Monday, March 14, 2011

There's no story, yet the plot thickens

Second installment of the Dilbert doodle story, reposted from the Xooglers archive.

When last I posted, Scott Adams had just agreed to work with us on Dilbertifying Google’s home page logo. It turns out that Scott had spoken with a reporter about search engines a couple of days prior to our request and the journalist had recommended he try Google. Scott did a few searches and liked what he found. Serendipitously, we reached him when he was still basking in the glow of his conversion experience.

I don’t remember the exact wording of my original email request to Scott, but I do recall trying to walk a very fine line between fawning and groveling. Being a Dilbert fan, I knew he’d be an excellent choice for our first cartoonist logo, though I wasn’t so smitten that I didn’t reserve (politely), editorial control over what would appear on Google’s pages. We weren’t willing to pay a licensing fee, but we were willing to shower him with branded Google merchandise. (Scott was later quoted in the press release we issued as saying, "This partnership exceeded my wildest dreams… I hoped I would get a free Google shirt, and I got three of them plus a mug.")

One of Scott’s many fine qualities is that he answers his email promptly. I heard back from him the day after I sent my note and he seemed open to the idea of creating a custom logo for us, even without compensation. Sergey gave it an enthusiastic green light and Scott put me in touch with his publishing syndicate to work out the details.

I’ve yet to meet an artist or writer who enjoys having their creativity corralled to meet the needs of a corporate entity, so I wanted to give Scott full rein within some broad guidelines. I sent a note to his syndicate contact outlining some size restrictions for the artwork and letting them know that we were fine with Scott playing with the logo in any way he found amusing.

I also forwarded an idea that Sergey had for a storyline involving Dogbert as a branding consultant. The idea was that Dogbert, in order to improve the logo, would change it over the course of the week, only to return to the original at the end, while presenting a huge bill for his bad advice. This, I believe, was an accurate reflection of Sergey’s feelings about the field of brand management and consultants in general. I made sure to tell the syndicate that Scott could feel free to ignore the idea.

Scott got to work as I pinged and ponged with the syndicate rep over legal terms for the agreement. Could we post Scott’s logos on our archives page? Would we put a link on our home page to their website? Would we issue a joint press release? Did we want to share the revenue from a commemorative mug they planned to offer to Scott’s fans?

The syndicate okayed our archive page, we okayed putting the link on a splash page instead of the home page and we both agreed to the press release. The mug seemed a minor issue and I gave it little thought. I figured it was a gesture to Scott’s fans and would be a fun keepsake after the fact. Sure. We’d take our small cut on sales, though processing the payment would likely cost us more than we’d make on the deal.

Everything was going swimmingly and for a day or two I rode the high of having brought together a successful co-promotion with two of technology’s best-loved brands. I began imagining a long line of great cartoonists vying to do logo treatments for us. Absolut Vodka had opened their bottle to interpretation by well-known artists and run ads featuring their creations. This would be even more integrated brand-building since the altered logos would actually become part of the product itself. I had to keep reminding myself that changing logos was bad branding strategy and that this was actually Sergey’s idea.

Then Scott’s first images arrived. There were four treatments and each was a simple integration of Dilbert characters with our logo. One was Wally and Dilbert holding the logo, one was Dogbert looking through the “o”s, one was Alice looking perturbed as the “o”s framed her chest and one was Dilbert on his back with his tie standing straight up in place of the “l” in Google. There was no narrative building over time or any other connection among them, other than the presence of characters from the Dilbert cast.

I sent them around to the UI team and Sergey, knowing we had a problem. The comments weren’t long in coming. The Alice logo wasn’t family friendly. The layouts were vertical and wouldn’t fit in our constrained space. What happened to the idea of a continuing story? And wasn’t a vertical necktie a sign that Dilbert had just been laid?

So back to Scott I went. I thanked him profusely for the wonderful sketches and explained again our thinking about the continuing story and our willingness to play with the logo and I sent him a copy of the note framing our guidelines that I had forwarded to the syndicate. It turns out that he had never received it and had been working under a set of false assumptions.

What a relief. Scott hadn't ignored our direction, he'd just been unaware of it.

An hour later Scott sent us a draft storyline for a five day doodle. It was classic Dilbert -- edgy, terse and wildly amusing. And I could see it would create problems for us. What I couldn't see, however, was that the real hot water in which I'd soon find myself would boil over from a totally different part of our partnership.

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