battle ground. Don’t let
the Wayans brothers in this movie. I don’t want any racist shit
about Asian people or overused Latino stereotypes.
This movie is about a neighborhood of royal folks —
children of slaves & immigrants & addicts & exiles — saving their town
from real-ass dinosaurs. I don’t want some cheesy yet progressive
Hmong sexy hot dude hero with a funny yet strong commanding
black girl buddy-cop film. This is not a vehicle for Will Smith
& Sofia Vergara. I want grandmas on the front porch taking out raptors
with guns they hid in walls & under mattresses. I want those little spitty,
screamy dinosaurs. I want Cicely Tyson to make a speech, maybe two.
I want Viola Davis to save the city in the last scene with a black fist afro pick
through the last dinosaur’s long, cold-blood neck. But this can’t be
a black movie. This can’t be a black movie. This movie can’t be dismissed
because of its cast or its audience. This movie can’t be a metaphor
for black people & extinction. This movie can’t be about race.
This movie can’t be about black pain or cause black people pain.
This movie can’t be about a long history of having a long history with hurt.
This movie can’t be about race. Nobody can say nigga in this movie
who can’t say it to my face in public. No chicken jokes in this movie.
No bullets in the heroes. & no one kills the black boy. & no one kills
the black boy. & no one kills the black boy. Besides, the only reason
I want to make this is for that first scene anyway: the little black boy
on the bus with a toy dinosaur, his eyes wide & endless
A few months ago my buddy Michael Ventura asked me to write an essay for his new publication, La Petit Mort. Just last week I got the glorious, big-ass newsprint edition and found my piece, “River Talk,” reproduced faithfully. The design looks great, the illustration I cooked up wound up translating well visually, and I’m really grateful to have been involved and appearing alongside articles ranging from an ethical look at slum tourism to a primer on how to eat clean while traveling. The essay’s mostly about fishing, so head over to Current Flow State to read the whole thing.
One is the continued prevalence of the cascading uncertainty rule, described here:
By relying on what Jerome Nriagu of the University of Michigan has called the cascading uncertainty rule (“There is always uncertainty to be found in a world of imperfect information”), the lead industry and makers and marketers of TEL gasoline additives were able to argue in 1925: “You say it’s dangerous. We say it’s not. Prove us wrong.” (Or, as Nriagu prefers, “Show me the data.”) They still do.
This is an almost classic misdirection that’s affecting how we judge huge dangers to society and public health, like vaccinations and global warming.
Meanwhile, a crusading scientist used techniques for determining this age of the earth to hypothesize how badly we were screwing it up by blanketing it with lead. Clair Patterson then gave what stands as a lasting caution against undue influence in research. This has recently been in the news, with Wall Street and academia cozying up.
“It is not just a mistake for public health agencies to cooperate and collaborate with industries in investigating and deciding whether public health is endangered,” Clair said. “It is a direct abrogation and violation of the duties and responsibilities of those public health organizations.”
I tend to use a lot of others’ research to make points; often, I can be lazy about sourcing. Was it the federal government, or a non-profit organization that’s providing that figure, or is it an entity motivated to make a specific commercial point? Research, both good and bad, can be easily manipulated. This served as a great reminder that concrete, civic-minded fact-finding is always going to serve the truth better than interested parties’ ‘findings’.
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.
It was very exciting to see an organization I do some volunteer work with profiled by Helen Coster in The New York Times this year on Veterans Day. I would have never guessed the modifier that arrived along with my first appearance in the old grey lady would be “fly fishing guide,” but I’ll take it. I guess it’s a good impetus to finally get my casting instructor certification in order.
Please give the article a read to learn more about the sort of work we’re doing, and do get in touch if you’re interested.
We’ve had a huge outpouring of support since, including a bunch of people donating vintage fishing gear, which we resell to collectors to fund trips for vets.
There’s currently a great auction of vintage fiberglass and bamboo rods happening on eBay, from the collection of a man named Ed Travers. Ed’s rods, all in great condition, would make a wonderful holiday gift for the angler in your life, and a great way to give back to a worthy cause, so why not check them out? I’m helping administer the auction, and will be posting new rods every Tuesday for the next few weeks, with five sets in all available.
Pick up this summer’s Flaunt, the Context issue, to read a piece I wrote on Nicolas Jaar, one of the more interesting figures in dance music today. I tried to give a sense of the big ideas Jaar’s grappling with, and his perspective as an artist.
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.
I really hope Jonathan Glazer follows in Neill Blomkamp’s footsteps1 and brings his special breed of moodiness evolved through ads and music video to tangential future scenarios. Under the Skin is described on IMDB as “An alien in human form is on a journey through Scotland.”
The inimitable Ben just dug out his canned Flake ad which I’m glad to see is still online. I remember frantically saving the source when it came out and have been showing it to folks we work with at Kraft / Mondelez as an example of something envelope-pushing, dramatic stuff that at least got partially made through previous incarnations of their organization. Lovely. Someone out there wants to make more of this stuff, right? A guy can dream?
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. [↩]
I was chatting the other day with a city employee from the public health department. Her job is to help do research to create messaging raising awareness around unhealthy things like soda and smoking. We got to talking about the uncertainties of her job once the mayor hits his term limit. There’s no question Mayor Bloomberg has been pushing a very progressive public health agenda, and his successor might not want to follow in these footsteps in the allocation of public dollars.
So what’s going to happen to these folks who’re doing this important work? Well, they might have to find new jobs. And it’d be the end of what has been a pretty good run of behavioral economics in action
But that got me to thinking: what if Mayor Bloomberg’s commitment to public health messaging doesn’t have to end, and Mike Bloomberg can keep it up? How can he keep it up?
I think he should open an ad agency.
Here’s how it would work.
Start a company, let’s call it Bloom & Partners. Hire a small permanent staff from NYC’s vibrant creative community. Use it to create all the Bloomberg marketing and advertising.
Then, work on public health briefs, special projects and more pro-social agenda items. Bring in freelancers who’re willing to cut their day rates for the ethical laundering they’re about to receive. Send those ads around the country, or the world, and stop ridiculous Ad Council afterthought creative, which is barely above student work in quality, by making a source of communications that hits the entire spectrum of the national public health conversation.
One of the most interesting aspects of Bloomberg’s post-mayorship is how fluently all the staff he sucks out of government will speak government, enabling all sorts of innovative public-private partnerships. So, if anyone can make this cost-effective, it’s those guys.
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. [↩]
Ahh, Advertising Week. Because the day-to-day celebration of ad culture just isn’t enough.
I’m going to be speaking on two panels. I will plug them thusly:
GIVE TO GET: BUILDING BRAND THROUGH SERVICE INNOVATION
Mon Oct 1 2012 – 9:00 AM
B.B. King Blues Club
Putting service at the center of your brand may be the next evolution of your marketing; innovation through service design is what will attract customers, turn them into advocates, create buzz about your product, and save customers with whom you #fail.
PRODUCTS, PROCESS AND PROGRESS
Tue Oct 2 2012 – 12:30 PM
B.B. King Blues Club
“Brand-led development”, it’s a subject that’s currently on the tip of every marketer’s tongue. This lively discussion, hosted by The Barbarian Group’s President, Sophie Kelly, will explore the new imperatives that larger brand marketers need to adapt in order to effectively build, refine and optimize longstanding products.
Of course, if you’re in NYC October 9, you should be at Contagious’ bi-annual look at what’s important, Now / Next / Why. I’m heading over to London next week to speak at that installment, then back again to talk at the Stateside version. My topic? Sponsorship Activation & Amplified Live.
Sponsorship Activation & Amplified Live /
The time we spend interacting with entertainment is often precious and pure. Distractions are not necessary, nor appreciated. Finally, a new generation of brands is beginning to reimagine the art of sponsorship activation, justifying their ticket to the game not just with a bulging wallet, but with a genuine offering to enhance, improve and augment the experiences for fans.
Contagious will showcase how and why brands are adding value for fans, not noise. From Coca-Cola turning an exclusive corporate box at a football ground into a dormitory for cash-strapped fans, to Kopparberg’s music festival playlist app on Facebook, brands are making their sponsorship dollars work harder to become an indispensable part of the events they support.
We’re also debuting our take on Marketing as Service Design, something we haven’t talked about yet over here. Some of the elements we’ll be discussing at Now / Next / Why in New York on October 9 will come into play during the panels.
We do a special edition publication for Now Next Why, and we just put that to bed last week. It’s looking great. Give me a shout if you can come out, so we can say hi.
Angela Chapin at venerable Canadian pub Maclean’scalled a couple weeks back to talk about Chuck E. Cheese’s new look. Immediately, it struck me as Poochie-esque, and that it’d probably do the company better to rethink how to convey it was in the family entertainment business than to give the mouse an alt-emo edge. (I mean, look at those eyebrows, and that sardonic smile.)
I wrote this in May 2011 for the Cannes Lions Daily magazine; they wanted a view from the US, as they’ve asked me to write before. It had fallen through the cracks, but I’ve been hearing more and more ‘digital downtime’ talk lately and have only seen a few smaller brands step up and advocate for this. Maybe more on them in the future.
A new role for Rolls in real-time world
Amid all the noise of this always-on world, sometimes the best approach a brand can take is to find what its strong, silent side looks like, says Nick Parish, North American editor, Contagious
As ever in Cannes, great work will be given its due this week. Much of it will be, in some sense, immersive. But immersion is changing. Emotionally resonant web browser-based efforts, such as Cyber Grand Prix winner The Wilderness Downtown, an online music video for the Arcade Fire, executed by the fast-moving collaborative set growing around the Google Creative Lab, are supplanting epic TV commercials as the premier medium for mind-boggling communication.
At the same time, new technology is changing how we define advertising. TBWA’s Projeqt, developed on a brief to refine its online presence, is becoming a platform for creative minds across many disciplines, not just something that communicates TBWA’s effectiveness at making a website.
But one of the most interesting categories is the work attempting to dip its toe in the constant flow of sharing, the bits we all pass along. Real- time marketing is what it’s being called, and most look to Old Spice’s Responses work, which has also won a Cyber Grand Prix at the Festival. But in many cases real-time efforts are little more than interruption and couponing. Smart brands will be the ones that don’t just talk but listen, and are able to make sense of what people are saying, unprompted by another form of marketing intrusion.
At 60mph, the loudest sound in David Ogilvy’s Rolls-Royce was the ticking clock. But today the only brands offering respite as a positioning are those positioned as an escape from physical labour, or housework. Not the sort of chatter many modern urban dwellers find themselves inside. In that sense, Ogilvy’s line has ripened with age. Your Rolls will insulate you from the loud, irritating universe, so you can think your princely thoughts and build your mental empires. We could all use moments like these. But who will give them to us?
Some think real-time marketing means brands should be at our beck and call, popping up when we want, to prop us up if we’re falling behind, to pop by with that pallet of Wheat Thins and give us our minutes of web video fame for a tweet. It most certainly can be an effective way to engage, build a personality for your brand, and help you become an active player in a bubbling community, in Wheat Thins’ case especially so.
But, as the discipline and channels mature, brands will be measured more by how they listen than by how they talk. Surprisingly, the disparity between talking and listening is massive. Just 2% of companies, according to SAS, track what’s said about them on Twitter.
Sometimes it’s important to be actively quiet. On a recent episode of Harvard Business School’s Ideacast podcast, Sherry Turkle from MIT talked about her newest book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology And Less From Each Other. Turkle argues that we’re spending our time communicating, rather than creating. Multitasking, Turkle asserts, is boosting the former at the latter’s expense. People’s work is becoming communication — e-mail, chat, social-network engagement. ‘As we ramp up the volume and velocity, we begin to ask each other questions that we know will get an immediate response, and we begin to give responses so we can give immediately,’ she says. ‘So we’re dumbing down the questions we ask and the responses we give in order to gratify this need for volume and velocity. It’s as though the pace becomes more important than the quality of the response.’ Remember the recessionary mantra, parroted incessantly by media companies and publishers, usually through their starving- for-ad-dollars channels? In times of trouble, spend more, boost volume, otherwise you’re forgotten. In many ways, that has been twisted and misapplied, creating a pragmatic media agenda focused on being everywhere.
We’ve just seen Pepsi’s flagship product take a direct hit and cede its second-place rank to Diet Coke after abandoning brand advertising for its cause-marketing effort, the Pepsi Refresh Project. While that probably isn’t entirely due to marketing changes, those who were the loudest champions of Pepsi’s laudable efforts will tell you it shouldn’t have been pursued at the expense of brand advertising, but in addition.
Every marketer will tell you that if you’re not talking, or advertising, you’re losing relevance. But this rule is being eroded by the ability to flood the places brands are placing content, with little or no incremental increase in spending. ‘Constantly talking isn’t necessarily communicating,’ says Charlie Kaufman, through Jim Carrey’s Joel in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind.
Remember, the negative spaces your brand defines for its group are just as important as the positive. The ‘negative space’ role is reminiscent of Add Art, a Firefox plug-in which turns display advertising into art. How about a plug-in to do what Instapaper and Readability have done for publishers, offering space and time to read something later, wrapped in a calm, new, page-like package? The Karmatech concept, from students at Hyper Island for Swedish apparel brand WeSC, brings a near-field connection to a shoe, allowing wearers to step their way to social-media updates and interactions. Imagine a near-field ‘I’m open to offers’ or ‘Leave me alone’ concept, where part of the utility a brand offers is insulating people and guarding their free time. Rolls- Royce could register on Twitter and give away a Phantom to some lucky tweeter, gaining followers to rival Charlie Sheen’s rapid ascent. But it would be more interesting to think of how the brand could bring that silent interior to the real-time web.
Every once in a while a mainstream journalist comes to me on the odd chance I might have something interesting to say about a topic they’re trying to write about. Occasionally I cough up something coherent.
Very seldom do two such articles come out in the same week. But somehow last week both Inc and Bloomberg News had me grumbling and muttering in their content.
The areas in which I’m quoteable? You guessed it. Digital production companies and automotive social media.
Despite the hyperbolic headline this is a good look at a cool company. Josh Dean also wrote a book called Show Dog that my lady had just finished reading when we spoke, so there was a nice bit of serendipity in there. [↩]
Alex Webb did a good job with this. Not to discount his effort, but the story hinged on BMW actually being willing to come out and attribute the sales to their marketing effort, which is rare. Typically if folks think they have an edge they keep it to themselves. [↩]
Madrigal suggests a fairly simplistic approach, but the sentiment behind it is interesting. The specific ploy almost sounds like something out of an old George Hayduke revenge book, like the one where he suggests taking junk mail magazine subscription cards that have the ‘postage paid by addressee’ metering system and attaching them to a brick. Voila! They’ll pay for their junk mail!
Like it or not, the physical elements of media systems, the operational controls, will always be much harder to disrupt than the emotional elements. The market is self-healing in this regard. The auction price for those terms will drop, Big Dada will be noticed and rerouted. It may even claim success based on increased volume, more popularity. Big news in the sales meeting! More and more people are interested in our jumbo mortgages! Let’s roll out a print and TV campaign! We’ll drive consumption even higher!
The key is twisting the emotional values of messaging, the image. Defaced logos, like the one atop this page, can go much further in affecting perception. There’s a reason Adbusters is mostly images and short slogans, appropriated icons. Kalle used to be an ad guy, he gets it. And, on a web whose youth culture runs mostly on images these days, that’s where I’d focus.
But here’s the bigger question: what if people, especially the younger generation, don’t object to advertising, and shrug their shoulders at the idea that it’s driving a culture of consumption, because it provides them with things they consider valuable, like Facebook, and Google (the world’s largest advertising company)?
Off to watch the GE Technology Extra embedded in the page to help support further writing like this..
I was in Austin for SXSW Interactive for the fourth time this year (see previous japes). I guess that’s enough to be considered worthy of telling others what to do. So Emily and I did. I cribbed tips liberally from Rick and Marcelino. I don’t normally traffic in superlatives, but the best panel I went to this year was on The New Aesthetic.
I’m not sure why Brazilian kids are more excited about the making web culture memeface style part of their outward-facing culture, but they’ve come outward in a couple interesting ways in the last few months.
The first is for a brand called Keep Cooler, a wine cooler product, which built a ‘meme maker’ site. It was a drink that needed a refresh for the younger generation, so it was relaunched using memespeech to reach kids, allowing them to build their own videos and images.
In part of this promotion, they hired rapper Cauê Moura to create a song.
I recently had the chance to head home on the dime of the Ford Motor Company, the great dynamo and historical symbol of prestige in the Motor City, or at very least its suburban birthplace in Dearborn. I got invited, I imagined, because we’ve covered the company’s efforts in the past. But now I found myself on a press trip home, to get sold on the innovation I grew up around, for Fordʼs North American Auto Show & Innovation and Design Fantasy Camp. If that’s not enough of a mouthful, here’s a rambling travelogue of what we got up to.
I took a car from the airport, and what can typically be a terse ride wound up moving quickly. One of the best things about talking cars with a Detroiter is that if you do it on the road, you have a constant source of conversation. My driver, an arabic guy in his mid-50s, was eager to chat. We talked about the driver’s Lincoln Town Car, a car that’s come to equal classy luxury transportation. We talked about what might replace it, now that Ford’s shut down the Canadian plants that produced it along with the Crown Victoria, cop car par excellence.1
We moved to the Chevy Volt (he’s never seen one around) the Prius (he’s seen plenty and likes ’em) and the changing American automobile appetite. I went to mention the new Fiat, and lo and behold we were passing one. “Italian design, it looks nice. Good for single people, maybe?” Then, the Dodge Charger. “It’s taken away a little from those guys,” he said, pointing to a Mustang. (See? It’s fun, it’s like I Spy crossed with the game where you move through the alphabet and say a different celebrity, or movie star, for every letter.) Toyota’s Avalon swung in front of us, and he remarked on its quality, being a former owner. He said the auto show, this year, would be a more positive affair, with the Big Three stronger than in previous years, a leaner and meaner American auto industry.
The Town Car remains a weathered peak of luxury transportation for many, despite the changes in driver preference and civic fuel consumption standards Ford cited as its reasons for termination. I love the Town Car. Since the late ’90s, it’s been the longest car produced in the Western Hemisphere. My dad once told me it was designed to be able to carry four golf bags in its trunk, ferrying a foursome of chums to the links, where some real business can get done. [↩]
A few weeks ago, my favorite music act abruptly broke up. But it wasn’t the standard faff from a band that’s released a bunch of albums and toured forever, ‘we’re having artistic difficulties’, the cover for a junkie drummer or clashing egos. The group was cautious and enigmatic in the first place, and its decision to quit further cemented the realization no one would ever know the full story. The group is called Sandwell District, and it makes deep, dark, often abrasive hypnotic techno dance music, the sort of stuff that begins going through your head after your third day trapped in a well, I’d imagine, or when you’ve spent too much time on a tilt-a-whirl. Some of us, due to genetic programming or maybe many hours of social conditioning in dark rooms listening to loud music, think better with this sort of stuff pumping. I’m one of them. And Sandwell was certainly, to me, the most expressive and aesthetic-oriented group I’ve seen in dance music in some time. It had a formed artistic ethos much like Detroit collectives Underground Resistance or groups like Drexcyia, far from the personality-driven side of the dance music world. In short, Sandwell innovated, and will, in some form or another, continue, apart or together, to make amazing, provocative music. This essay isn’t about Sandwell District, though if you want to find out more about it, its Tumblr is a good place to start , as is this piece from The Wire.
Beginning the 31st of December 2011, regular audio communication from Sandwell District will cease. All vinyl artifacts have been decommissioned. There is a possiblity of future, albeit irregular, print communications with audio accompaniment. However, details — and indeed content — is uncertain at this moment in time. The Sandwell experiment will exist through live actions — which will continue to expand into new sonic territory — in addition to audio / print installations as previously witnessed in New York, Los Angeles, Gdansk, Bialystok, Berlin and London.
Stasis is death.
See you on the other side.
So, you say, they’re breaking up, but they’re not stopping playing shows, and doing other ‘print communications with audio accompaniment’ — so what’s the big deal?
Well, I know we haven’t seen the last of Sandwell.
But what if we built our creative businesses, our design studios, our content companies, our journalist’s collectives, with a set of time-based values?
What if businesses had an expiration date?
Obviously, this repels much of the capitalist ideal. Once the company reaches its peak, then is the time when it’s ripest for squeezing, a milking of profits that can continue, managed well, for some years.
If the participants were to agree to pack it in, and go their separate ways, after, say, three years, it would give no hope for investment, no hope for mechanisms of control that come with outside funding.
The best potential test case for this is a small design studio, with 3-5 partners. It is stated at the outset that this is a transient endeavor, meant to last three years, then everyone is released, the property liquidated, business cards tossed into the trash, web presence turned off.
Needless to say, it wouldn’t work as well with businesses based on making artisanal salami or high-grade thermocouples.
In the Wire story, one member of Sandwell, Karl O’Connor, says, ‘As we everything I have been involved with, it’s about creating situations – some you go with, an dsome you abort. We hate this whole ’20 years of so-and-so label’ or ’40 years of that label’. We know when things need to be killed or moved on.’
The ‘we know’ comes with a feeling of creative completeness, but a stated end point would set that feeling in stone, and force an arc higher and brighter than otherwise.
I often am able to connect the dots between people who have bonds to specific companies at specific periods, that is, they all worked at Company X during its heyday, and they all went on to places or things much more interesting than you would expect, given their relative lack of experience prior to Company X. There are a lot of factors at play here, like where Company X was in its life cycle already, or where the winds of novelty were blowing in its industry at the time, or the sort of work they were able to do while together. But I believe companies with a stated half-life and a strong mission at the outset will create cadres of exceptional people.
Facebook’s latest influence study is out, and the conclusions are not terribly surprising. You share information that your close friends share, but also things your not-so-close friends (or, your ‘distant contacts’, or ‘weak ties’, in network theory parlance) post. Thus, summaries of the study conclude, disproving the claim Facebook is an ‘echo chamber’, a set of behaviors many have insinuated is eroding our society, ingraining us in our ways and making life poorer through depriving us of tough choices about what we believe.
This is already leaving aside a glaringly obvious element. People wouldn’t be friends, even on Facebook, with people they don’t already share large swathes of cultural and economic common ground with. I am not issued a standard set of normative friends upon arrival, that’s rebalanced periodically to ensure all global viewpoints are represented. Reasonably, if Facebook is my only touchpoint with weak tie Jane Connection, it doesn’t mean she’s at the complete opposite end of the social and ideological spectrum to me. Some commonality brought us together, and I’d argue that’s strong enough to lend a coloration to the information he shares and makes me already predisposed to accepting it.
But, I can’t enter into a lengthy analysis of the paper until I actually read it. For now, more interesting matters.
The brilliant and able data scientists at Facebook have an unique porthole into some of the most amazing and interesting behaviors in human history. They’re able to observe major elements in how we fall in love, how we break up, how we celebrate birth and how we mourn death. They are able to judge very interesting things about human nature from these things. But, one must assume, their aspects of inquiry into the human condition are tempered by the desire of its executives to prove out Facebook’s advertising model, and the ability of Facebook to further monetize these events (or, the more prosaic ones, like when we mention our love for Starbucks or a positive experience at Hertz Rent-a-Car). Facebook actively works with advertising analysts to refine the products it sells marketers, so it should likely continue to do so more intensely as it grows.
Facebook is also constantly changing features in its service. Its EdgeRank algorithm, which determines what you see in your News Feed, is similar to Google’s PageRank, and a coveted position for marketers. If you’re a brand, even if millions of people have clicked ‘Like’, your content, which you may have spent millions of dollars to produce, won’t be seen by any of those millions unless someone engages with it, by Liking or commenting. If it’s not interesting, it won’t be seen. The more it’s interesting, the more it’s seen.
Trouble is, EdgeRank is largely a black box. Facebook’s Preferred Developers presumably have an inside edge, or at least a cobbled-together set of metrics with which they can determine how quickly something will take off.
But again, I’m straying from the point. The point is this: Facebook’s data studies should be assumed to be fundamentally serving Facebook’s interests. If it came to conclusions otherwise, why would it be released? Further, many of the statistics around behaviors on the web are commissioned and carried out by companies with vested interests in promoting the data. Security companies publish data on teenage hackers, for instance, or online persona management companies publish data on the proliferation of online personas. ‘These behaviors exists, so should we’ is communicated.
This is why I propose the Shining Volunteer Facebook Botnet of Truth and Victory to lead the way to transparent algorithm documentation.
It’s as simple as this: you sign away access to a moderately omnibenificient force that can monitor your news feed and occasionally post test elements, monitored by others in neighboring networks. Presumably it wouldn’t take more than a small percentage of groups to be able to make meaningful conclusions about the way EdgeRank works. Major changes would provoke an algorithm report to show what’s different. Maybe it would show that Coca-Cola’s content is altogether 10 times more important than Tiny Brand X’s content.1
This is a similar proposition to the idea of counter-algos in the high-frequency trading world, algorithms that try to out-act their counterparts. But this one acts on behalf of users of a system rather than its owners. The analogy that comes to my mind is that of a river and a dam. A dam may be owned and operated by a power company, used to generate power. But the water and the river are public property, and the department of the interior monitors the water level, and the releases from the dam, constantly, keeping track of flows and temperatures for recreation and the health of aquatic life. In the case of monitoring the health of our information flow, though, we need to actively allow some force to pretend to be us for a few moments to stick its toe in the water.
I’m not a conspiracy theorist when I imagine brands that spend $10x more than others have some sort of advantage in EdgeRank. This would make good business sense for Facebook, rewarding those that buy comprehensive display packages with a leg up on those that can only afford to create compelling content. [↩]
I started to get to know Los Angeles last year, and once I had figured out it was a car town I had an angle. Detroit is a car town. And driving through Los Angeles at night could be just as pleasant, with wide, empty streets and a magnificent, sprawling city laid out in front of you.
“I can tell you this, we have dozens of detectives — from robbery to the homicide detectives — working every night to see if we can catch these guys,” Commander Smith said. “Every time he hits, we have a crime scene. They interrogate everyone around.”
They were doing it in Berlin earlier this year, and Paris before that. Torching cars at night. The m.o. in Berlin was firestarters placed underneath engines, or next to front tires. In LA it seems to be Molotovs, with American-style instant gratification for the arsonist. In Berlin, police pointed out the targets were luxury cars. No word of that in LA. That might be too frightening to bear.
I can’t see this going on much longer. There are too many cameras. And, in LA, it’s all too serious. Your car is a gleaming extension of your personality. This might as well be a serial killer.
Who will they catch? One of J.G. Ballard’s predominant themes was a disaffected suburban cadre, so numbed by modern life it called on increasingly risky behaviors for thrills.1 In High Rise, they formed warring tribes when the building’s electricity went out; Super-Cannes had its leather-clad squads of white-collar thugs; in Crash, its the car-crash set, probing the new avenues for an emerging sexuality opened by industrial collisions.
Friend Krista Freibaum sent over her latest project, Meat Sweats, a Newspaper Club-stylee compendium of illustrations and comics themed around rad flesh.
Everyone’s got a page, with front and back cover from Anthony Sperduti. I enjoyed David Shamoon‘s history of drinkable meat and Zoe Turnbull‘s meditation on how her Brussels Griffon would taste. I’d reckon the latter would be stringy and probably best in a stew.
They’re Tumbrling around the web at meatsweatszine.com, though, format-wise, the mag itself is a sort of paper Tumblr. I’ve got an extra copy. Shout in the comments with your nastiest meat story and I’ll send it your way.
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.
Compare it to Rob. He was the winner of our annual Worst Day in Advertising StorySLAM we do with Organic and amazing storytelling group The Moth. We’ve done it during Advertising Week in New York the last few years; we’re hoping to do it more frequently.
Stay tuned and I’ll let you know when the next one’s coming along.
There are a lot of different kinds of music on the list, but it’s all affecting. Louis Armstrong’s ‘What a Wonderful World’ joins the entire Rage Against the Machine catalog, and USMC favorite ‘Bodies’ by Drowning Pool sits on equal footing with Nena’s ’99 Luftballons’.
The songs declared forbidden by the bigwigs at Clear Channel, deemed unfit for consumption, define an emotional range that completely saturated everything after the attacks. It was chaotic and sloppy and raw, and seemed to fill every place you could fit an interpretation. A story from The New York Timespublished September 19th says the list’s “intended aim is to ensure national mental health, though First Amendment supporters may point to it as the first shadowy blacklist in what President Bush says will be a war against terrorism.”
I arrived in New York City, pulling a U-Haul onto Lorillard Place in the Bronx, four weeks before September 11. Afterwards, I spent the next three months in a big, new place wandering in a strange trance. Our landlord, who was in the Coast Guard, was never around, and the house quickly turned into a haven for our confused weirdo friends to pad about like mental patients as we all tried to get our heads back together.
I’d like to think that if we had Spotify, and the ability to have access to a playlist containing the most-affecting songs from the last century of American popular music, it might have been a bit easier to snap out of it. Instead we listened to a lot of Can and G.G. Allin, which may have worked just as well.
At any rate, here’s that Spotify playlist. Enjoy the songs of sorrow and elation.
A giant fountain behind center field is set off whenever the Tigers score, and also between innings, with bursts of water also referred to as Liquid Fireworks. The water show is also played pregame and postgame, and can be set to music. General Motors sponsored the fountain and held the naming rights from 2000-2008. Two GM vehicles were placed atop the fountain during that time. For the 2009 season, the fountain sponsorship was dropped by GM, due to their financial trouble. The Tigers decided to keep the General Motors logo on the fountain however, and also added the logos of Chrysler and Ford, with the statement “The Detroit Tigers Support Our Automakers”. In 2010, GM again sponsored the fountain, renaming it the Chevrolet Fountain.
Which is why, while watching copious amounts of baseball on MLB’s various iPad and web products I get a kick out of this every time:
The Admiral Motors fountain! MLB Advanced Media certainly doesn’t want to give General Motors any free branding on its apps. And GM probably didn’t want to do a deal. So, we reach an impasse, and Admiral Motors is born. Our national pasttime, putting an ad on every possible surface, meets our national automaker, not spending much money on marketing.
But what about all the other fields? Well, of the nine hosting games this afternoon, Wrigley Field, O.co Coliseum, Busch Stadium, Fenway Park, Tropicana Field, Minute Maid Park, Nationals Park, Kauffman Stadium and Sun Life Stadium, only Busch and Minute Maid have any branding for anything other than the generic team name or Major League Baseball, MLB.com products (like “MLB 11 The Show” videogame). Minute Maid has a nice big logo where it presumably appears at the stadium, and Busch has a big fat ‘Cola’ sign where a Budweiser billboard would be. Certainly a case for Gladys at Product Displacement.
I can’t really fault MLB.com for trying to monetize it all–I’d rather blame them for the crappy display inventory that’s rusting their brand like sea air, or the auto-renewal of the MLB.tv package, a $100-something charge that hits your bill every February, or the fact that even once you’ve bought MLB.tv you have to pay more to watch on your phone, or your iPad, or the lame-ass Saturday blackout rule that has me listening to the Tigers and missing my beloved Mario and Rod while Boston and Texas go at it in the national broadcast on Fox. But Admiral Motors, really? If I ever run into Bob Bowman again, and he’s back on the trail to become the governor of Michigan, there are going to be some questions.
I’m incredibly saddened to learn Dan Sicko, husband, father and author of the hugely influential history/hagiography of electronic dance music Techno Rebels passed away today after fighting the vicious cancer ocular melanoma.
Many people who knew Dan, either through his work in music or the online advertising world, only found out he was sick very recently; he faced his illness bravely, without making a public fuss about it.
Admirably, many who have had their lives touched by Dan’s work and spirit have joined together to stand by his wife Amy and daughter Anabel and help defray costs of his hospice care and other outstanding medical expenses.
Dan’s book that remains, for me, the defining work on electronic music in America, and getting to know him better revealed a patient and caring guy.
I met Dan several times after coming into contact with his work very early in my career as a journalist, listening on the 313 list and trying to soak up every slice of information I could about electronic music.
When I was in town every year for DEMF, I’d get in touch with Dan and try to rendezvous and chat about music. Every time, he wasn’t the slightest bit irritated a fan would try and track him down and seek his thoughts and opinions on what was important or interesting to him.
It was only later that I learned Dan was working at Organic, coincidentally also involved in the wooly world of digital advertising. Dan’s name inevitably brought out good cheer in people who’d worked alongside him, which wasn’t surprising at all.
I last saw Dan in May, when he was hanging out in the Ghostly International tent at the festival, signing copies of the new, expanded edition of Techno Rebels. I joked I’d take a few, because, like most of my favorites they have a habit of getting pressed into friends arms with “you have to read this!” and not returning.
In times of crisis like the world has been watching for the last week or so in Japan, our contributions to alleviate suffering will not entirely be counted in dollars. More and more the tools we build to help those afflicted return to a peaceful existence will be measured as essential.
I’m proud of some friends that joined together to build a hub for measuring the radiation levels in Japan, and hope their effort will bring calm to a few of the many lives changed by the crisis.
The ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan has highlighted our collective reliance on trusted sources. With conflicting reports of radiation levels in affected areas, Portland-based Uncorked Studios has built a way to report and see data in an unbiased format. Inspired by talking heads on news programs who could at best speculate about the nuclear crisis based on the dearth of data, Uncorked decided to create a platform that will crowd-source data to individuals, volunteers, and experts.
Introducing rdtn.org, a website that aggregates radioactivity data from throughout the world in order to provide real-time hyper-local information about the status of the Japanese nuclear crisis. The site is not meant as a replacement for government nor nuclear agencies. Our hope is that clear data will provide additional context to the official word in these rapidly changing events. While the site will focus primarily on readings from Japan, it will also incorporate data from the West Coast of the United States, hoping perhaps to quell the fires of paranoia that stem from a lack of credible information about radiation, the jet stream and its potential effect on US citizens.
We welcome users’ thoughts on how to improve the site/functionality, and appreciate any insight or feedback that will provide a richer understanding of this crisis. We will continue to implement improvements and functionality as soon as possible.
If you are interested in contributing in an official capacity, either as a scientist, journalist, or member of a government agency, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contagious will be representing next week in Austin for SXSW Interactive1 and we decided to print up some T-shirts to give out to friends and allies.
We thought about just sending our logo and specs off to a printer, but what about making our own awesome shirts? And checking on colors and things? My awesome girlfriend gifted me time in a screenprinting workshop last year, so I already knew a thing or two about making your own shirts. So how about hire a studio and try to do it ourselves? Turns out that was much easier (and more fun) than we thought. We got in touch with Peter from Polluted Eyeball and arranged to visit him in his studio, in a loft building of artists’ studios, in Bushwick. We set up an evening session, so after work on Friday we could roll up and do some printing.
There’s a populist connoisseurship in T-shirts. Fine fit, fabric and a nice design can make a cheap item into a lifelong favorite. So we wanted to do these right. We stopped off on the way at Uniqlo to pick up around 70 of their Dry Pack Men’s T’s. I think they’re among the best going.
Once Peter had taken us through the process (and burned an extra screen for a white ink layer to sit below the fluorescent pink) we got to work, a three-person team, fitting the blank shirts on the platens2, then rotating them to the white and pink screens, through each ink phase, then under a heater, then off to be rolled and taped and sorted by size.
By the time we’d gotten our process right and picked up steam, we were out of blanks and had a whole load of handmade T-shirts to give away. Take a look at the photos below, and if you’re going to be in Austin, track down either me or Noelle for a shirt. Thanks again to Peter at Polluted Eyeball for all his expert guidance.
Here’s where the footnotes go.
I’m on a panel called ‘Client Knows Best’ with some brainiacs from Droga5, McCann, Co:Collective and Verizon, it’s here, on Saturday at 5pm. Come if you’re around, it should be a fun chat. Noelle, meanwhile, will be raising heckfire in boots. [↩]
this was a new term for me, from Wikipedia: ‘In textile screen printing, a platen is a flat board onto which the operator slides the garment. It is generally made of either a plywood laminate or aluminum with a rubber laminate. Often the platen will be pretreated with a spray adhesive. This allows the garment to effectively become a rigid immobile substrate, especially important when printing multiple colors or utilizing an on-press infrared dryer. The screen is brought parallel and close to the garment (often within 1/32″) and the squeegee pressure then brings the screen into contact with the garment so that the ink transfer may occur. There are many special platen types, such as those for printing sleeves or pockets, vacuum platens, platens with clamps to hold bulky materials such as jackets, and even curved platens for printing on hats.’ [↩]
The fine people of advertising agency J. Walter Thompson, who recently hosted a week of panels and presentations for Social Media Week, asked me a few questions in anticipation of a chat we did about social games on Monday.1 Here they are; there’s more from others over at their AdGeek blog. That penultimate answer is a little tongue-in-cheek, but there’s something weird in the air I haven’t quite figured out yet.
What was your social media eureka moment?
I think everyone has a path of social media eureka moments which revolve around making real connections with other people. Everyone feels the magic when they meet someone in real life that they’ve come to know over the internet, and compares their concept of that person and their actions online with the living breathing talking version. That can be online dating or buying a dresser on Craigslist. Same goes with arguments; the first time you get into a blood-boiling argument on the Internet you pass a sort of barrier. To me, those are the most interesting bits, coming to understand the powerful connections we can create with people who share our interests and goals.
What do you use on a daily basis and how?
Whew, big question…currently running applications include: Mail, Chrome, Firefox, DevonThink, Pomodoro, Dropbox, Spaces, ManyCam, Skype, iChat, Word, TextEdit, Tweetdeck. Frequently accessed webservices/social bits/communities include Facebook (begrudgingly) & Twitter and Google’s suite of stuff, without which I’d be truly lost. Metafilter and Reddit are my favorite community sites. Google Reader tells me ‘from your 300 subscriptions, over the last 30 days you read 9,359 items, clicked 33 items, starred 10 items, shared 0 items, and emailed 61 items.’ I’ve developed an arcane and possibly foolish system to basically archive anything I touch on Twitter to a bookmarking site, and I spend a lot of time watching Contagious’ output and cataloging all that stuff for further analysis.
What is hot and what is just hype?
I think this question is becoming less and less relevant, but I can’t quite explain why. I’ll try, though. In the last year or so we’ve seen enterprising groups take things that are in the hype cycle’s trough and make fun new things out of them. I hope the cycles created by our anemic attention span and relentless economic machine continue to pump up and churn through emerging technologies—it leaves more room for the inquisitive tinkerers to come through and say ‘oh, what’s this, how does this work.’ It’s like the kid who always had the most fun, newest toys—you knew a few days later their attention would be elsewhere, but that fun toy probably still had some life in it for something. I’m currently obsessed with the Kinect, Minecraft, quadcopters and autonomous flight sequences, Mechanical Turk and whatever a rotating cadre of members of the present-day Invisible College of technology is doing.
What do you see as being the next big thing at next year’s conference?
Definitely jetpacks. Seriously though—with the speed at which companies seem to be earning venture capital money, I would look for topic ideas from this article on SXSW 2001: “Is there still an Internet economy?”, “Internet Industry Trends 2001: Is Anyone Making Money?”, How to Survive Takeovers, Acquisitions, Layoffs, Mergers and Other Supposed Career Setbacks”. Etc. Mad-Libs the blanks where appropriate, change “million” to “billion”, there you go.
What is the one takeaway you hope everyone gets from your panel?
I hope people leave the panel understanding the difficult lines games makers have to walk, between manipulating game mechanics to maximize profit and making genuinely fun games people want to play.
I actually moderated a pair of panels, on social gaming on Monday and storytelling on Thursday. They’re archived here (after 16m of David Eastman) and here if you’re interested. [↩]
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.
Over the last two years I’ve watched my father, an automotive engineer who toiled in the Metro Detroit area for ~40 years selling parts and systems to the Big Three, negotiate and produce a job he admits is the most complex of his career.
His company supplies the motors that circulate the coolant around the Volt’s batteries, which are uncommon because they are required to be on continuously for the entire lifetime of the car: when it’s running, when it’s charging, until it fails.
The process has been fraught with uncertainty. They’ve been at the job through the GM bankruptcy, through the ups and downs of the economy, designing, prototyping, negotiating, testing, retesting. All the while, it’s still a paradox to me as to how you engineer and test something in four years so it’s designed to last for 40.
It’s his last big project before he retires. And I’m sure there are a lot more folks like him attached to the car, Boomers who have invested an uncommonly large amount of personal pride and care in developing it thinking “this one will be different.” People who know it could be the biggest revolution in American auto manufacturing in recent history.
So it makes me really happy and grateful to read someone like Gene W start skeptical and experience the bits of delight and wonder that can change your heart. I can’t wait to drive one, because I know it’ll make me happy and hopeful too.
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.
Phew, it’s been too long. I’ve been busy. I’ll catch you up as we go along. But expect more here. The organizers of Cannes’ Lions Daily newsmagazine were looking for the U.S. perspective for this year’s festival in June, so here’s an article I did for them. It hasn’t aged too poorly. Enjoy.
‘Everything is clean and shiny but oddly threatening’. / J.G. Ballard, 1999
Although J.G. Ballard was actually talking about technology, this late, great chronicler of Cannes-based mischief came pretty close to explaining what’s happened in the United States and Canada since its ad folk last convened on the Riviera.
Budgets and spending are beginning to come back, but there’s the sense things won’t be the way they were before last year’s slump, both in outlay and style of communications and messaging. Optimism is returning, but how to connect with the NEW new media is still baffling to many. Why should my home plumbing fixture brand be on Facebook? What’s the value of creating a badge on Foursquare for a paper goods company?
The realignment currently taking place is forcing us to reconsider the fabric of our communications landscape, and it’s taking very interesting forms.
FINELY FORMED PLATFORMS /
The first of those is platform-building, the digital terraforming smart marketers are engaging in. This is an evolution from the act of adapting content to work on the web to creating or steering content that works within the Internet’s connective tissue.
Electronic retailer Best Buy has seen its Twelpforce program, which encourages employees to help customers on Twitter, service a massive amount of people. But, all that data it’s pumping into Twitter ultimately belongs to Twitter. And it’s finite, given Twitter’s propensity to hide tweets from search after 1.5 weeks. So what did Best Buy do? It built BBY Feed, a site that scrapes all the interactions from the Blueshirts, threads them into easy-to-read interactions and tags them for search engine optimization. If a month from now, I can’t remember how Best Buy’s folks told me to put the SD card in my camera, when I search for the answer it’ll show up on BBY Feed.
Meanwhile, brand communications platforms are growing up and evolving. Gatorade’s fantastic ‘Replay’ effort through TBWA/Chiat/Day, Los Angeles was initially shot as episodic online content by an advertising production company. The conceit was simple, and on-brand: any athlete’s performance can be enhanced by Gatorade, so why not convene and re-play crucial games that ended in ties, or were called because of injury, ten or fifteen years later? The idea of older athletes getting back in shape appealed to many, interest in the property grew, and Gatorade partnered with Fox Sports Net for the second round, with the cable sports network producing it just like it would a big-league game, and simulcasting it on the web.
Parallel to platform-building, disruptive hacker behaviours have begun influencing marketers looking to place content not only on their own platforms, but in unexpected and intriguing places as well. A great example is the ‘Lost’ flight on Kayak.com. The travel search engine listed Oceanic 815, the flight around which the TV series centred, in its search database. Word spread among Losties, and thousands looked up the flight on Kayak, performing all the behaviours of any other user, an introduction to the brand’s great interface through the thrill of finding the ‘Easter Egg’ of content—the actual flight listing for the mythic Lost flight. Great content, presented in its natural environment, is set to spread, and to maximize PR value.
Similarly, Burger King put a message on Digg’s failed search page, which is served over 600,000 times per month. When you look something up that isn’t there, you get a message from Digg and BK playing on the humorous ‘Tiny Hands’ campaign for the company’s double cheeseburger: ‘Looks like your search had a typo. Maybe you’ve got tiny hands?’
MAKER CULTURE & LASHED-TOGETHER TECH /
This maker culture, along with the rise of electronic hobbyists building projects to interact with the universe, places emphasis on solutions and speed, in the classic Bernbachian sense of ‘It’s ugly, but it gets you there’.
In fact, just over forty years after the moon landing and that classic piece of Volkswagen print, Nike and the Livestrong Foundation’s Chalkbot, from Wieden + Kennedy and the robot-making punk rockers at Pittsburgh’s Deeplocal, fits the tagline–the trailer-pulled robot sets a standard for the post-digital transition in its employment of ‘guttertech’–using the lowest available technology to solve the problem. The robot, towed along the route of the Tour de France, sprays messages of cancer support and memoriam people have tweeted onto the course. The system then takes a photo, geotags it, and sends it back to the participant on the other end of the connection. Chalkbot’s no-frills, simple-yet-elegant setup and movement through digital and physical elements nimbly skitters like Wall-E around a landscape where tech bandwagon-jumping is in danger of creating a proliferation of clutter and junk.
The sensor array in our smartphones is currently the fastest track to bringing about the ‘internet of things’ – the practice of integrating digital capabilities to the most ordinary of objects. Ranchers are using RFID to track beef from pasture to abattoir and researchers at the Asthmapolis project are using GPS-triggering asthma inhalers to learn more about pollutants, and all are contributing to the proliferation of data. The objects around us are becoming networked, either through built-in communication hardware or software elements fitted on top.
MASSAGING THE DATALAYER /
A company called Stickybits, which had its coming out party this year at the South by Southwest Interactive conference, allows you to add content–a video, a comment, a photo–to any barcode scanned with its app. Essentially the company has turned every barcode-carrying product into a media node.
Keep an eye peeled this week for Contagious’ special Stickybits treasure hunt, centered on our Issue 23 cover (which you can scan from the illustration here), and has Euro RSCG London’s new Dulux spot attached to it. Find the pink bits around town this week, scan them with your Stickybits app, and win Contagious prizes.
While our Stickybit challenge is but a small example, building games is, to me, the most exciting element of future-facing marketing efforts.
Think of the devotion a good videogame commands: players often log days at quests, or facing rivals online. And unlike a film, or a magazine, the hefty price you pay for a console game doesn’t even guarantee you get to experience all the content–you have to be patient, persist, and earn the ending.
THE POINTS ECOLOGY /
Location-based services like Gowalla and Loopt and Foursquare represent a simple employment of game motivations using the sensors we carry. Get the most points. Be seen the best places. Unlock achievements.
Ultimately, brands are developing new ways to register loyalty and reward people choosing them, while enticing possible conversions from nearby consumers–nearby both in physical location and adjoining mental space (think of a hairdresser who promotes on check-ins at the beauty supply store).
Will location-based service companies wind up being overgrown, social-enabled supermarket points schemes? No one can tell yet. But as the unique user behaviour, the check-in, the acknowledgement of presence in a space-time-byte matrix, spreads and becomes more familiar, and our sensor-augmented actions begin to throw off more and more data, the smartest marketers will be engineering access to it, and in turn creating experiences and narratives all the more relevant.
Returning to Mr. Ballard’s quote, there’s good reason for these shiny things to feel threatening. The firmaments of this business are shifting, and we can’t see where they’ll settle yet. But without threat, we drift to complacency. Now is the time, more than ever, to re-examine what is useful, relevant and entertaining as the world keeps turning.
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)
Introduced as a “rogue academic” and member of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, it wasn’t immediately clear if the talk was going to be highly abstract or grounded, but it turned out the latter–lucid, well researched and informative. Here are some notes.
I caught a screening of Exit Through The Gift Shop, Banksy’s feature-length film, last night, and, like most things related to the mysterious artist, it manages to zig around expectations and get to mind-twisting territory quickly.
There are probably a few spoilers in here, or not. Read at your peril.
Plot-wise, the movie mostly stars a Frenchman named Thierry Guetta. Thierry becomes obsessed with chronicling things via video, and fixates on street artists, adoring of the danger and spontaneity.
Thierry is clearly obsessed and mentally unbalanced, but in that endearing Man On Wire, French way. His marriage miraculously stays intact while he follows Shepherd Fairey across the globe, plowing through thousands of tapes–ostensibly, to the artists, for a documentary–which fill dozens and dozens of boxes in his house.
Theirry’s camera eventually, after much pursuit, intercepts Banksy, and several close scrapes bring the two together, as friends. Theirry gets comfortable in Banksy’s inner sanctum. Only in this short section do we get to see the artist working; otherwise he narrates in hood, face obscured, with robo voice. Scenes from his studio are really interesting; at one point he takes Theirry to his attic and shows him boxes of £10 bills, with Lady Di’s face printed on them, and explains how they printed £1,000,000 worth and have been passing them to vendors at festivals.1
At various points in the film, the question of whether Thierry is real or not came to mind. It seemed, thematically, that his obsession with videotaping everything melds perfectly with the themes of surveillance and voyeurism prevailing in Banksy’s work. But the dating of the footage appears to have been too elaborate to fake. Fairey looks younger, wearing baggy, of-the-era late ’90s clothes in footage purported to be from that era. Speaking with a few people more familiar than I, it’s true, he’s a real guy. Guetta’s character, though, is so surreal and outlandishly appropriate to the subject matter, that what happens next is completely conceptually seamless to the point where the rational mind rebels.
Banksy asks Theirry to show him his film, Life Remote Control, and, surprise, the final product of his insanity and obsession is intolerable. You can watch a few bits of it here.
So Banksy decides to make the movie about Thierry, and, in the meanwhiles, tells Thierry, who has been experimenting with stickers and wheatpasting, to do an art show–and Thierry dubs himself Mr. Brainwash.
Given this mandate by his hero, Thierry can’t help but make it massive: he puts his life in hock (supposedly) and hires a team to create art (a style-less mish-mash of Fairey, Banksy and Andy Warhol) and leverages endorsements from Fairey and Banksy to get the punters (Fairey calls them suckers, which is maybe more appropriate) out and buying.
And they do. His Life is Beautiful show sells a million dollars in product and runs for months (I wasn’t able to independently verify
this). Theirry is an art star, and has had a subsequent show here in New York in February.
And there we have it. But what do we have? Well, the great street art swindle. Like John Lydon said, ‘Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?’
The Sex Pistols did it first. The KLF wrote The Manual on how to do it. Now Banksy is doing it: creating a story to spur demand, lending authority to it in a rapidly popularizing subculture, satisfying the hunger and laughing while everyone eats it up.
It is almost a performance edition of the piece pictured above.
Thierry’s the ultimate idolator, a King Toy of the graf world, but in an endearing, ‘let me hold the ladder and learn to do it’ savant-ish sense rather than cynical or ill-meaning way.
In him, Banksy has a tool to make us aware of our desire to belong and understand, nudging him forward, enabling his rise, only to gloat over the result. The art fans, clad in Ed Hardy, lined the sidewalk to see Life is Beautiful and take home a piece. But once everyone catches on to the gag, what happens to the work? And Thierry’s (clearly unbalanced) ego? If Banksy was affiliated, does that mean it has value (in an artistic or financial sense)?
Banksy is certainly a fascinating character, and this film will raise more interesting discussion on the nature of art in our times. But as opposed to his pieces on the wall in Gaza, indicting a system of oppression and bringing power and hope and positive messages to the world, and the Disneyland incident (which is explained in harrowing detail in the film) it feels like there’s been a turn in Banksy’s work toward the cynical.
Here, in helping make Mr. Brainwash into something of a star, he’s turned to lampooning the general public, ordinary people whose minds have been opened to the sort of surprise and wonder great street art fosters.
The film is out April 16 in the States, and if you’re interested in the culture of street art and image-making in cultural affairs I’d recommend you seek it out.
Animal New York has a post revealing some Fairey admissions, and that throws up a few good rumors and explanations about Theirry owning property and having family connections that let him do legal graffiti. It’s worth a look.
I think this is a crime, counterfeiting, and admitting to it on film, with the evidence, would be trouble, at least in law-abiding Britain. Which makes me think its not entirely true. [↩]
If you don’t know Contagious, I’ll give you the quick primer. It’s a London-based marketing intelligence company founded in late 2004 and led by the flagship product, a quarterly magazine. It also produces FEED, a bespoke subscription service for specialized pulses of information, an events division offering custom conference programming and Contagious Insider, a consultancy that has helped think on a bevy of interesting challenges from a wide variety of top-notch clients.
Contagious started around the idea of chronicling and considering how non-traditional efforts were impacting marketing; it has grown to a robust clearinghouse of innovative approaches, unique insights and all manner of interesting ideas from around the world of marketing and beyond. (Download 2009’s Most Contagious report for a taste.)
It’s extremely exciting to be able to bolster such a robust and focused team. Contagious has a diverse and deep pool of talented writers, researchers and collaborators as well as a can-do startup mentality.
A while ago I was reading a blog post BSS&P’s Ed Cotton had written about the need for a creative-thinking version of McKinsey, about how stimulating ideas and creative revitalization can be more beneficial to growth than cost-cutting. I think Contagious has the potential to serve as that energy- and idea-giving entity for any of today’s companies interested in what’s next.
So in the next few months I’ll be building our presence on this side of the pond at conferences and events, paying visits to lots of companies and, most importantly, watching closely and taking observations and insights to the print magazine and website.
Contagious is well known in Europe, and has been very successful around the globe so far, but we’ve still got a challenge in helping it find a bigger audience in the Americas. I hope you’ll be able to play a part and contribute to what’s fast become a vibrant community of forward-thinkers.
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.
No doubt saying something offensive and hilarious.
I galloped down to the West Village with my buddy Sam last night to see Louis C.K. tape a few bits for his upcoming FX show (March). It was brutally hilarious. I suspect some of the material might be too horrifying for the FX audience but if he puts out a DVD of the show it might have some of the crazier stuff from last night. Oh yeah, we got to sit right in the front, too.
Louis (@cklouis) gathered the audience via a tweet the day before. This was by far the most exciting thing to happen via Twitter.
The first time we met, however, was a little different. It was on a high school Spanish Club Spring Break trip to Mexico in maybe 1997. That was a fun trip. For some reason our historical survey swung through Cancun for four days. Our initial evening in that fine town a fellow (neither of us, for the record) experienced what could be termed ‘rampaging intoxication’ for the first time and proceeded to chop apart his hotel room dresser with a ceremonial hatchet he’d purchased earlier that day from a roadside tourist trap. Goooood times.
Spime is a portmanteau of ‘space’ and ‘time’ coined by Bruce Sterling, who envisions a world full of spimes. It’s fun to say, and important to think about. A scenario just crossed my mind that might help.
A spime, as he defines it, is a “location-aware, environment-aware, self-logging, self-documenting, uniquely identified object that flings off data about itself and its environment in great quantities.”
We’re seeing stuff that’s spimier every day. Your smart phone is a pretty good example. While I was looking at Sophie Blackall’s fun illustrations of Craigslist Missed Connections it seemed like a pretty interesting way to think about spimes.
Thousands of people have potential Missed Connections every day in big cities. (Essentially, if you’re not clear on how the Craigslist section works, say the cute dude walking his dog makes eyes at you, and you reciprocate; if one of you gets up the guts and wants to make contact you post about the encounter on the board.)
More efficient than efficient, or, how crowdsourcing agencies can prove themselves
This week saw the auspicious launch of a new agency called Victors and Spoils, made up of two former Crispin Porter + Bogusky folks, Evan Fry and John Winsor (who specializes in cognitive science and is a nice guy) and Claudia Batten, a former VP at Microsoft-owned in-game advertising facilitator Massive.
Fry, in the Times piece, makes an impressive statement:
“Crowdsourcing is looked at as a trend du jour,” Mr. Fry said. “We want to be the first agency that gets it right.”
I want them to as well. But perhaps in a different way than they do.
Advertising execs have been in love with Clay Shirkey’s ur-crowdsourcing text “Here Comes Everybody” since it made its debut last year, but they haven’t been able to get it right.
There’s a reason why; marketers have focused on using executions from the crowd (eg Doritos’ tone-deaf Super Bowl spots) to replace things they’d usually pay specialists lots of money for, like logos and commercial scripts, instead of the simplified tasks crowdsourcing excels at, like being able to draw a rough sheep (as in Aaron Koblin’s Sheep Market) or retype a blurry word (as in Luis von Ahn’s CAPTCHA).
So, to succeed, Victors and Spoils has to find the middle ground.
And, by the power of the crowd vested in this tiny node in a remote corner of the internet, I have it for them. Here’s your assignment, guys.
Build a community around the DARPA network challenge and one of the “household-name brands” you allude to pitching for in the Times, win the challenge, and donate the $40,000 to charity in the name of the brand.
Hire a mathmetician to figure out the best way to allocate your immense human resources and flex them to comb the country for the eight balloons. Issue incentives to players, keep them honest, allow the whole thing to develop near-realtime with streaming content and all sorts of extra goodies.
It’ll be tough, because you’ll be competing against ultra-efficient networks, the likes of 4chan, which is unfortunately the closest thing we have now to an effective megalith of distributed energy. But what they boast in adolescent drive they don’t necessarily hold in technical expertise.
In as much as advertising has become a highly-efficient substrate for many of our emotional responses, so too will you have to be the surface underlying the network, giving it nutrients and making it robust.
This week saw the auspicious launch of a new agency called Victors and Spoils, founded by former Crispin Porter + Bogusky folks, Evan Fry and John Winsor as well as Claudia Batten, a former VP at Microsoft-owned in-game advertising facilitator Massive.
Fry, in the Times piece, makes an impressive statement:
“Crowdsourcing is looked at as a trend du jour,” Mr. Fry said. “We want to be the first agency that gets it right.”
I want them to as well. But perhaps in a different way than they do.
Advertising execs have been in love with Clay Shirky’s ur-crowdsourcing text “Here Comes Everybody” since it made its debut last year, but they haven’t been able to get it right.
There’s a reason why; marketers have focused on using executions from the crowd (eg Doritos’ tone-deaf Super Bowl spots) to replace things they’d usually pay specialists lots of money for, like logos and commercial scripts, instead of the easy tasks everyone can complete, like drawing a sheep (as in Aaron Koblin’s Sheep Market) or retyping a blurry word (as in Luis von Ahn’s CAPTCHA).
So, to succeed, Victors and Spoils has to find the middle ground.
And, by the power of the crowd vested in this tiny node in a remote corner of the internet, I have it for them. Here’s your assignment, guys.
Build a community around the DARPA network challenge and one of the “household-name brands” you allude to pitching for in the Times, win the challenge by finding the eight balloons first, and donate the $40,000 in prize money to charity in the name of the brand.
I’d hire a mathmetician to figure out the best way to allocate your immense brain wattage and flex it to comb the country for the eight balloons. Issue incentives to players, keep them honest, allow the whole thing to develop near-realtime with streaming content and all sorts of extra goodies.
It’ll be tough, because you’ll be competing against ultra-efficient networks, the likes of 4chan, which is unfortunately the closest thing we have now to an effective megalith of distributed energy that has the get-up-and-go to mobilize quickly. But what they boast in adolescent drive they don’t necessarily hold in technical expertise.
In as much as advertising has become a highly-efficient substrate for many of our emotional responses, so too will you have to be the surface underlying the network, giving it nutrients and making it robust.
Leafing through Advertising Age‘s Small Agency Awards issue last week I was struck by this simple ad from MDC, one of the Awards’ sponsors: a group shot of Crispin & Porter Advertising in 1992.
Now, you all (probably) know what happened to little old Crispin & Porter. And nostalgia is great. But the underlying message of this ad–that you can go from a 13-person creative department to employing over 200 creatives over several continents in 17 years–is a fundamental testament to the spirit of entrepreneurship, as Alex Bogusky wrote for us when the idea of the Small Agency Awards became urgent. (And yes, I know that’s not a massive jump, considering the ascent of agencies like Saatchi & Saatchi, but, whether you like its ads or not, CP+B has managed to maintain a strong culture, unlike mega-networks put together via merger & acquisition.)
It isn’t very often ads in our magazine jump out, so I thought I’d try to give this one a little more light, and maybe see if there was some “where are they now” info on the people in it. I managed to put names to a few faces, but if you’ve got more info, by all means, contact me, or leave a comment.
1. Chuck Porter, now CP+B co-Chairman
2. Alex Bogusky, now CP+B co-Chairman
3. Markham Cronin, founded Markham Unlimited
4. Sarah Gennett, now CP+B VP/Dr. of Production Services & married to Markham
5. Dave Swartz, now CP+B VP/Creative Director
6. Mrs. Ana Bogusky, still Mrs. Ana Bogusky
It’s pretty amazing this many years later almost 40% of the people in the creative department are still with the company. I’m also digging the “good enough sucks” sign on the back wall.
UPDATE: The missing links have been found. Thanks, caller!
In the hopes of one day proving competitive with an acquaintance who’s so far plastered me on the chessboard (D., give me another month), I’ve been playing quite a bit more chess than usual, and, as a corollary, reading books on strategy and following weekly chess columns in newspapers. Compare, if you will, two tellings of this week’s scandal, French grandmaster Vlad Tkachiev’s drunkenness during the Calcutta Open:
Snooze and You Lose: A Russian-born grandmaster scandalized an international tournament in India this month by passing out drunk during a game.
And this got the chess world arguing about a technical point:
Was it ethical to wake him up?
Vladislav Tkachiev, ranked 58th in the world, fell asleep during his third-round game at the Calcutta Open. His opponent, Praveen Kumar, didn’t want to win the game on forfeiture and asked tournament arbiter R. Anantharam to wake up Tkachiev.
But after more moves, the 35-year-old Tkachiev fell asleep again. Other players took turns waking him, but to no avail. After his allotted 90 minutes had expired, Tkachiev had played only 11 moves and was declared lost.
After photos of the sleeping grandmaster appeared in Indian newspapers, Anantharam came in for a torrent of Internet criticism for allowing the farce to get that far.
But he said he was just following world chess federation rules. “The scene of many players coming to his board and watching him sleeping was a disturbance to the nearby boards,” he wrote.
Nonsense, responded GM Nigel Short. Tkachiev should have been woken up only to remove him from the playing hall where he was “causing widespread public embarrassment.”
What an idiot, right?
However, take another look, from the Financial Times‘ Leonard Barden (no slouch himself):
The Kalkota (Calcutta) Open this week made news headlines when the French champion Vlad Tkachiev appeared comatosely drunk at the board and lost his third round game on time.
Attitudes have changed. In 1935 Alexander Alekhine was the worse for drink in some world title games, while in 1949 Sweden’s No 1 Gideon Stahlberg drank a cognac at the board before sacrificing a knight for a winning attack.
The shocked reaction to the Tkachiev episode was in line with a current zealous environment where a master can lose on time if a few seconds late for the start of play. Tkachiev soon recovered and the drunk game was his only loss in seven rounds.
Quite the difference between the two, eh? One has a drunken player disrupting the entire tournament with his enduring shambolic behavior, the other noting arbiters can end a match if it’s a matter of “a few seconds” before the start. Nevertheless, knowing he went on to win the rest of his matches makes quite a difference in the quality of the story.
Further, Barden writes in the Guardian: “In Tkachiev’s case, jetlag was probably a factor as he flew to India with hardly a break after winning the French championship, and the drunk game was his only defeat in Kolkata.”
This isn’t the first time Tkachiev has made headlines, and certainly won’t be the last. It will probably be the only time I resort to a chess media compare and contrast here, though.
MC Hammer, of all people who’ve mastered the dark arts of social media, wrote an Op-Ed piece for Ad Week extolling the virtues of Twitter for connecting to fans without intermediary media. (Though some have suggested it was the work of a ghost writer.)
While new social media platforms seem to pop up every day, I’m strongly behind Twitter, a micro-blogging tool that has become a game changer for me. The platform offers celebrity brands the means to build and develop relationships in an intimate and personal way. The friendly and efficient interface links to video and audio and integrates with various other social media outlets with ease. That means my brand can live on a wide variety of platforms where fans might find me.
Unfortunately, ten days later, his cousin, a co-star of his reality show, is accused of raping a woman who he met via Twitter in a Livermore, CA hotel room. I will refrain from a lay-up, empty-netter of a joke out of respect for the gravity of the situation.
(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. [↩]
Leading spacecraft expert Professor Andre Balogh, from Imperial College London, argues that the level of commitment and risk required to get astronauts to the Moon and back in 1969 would simply not be possible today.
He told the Press Association: ‘It was carried out in a technically brilliant way with risks taken … that would be inconceivable in the risk-averse world of today.
‘The Apollo programme is arguably the greatest technical achievement of mankind to date. And it was carried out successfully, against the backdrop of a difficult political situation in the USA, caused in large part by the worsening of the human and financial cost of the Vietnam war.'”
“The Obama Media Team is honored to accept these amazing awards in recognition of the outstanding work done by so many people at the Campaign, in particular the New Media Group, alongside the multi-agency consulting team led by AKPD Message and Media and GMMB.
“The communications agency roster includes: Dixon Davis Media Group, Murphy Putnam Media, Shorr Johnson Magnus, Squier Knapp Dunn Communications, Message, Audience and Presentation, FUSE, Blue State Digital and The Strategy Group. Research firms include: Benenson Strategy Group, Anzelone-Liszt Research, Bendixen and Associates, Bennett, Petts and Blumenthal, Brilliant Corners, David Binder Research and Harstad Research. All of these firms and the Obama for America staff share in this incredible honor.
“But we couldn’t have done it without all those volunteers, who knocked on doors, hosted events, made phone calls, contributed whatever they could afford and stood in line on Election Day to make their voice heard. Most of all, we must thank President Barack Obama, the best client anyone could ever hope to have.
“It is humbling to receive this recognition among so many groundbreaking campaigns around the world.”
In addition to being the highest profile political campaign ever awarded at Cannes, it is likely the most collaborative. I count 19 communications and research firms sharing the Lion, at least the ones that were mentioned on the email I got. Maybe the trophies will travel around like the Stanley Cup to each partner company, but if I were running a political communications, design or research agency, it would be worth the €1999.00 to get advertising’s highest honor for the office shelf1.
Someone may have left Chicago’s Mode Project off the list, though–according to Mode’s website it had a pretty big role: “[Mode Project was] one of the main creative partners in the campaign, assisting its longtime client and the lead agency, AKPD Message and Media. Mode Project oversaw the design of the now famous Obama logo and produced more than 200 broadcast commercials and additional digital content during the course of the primary and general election.” You may remember them from this space previously, as they commissioned one Aaron Draplin to collaborate on some recovery logos.
It’s a conspicuous absence, and maybe strikes at the heart of the creative-versus-rational debate Bob Garfield gets into here when the cool, interesting company that designed the logo is left out of the celebratory dogpile: “the messaging was as creatively barren as it was tactically brilliant. There was no ‘Morning in America’ in this campaign. No ‘Daisy.’ No any single thing that stood out. Cannes has just awarded two Grand Prix to a back office.”
Well, a very talented back office, with political geniuses David Axelrod and David Plouffe running the show, but still one that required the iconic ‘O’ (that ironically headed the email as you see here, yet whose creators weren’t given any dap). Mode Project even produced the video that introduced David Plouffe’s Cannes appearance, made possible by Omnicom’s DDB (watch it at the studio’s site). The Guardian’s Mark Sweney reports here Plouffe dispelled the myth the campaign was 2.0–Plouffee called it “old school,” surely one for which a logo is integral.
So, I’ve asked the spokesperson from GMMB (also an Omnicom agency) a couple more questions about its Cannes strategy and will see if the Mode snub is just an oversight. Maybe it is. Hopefully this isn’t this year’s BBDO-Big Spaceship credit fracas; it would be a shame to ruin the further celebration of optimism and choice with squabbling and politics.
Funnily enough, in the course of dashing off this post things seem to have developed. A colleague received an emailed release from Mode just a few minutes after I received the release from GMMB:
OBAMA FOR AMERICA CAMPAIGN WINS TOP PRIZES IN CANNES
Mode Project, Creative Partner to AKPD Message and Media, Part of the Winning Media Team
Chicago, IL – (June 29, 2009) — The advertising and marketing campaign that helped propel Barack Obama into the White House has been honored with the two top prizes — the Titanium Grand Prix and the Integrated Grand Prix — from the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival.
Chicago-based Mode Project was one of the main creative partners in the campaign, assisting its longtime client and the lead agency, AKPD Message and Media. Mode Project oversaw the design of the now famous Obama logo and produced more than 200 broadcast commercials and additional digital content during the course of the primary and general election.
Of the Cannes win for Obama for America, Mode Project’s Colin Carter says, “We were honored to be a part of the Obama for America campaign and congratulate everyone on the Obama Media Team in this historic, game-changing endeavor. The Cannes honor is the highest in advertising and knowing we contributed to the successes of the campaign gives us a sense of accomplishment, second only to the election’s outcome.”
Mode Project (http://www.modeproject.com/) is a Chicago-based creative production studio providing motion design, production, editorial and interactive solutions to agencies and brands such as AT&T, ecko unltd, Obama for America, Sunsilk, Tropicana, Kellogg’s, Gatorade since 2002.
So, got any info as to why different agencies and companies involved in the historic campaign may be playing politics in the wake of the Cannes awards? Or is this just an innocent, simple oversight where the email I got was the one that forgot to give praise to the creative parts of the campaign, reserving that for another PR list? Let me know…
UPDATE: Last night’s meeting went great. I schlepped on about becoming a better geek, Matt from McCann introduced some tools to make anyone into a rabid Twitter fiend and James from Saatchi poked the crabby bear that is the age-old debate on advertising’s merits as art and the ethics of creative borrowing. Good times. Hopefully the ladies enjoyed as much as we did.
As we approached our CaT: Creativity and Technology event last week (which went swimmingly, thanks for asking) I began to think more and more about the prevalance of augmented reality in the panels and presentations that we were putting on. AR, along with data visualization, was one of the day’s most discussed topics; at least four of the presenters on the agenda spoke of the technique.
We had a few practitioners together, so I wanted to ask them what I’m sure many attendees were thinking: Is this a fad, or what? I’ve seen the rumblings and mutterings to the same effect, and a post today by Iain at Crackunit is prompting even more debate.
While I’m in general tilting toward the cynical side when I see a tool get hyped quickly, I’m pretty confident as we extend the size and strength of mobile data networks, get larger screens at home and become more comfortable interacting with webcams that we’ll see applications of Augmented Reality move away from cool visuals and into a realm of great utility. Already, mobile apps like Wikitude are making use of the technology but once data streams there get larger expect even better stuff. (Tangentially, I talked with the creators of a bunch of apps for a recent Creativity story.)
Obviously, as in everything, advertising professionals stand a good chance of ravaging the practice, but I don’t think that’ll matter. Even if they do, useful, interesting applications stand stock apart from tawdry gags. The USPS box simulator Tait mentions from AKQA is a good example of this and the Ikea example below it is great and traditional as well.
But what are they keys to deeply significant AR projects, other than a growing infrastructure of fast mobile connectivity, increase in display size and webcam adoption?
Coordination with product/package design across multiple areas to create unique activators: Consider being able to pullall the Kraft products from your cupboard, place them with their tags facing the webcam and then seeing the different hot meals you could combine them to make. The sort of heavy interplay across multiple product lines that’s necessary for this to be good won’t come from a one-off project, though.
Dynamic, rapid interplay with other backend parts on the visualization tip: Wieden + Kennedy did a virtual Easter Egg hunt in its office with Photosynth and Google Street View’s just introduced Smart Navigation. Both services are good at imitating 3D-like experiences from flat images. I can’t imagine we’re far from finding a bridge. Imagine going to Disneyland or a National Park and being able to bring your trail map to a viewer location and pop out an AR map to note landmarks and see what you’re in for. This won’t work, though, unless the stuff in back comes together seamlessly.
Useful and compelling content and interactions: This last one may be the most obvious but it’s also the most important. Any Crystal Pepsi/Pet Rock scenario begins with people thinking of the AR applications as tired and a waste of time, developing a resistance to the technology and ignoring it. There are already a few barriers to engagement, namely the amount of time and technology it takes to fire up the interaction. As those come down, you’ve got to make sure what’s on the other end counts.
Wikipedia has an exciting list of potential AR stuff (such as, when projectors get really cheap, you can do cool stuff like this: “Any physical device currently produced to assist in data-oriented tasks (such as the clock, radio, PC, arrival/departure board at an airport, stock ticker, PDA, PMP, informational posters/fliers/billboards, in-car navigation systems, etc. could be replaced by virtual devices that cost nothing to produce aside from the cost of writing the software.”)
Thinking AR stuff will quickly go away or decline in quality is a normal cynical reaction (and one I had at first), but it doesn’t seem like, in this case, it will. Advertisers will certainly make thorough use of the novelty and entertainment aspects, but the rate of innovation inside the AR community will allow more and more meaningful interactions should brands choose to dedicate resources to well-thought-out projects.
In this case, Rohrer’s one of three big new hires by Tool of North America, which traditionally represents TV commercial directors, but is making a foray, along with most anyone in the space concerned with keeping the doors open, into digital creation.
Rohrer’s a very interesting guy, who’s cited by many as one of the top game developers working today, especially among the indie/artsy set (he was also honored as part of this year’s Creativity 50–and that’s no small beer). Esquire magazine had a great story recently about his commitment to craft as well as honorable ideals concerning our relationship with nature and the advancement of an equitable and responsible society. (To be succinct, he’s something of an ascetic who fought to preserve his family’s yard as a meadow, eats vegan food and doesn’t refrigerate anything.) He’s got the values I wouldn’t have thought to be attracted to working in advertising.
‘Ho ho,’ you say, ‘This is interesting, another artist brought under the spell of the wicked advertising industry. How soon we’ll be seeing him leave, jaded, when his true genius is squandered.’ And you’re right to think that way–it’s a bit like Thoreau writing Quaker Oats spots for Wilford Brimley.
Turns out, Do I Need an Umbrella? (left) is a downmarket version of Umbrella Today?. Perhaps the most popular single-serving site out there. Umbrella Today? does the exact same thing (and more), was established earlier and has since become immensely popular. In the case of Umbrella Today? versus Do I Need an Umbrella? the former’s brevity of initial query and the quality it suggests shines through in all aspects, making the site, in every way possible, better than its more literal stepchild.
But, despite Do I Need an Umbrella? appearing to be a knock-off, it made me think. A few weeks ago, someone I know wrote something like “I didn’t like the weather report, so I just kept looking at other places until I found one that was suitable.”
So why not check and see if they agreed, and if not, which one was correct? I was after all, in the mood for something to tell me whether to bring an umbrella.
They didn’t agree. One told me I needed an umbrella, the other said I didn’t. So who do I trust?
I didn’t want to just toss it up between those two, so I hit my F12 and checked the old standby, the easiest weather report, the one I check nearly every day. My dashboard widget showed a thundercloud; the only icon for the day was rain. It’d have to be an umbrella day.
I hedged one more time–Weather Underground. My old standby said I could get away with not carrying an umbrella until 5pm, when the storms rolled in. (All these tests were done by inputting my zip code within a span of five minutes.)
Done, right? The binary yes/no nature of the Umbrella sites was conflicting, and Apple’s weather widget wasn’t detailed enough. With a better forecast I could make the decision.
But it’s interesting that the uniquely internet phenomenon by which we tend to select our news and choose only sources that are similar to our bias, say electing to receive only news that’s been run through a liberal filter, has extended to something that should be mildly scientific. I don’t want to carry an umbrella on a Saturday, so I’ll look around until I find evidence to support my position.
Meteorology is by no means an exact science, but we can now ask dozens whether it’s going to rain and get different answers. That sort of thing never happened down on the farm.
So, to that end, wrapping up this non-item item (really, blogging about the weather is about as prosaic and time-filling than talking about it) someone needs to develop an optimist’s Umbrella Today?, which will only ever answer with an emphatic “No” and indeed, additionally, let us know it’s going to be a beautiful day where we’ll get closer to our dreams then we ever imagined.
And we can curse the weatherman on the odd days it’s not correct, unless of course we want a spectacular summer storm and wind up getting one. I’ve been hoping for thunder and lightening from 5pm onwards today and Weather Underground has yet to deliver.
UPDATE: Never content to let an idea easily executed languish on the Internet unfulfilled, Noah Brier slapped up doineedanumbrellatoday.com, your one-stop shop for permanently sunny weather news. Another version of this whole affair came up recently when I was reading James Wood’s How Fiction Works. Speaking about the protagonist, Ricardo Reis, in Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, Wood writes “He reflects fondly on the story of the ninety-seven-year-old John D. Rockefeller, who has a speciall doctored version of The New York Tmes delivered every day, altered to contain only good news. ‘The world’s threats are universal, like the sun, but Ricard Reis takes shelter under his own shadow.'”
I ran into an old pal of mine from Flavorpill, Yancey Strickler, last year at an entrepreneurs meetup. I was there researching a story but he had was looking for practical intel for a new venture. We caught up later and he told me about the site he and his partner were working on; It sounded promising then, and I’m pleased to say it launched last week: it’s called Kickstarter, and has a noble aim.
The site is modeled around people outlining creative projects, setting funding goals, and then soliciting pledges from fans to help them create. As the process evolves, fundees give their fans exclusive content in the form of updates, behind-the-scenes peeks and general bonus bits. When the project reaches its funding goal in the allotted time, then fans have to pony up what they promised. The site’s got some great backers, smarts coming from the likes of Waxy.org’s Andy Baio, and an Internet full of folks yearning to make things and help others in the process.
When I initially grabbed beers with Yancey and his partner Perry Chen I dug the idea; I’d just read Kevin Kelly’s Long Tail-informed essay “1,000 True Fans” and realized creators have lots of latitude to reach myriad potential enthusiasts on the web to sustain their efforts. Kickstarter seemed like it’d not only create a platform for those ideas, but also serve as the carrot to keep people focused on their creative goals. (After all, knowing someone you’ve never met in Phoenix pledged $20 and wants to read stuff you cut from your screenplay or video updates on how your harmonica practice is going is a pretty good carrot to keep you from drifting to another thing.)
Yancey’s got invites if you’ve got something brewing and like their infrastructure. I’m sure if you ask nicely on Twitter he’ll help you take the first step to working up the wherewithall to making your pet project a reality.
I’m going with Papa Clem today and keying him in exactas with a couple of favorites.
I like that he’s improving, coming off a gutsy win at the Arkansas Derby, and has a pretty decent Beyer Speed Figure (4th highest). I threw away a couple horses because they hadn’t raced on dirt (ahem, Pioneerof The Nile). Churchill’s reporting (via Twitter) the track’s sloppy today. I’m eager to see what happens with those horses used to more uniform surfaces.
But what the hell do I know? My Derby record is 0-for-8. I’m mainly in it for the fine, fine juleps. Big ole hat tip to the Post’s Anthony Affrunti, who recommended I check out Clem and wound up picking him in Friday’s paper, along with Hold Me Back and big-ass underdog Flying Private.
Here’s a great photo of Papa Clem from earlier this year at Santa Anita taken by flickr’s qtfeather2000, who’s got a ton more great horse shots. Hopefully we’ll have one of Clem in roses to post tonight.
Hey, know what’d be great? Let’s put some company logos on some protective masks to cash in on this swine flu hysteria! Go SWINE! It’s VIRAL!
Date: Wed, 29 Apr 2009 12:10:52 -0400
Subject: The Hottest New Viral Marketing Idea: Go SWINE
The Hottest New Viral Marketing Idea: Go SWINE
GoGORILLA Media is excited to offer advertisers an opportunity to contribute to consumers’ health while at the same time getting their message across in a lively, fun and sure-to-be-talked-about way.
With local drugstores already running out of protective face masks, branded face masks with your 1-color logo on them will be a welcome giveaway, no matter which demographic you are trying to reach.
Brand ambassadors will be handing out your branded face masks to tens of thousands of commuters in major markets across the nation and spread the word about your brand at the same time.
Don’t miss out on the buzz and excitement created by this new form of ‘viral’ marketing!
For more information, please contact your GoGORILLA sales rep today at 212-925-2420.
116 W. Houston St., 2nd Fl.
New York, NY 10012
Yeah, no. (Four hours later!)
Date: Wed, 29 Apr 2009 16:50:34 -0400
Subject: Apology Letter
I would like to apologize for the insensitive email that some of you might have received this morning. In hindsight, the concept was not as clever as I had originally thought. I did not intend for it to make light of the recent Swine Flu outbreak and regret any anguish we caused you.
I want to take personal responsibility for this ‘stunt’ and let you know that the fine staff of GoGORILLA Media had absolutely nothing to do with this email.
If you would like to discuss with me further, I can be reached at 646.861.9060.
I peeled myself out of the office briefly Thursday to stop over at Behance’s 99% Conference (“It’s not about ideas, it’s about making ideas happen”) at the Times Center.
I was only able to see a few speakers, but I picked a good time to drop by. First, Seth Godin talked about squashing your lizard brain, the fearful primitive part of consciousness that’s forever impeding progress and preventing us from actually finishing projects with thoughts of fear.
After that, it was Jake Nickell and Jeff Kalmikoff from Threadless, who talked about implementation of ideas at various stages in their business (the slide above is one of their credos). Another laffer was a picture of a desktop PC set up in front of a door, monitor stacked on CPU with a desk chair in front. That was apparently Nickell’s setup to prevent himself from leaving the house in the early days of the site.
I especially enjoyed Scott Belsky of Behance, who spoke just before lunch. Belsky touched on the different types of creative personalities, how we can pair people to max our their effectiveness by combining traits, how competition and conflict can spur things, etc. It was interesting, in part because it was similar to Hyper Island’s philosophies of group dynamics, which they illustrated last month at South by Southwest.
I ran into a chum of mine, Jocelyn Glei, who informed me she’s working with Belsky on a book-length exposition of his findings, which will certainly provide a grounds for greater comparison of the two groups.
In just a few days we’ve seen a couple of dimwitted scumbags erode the brand’s credibility faster than you can say “Get the door, it’s Dominos.”
Unfortunately, George Orwell’s rule of thumb (“roughly speaking, the more one pays for food, the more sweat and spittle one is obliged to eat with it”) never applied to pizza franchises.
As the backlash against the two coworkers guileless enough to upload videos of their back-room chicanery continues (now, to the point of Dominos apologizing and the duo facing felony charges) I’m reminded of his classic Down and Out in Paris and London and one of its themes, that the working class and poor have a special code amongst themselves binding them to reverence and respect when they’re in a service role for those at or equal to their station.
The piece had been done for a few months, and had gotten pushed to the March issue because it had certain evergreen qualities.
It was laid out, on the page, being proofed and minutes away from being sent to the printer when it was revealed Draplin, along with Chris Glass, another designer, worked with Chicago’s Mode Project creative director Steve Juras to develop logos for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) projects and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) team (seen here), which were unveiled by Big Boss Barack Obama in early March.
This was, as they go, a tiny bundle of candy placed into our lap by the great magazine fairy in the sky. And those are pretty few and far-between at the moment, so it was nice to savor. (The super-relevant photo, by the way, was taken by Mark Welsh from Nitro Snowboards back before Thanksgiving!)
We took around half an hour to rework it and a nice evergreen became much more timely and interesting.
About a month ago a forwarded email arrived. It was so staggering, actions were forced.
The note, laden in artistic pronouncements and full-of-itselfness, begged for an extension; a dramatic reading was considered, but it turned out only a full video could to the thing justice. After all, a 1500-word yearly update email sent to dozens of people deserves the highest degree of satire you can muster.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m an earnest man. But even sincerity, in extreme, is funny as hell. (Viz. Kenneth on 30 Rock.)
Who was the sender? An unknown personage, but clearly a modern-day Benjamin Franklin, part writer, part political organizer, all full of Brooklyn potential and privilege and so indicative of our generation’s rampaging self-importance.
We christened him Eric Anton Schechter-Oblomov; this is his yearly update, verbatim, brought to life as best we could.
I’ve got a new job! This just went out over the e-wire, and here it is now for some edification.
My term as Creativity’s associate editor has come to a close.
I’m still under the Ad Age umbrella, though, and have exciting work ahead of me.
As of next week I’m moving into a role programming and developing content around Ad Age and Creativity events–recruiting speakers, creating leading content around concepts and panel agendas, making sure everyone knows what’s coming up, etc.–as Ad Age’s events content manager.
While it’s a disappointment to see my part in the day-to-day reporting in Creativity’s exciting world diminish, I’ve got something new to be looking forward to: shaping how we interact with you, dear reader, in the live space, how we help confer knowledge and make deeper connections.
I’ve only played with Jim once, in a “Friday-night nickel-and-dime game” (which was actually on a Sunday, in a basement in Howard Beach) but if I recall correctly I managed to mad-dog my way through the game longer than he did. Obviously he’s gotten quite a bit better. Jim’s on Twitter, as well. I’d stay tuned, as hopefully he’ll have some more of this good stuff soon.
Many are painting this as the year Twitter reached mass acceptance, but for the crowd of internet types who headed to Austin last weekend for South by Southwest the service was already almost two years old.
I went down to Texas, and saw some great stuff, met interesting people and had a wonderful time, as usual1 and want to pass things along to you, dear reader. But in an effort to keep my fresh-faced Twitter followers who weren’t in Texas from fomenting a rebellion at rapid-fire updates I decided to collect everything I would have put into 140-character updates and leave them here. Old school! Hopefully you’ll enjoy, and, if not, dismiss with the speed with which you surely ignore many unwanted messages daily.
Day 1, Saturday, March 14
4:34 am: Awake from what cld pass 4 sleep w/ dog fidgeting all night between my sprawled legs. Dogsitting makes for strange bedfellows.
5:44 am: At LaGuardia, security line reaches around longer than I’ve ever seen. Involuntarily say Fuck when the functionary motions to the end.
Dodgeball’s reincarnated as Foursquare! Hit up the right nightspots and become the king of the town (at least as far as Internet cool points are concerned).
I’m reminded of Bright Lights, Big City:
… How did you get here? It was your friend, Tad Allagash, who powered you in here. You started out on the Upper East Side with champagne and unlimited prospects, strictly observing the Allagash rule of perpetual motion: one drink per stop. Tad’s mission in life is to have more fun than anyone else in New York City, and this involves a lot of moving around, since there is always the likelihood that where you aren’t is more fun than where you are.
Hopefully this’ll be available to test out while Austin-hopping at SXSW this year.1
I’m also hoping there’s an “achievement” called Alcoholic Loser for those who spend 4+ hours a day in only one bar, or “Cheapskate” for those who only get blotto at work-related gratis cocktail functions or “Fearless” for someone who drinks exclusively at bars in areas with really, really low average income and/or high crime rates. Perhaps integration with the iPhone breathalyzer to crown the real King Drunk?
I’ll be down from Saturday-Wednesday and may update here if anything wild happens. [↩]
Sure, the story’s just a humble few lines, but there was no need for me to do anything other than convey the facts: pigeon, man, statue, art fair, funny. An honest job, decently done. But it gives me pleasure to think of the time I spent putting this story together, and hopefully that’s conveyed. Briefly, this is something I struggled with: is it more accurate to say this is a statue of a man defecating on the head of a pigeon or of a pigeon with a man defecating on its head? Think about it.
I can say quite confidently that were fate to have brought me to the show this morning with a budget of $40k and a suitable foyer or other entranceway needing of adornment I could see no greater way to immediately communicate my worldview than this piece of contemporary art. Perhaps, one fine day, it could be mine.
It’s rough out there. The seas are roiling. Companies are folding. You don’t need more than a limited grasp of economics to know we’re in for more turmoil.
For many, though, times of prosperity aren’t all that familiar. All over the world emerging economies have made do during tumultuous years as a result of mismanagement or forces beyond their control.
Around a decade ago Argentina was dealing with similar issues, yet the show went on. In the latest Creativity I tracked down six gentlemen of advertising who were around during those years and got their take on how the crash happened, and what they learned from it.
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.
Here’s how it works (according to teraflopon the MeFi thread): “video codecs like MPEG-4 use motion compensation to cut down on the bit rate. Only a few keyframes of the video are encoded in full, about one every few seconds; the rest (“predicted” frames) store a rough estimate of how much each block of pixels has shifted since the previous frame, along with just enough actual pixels to make up the difference between the estimate and the real picture. So if there’s a single moving object on a static background, all that needs to be stored is the area of the background that’s been uncovered since the previous frame.
In this case, what I suspect they did is encode their raw video clips with no keyframes (except the very first one), then spliced them together, so the decoder applies the motion vectors to the wrong original image. It looks like they also duplicated the same frame several times in some places, to get those swirls of color.”
A few avid readers of both Creativity as well as this thing may not need the spur, but we’ve just posted our annual list of 50 interesting people and groups in the innovation game.
The Creativity 50 has changed a bit in the three years I’ve been involved, and I’m glad to say this year we have a great balance of both interesting and inspiring people in the world at large and the world of marketing. The latter can be myopic to a fault at times and one of the parts of the magazine I’m gladdest to bolster is introducing new viewpoints to our readership.
So, to that end, I was really excited to get to talk to some interesting people for this edition, above and beyond exciting achievers in advertising. Jason Fried is the CEO of 37Signals, and knows a thing or two about productivity and development. Aaron Koblin has an exciting worldview and is one of the few who’ve been able to wrap samples of our world’s data in elegant cloaks. Jonathan Blow, the creator of Braid, is part of a group of game developers pushing to make things that are much more intellectually and emotionally stimulating than the standard entertainment offerings. I had an in-depth and highly informative conversation with Blow, but that’s still under wraps until April.
Lastly, I got a chance to talk with the ever-interesting Dean Kamen, a guy I consider a real pioneer. The full Q&A is on our site now, and I urge you to check it out. Kamen has some very exciting opinions about growing up in our era and how our future innovations will come about.
Update: Something screwy came about between the ampersands in the Creativity links and my WordPress RSS feed. If you’re into the links and they’re returning noise in the syndicated version, click through to the actual post and they’ll work from there.
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.
True screen icons are diminishing, I think, and he carried the torch. McGoohan was a forceful actor and brilliant mind–don’t forget, came up with the concept for the show and wrote and directed many episodes. As comparable as someone like JJ Abrams is in the latter, Abrams certainly doesn’t have the acting chops.
If you haven’t watched The Prisoner, take a rainy Sunday and loaf in front of the screen and watch at the AMC site. They’re preparing some sort of remake, which will be interesting.
“Old media will not be forced back into a historical village, like cute old handicrafts, wielding the same brief power of nostalgia as a spinning wheel in action. The old media are as intoxicating and empty as the new playthings. Their age is no guarantee of wisdom. Nor can we accuse the old media of dull or demented behavior. Their chronicling continues; they perceive with the one sense to which they have been doomed. With a little exercise, old media may serve us just fine, amidst all the contemporary telematic machinery.”
Buddy Scott sent this over a while back; it appears here on Agentur Bilwet’s “1000 Fehler,” an audio recording of these guys. “Adilkno (Dutch: “Bilwet”), the Foundation for the Advancement of Illegal Knowledge, was established in Amsterdam in 1983. It is a free association of authors and researchers. ”
My first reaction when I turned on the radio the other day and heard NPR’s TV critic Andrew Wallenstein complaining about how hard his job was, and his epiphany–that he has to watch even the bad TV for the rest of his life, because he’s a TV columnist–was a throaty sound of contempt, a disdainful uvulation. Maybe I’ve been reading too much Times New Gloaming, but to hear anyone griping about having to watch television for a living, however bad it is, strikes me as haughty and ungrateful.
But then I considered it a bit more, and wrapped my head around the fact reality television is absolute garbage, trading on the most odious traits of humanity, and responsible for a large part of the general decline in social values historians will surely cite as part of our millennial breakdown. I’d rather be slapped in the mouth repeatedly with a sock full of bolts than watch two prime-time hours of network reality programming. So if Wallenstein is going to fall on the grenade, as they say, and subject his mind to a raw drip of poison to spin that into a thirty-second dirge for my entertainment, hey, have at it, buddy.
I’m not usually in the position of emphatically recommending anything on the cover of the Weekly Standard, but this story on Detroit is too important to pass up, if only because it’s able give a high-altitude view of the staggering failures that continue to define this once-majestic place.
Yeah, you’ve got to put up with a bit of Scott Templeton under-the-bridge stuff but Matt Labash does a really good job of sussing out some of the complexities of Charlie LeDuff, one of the best guys in the business, whose personality seems to be between the gentle inquisitiveness of a Jon Ronson and the advocacy of someone like Muntadhar al-Zaidi (not the best comparison, but the latter is close at mind, give me a break).
If Detroit has a future it’s with the LeDuffs of the world, the sparking, idea-oriented tied to this place who can bring some of the ingenuity and passion back. Whether they’ll be attracted by the blank canvas decades from now when the city is little but a sterile downtown surrounded by desolate blocks or will come sooner, when there are still things worth saving, is the big question.
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.
Early last month, as the historic nature of our presidential election set in and the national night light grew a little brighter, images and stories of people celebrating all over the globe flooded in. I got to wondering.
How many people around the world DON’T know Barack Obama was elected president of the United States?
I’m entirely happy my favorite NYC newscaster and true-blue journalist, Pat Kiernan, has launched his own site, Pat’s Papers, where he’s been basically vlogging the biggest stories in the day’s newspapers.
Shared suffering as much as excitement compels me to share this week’s Top 5, in which my teleprompter skills get another workout. At least I was able to work in references to Biodome and the leaked BNP list.
So, I got my G1 Android, aka Googlephone ahead of schedule last night and have now spent some time with it, so here’s a hands-on look as well as a bit of criticism.
I think the phone, especially the Android OS, has a lot of promise, and potentially can unseat the iPhone, if you look at functionality.
Stylewise, the G1 is a bit of a beast, though, and won’t win any beauty contests. But, erstwhile netcrunchers, we don’t want pageant wins, do we? We want to work! Handle business. That’s why we owned BlackBerries. Or at least I did.
Over the last month or so I helped compile a list of the most memorable New York-styled ads for New York Magazine, and, at long last, here it is. We polled a whole host of past and present NYC ad luminaries to determine a big list of spots that had grabbed the city’s attention, then narrowed them down with a poll to find out which rated highest.
Next week is Advertising Week in New York, the week many in the industry gather for a celebration of selling things. It’s not all parades with mascots down Fifth Avenue (though I can’t find any info this year about the “Procession of the Great Icons”); there’s some jibber-jabber too, and an unhealthy amount of socializing.
I’m going to be moderating a panel Tuesday, talking with three very intelligent guys about the potentiality for big ideas on Facebook and other social media. If you’d like to come by, it’s free, all you have to do is RSVP. (Oops–I just looked, and it says it’s sold out on the Advertising Week site. Contact me if you’re interested in coming, or just show up early.)
Anyway, we’re going to be (hopefully!) talking about interesting stuff, including a pretty conceptual look at what some future hypothetical Facebook marketing efforts might look like. I’m joined by some great creatives/forward-looking digital guys, so expect some cool ideas to pop out.
The Facebook Spark Series: Spark The Big Idea
How do good ideas spread? What does it take to get people to share branded content or offers with their friends? Top creative thinkers discuss innovative work and the methods to developing big ideas worth sharing in today’s social media world.
Moderated by Nick Parish, Associate Editor, Creativity
Rei Inamoto, Co-Chief Creative Officer, AKQA
Richard Ting, VP & ECD, Mobile and Emerging Platforms Group, R/GA
Rick Webb, Co-Founder and COO, The Barbarian Group
All this looks like small beer compared to the meltdown here on Wall Street this month, but I was back in Michigan over Labor Day and found myself thinking the state’s huge production incentives program isn’t being fully utilized.
Up North, things are particularly bleak. In the town where my parents stay, Boyne City, 95 people started Labor Day weekend with a pink slip, as LexaMar, one of the biggest corporations in the town of 3500 laid them off on Friday. It made small talk everywhere, downtown, strolling past the classic cars on display, at the police-sponsored drag race at the city airstrip, another midsized manufacturer slicing off jobs as the economy expels another ragged breath.
Big thanks to all attendees, presenters and organizers for helping make yesterday’s Interesting New York conference happen. It was time well spent; I particularly enjoyed hearing about database basics from Noah Brier, fan fiction from Amber Finlay (and special guest Bud Melman of that old school advertising drama), Charles Rosen talking about the Democratic Party and the upcoming presidential election’s role as a point-of-no-return, Colin Nagy talking techno, Dallas Penn extolling the virtues of quarter water in a sarcastic fantastic exploration of the Bodega Food Pyramid and James Cooper delivering his presentation on ping pong’s beneficence while volleying.
Next Saturday, the 13th, I’m going to be giving a quick talk on the history and preparation of kombucha, a fermented drink quickly becoming popular with the health-conscious Whole Foods crowd. While I don’t really count myself among them, I’ve been making the stuff for just over two years now and have the process pretty much down. If you’re a serious fan, you should really make it yourself–sixteen ounces costs $4 or $5 but produced at home it’s about the same per gallon.
UPDATE: I’m the last speaker, so I should be on about 5:30, but it’ll probably be after that as these things tend to go long. But come earlier than me anyway, cause there’s a load of good stuff all day. Afterparty’s at Black Door.
It’s been an interesting, albeit slow, few August weeks round these parts, so here’s a bit of a Creativity-related fill-in.
One of our favorite publishers, PowerHouse books, sent by a catalog for its new season, which, strangely, included a huge, front-and-center push for a book on small-plates portion control written by none other than Alex Bogusky. If you failed Know Your Advertising Creatives 101 (and no shame in that–certainly other coursework has greater world relevance) Mr. Bogusky is the Chief Creative Officer of Crispin, Porter + Bogusky, the Miami-based ad agency whose clients include Burger King and Domino’s. The evangelical pizza business is new, but CP+B’s relationship with Burger King is going on a decade, in which time they’ve revitalized the marketing, with a rock-n-jock approach hitting hard in the agency’s breadbasket, the young adult male.
There’s only one place I’d rather be in a few hours, and that’s good old Köln for the Total 9 party. The compilation itself comes out next week, and buying it is the smart thing to do. It’s very, very good.
My good pal Jimmy told me a fun Total story from a few years ago, when his friend ran up to Wolfgang Voigt, maybe a bit intoxicated, and surely in awe of the whole affair, and told him “Wolfgang, you’re my hero.”
Wolfgang gave him a smile and calmly said “When we make a party, we are all heroes.”
Partizan Lab’s Erik Lerner has directed this cute little animated video for one of my favorite artists, Rex the Dog. The song is “I Can See You, You Can See Me.” Rex’s debut album, which may be called “I Can See You, You Can See Me” (at least that’s the title on the drawing of a CD on his MySpace page)The Rex the Dog Show, is out soon.
Of course you remember Rex from his big big song “We Live In Daddy’s Car” from a few years ago, as well as his aural affinity for the KORG 700S synthesizer.
Follow along at his site. There’s even a nice little preview mix and stickers, too, for the faithful. Just sign up for Rexy’s fan club.
Oh, you know, just another day at the office writing about Radiohead, lasers, and the folks that love them. Last week I talked with James Frost, the director of Radiohead’s new “House of Cards” video. I’m seeing the group play for the first time at All Points West next month; I’ll report back if the stuff from the video is used at all in the live show. It’d be a bit of a shame if it wasn’t; this look is too closely connected to this song to be utilized in a fresh way anywhere else. So Radiohead might as well keep trotting it out with “House of Cards” when they play it live. Come to think of it, as amazing as applying this technology to film the crowd and band during a live performance would be, it’d probably be impossible to render the data in time to produce anything but the crudest preview. But I’m sure you stopped at the link to read Frost say that in our talk and have already ruled out that possibility.
True providence (well, an invite from a production company) got me into a preview of Pineapple Express Thursday night at BAM, complete with a Q&A afterwards from David Gordon Green. It was a funny film; it felt like the Rogen-Apatow-McBride-DGG bloc is evolving a tiny amount past previous milestones from each of them, pushing screwball, farce improv comedy a little further out onto the gangplank. Things in PE get pretty absurd, but it’s OK when they do. As the wheels come off, you’re reminded its a chummy bunch of funny guys who have tens of millions of dollars to make something that’ll hold ground at the box office for a few weeks and have a shedload of extra stuff on the DVD. Or, as Green explained the wild climax, “it only works because everything is building to such absurdity.”
Not to give the impression it isn’t a funny movie; its hilarious. I don’t bust out laughing that easily at the novies but by the end even small weird utterances and movements from characters had me giggling.
Spoiler alert: they smoke a ton of weed in the movie. Green revealed afterward it was some herb used as a substitute, and despite it tasting terrible “it was addictive.” They actually had a Technical Consultant who was a pot grower licensed by the state of California. He appeared, along with the postproduction supervisor, as a guy buying dope off Franco. The grower is the one with the rat tail.
Another interesting revelation was how much improv was used. At the end, there’s a Boy what an adventure!-type diner scene, which Green said was all improvised. He wound up cutting five different versions, testing them all in different L.A. neighborhoods and adding stuff that did unexpectedly well into a final cut.
A few more bullet-pointy notes:
DGG is working on remaking Suspiria, the Dario Argento classic, with Christof Gebert, the sound mixer he frequently works with.
Originally Seth Rogan and James Franco had opposite roles.
James Franco gashed his head badly during one slapstick scene and needed stitches in his forehead; they had to shoot him with a headband or from behind for the next week or so.
Huey Lewis wasn’t the first choice for the Pineapple Express theme song; the guys wanted Ray Parker, Jr. But there was prior litigation between Parker, Jr. and studio Columbia that killed the idea.
Danny McBride’s shitty clothes and weird wardrobe is payback for Green agreeing to do a nude scene when the two were in film school together.
After playing around with it for a while I figured it’d be excellent if we could get the images to go on Facebook, to spice things up a bit here beyond hatching eggs and super wall videos. So I drew out a little plan of what a simple Facebook ffffound app would do.
Problem is, I’m just coping with English; communicating with Facebook’s guts is a ways away for me. Luckily super Aussie Arnold Almeida found me after a desperate post on a ffffound appreciation group here and whipped up a spiffy little app according to my basic specs. And he’s been awesome enough to maintain it through several ffffound code changes since.
Here’s a piece from the June issue of Creativity I feel came out quite well. Pulling in young talent is a constant source of gnashing whether you’re blogging or running a basketball franchise–but as far as digital marketing goes, it’s time to take the next step from hiring designers and coders who can make things look cool to hiring developers who can form concepts and bring together a team with knowhow to execute higher level things. Software tools. (Like, imagine if Chase built Mint.) There aren’t any great case studies yet as to how these things will look but smart agencies are already thinking beyond microshites to applications.
Here’s the full thing; poke around on the site for more goodies–we were all really proud of the June issue (let me know if you’d like me to send one). I’ve also pasted it below for convenience (erm, and search engines).
I can easily award my ‘favorite weekend’ crown to Memorial Day; since the inception of Detroit’s electronic music festival, whatever you might call it (DEMF, Movement, Fuse-In) I’ve been in town catching up with lovely friends and family, hearing amazing artists and stomping around one of the world’s most intriguing cities. I take a little pride in only missing one festival, in 2001, and have seen it go through all sorts of changes. Compared to previous years, 2008 was professional in concept and execution, with Paxahau, the party promotion company which took reins over last year, honing an already strong element of expertise to managing the three-day event. Each year is a little different, but this was on balance one of the best yet, with a huge array of options.