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.


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.


The Seasons Turn, and the Turntable Stops

Dennis Ryan, Chicago Advertising, Element 79Technics’ SL-1200, the laptop of record-players, announced the end of its thirty-eight year production run last week.  Combined with Pontiac’s official death yesterday, this news might send some old school types into a nostalgic funk.

DJ’s love this turntable because it’s a workhorse—it handles the bumps and bruises of the itinerant life with aplomb, taking a licking and keeping on spinning.  But with sales a mere 5% of what they were ten years ago and analog components increasingly tough to source, parent company Panasonic opted to pull the plug.

Those unfazed by sentiment won’t mourn it’s passing; iPod’s and MP3’s are much easier to carry around.  But like Polaroid film, floppy disks, cassettes, VHS tapes, and Walkmans, this Technic’s turntable played a major part in the youth of multiple generations.  And anything associated with those halcyon days when a dance or a party or a new track to wow your friends determined the success of the week resonates long after you started turning your attention to stuff like careers and rent and jury duty.  Joy, and even the memories of youthful joy, pays dividends over a long, long time.

Anyone have some Psychedelic Furs they can send my way?


By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79


A Visual Metaphor For Modern Marketing

picture-11One really nice perk of a career in advertising is free music; record labels send out CD’s promoting tracks and artists hoping we will use them in commercials, thus launching their artists to a music-buying public.  Every week, anywhere from four to ten CD’s arrive at my desk.  Which is kinda great. This photograph showcases maybe four months worth of free music that I’ve collected in the trunk of my car with the intention to eventually give all of them a listen and find some cool new music.   Because I know that somewhere in those thousands of tracks, I will find my next ten favorite songs ever.

However, finding those specific ten songs demands a lot of time.  Sifting through these thousands of tracks will require more than a few hours–it will demand weeks.  Once you fall behind on this, the task seems to grow exponentially.  It’s kind of like subscribing to The New Yorker–you inevitably fall behind but you know the writing’s so good that can’t just toss them in the recycling bin.  Which is the issue: with all of this raw product, the real value resides in the curation, not simply the ownership, of these assets.

This mirrors a fundamental challenge of the internet: while most of us share a tendency for collecting, few possess a natural propensity for archiving.  The abundance of information and content means there’s always another post to read, another link to follow, another tweet to retweet.

Regarding the CD’s, my best solution–aside from arranging frequent long car trips–would be to enlist a trusted friend who knows music to tell me what tracks she thinks are great.  Which is nothing other than recommendation marketing; the stock in trade of word-of-mouth advertising companies.  The smart folks at Zocalo Group cite studies that show 92% of Americans rate WOM of friends, family, and others as the best source of ideas and information (up from 67% in 1997) and the #1 driver of technology or services purchase decisions.

In a crowded world thick with potential experiences and opportunities, making informed choices efficiently isn’t simply appealing, it’s essential.  Because even when you get something for free, the time required to experience it commands a premium.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Why Exactly Did Jingles Die?

There was a time in advertising when everything was sung.  When little ditties sold everything from Miller Time (“beer after beer”) to Marvel the Mustang (“he’s almost for real!”).  Today, aside from licensed tracks from known artists, no one sings a story anymore.  And I can’t help wondering if maybe we’ve walked away from a very powerful source of emotion.

Last Week, No One Knew Susan Bayer.  But This Week...

Last Week, No One Knew Susan Boyle. But This Week...

By now, a huge part of the world knows about Susan Boyle, an unemployed forty-seven year old woman living outside London. This clip, posted only six days ago on YouTube, has already racked up nearly twenty million views–it jumped nearly three million overnight.

Chances are, you’ve seen this.  But even if you haven’t, you know the drill: a highly-unlikely nobody appears on a popular TV program to a chilly reception from Simon Cowell’s panel of snide taste meisters and then, unleashing a voice that channels the glory of angels, proceeds to stun the judges, win the audience and knock the smirk off Simon’s well-moisturized face.  You know this drill because Susan’s story repeats, nearly beat for beat, the story of Paul Potts, the unassuming mobile phone salesman from South Wales who dreamed of singing opera professionally (and apparently, now does).

Ty Pennington does this same kind of thing yet for some reason I resent his stories.  Week after week, he tells yet another deserving family “you give so much to this community, this community wants to give something back to you” and later bellows “move that bus!” into a megaphone so the givers can finally see the cornucopia of product placements Extreme Home Makeover has whipped up that week.  I always feel manipulated and cheap, regretting any sentiment these stories generate for being so cheaply summoned.

But Susan’s story–and of course Paul’s–feels different.  Both live in that artistic realm of music, a humanity that serves no practical purpose and yet stirs the soul and calls up emotion like little else in our world.  When this many people around the world find themselves powerfully moved by nothing more than the simple act of someone opening their mouth to sing, it might be time to reconsider our reticence about commercial jingles.  Because genuine emotion is a powerful, powerful thing.

And yet, take another look at that photo…  Consider Susan’s honest, unglamorous face…  Maybe what moves so many of us about this clip is not simply her gorgeous voice, but the surprise that someone as unassuming, as unpolished as herself, can create such raw, palpable beauty.

That’s the real ticket.  In a pinch, I’ll always put my money on surprise.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

PS:  Today, viral fame can build with an almost terrifying ferocity: an addendum.