The Age of the Digital Mob

What an unfortunate time to be Brian Williams. Or really anybody who screws things up in this new digital age of public persecution we’re living in.

I wonder if we’ll look back and note this as an historically unfair period of time. An era where our societal rules and judgement had not yet caught up with the speed and transparency enabled by technology. Two recent articles I read really drove this point home for me. The first was the New York Times article, “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life”. It describes the story of the PR professional who tweeted a joke in poor taste to her small group of 170 Twitter followers, hopped on a flight to South Africa, and landed eleven hours later to discover her tweet had gone viral. She was swiftly fired from her job and now finds herself unemployable years later because a Google search quickly reveals her to be “toxic”. The second article I read was a Rolling Stone analysis of the Brian Williams scandal, called “Brian Williams and the Smoking Gun That Isn’t” that asks the question why we’re so swift to believe the version of events that damns the beloved news anchor.

These days, we’re an angry mob with digital pitchforks. When the internet smells blood, we jump on with angry (and often uninformed) perspectives in a race to have an opinion on an unfolding issue on Twitter or Facebook. On holidays like Martin Luther King Day, we actually hunt down brands for sport. We eagerly await for them to make a tasteless promotional tweet, then broadcast it to the world as an example of how out of touch they are.

Forget the fact that a few years ago, we were the ones demanding that any brand worth paying attention to needs to reach people by actively tweeting, posting, connecting in social media. We tell brands they have to create 365 days worth of content and then lampoon them when they inevitably make missteps (because brands are, in the end, controlled by people).

But let’s focus back in on Brian Williams. He is currently in the midst of the 21st-century death spiral – the apology, followed by the suspension, followed by the investigation, followed by the inevitable end of his career. He isn’t the first and he certainly won’t be the last. In this age of information, where it is easier than ever to air someone’s dirty laundry out in public, we’re eventually going to have to decide as a society whether our current threshold of expectations from our public (and not-so-public) figures is too high. Should people be fired for a dumb tweet? For an exaggeration of the truth? And are we due for a rebalancing in the court of public opinion? Just because thousands angrily chime in on Twitter and Facebook as a matter of course, does that require swift irrevocable action?

I get my news from all over the place, but I really enjoy the ritual of watching the evening news – something I surely inherited from my father. I think Brian Williams is a great news anchor. I am not sure the extent to which he lied or didn’t lie, but I don’t know that we should be so quick to damn him. I do know that we should stop and ask ourselves whether the self-righteous satisfaction that we feel, knowing that a wrong has been righted, is more valuable than the contribution that Williams makes to reporting the news and informing the public.

During this time where the digital mob has the power to end careers, reverse corporate decisions, and bring about swift and sometimes brutal change, I think we’re going to need to figure out a way to ensure that the reaction to that judgement is carefully considered and measured before taking action… or I’m afraid we’re going to lose some good well-intentioned people in the process. We all make mistakes… it’s part of being human – it’s only a question of whether or not yours goes viral on the internet.


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Guys, can we talk about Slack?

If we were making a BuzzFeed-style listicle called “Things Phil Thought He’d Hate, But Actually Loves,” Slack would sit somewhere near the top. And it’s not just because my co-workers made a custom Phil emoji (see above) either.

It’s not just me. Everyone else seems to love it too.

In my career, I’ve probably been pitched, wrangled, or forced to use no fewer than ten different project management tools. Each of them offering a unique new bloated way to do simple things. None of them awesome. And yet, somehow Slack just works. It’s equal parts group chat, collaboration space, and social network. It’s easy to use, totally customizable, and very intuitive. In the past, I judged project management software by the simple test of whether or not it was easier than just sending an e-mail. Slack passes this test.

Right now, I’m in a Slack group for work and another for my freelance writing for RVA News. Switching between the two is easy and Slack proactively adjusts my settings to account for how much chatter is coming through in different channels. I’ve never had an app say “You’re getting notified a lot, want to change your settings?” Amazing.

Slack won’t be an e-mail killer for me by any stretch, but I’m excited to find something I like using for once. Having your own custom emoji of your face certainly doesn’t hurt either.

Dead media.


I spent most of this morning digging through boxes in my basement filled with hundreds of old CDs.  These four above are quite possibly my most embarrassing selections, but I definitely have more.  After digging for what felt like hours, I created three piles: “CDs to import to iTunes”, “CDs to trash”, and “CDs to keep, but… do nothing with?” The smallest pile obviously being the trash pile. Let’s just say I have a problem.

In my college years and well into my 20s, I had a huge IKEA bookcase filled with my CD collection (in alphabetical order – by first name). It was the centerpiece of my room in every apartment I lived in.  It had special lighting to show off how awesome the CDs were. I loved that thing. Each time I moved, I packed up my collection with care between my seven different post-college addresses. Now, the IKEA bookshelf has long since been retired to the curb and my CDs reside in a dark corner of a basement in a collection of boxes. Depressing.

So what inspired this trip to visit my old dusty friends in the basement? A new computer purchase – a beautiful new iMac that, quite unfortunately, is the first computer I’ve ever purchased without the old comfort of a CD-ROM drive. The lack of a CD-ROM drive would have probably been a dealbreaker if it weren’t for the fact that pretty much everyone is doing away with them here in the era of cloud computing.

I’ll be the first to admit I have a problem here. My 1980 birthdate that saddles me firmly in between Gen X and Millennials has given me a desire to eagerly embrace new technologies while harboring antiquated notions of ownership. It’s a topic I’ve covered here before, but one that keeps popping up in my life in various ways. My wife, an avid Spotify user, laughs at me clinging on to a dead media format that she’s long since left behind. Meanwhile, in the basement, each CD represents a different moment in my life – bands I toured with, albums I bought in various cities, songs I put on mix CDs, etc.

So, here I am, lovingly importing old CDs into iTunes, where they’ll be a little more easily accessible in their digital format, but (if we’re being honest) likely listened to just as rarely as they were when they were boxed up in the basement. Music that, if I was so inclined, would be a quick search away in Spotify. But hey – I guess I’m just old fashioned like that.

So, if you need me, I’ll be over here listening to this really terrible Bon Jovi record and shouting at kids to get off my lawn.


Here comes 2015.

New Years Eve at 9:00pm. No champagne has been poured yet, so it’s a perfectly good time to post some 2015 professional resolutions:

Take more time to write.

Don’t scroll down and read the date of the last post. It’s pathetic. I need to carve out more time to write here and make sure I stick to it. With the conclusion of my Civil War history column in April, I need to figure out my next outlet for writing.

Take more time to read.

Fiction. Non-fiction. Advertising sites. Technology sites. Really good blogs. I did a pretty good job this year staying on top of things and I’d like to make sure I keep doing that. Our clients pay us to have our finger on the pulse of what’s going on and it’s amazing how quickly that stuff gets put on the backburner when we’re busy.

Make the best creative work of my life.

Okay, this is a bold one. But with fantastic creative teams and clients who are willing to take the right risks, this feels like a great year to really push things creatively. We won’t know unless we try, right?

Be a great dad.

I’m only 17 days into the crazy adventure known as fatherhood, but it’s amazing. We welcomed our daughter Ruby into the world on December 14th. Heading back to work in a few weeks, I’m anxious to sink my teeth back in, but being present in her life is now my biggest priority. That means being super effective/efficient with my time at work, carving out the right time to disconnect, and striking a balance between work and home.

Have fun.

This one goes without saying. It’s not worth doing if you’re not having fun doing it. Here’s to a great year, new adventures at work and at home, and whatever comes next!

We all love Mike.


Yesterday we got the sad news that Mike Hughes passed away.

Nothing I write here will be as eloquent as the things written by the press, ad industry greats, or even by Mike himself.  I thought I’d give it a shot anyway, if only to put the way I’m feeling into words.

The extent of my one-on-one interactions with Mike were limited to small talk during an elevator ride or two. But that didn’t really matter, because if you worked at Martin Agency, you felt like you knew him. His attitude and excitement about being here and doing great work permeated into every thing we do. Mike loved the work. Even when he went into hospice care last January and was told he only had a few weeks to live, he was e-mailing us with a scanned newspaper article and an idea he had for Colonial Williamsburg. Fortunately, Mike stretched those few weeks into almost a year – sharing his thoughts and musings about life and death on his blog,

Mike always used to always talk about “doing work he loved with the people he loved”. As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing better to aspire to. He will be dearly missed.

Top Ten

It’s always exciting to see your ad agency listed in an article titled “10 Great Ad Agencies of 2013” from a publication like Forbes. It’s especially nice just before the holidays when aunts and uncles will inevitably be asking what it is exactly that I do for a living. The survey Forbes conducted asked 1850 CMOs and other senior execs to rank their favorite agencies. Since CMOs are generally the ones who decide which agencies to hire, that’s some pretty good news.

Unfortunately, if you read the article (which I definitely recommend), right after those warm fuzzies of being in the top ten is a pretty sobering list of complaints and frustrations that CMOs have about ad agencies in general.

The CMOs’ opinions weren’t all that surprising, given the shifting landscape of the agency world, but a couple of the figures really drove the point home that ad agencies have problems we need to solve. For starters, 48% of the respondents say that ad agencies are struggling to transition business models to adapt to digital while another 26% say we “are acquiring assets, but are having difficulty integrating digital capabilities.” Yikes, right?

It gets worse. This quote from one of the respondents really brings the point home: “I think they have given up adapting and are laying low. I see very little interest in changing.”

There’s no silver bullet to fix this – otherwise, I think we’d have figured it out already. However, I think it’s critical to get agencies to fundamentally shift the way we look at marketing communications. We can’t keep thinking of everything around the :30 TV spot. This requires us to be open to big ideas, unique ways of funding and taking risks with our client partners on outside-the-box executions, funding agency labs to keep driving innovation, and making creatives, account people, and anyone who touches the work accountable for knowing and understanding the digital/social space. Easy, right?

It feels good to be in the top ten. To stay there, we – along with all the other agencies on the list –  have a lot of work to do.

Go Camping


I’m heading out with a group of friends to go camping this weekend. Hopefully it looks a little like the picture above (but sadly, with less beard). While maybe that fact alone isn’t quite interesting/exciting enough for blog material, I wanted to talk about it because it represents a good lesson for me about getting things done and making things happen.

On my Pinterest and Tumblr dashboards, I (like many of my peers) have found myself drawn to and following images/stories of epic landscapes, remote log cabins, sunsets, and campfires.  One of my favorite Tumblr sites, called Cabin Porn (SFW), does a pretty good job of capturing what I’m talking about. I don’t know if it was a reaction to our information-overload culture or just dreaming of an escape, but I found myself drawn to this idea of getting into nature and getting away from it all. Sometimes I even found myself having these FOMO-esque what-am-I-doing-with-my-life-maybe-I-should-live-in-the-woods Thoreau style feelings.

I decided pretty quickly that these feelings were ridiculous and what I needed to do was to just MAKE REAL PLANS and stop looking at Tumblr. So I did. I rang up a few friends, packed a bag, and had an amazing weekend in the woods. When we got home, I immediately set out to plan the next trip. Less pinning, less re-blogging, more doing.

Two camping trips doesn’t exactly make me a woodsman or anything here, but it’s been a great start and a new way to connect with friends without the roadblocks of technology and busy social lives.  We hang out around a fire, we connect (in real life), and we do all those things I was previously hankering for while staring at a computer screen.

Don’t get me wrong – we don’t totally unplug from technology.  Our job is to post pictures so that all the friends back home pining away for a life in the woods can get off their ass and join us for the next camping trip.

See you in the woods!


Hey Brooklyn!  I’m coming to hang out and learn about awesome stuff.

I just got word today that I’ll be heading to CreateTech 2013 in a few weeks.  The speaker lineup looks pretty amazing, including futurist Ray Kurzweil, who might have a thing or two to say about my blog post below about our digital collections.

Being able to integrate technology into the creative work we’re doing is essential for the survival of ad agencies.  There are far too many people in advertising who see the word “digital” and automatically think “banner ads”.  We need to be building things, telling new stories, and enable people to explore, remix and create.  I’m excited to keep pushing for this at my agency, and conferences like this only give us more tools to do so.

What will happen to our digital collections after we die?

(Originally posted on Medium.)

I recently discovered that my digital life takes up approximately 500gb of space.*

I was in the middle of downloading something the other day when I got the all-too-familiar warning that my hard drive was nearing capacity. Going through my folders, I did my usual search for things to delete and found myself coming up empty. Aside from a few files here and there, I couldn’t find anything I could bear to part with. The sum of my digital collection of music, photos, videos and documents had hit my 500gb limit. Aside from realizing I need to figure out a better storage solution, the situation made me think about our digital collections of “stuff” and how we’ll store and access it in the future.

About a month ago, my wife and I purchased our first home. As a “housewarming gift” my parents dropped off four plastic bins filled with all the mementos and keepsakes of my childhood and teenage life – old photo albums, boy scout merit badges, school projects, baseball cards, etc. These four bins (along with a few other boxes in the basement) were the sum of my analog life collection.

As I went through the box and reminisced about old memories, I started to wonder about how we’ll experience our collections of “digital stuff” in the future knowing that they’re all stored on our hard drives and our various cloud-based services. What will be the equivalent of climbing up into the attic and going through a dusty box of scrapbooks and photo albums?

This got me thinking about future generations. My last two remaining grandparents passed away this year and a great effort was made to make sure important photographs and documents were preserved and passed along to the right family members for safekeeping. As a history buff, I’m all too aware of things being lost to time and the diligence required to properly care for items like these. When we die, who will sort through our digital archives? How will they be passed down to future generations? Who will inherit my iTunes collection?

Futurist Ray Kurzweil talks about “transcending biology” and the idea that if we keep enough keepsakes and artifacts around, we could re-create virtual versions of loved ones that have passed away. I wonder if that’s true. I doubt the four plastic bins in my attic could provide enough information, but certainly the thousands of e-mails stored in my Gmail account over the past decade, every chat transcript, old voicemails, photos, and videos could probably do a decent job with the artificial intelligence we’ll likely see in the coming decades.

I don’t know how I feel about someone creating a “best guess” virtual version of me after I’m gone, but I do like the idea of some kind of AI that could make connections, organize, and determine the most important/relevant things that my future great-great grandchild could access to learn more about my life. In the meantime, though, I hope to have at least 60 more years of digital life ahead of me, so I am probably going to need to start shopping for a bigger hard drive.

*Not counting all the things currently stored in the cloud, of course – like witty tweets, e-mails, and my ancient untouched Friendster profile.

Spotify and the Blank Slate

My wife and I recently took a roadtrip to upstate New York. Instead of bringing my iPod, my wife has a subscription to the online music service Spotify, so we planned to use it to provide our roadtrip soundtrack. Prior to making this plan, I wish someone had told us the area we were staying had spotty cell service at best, so that was a bit of a challenge, but I’m not here to complain about cell service.

I am here, however, to complain about another issue I had with Spotify.

First, let’s get the praise out of the way. My friends all swear by Spotify. Many of them, including my wife, pay for subscriptions to the service to allow them ad-free listening and access to the mobile app. Up at the right-hand corner of my Facebook newsfeed, I can see dozens of my friends listening to music on Spotify simultaneously. There’s something amazing about having a near-limitless music collection at your fingertips. I’ve managed to find several obscure artists that I wouldn’t have expected to find there. Hell, you can even find two of my old bands’ albums even though we stopped existing long before Spotify came along. People obviously love it and it works great (when you have cell service – damn you, upstate NY!).

The problem I have with Spotify is that I didn’t know what to listen to. I’d open the app, stare at the empty search bar, and wait for inspiration to strike me. Limitless options! All of modern music at my disposal! Surely, something amazing would come to mind. But I’d often find myself sitting in the parking spot, trying to think of something, and then settle for the first thing that came to mind – often a record I’d recently listened to.

There’s something really intimidating about a blank slate sometimes.

On the other hand, when I use my iPod, which stores a large, but finite music collection, I find myself inspired all the time. I’ll see an album I haven’t played in years or find the perfect soundtrack for any moment. There’s a comfort level in the music collection I’ve built over the years.  I have significantly less choices to work with than the near-infinite choices presented by Spotify, but I struggle less to find what I really want.

This “blank slate” issue certainly isn’t limited to Spotify.  If I were asked to choose any city to live in out of all the cities in the world, I’d probably have myself stumped for at least a week as I weighed the multitude of options, but if I were asked to choose between three cities I imagine I’d be able to produce an answer much more quickly.  In certain situations, simplicity can be better than the infinite.  As we move toward a world of limitless options, customizations, and choices, it’s important to remember when to simplify… or we can find ourselves with the world at our fingertips, but with no idea what to do with it.

Or maybe I’m just an old curmudgeon who’s nostalgic for his old iPod.