Category Archives: Musings

a lesson in simplicity

A few bare-shouldered days, the first dapples of pollen along my windshield’s edge, the ammonia-laced scent of Windex… these are spring’s true signifiers.

The urge to spring clean is perhaps the most instantaneous, the most bewildering effect of spring’s first blush. Through the winter, I make peace with the disorder of my desk and closets. Stray papers and forgotten tchotchkes go unnoticed, or perhaps excused as yet another layer of insulation against the cold. It’s only when the season turns and the evening light lingers that the charming disorder is illuminated for what it really is—a mess in dire need of fixing.

In my own march toward madness, clothes are boxed for donation, surfaces scrubbed, shelves dismantled, dusted, rearranged. And so it happened that I found myself deep in the dust of college keepsakes last night.

Between empty folders, old photographs and half-filled composition books, there it was: one thick, two-inch binder containing every upper-level English lit paper I had ever written. Including one particular critical theory essay with the following comment scrawled toward the bottom:

There’s a kind of reliance here on your own good writing that both saves your essay and prevents you from examining the question more tellingly.

Put another way, “If your sentences weren’t quite so prettily strung together, you’d be in a heap of shit.”

I’ve always been particularly adept at manipulating language. I love the way crepuscular crinkles and ameliorate stretches like taffy. I love the crests and troughs of English, the fussiness of its rules, and the ability of well-placed punctuation to lend starch to a sentence. I know how to use these rhythms to my advantage. What I like to forget is that all those lovely syllables should add to a meaningful thesis.

As we work our way through no small number of annual report assignments, this reminder to examine the challenge at hand couldn’t come at a better time. It would be easy enough to write a few “Look at all we accomplished!” pages on behalf of our clients. But to accurately put the year in review, to tell a story unencumbered by needless superlatives and bloated prose, takes a little more effort. It takes an unsentimental eye for what’s worth keeping and what doesn’t need to be there. And, maybe, just a little seasonal zeal.

As for all those old essays, professors’ comments scribbled down margins and in between paragraphs, I think those I may just keep.

The Power of No

Guinness, the iconic brand of Irish stout launched a blonde lager brewed in America. The brand’s roots date from 1759, the tone of its witty advertising initiated in 1794 and the “Guinness is good for you” tag line is over 80 years old.

I believe one of the most powerful brands in the world has just sacrificed itself at the altar of more. Sadly, we see it all the time. No brand wants to inhibit growth; therefore, no company wants to exclude a potential customer.

To Guinness, finding any way to increase sales in the US trumped its heritage, product niche and brand equity.

We believe that sometimes, companies need to say no. That means knowing:
a) What you stand for
b) The value of your brand
c) What you are unwilling to do

Guinness will likely have some success with its US blonde lager. In the short term, it may even prove a good move. Long term, my bet is that they’ll regret it. Riggs Partners believes in longevity, being true to yourself, and being true to your customer. If you’re struggling with short-term gain versus long-term value, give us a call.

A Vibrant Spirit

I was making my way through the rows of booksellers at last year’s South Carolina Book Festival when I saw a familiar face at a booth just to my right. The smile was unequivocally Marvin Chernoff—broad, joyful, genuine—and I walked closer to discover he was promoting a recently released book he’d written about the ad industry. I bought a copy and told him I’d be honored if he would sign it.

I don’t know that we’ve officially ever met, I said as he wrote. But I’d like to tell you something. Not only are you responsible for the development of an entire creative class in Columbia—but every person I know who ever worked for you continues to hold you in the highest regard. Every single one. I aspire to that. And I thank you.

He smiled again, and then said something funny and self-deprecating. I walked away, my new book in hand, and thought how deeply I regret never knowing him well, how I wish I’d had the opportunity—like so many talented ad folks who have done and continue to do great work—how I wish I’d had the opportunity to learn from this trailblazer, a man fearless and committed. Marvin Chernoff served this community, the agency he founded, and every person who ever had the honor of working with him with great aplomb. How the world will miss his vision and passion. But how lucky we are his indomitable spirit will live on in the many, many lives he shaped.

the [cross]road ahead

Is this worth it? I could do hot yoga. I could go to a normal gym. I hear Piloxing is a thing. My ponytail is a mess. Good lord, even my hair follicles are sore. Maybe it’s time for something different.

I hit the floor for yet another burpee during today’s WOD (for the uninitiated: workout of the day). If I were to stretch my arms wide and wiggle, I’m fairly certain that I could create a shadow angel out of my own sweat. I push up, halfheartedly clap my hands above my head, repeat, repeat, repeat … I’m tired, and I just want to get this done.

It wasn’t always this way. I fell in love with CrossFit fast and hard, the way I imagine all cultists do when they find their raison d’être. I’ve never developed runner’s high (I find little joy in forcefully separating my shinbones from their tendons), but I regularly experience the CrossFit delirium. An intoxicating cocktail of Olympic weightlifting, high intensity interval training, and metabolic conditioning, CrossFit demands a lot of its devotees. That said, it’s also a hell of a lot of fun. With its climbing ropes and rows of colorful medicine balls stacked like candy buttons, my box is essentially a jungle gym for big kids.

But what happens to the little girl who, after one too many falls from the monkey bars, becomes disenchanted with the jungle?

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In answering this question of disenchantment, I find myself comparing the personal and professional, one not-quite-new-anymore experience to another. I joined CrossFit nine months ago; I began work at Riggs Partners shortly thereafter. Although the challenges are different—writing perfectly crisp copy is hardly equivalent to a series of hanging squat cleans—postgraduate life and gym-goer ennui make interesting bedfellows.

My first few months at Riggs were nothing short of wonderful, albeit occasionally overwhelming. Every week, I grappled with a distinctive new challenge, a new learning opportunity, a new means of stretching my creative abilities. By contrast, the last few days have blurred together, one round of client edits into the next conference call into the next staring contest with a blinking cursor on a white page. I’ve begun wondering if I’ve finally settled into a certain rhythm and familiarity with the work, or if I’ve just settled. The writing comes more easily now than it did in January. But is it better? Have I embraced my most recent projects with the same intensity and curiosity that characterized my approach to earlier assignments? Has getting it done taken precedent over doing it well? Is comfortable synonymous with complacent? I don’t know, exactly.

What I do know is that some projects, much like some workouts, are more challenging than others. I know that sophomore slumps are real. And I know that meaningful self-evaluation is a necessary exercise in jumping this most recent hurdle. Perhaps the way to achieve something different is to forge our own gauntlet, to challenge ourselves to meet a higher standard. Perhaps we’re complacent only when we stop asking questions.

Disenchantment, then, is a misnomer: in freeing ourselves from the illusion of the new and exciting, we reach a place of greater honesty and a better vantage point from which to view the playground. We’re a little smarter, a little more experienced, and our eyes are open to the magic in the everyday.

So, here’s to disenchantment. And magical storytelling. And sweat angels. Here’s to the projects that are worth it.

How One Brand Ignited A Spanish Revolution

I have just returned from a life list vacation. Four days in Barcelona, four days in Madrid, four days in Valencia. I was overwhelmed with the immersion in history a trip like that provides; it’s simply impossible to wrap your head around tour-guide comments like during the Roman Empire and in the 8th century, after the Moor conquest. And yet history was there, in crumbling city walls and decaying columns and guarding gargoyles of every attitude and style. It was there—not a homework paragraph in a World History book, but carved in stones you could reach out and touch, rubbing your hands along the ancient surfaces.

 

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one of a thousand streets in the ancient city of Barcelona

 

There is this aged history you see and feel and know in all three of the cities we visited. What I found surprising—and, quite frankly jarring—is the contrast between this history and a distinctly 20th century art form wildly prolific there.

 

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Graffiti. Graffiti is everywhere. Graffiti is so profuse in these cities and along the rails as you travel by train it overwhelms the senses and seems to somehow leave Spain’s remarkable beauty in shadow.

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When I first arrived in Barcelona, I made my way through the city thinking:  Obviously the Spanish embrace graffiti as art. What a great example of the wonderful, easy-going European attitude! But it didn’t take long until a growing irritation began to color my thoughts.

How on earth did they let it go this far?

 

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Here’s what I have learned.

  • In Spain, graffiti is illegal and considered vandalism.
  • The graffiti movement is a counter-cultural revolution that began in the first years of Spain’s transition from a dictatorship to a democracy during the early 80s. According to Skate and Urban Street Culture Barcelona, “Young people began to write their names everywhere, on walls in the street, in the metro, wherever. The materials they used were from a view of nowadays rather rudimentary. Among them were ‘Edding’ felt-tips, shoe polishes and paint sprays. Also they made their own utensils, adapting for example pens with a wider tip using gasoline burners to create this effect or they prepared the nozzles of the sprays to achieve a wider marking style. During this time it was more common to steal the equipment from big warehouses, car shops or stationers. Today there are still some artists remaining that practice this kind of style.”
  • “The art form changed” in 1994 when a new type of paint spray can was developed specifically for graffiti writers and introduced by a company called Montana Colors.

According to the Montana Colors website:

In the early ’90s, graffiti was considered, by all of the American and European spray paint companies, to merely be an act of vandalism. It was of no interest to any of the companies, because it wasn’t yet considered to be profitable. At that time, the discovery of this passionate cultural revolution was what propelled the founders of Montana Colors to lay the groundwork for the creation of the first spray paint made especially for graffiti and, in that way, fill that hole in the market.

Today, Montana Colors is a major brand. Again from the website:

All brands have a path and a record in history, as well as an appellation of origin which guarantees its authenticity. Ours began 18 years ago in Barcelona, at a time when, after the launch of our first spray product, the word spread across Europe, and writers and artists from France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy began to arrive to fill their car trunks with Montana and bring it back to their countries. From that moment up until now, the Montana Colors brand has expanded to a presence in more than 30 countries in the world and to 15 official points of sale: Montana Shop & Gallery, in cities such as Barcelona, Madrid, Valencia, Seville, Montpellier, Brussels, Amsterdam, Nottingham, Lisbon, Montreal, Tokyo, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, and San Paulo.

The root of the proliferation of graffiti in these ancient Spanish cities comes down to two things: (1) personal statements of rebellion and independence following a dictatorship, and (2) the introduction of a product that “filled a hole in the market.”

And if that’s not a statement about the cultural power of branding, I don’t know what is.