The Totally Digital Man: Will Smith, Michael Jordan … and Ed Miller

Perhaps you’ve read about Ang Lee’s new movie The Gemini Man that features an entirely digital version of actor Will Smith’s 23-year old self. The results look pretty spectacular in early behind the scenes footage. By any technical measure, this is an extraordinarily special effect; creating an entirely computer-generated human being–particularly someone so universally recognized–is ridiculously difficult.

We certainly thought so back in 2003 when we needed a college-aged Michael Jordan for the end of a Gatorade commercial. Fred Raimondi of Digital Domain did amazing work throughout that groundbreaking project (watch the spot and a behind the scenes footage here) and yet, as good as the then state of the art effects were, the final version of young Michael always felt a little … Playstation.

But that wasn’t my first encounter with an entirely digitally-rendered man. No, I first experienced a digital doppelgänger upon joining J. Walter Thompson Chicago in 1997. That’s where I first encountered Ed Miller …

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That’s Ed on the left. A kinda good looking guy with one of those faces that feel somehow familiar. For a year or two, we’d read about him in the agency newsletter occasionally and see his face up there with the rest of us on the big, agency wall hanging in the lobby.

The thing was though, Ed didn’t exist. He was the product of the pleasantly subversive minds of three agency creatives: Joe Van Trump, Russell Heubach, and Mark Westman. As Mark put it … the idea came from the growth and flux in the agency personnel. There were so many going away parties, we joked that we could make up a fake going away party and people would still come. I used to do a lot of compositing for Russell and Joe and I lived with Joe at that time. They asked me if I could make a mash up of Joe and Russell for a fake person that would use both their middle names to get ‘Ed Miller.’ What made it possible was 3 things:

  1. I had all of the company head shots.
  2. They were all taken in the same set up, at the same angle with the same lighting.
  3. Photoshop had just released version 3.0 and introduced layers, so I could stack the heads and align the features. 

Having great source material made compositing easier so we could focus on finding unique features to combine. Merging two people was too obvious so we started pulling in more folk. Russell’s hair, Joe’s smile, your jaw, Matt’s shoulders and Steve’s eyes. The face felt familiar, but you couldn’t put your finger on it. Then for me, it was just a little blending and minor contrast adjustment to make them all look like there were meant to be there. I was a figure painting major in art school; it felt like sketching in charcoal. John Siebert took the face and started dropping it into old photos of guys in the army, company party photos, etc. He finally put the face on a going away card to sign for Ed. The venue was the dive bar Trotter’s. The party was packed; multiple people asked where Ed was. Later, I put the example in my book when I interviewed at DDB. It was so fun to do.”

These days companies like Generated Photos (“100,000 Faces Generated by AI, Free to Download!”), offer entirely digital people as a way to serve content-sucking new media by making copyrights, distribution rights, and infringement claims a thing of the past.

But in 1997, none of us were thinking that far ahead. We were just having fun.

Of course, Einstein said “Creativity is intelligence having fun.” So maybe we were just being creative.

But done right, you can’t really tell the two apart anyway.

 

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On Winning Friends & Influencing +800K Others

Teri Turner is an innovator in the world of social media, an influencer who has built an incredibly passionate and engaged following over the past five years. She’s a hard-working, network building, life embracing and affirming force of nature.

Happily, she’s also a friend. Last night, I had the incredible good fortune to interview her in front of 300 followers during the final scheduled appearance of her 23 stop national book tour. It’s not often you get to interview someone whose career trajectory serves as a primer in new media marketing.

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In recent years, it has become cliché how every brand seeks “authenticity,” but Teri’s “No Crumbs Left” brand personifies the power of exactly that. She did not start with a plan, she simply started, living and sharing her interests and expertise with others. A Facebook page led to Instagram posts, which in turn led to brand promotions and a podcast and a book tour; Teri produces an incredible amount of media content, learning and expanding to new platforms by simply “following the thread where it leads.”

Social media influencers matter in today’s marketing for one simple reason: recommendation marketing drives sales like nothing else. In Nielsen research, 92% of consumers cite recommendations from friends and family as the leading driver of purchase behavior.

A natural networker, Teri built a truly engaged following through DM’s and other direct online interactions. Early on, she collaborated with fellow social media personalities whose work interested her, an intuitive move that grew her audience. One collaboration was with Whole 30, when No Crumbs Left took over their feed for a week. That proved so successful, Whole 30 commissioned a No Crumbs Left cookbook. And that cookbook finally and firmly entrenched Teri as an Authority (currently available for fifteen dollars on Amazon, you will not find a better gift at a better price). As an authority, her website feels more like a media channel than a sales pitch as she relentlessly shares recipes, ideas, and inspiration.

As a social media Authority and Influencer, Teri’s in the unique position of choosing which brand partnerships she accepts. They must fit her sensibility and values. And her terms, like payment upfront. As she tells it, some large companies balk at why she won’t wait 90 days for payment. But as a small business person, that doesn’t work for her, and neither does having corporations set the terms. In the world of social influence, brands that want to leverage the incredible selling power of personal recommendation must embrace some new realities:

  1. Mass marketing approaches do not apply. Brands do not set the terms or dictate the message. But if they accept that and engage the right influencer, they will benefit tremendously.
  2. Brands can buy celebrity endorsements, but partnering with authoritative social media influencers and their audience relationships requires alignment more along the lines of a friendship than a standard business contract. It must be one-to-one.
  3. Participation is everything. Mass marketing broadcasts to large, passive audiences; influencer partnerships engage with smaller, far more engaged audiences. Any way brands can leverage that engagement builds affinity. And sales.

Social media influencer rules are being written and rewritten every day. And while it is woefully inefficient from a scalability perspective, for clients savvy enough to find the right relationships, this is a pathway to new, and far more engaged audiences for their brands.

Is it worth it? I think so. Spindrift, Pre beef, and Gotham Greens are now on our grocery lists, and we met all those brands through Teri.

You know, our friend, who recommended them.

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Go Kindness! Go Vols!

Peyton Manning.

Peyton’s my only connection to the University of Tennessee: my time on Gatorade and the joy of working with this underrated comedian who also happened to be pretty good at throwing a football.

And then this story happened…

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It was “college colors” day at his Florida elementary school, and a fourth grade University of Tennessee fan didn’t have anything to wear. So he made his own, drawing “U.T.” on a piece of paper and stapling it to an orange t-shirt (I already love this kid and suspect he might someday make artisanal pocket squares in Brooklyn).

As can happen with attempts at creativity, his earnest design failed to impress the local cool kids who mocked his shirt over the lunch hour. This kind of cruel behavior always happens during lunch, doesn’t it? The teasing really upset him, which inspired his teacher Laura Snyder to share his tale on Facebook.

The universal nature of the boy’s story made Laura’s post go viral. And soon, some very astute, deeply human people at the University of Tennessee took note.

First, UT Interim President Randy Boyd sent the young man a care package from the student bookstore, insuring he would have plenty of Volunteer merchandise, both for himself and even some of those meanies who derided his homemade efforts.

Then the story really took off. News outlets across the country picked up the narrative. And having the right kind of reactive, social media savvy, the University in turn:

  1. Created t-shirts with the young man’s design, selling them online and donating the profits to anti-bullying organizations. This went super-viral.
  2. Offered the fourth grader a full ride scholarship to their university class of 2032, quieting the online yahoos criticizing them for taking advantage of the story.
  3. Dressed their 300+ “Pride of the Southland” marching band in the boy’s t-shirt during their game vs. UT Chattanooga.

We’re a painfully divided country these days, rife with finger pointing and name calling (thanks Russian troll army!). And yet as Americans, we are drawn to the well-meaning underdog. We will stand up for the unfairly criticized fourth grader. There are no sides, no partisanship in our support of a kid who was treated unfairly.

And that gives me hope for a better future ahead. At least when it comes to the University of Tennessee Class of 2032. You go anonymous kid, good on you.

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I Heart Pixar

Mostly for their amazing aptitude at capturing emotion in animation. Toy Story and Finding Nemo represent great storytelling, regardless of medium, and as a father, I will ever strive to be half the man Mr. Incredible was.

If you haven’t seen it, their latest release is a lovely, short form delight.

If after watching this you’d like to read a book that proves the lie in the incredibly unfair misinformation intentionally ascribed to this charming, and uniquely American breed of dog, a good place to start is horse veterinarian Vicki Hearne’s wonderful “Bandit: Dossier of a Dangerous Dog.” Reading it is both affirming and depressing, given the incredible media distortion callously ascribed to this breed.

Regardless, a short film like this is an uplifting way to launch the workweek. So Happy Monday.

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Not That You Asked…

My favorite part of the Super Bowl is not the commercials; it’s talking about the commercials on Monday with WGN’s Bill and Wendy. They’re not in advertising; they’re simply students of culture with curious, interesting minds, which means I’m never fully prepared for what they might want to discuss. They are also amazingly supportive and helpful, particularly if your voice sounds like you spent the morning gargling molasses and working on your Harrison Ford mumble…

 

And because it’s not really kosher to comment without sharing your own perspective for critique, here are my four top ads from Super Bowl LIII. Sure I loved Amazon’s over-the-top, super Super Bowl-y ad about Alexa’s mythical failures. I was also heartened by Google’s showcasing of data on the three most translated phrases worldwide (spoiler alert: “I love you” is #1). And who didn’t choke up at the emotional resonance of Verizon’s “The Coach Who Wouldn’t Be Here” ad honoring first responders? Still, you can only pick four in this totally arbitrary exercise I just dreamed up, so here goes:

1. BUD LIGHT: GAME OF THRONES

I hate everything about Bud Light trying to conjure an issue out of corn syrup. As the category leader, these types of mean-spirited attack ads should be beneath them (did they learn nothing from the sweet Google Translate ad?). That said, the mash up ad with Game of Thrones was stupendous. It delivered what you rarely get in Super Bowl ads: genuine surprise. After an expectedly breezy dilly-dilly opening, the story makes a head snapping turn to the dark side that stopped me cold and was entirely brand appropriate for HBO.
And despite his gruesome death, I’m also certain the Bud Knight will be back in future ads with no explanation, kinda like Kenny in South Park.

2. NFL: THE 100 YEAR GAME

This was pure fun; a playful, winning nod to the amazing personalities that have played the game over the years. How can anyone not love this? It sidestepped mountains of controversy surrounding the brand without appearing to be sidestepping controversy. Nicely done. And great to see Singletary again.

3. HULU: THE HANDMAIDEN’S TALE

I haven’t read or watched “The Handmaiden’s Tale” but as an ad fan, recycling the Hal Riney-esque VO from the ad that got Ronald Reagan elected in 1980 was an inspired move. An amazingly simple, graceful idea…though admittedly, it probably spoke more to ad nerds than the general public.

4. THE WASHINGTON POST

Call me old fashioned, but I don’t believe the relentless attacks on the free press come from a place of selfless concern for the republic. Yes, both sides of the media aisle are complicit in exaggerating and framing facts to fit their frameworks; chasing clicks in a social media powered world does little to encourage centrist reporting. But the fact remains that Jamal Khashoggi was an American resident and father of three citizens yet we did nothing to hold the foreign powers who murdered him accountable. That’s weak. And wrong. And this spot does a tremendous job of speaking to a social issue in a manner relevant to the brand.

All in all, the general consensus seems to be that the crop of spots were disappointing, but I didn’t really find that anymore true this year than others. It’s nearly impossible to please all the people all the time, and this is the one few advertising platform where that’s still the job. It’s an unforgiving spotlight, and yet everyone in the ad game still wants to be there. That says something…

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Gold, Frankincense…and Metal

So, how many times this season have you heard Paul McCartney’s treacly “Wonderful Christmas Time”? Did an act of congress dictate that every store’s playlist must feature an inappropriately-breathy rendition of “Santa Baby”?

If you’re struggling to find your musical merry this season, search no more. In what is the polar opposite of anything on Neil Diamond’s Christmas playlist, a metal band out of York, PA has released their own magical antidote of sorts. Small Town Titans have re-interpreted “You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch” with a metal sensibility that would make Boris Karloff smile. And it gladdens my heart more than all the sugarplums on Michigan Avenue…

Wow. The Zevon-worthy lyric “YOU HAVE ALL THE TENDER SWEETNESS/OF A SEASICK CROCODILE” never felt so ominously threatening. And apparently, lots of us agree that’s a good thing.

The unsigned power trio released this cover last year but according to lead singer Phil Freeman, “we weren’t really expecting more than maybe a million views by Christmas.” To their surprise, their Facebook post of a live performance went viral. It now has over 23 million views…and it’s still climbing. That’s what happens when your post gets shared by over a half a million people.

In a lovely twist of fate, Freeman, Ben Guiles, and Jonny Ross all met as students at Lebanon Valley College; my decidedly non-metal mother and sister’s alma mater.

So yes, it is a lovely season and indeed, it may well be the most wonderful time of the year. Still, there’s definitely room for this sentiment as well. Nicely done lads.

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A Sweet Act of Creative Generosity

Most challenges modern agencies face stem from how we, as an industry, spent decades devaluing our one, singular asset: creativity. We gave it away for years since we earned our margins in media markups.

This worked fine, until it didn’t. By the time broadband and mobile fragmented the media landscape into a thousand platforms, we had trained clients not to pay for the one thing we truly own. And the results have not been pretty.

It’s a situation made worse by creative people themselves. We tend to underprice our own product, accepting lower compensation due to our sheer love of making things. That’s why a story last Saturday involving a creative team from Wong Doody LA made me smile so much. Call it “The Saved Quinceañera.”

The creative team was prepping a massive video and still shoot down in Houston with Patrick Molnar, a nationally-recognized, professional lifestyle photographer. As they worked in the museum district off Rice University, producer Amy Wise noticed a group of teenagers posing around a fountain as family members snapped photos with their phones. Being curious and outgoing (invaluable traits in an agency producer), Amy quickly learned it was Jasmine’s quinceañera–the traditional celebration of a fifteen year old girl’s transition from childhood to womanhood. Unfortunately, the large bus they had rented for their celebration hit a curb and blew a tire, setting them back a few hours. By the time they arrived at the park for their shoot, their photographer had given up and left.

And yes, the movie-of-the-week scene you are currently imagining in your head is exactly what happened next. Amy told the creative team, the creative team told Patrick, and within minutes, a major professional photographer was lining up shots of the young woman and her court, saving the day with a level of professionalism far beyond anything the family might have imagined. For no other reason other than it was fun, and it would brighten this girl’s day, transforming disappointment into delight.

The whole experience lasted less than fifteen minutes, but in that time, Patrick squeezed off bursts, insuring he’d have lots of selects to choose from, which he did later that night, retouching frames in the hotel bar.

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Unretouched photo courtesy of Patrick Molnar.

Creative people get into the business for the joy of making things. On Saturday afternoon, they didn’t make an ad or a piece of content or a digital experience; they simply made someone’s day. And in this case, that feeling was compensation enough. Well done Matt Burgess, Vanessa Witter, Callie Householder, Amy, and Patrick.

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Yes, Creativity for Creativity’s Sake Can Generate Significant Agency Value

It was nearly five years ago. Mike Fetrow and I were struggling to bring better, more interesting creative work to Olson–the kind that keeps the incredible talent we’d recruited happy and productive.

Back then, Cory McLeod worked in Olson’s studio, creating web banners and microsites and generally bringing far more creativity to his projects than they deserved. A multi-lingual Canadian/Latvian immigrant, Cory had a rich life outside of work, creating public art and collaborating with his documentarian wife, Mara Pelecis (here is the trailer to Surviving the Peace: her emotionally-shattering, powerfully personal film about the effects of PTSD on America’s veterans).

During a trip back to Latvia, Cory struck up a friendship with Rabbi Menachem Barkan, who created the Riga Ghetto Museum to commemorate this overlooked chapter of history. And that’s how a midwestern agency in a city populated by Norwegian Lutherans ended up making a website for a Jewish pro-bono client halfway around the world. We worked on this project during down hours, nights, and weekends. Brilliant people jumped all in, much to the growing concern and outright displeasure of agency management and our militant project managers.

We were scolded for wasting time, since time is money in the agency business. Upper management and our VC owners pressured us to drop it, to do the bare minimum and move on, since they were trying to sell the agency and needed to optimize our margins and billable hours.

But we weren’t and we didn’t. Our only personal payment may have been pride and trees planted in Israel in each of our names, but the Olson agency garnered international attention, earning coverage in high profile outlets like Fast Company. Which proved very valuable to the agency sale process.

In today’s margin-stressed agency world, passion projects are often the first to go, but that’s inexcusably short-sighted. Done right, they serve as compelling ads for agencies, drawing in new audiences by showcasing creative capabilities without restraint.

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I bring this old story up again because Cory’s back–this time with a magnificent VR Rockumentary about the Latvian band Perkons. It’s another Cory passion project, one that drove him to teach himself VR filmmaking. And it was only made possible through the continual support of Fallon.

Perkons had its US debut last night at the Walker Art Museum. For ten minutes, lucky people strapped on Oculus GOs and HTC Vive’s and lost themselves in a tale of Soviet repression, artistic expression, and the changing tides of history.

On the surface, Perkons is far from a project with obvious agency value. But ex-ECD Jeff Kling supported it (going so far as to provide the VO) and now Fallon has a tremendous, widely promotable example of VR storytelling that makes any agency envious. The project is beginning to gain press (some amazing outlets are already making sponsorship inquiries) in a way that will inevitably attract client interest.

Thanks to a creative thinker. With a dream about a forgotten Latvian band that changed the course of modern history. And an agency wise-enough to fund it.

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The Enduring Magic of Motion

Video drives powerful branding. On air, online, in environment: the power of moving imagery to evoke emotional responses is unparalleled. Today we have more places than ever to showcase moving imagery and attract attention.

That wasn’t the case in 1973, particularly in the gray environment of Leipzig, East Germany. Long before HD flatscreens or mobile video, and years before reunification, two graphic designers created a neon advertisement that has since become a beloved landmark: the “Löffelfamilie” or “Spoon Family.”

At 40′ wide and 23′ high, no passerby can miss the nuclear family gathered around the table to enjoy the delicious products of “VEB Feinkost Leipzig”, a catchy title translating to “People-Owned Enterprise Delicatessen of Leipzig.” The ad copy is not particularly better, translating to “fruit and vegetable preserves, table ready-made dishes, double concentrated soups” (yum!).

The illustrative style is ham-fisted and the animation is rudimentary and relentlessly repetitive. The more than 650′ of colorful twisted neon was updated to more economical LED’s seven years ago. And keeping this relic in repair requires ongoing donations. If you’re in the neighborhood, send a text to 0900-LOEFFEL, which charges you a donation of 3€ to light the sign for three minutes.

Still, the size, colors, and simple motion continue to earn our attention.

For all the enormity of changes in communication, it’s remarkable how this endures.

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#HaveHerBack: From Awareness to Initiative to Action

The #MeToo movement and its immediate, widespread adoption raised awareness of the blatant sexism and privilege in Chicago advertising. It was nauseating to learn the firsthand accounts of people forced to deal with everything from institutionalized boorishness to outright criminal behavior. So when Ron D’Innocenzo, a colleague from Element 79 and current ECD at Golin, asked me to sit on a panel to discuss the issue, I agreed. But Ron insisted I first talk to Caroline Dettman, Golin’s CCO and the creator behind this initial #HaveHerBack event.

Caroline quickly let me know I’d be the only white male on the panel and that, while no one was looking to attack me specifically, I would inevitably represent the kind of dirtbags that forced this corrective initiative. Fair enough.

I went, I learned, and I walked away inspired by so many people working to evolve actionable steps to create a better, more inclusive way forward for the industry.

My heartfelt thanks to Caroline Dettmann, Liz Traines, Jewell Donaldson, Kat Gordon, Mary Pryor, and Megan Colleen McGlynn. You make this industry, and all of the people in it, far far better.

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