Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Brilliant! Love it! Now, could you change it all around?

Final installment of the Dilbert logo saga, revised and reposted from the Xooglers archive.

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The script Scott sent us for the Dilbert Google doodle seemed to pick up nicely on Sergey’s suggestion.

In the first panel, the pointy-haired boss (PHB) sits next to the regular Google logo and says to his staff, "We need a new logo by Friday. Any ideas?"

The next day, the “G" and "O” at the front of the logo are screened back so that they appear much paler than the last four letters. Dilbert says, "We could drop the first two letters."

The PHB answers, "That's a no go idea."

On day three, the last three letters are faded back and Dilbert says, "We could shorten the logo to three letters."

The Boss says, "No, Goo isn't sticky."

Those three panels were easily approved and became part of the final doodle published on the site. What didn’t make the cut were the fourth panel, in which Wally says, "The logo needs more sex appeal. I'll show you..." and the fifth panel, featuring Wally standing in front of the "OO" part of the logo as if the O’s are, as Scott put it, “his gigantic man-breasts,” while Dilbert says, "I find this disturbing."

There is something inherently amusing in the notion of man-breasts. As someone whose own sense of humor runs to Mel Brooks and Dave Barry, I wasn’t terribly offended by the concept, but I suspected others would be. I was right.

After sending it around to other Googlers, questions were raised about how it would play internationally, the use of the word “sex,” and the appearance of breasts (male or female) on our signature page. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, none of those objections came from Sergey, who found the concept pretty funny and opined that we shouldn’t be afraid to take a few risks. The irony of acting like one of the clueless companies Dilbert lampoons was not lost on him.

I’d like to say that I fought for the concept and damned the shortsighted, small-minded philistines who couldn’t see the greatness inherent in Scott’s original idea. I’d like to say that, but then I would be lying. Frankly, I was relieved that I wasn’t the only one nervous about where Scott was taking us. I would find it amusing to see this in his strip, but not on our branded homepage, which we were showing to millions of people around the globe. They hadn’t come to Google expecting to see slightly risqué humor. They’d come to find information.

My sensitivity to the subjectiveness of humor wasn't always as finely attuned. On more than one occasion in my career, what I had thought was funny had turned out to be less than amusing to others.

I made fun of bagpiping neighbors in a radio spot for the Mercury News that brought the wrath of a lunatic Celtic rights advocate raining down upon me.

I wrote a newspaper ad headline for KQED FM that said “Ed Meese is history” during the station’s broadcast of live coverage of the Senate Iran Contra hearings. The station president didn’t buy my argument that it referred to the fact that Meese’s testimony had ended the day before and we were now covering the next witness. He seemed pretty peeved when I kept trying to persuade him to run it anyway.

And while at an ad agency, I pissed off the descendants of California’s most famous gold miner with an ad for a business school claiming that “When John Sutter found gold, he lost a fortune. He could have used an MBA from USF.”

The editor of the San Francisco Chronicle sent a personal complaint to my boss at the Mercury News during a newspaper war for subscribers after the close of a smaller local paper. He felt my flyer pointing out that there were only two Peninsula-related stories in their paper compared to the Merc’s two dozen was hitting below the belt. He seemed particularly ticked over the line, “Yesterday the Chronicle gave you two bits for your 35 cents.”

And then there was the time I wanted to promote the depth of news stories in the Mercury News online archive. I browsed hundreds of stories and came up with a piece reviewing the food at local company cafeterias, including Silicon Graphics. Turns out they had served rabbit once, so I stuck a drawing of a bunny in an ad that made reference to the menu. The next morning, PETA started picketing SGI’s headquarters. After a series of snafus in the newspaper’s composing room led to the ad running twice more after I had promised the publisher it wouldn’t, I got to write a personal letter of apology to SGI’s CEO and barely held onto my job. (Ironically, I was to eat many meals in that very cafeteria when Google took over SGI's headquarters).

So, let’s say I wasn’t all that anxious to step out on the bleeding edge of comedy again.

The upshot was that I had to go back to Scott and ask him to remove the man-breasts. He wasn’t all that happy about it, but consummate professional that he is, he was back within the hour with a modified version. In this one, Dogbert says, "The logo needs more sex appeal. I'll show you..."

The next day, Dogbert peers through the "OO" part of the logo as if they’re his glasses.

Dilbert says, "I find this disturbing."

The “sex” set off alarm bells again for one senior manager, which led Sergey to start making noises about going back to the original idea. I volunteered to go back to Scott yet again and ask for a third version. I really didn’t want to do it, because it’s never fun to tell a creative person working for free that their idea just isn’t good enough. (I’d done that at a previous job when a world-renowned ad agency wrote some pro-bono ads for me that were way out of my comfort zone).

I walked a very fine line with Scott. I told him how funny the first idea was and that we were sorry that it wasn’t appropriate for our audience. I told him the second idea was fine, but not as funny as the first, which was our fault for bringing a corporate mentality to the project. I gently asked if he’d be willing to go to phase three. He said he’d sleep on it. In the morning, he sent us the version that actually ran. He also asked that he be allowed to run the rejected ideas on his website, which was fine with me, though I’m not sure he actually posted more than a description of the man-breast idea.

Of course, everyone loved the new idea and I was once again the hero, not the goat. Well, to everyone except my boss, who didn’t think it was all that funny, even in it’s third version. And then we posted the first day’s strip. The Googlers-misc mailing list began humming like Zappa’s dynamo.

Our internal only mailing list called Googlers-misc was the place for anyone at Google to share their thoughts on any activity in which the company was engaged. There had already been an active thread proposing a homepage tribute to a soon-to-be-released science fiction movie popular with geeks of all ages when Dilbert put in his first appearance. That thread quickly became focused on the dark side of our Dilbert logo and the great disturbance it was creating among our users. Or at least, the users who happened to have friends working at Google.

The concerns varied from the fear that we were seriously planning to change our logo forever to the sense that we had sold out the homepage to promote a blatantly commercial enterprise. And the avatar of that latter evil, the cool hard ceramic proof point of that, was, yes, you guessed it: the mug.

I won’t bore you with the details of the disdain Googlers heaped upon the Google-Dilbert mug and their concerns about the message it was sending to our loyal users, but suffice it to say that it was heartfelt, voluminous and incapable of being ignored. Google was still a relatively small company at this point and any time more than three Googlers were unhappy about something, it required a response.

CNET made things worse by running a story that included the line, “Part of the fun in business is making money, of course: Google plans to sell T-shirts with the Dilbert logo, as well as coffee mugs." The t-shirt reference was untrue and was eventually corrected, but the damage was done. It cast the whole initiative as a profit-driven grab for cash.

So I went to Sergey with the suggestion supported by many staffers that we give the proceeds for the mug sale to charity, which we would make clear on the site. He agreed and suggested something related to cancer research. And that’s why I placed a call to the American Cancer Society to let them know we’d be sending them a check for more than $11,000.

As for the mugs, they’re no longer available since it was to be a limited time offer. I have one, as do 400 other Googlers to whom we gave them during TGIF. I took that to mean that at least some Googlers didn’t object to seeing Dilbert adorning our logo.

In the aftermath, we were approached by many artists, cartoonists and brand managers, who felt the door was now opened to promoting their products on what was becoming one of the web’s most popular homepages. We turned them all down, because we now had empirical evidence that any commercialization or even perceived commercialization of the homepage logo would be detrimental to the brand we were building.

What did I take away from this whole experience? Four things:

Brand managers are not always the people closest to the true nature of the brand, nor the best able to see what might be construed as damaging to its integrity.

Having free-flowing, unregulated communication within a company can be distracting, annoying and damaging to one’s ego, but it lets you know pretty quickly when you’ve stepped across a line you shouldn’t have crossed.

Expect that there will be unexpected ramifications from even the most innocuous seeming initiatives. That shouldn’t stop you from moving ahead, but you should be ready to respond to the weirdness and be flexible about the ways in which you do it.

Cartoons should never be written by a committee.

A postscript (2006): I watched Google launch its recent Da Vinci Code puzzle promotion with interest. I think it was handled well and avoided the dreaded Dilbert effect by making the promotion opt-in and tying it to a specific Google service (homepage personalization). The challenge also fit Google’s branding strategy of promoting puzzle solving and smart thinking, which is tied to both the brand value and Google’s recruitment efforts (more on that another time). They didn’t change the homepage logo and they didn’t sell mugs.

I’d be surprised if they didn’t get some mail about tying to a controversial story that’s banned in some parts of the world, but that’s one of those eggs you have to break if you’re going to make an omelet. With millions of users, someone’s always going to be pissed off about something.

I hope there was a Googlers-misc thread about whether the promotion marked a sellout to corporate interests and the death knell of the old Google, but that kind of debate is probably a relic of Google’s past. Still, an unmoderated discussion about core-values among 6,000 plus bright, opinionated, articulate individuals would likely be highly entertaining, as long as you’re not Google’s new brand and entertainment manager Dylan Casey.

Dylan, I feel your pain.

1 comment:

Mike Pascale said...

Just now finally got to read this wonderful series. Thanks, Doug! As a cartoonist myself and former ad agency creative, I can certainly relate to and empathize with both sides of the events described.

Great doodles from Scott and a great story behind it all.

Best of success,
Mike Pascale