Sep 18, 2013

The Life of a MailChimp Ad

Earlier this month, the AJC Decatur Book Festival brought together more than 85,000 people and hundreds of authors just a few miles from our office.

Congressman John Lewis gave the keynote address, roughly coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom as well as the release of his new graphic novel, March, about the Civil Rights movement.

MailChimp helped sponsor the festival, and our marketing team made an advertisement for their newsprint program:

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I received a bunch of questions while walking around the festival.

“Why would MailChimp run such a mysterious ad?”
“Why would an email company sponsor a book festival?”
“Who is Rube Eldorado?”

When I’m asked questions like this, usually I say something about how we like to keep things a little weird, or how we’re thrilled to be able to help out such a wonderful event, or that Rube Eldorado is my dad. These things are all true, of course. But I thought I’d share a bit of the story behind this particular ad because I really enjoyed the process, and I think it’s one example of how our team works well together to create good things.

Defining values and community

Getting to an ad like this starts with defining what MailChimp values. That sounds a little corporate and self-important, but at a talk here in August, Anil Dash reminded me of just how critical a technology company’s values can be to shaping the world around us.

We value thoughtful communicators and great ideas. We value learning and innovation. We value excellence and personality. And we value our community—neighbors, friends, and organizations who make Atlanta better, weirder, and more human.

Since 2006, the Decatur Book Festival has fostered a culture of learning and discovery by bringing some of the world’s best writers together just down the street. It’s fun, it’s exceptionally well-run, and it aligns with our values just right.

We wanted to help out the festival in a meaningful way. Our involvement can vary from project to project, depending on what the organizers need and how we can best help them achieve their goals. Sometimes we lend a hand with volunteers, sometimes we help get the word out, and sometimes we give a project a tender but firm shove in the right direction. In this case, a quiet sponsorship was the most effective way for us to help. The festival has fantastic leadership, they’ve got a tested plan, and they’re growing quickly. They needed additional resources, and for us to pitch in and then get out of the way.

Except, of course, for the (sometimes) obligatory ad in the event program.

Always be creating

David, one of our designers, was excited to overhear we were sponsoring the festival. I asked him if he’d consider creating an ad for their program.

We’d recently received long-awaited vinyl Freddie toys that our DesignLab had been working on for a while. David thought this might be good opportunity to finally use them.

He tapped another designer, Jason, on the shoulder, and they chatted about the seamless paper rolls they’d been using for our website redesign. They wandered off and returned a few minutes later with a prototype.

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“Monkey butt! It’s perfect!” I thought.

It was a great idea, and not just because of the monkey butt. The prototype was built upon ideas that we’d previously been working with. Dave’s idea wasn’t rocket science, it was just connecting things we’d already created. It was also built upon books, in a way that might speak to the people attending the Decatur Book Festival. Even the fake book that Freddie “reads” for the prototype was a notebook we made for a digital museum conference.

We all loved this direction, and decided to go with it over a few less-cohesive options.

Collaboration and iteration

David asked one of our writers, Austin, and I to bring in a few books that we loved for the photoshoot the following day. Any opportunity to flip through my books and think about them in a different context is pretty exciting, and I suspect Austin feels the same way. (This is probably a good sign we’re on the right track with sponsoring a book festival.)

Meanwhile, David created a toy-sized book for Freddie to read, which is totally absurd in its own right. Then, Jason and Dave took the books and arranged them, then arranged them again, then arranged them again. Freddie ended up inside the stack of books. This option looked the best, and it also gave the shot more meaning.

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Freddie reflected our brand’s voice and our company’s values, and—since Freddie is also absorbed in books—maybe festival-goers would like it as much as we did. Even if the entire meaning wasn’t entirely communicated to folks unfamiliar with MailChimp, let’s not underestimate the power of monkey butt. We thought we’d nailed it.

Valerie from our legal department, however, took issue. Turns out you can’t just go around throwing real books into an advertisement. (This is why the spines are blank in this blog post.) Go figure! Hearing this news, I was ready to scrap everything and sit quietly by myself on the roof. Then our creative director, Ron, suggested we keep the photo, but swap out the existing books with books we created in Photoshop using our own names and designs.

I spent a few minutes coming up with new names for the books and the authors, making little inside jokes for the maybe three or four people who would notice. Meanwhile, David created new brand identities for the publishers, made sure we had permission to use the typefaces, and then photoshopped everything in seamlessly.

One of the things I’ve loved about our approach to marketing and advertising is that it’s light on the advertising part. At this point if you were looking at the ad and didn’t know about MailChimp, you might not recognize it as an ad. Mark, our marketing manager, suggested that since this was our first time sponsoring the festival, we should put our name on the ad so as not to be too annoyingly obscure. Turns out, he was exactly right.

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We submitted the art, and six weeks later the event went off without a hitch. It was the biggest Decatur Book Festival yet, it only rained a little bit, and I didn’t see anyone crying.

David and I had the pleasure of attending the keynote address on the first night, and it was just fantastic. Then at the festival for the rest of the weekend, the two of us kept running into each other, going from one event to the next. It felt very much like we were part of a community, one that we’d had a hand in helping create. We loved having the opportunity to help, and also to show our neighbors just a little bit of monkey butt in the process.