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This past year, VCU Brandcenter students and faculty got involved with an interesting project. We were asked to work with Venture Richmond and The Martin Agency to help drive and effort to bring attention to the creativity and innovation that fuels Richmond.

The effort started when Martin Agency Partner, Matt Williams, worked with leaders from the Richmond area to begin defining those things that set the city apart. The effort identified characteristics that were seen as essential to the city’s future. Participants saw an opportunity to define a reputation that is “forward-looking, eclectic, dynamic and timeless” fueled by “a history of non-conformity”.

The process identified a growing momentum in Downtown Richmond and beyond. Anyone who’s paying attention has observed the dramatic rise in downtown living spaces, arts venues, dining, entertainment and innovative businesses, schools and organizations. The data is impressive and led the group to define the potential for helping Richmond become recognized as a center of creativity. That’s where the Brandcenter came in.

The folks at Venture Richmond and Martin wanted to go beyond the business and civic leaders involved in the first phase, to take a broader sampling from the street level up. We recruited Brandcenter professors Caley Cantrell and Mark Avnet to help guide teams of over 40 graduate students, and we charged the team with conducting research and coming back with a fresh approach to a civic identity.

Guided by Cantrell and Avnet, the students explored Richmond from every angle. From first thing in the morning at a local coffee shop, to last call at the clubs, the students interviewed residents, business owners, civic leaders, architects, urban planners, musicians, magazine publishers, retailers, venture capitalists, philanthropists, tattoo artists, historians, museum directors and computer programmers. They collected stories that reflected both passion and pride.

It’s important to note that the students were not asked to invent a new identity for the city – they know better than to attempt to make up something that doesn’t fit the brand – instead they uncovered a movement that was already well established, one that many residents and leaders have been talking about for some time. The student’s mission was to synthesize the information from all sources and to develop an approach for telling the stories in a way that would accomplish two primary objectives:

1. To help Richmond take credit for the creativity that has been part of both the city’s past and present.

2. To inspire even more innovation in the future, by encouraging community members to practice more creativity in their work and lives.

When the student teams presented their work, we were all moved by their efforts. They saw an opportunity to avoid the overused slogans and jingles of typical municipal branding efforts and instead to leverage the existing shorthand for Richmond’s creative community: RVA.

The students felt that any top down slogan would be more likely to inhibit creativity, rather than promote it, so they suggested that “RVA” could be customized to say whatever the participant wanted it to say. They also designed the logo to allow the visuals to be ever changing. Again, based on the creativity of the user. This user-generated approach to branding allows the minimalist “RVA” to be endlessly reinterpreted.

Of course brands are much more complex than logos or even advertising, so the real power of the brand is driven by the action, not the words, of those involved. While the effort is still in its infancy, there are already promising signs on the horizon. Business leaders and university heads have committed their support, arts organizations and creative individuals are fueling new projects, training programs and events are being planned and the Mayor has supported the effort and announced a plan to establish Richmond’s first Arts District, with tangible incentives and promotion for participating organizations.

These tangible acts are being combined with increased marketing driven by a team of six organizations, including outstanding Richmond businesses, like Elevation, Hodges Partnership, JHI and West Cary Group. The team’s work already includes a website, online video, rolling billboards, printed materials and social networking. Soon these efforts will be joined by mobile applications and even a fleet of eco-friendly garbage trucks, carrying the RVA logo.

To paraphrase Mike Hughes, “Branding is not a sprint. It’s a marathon.” The success of this program will depend on continued efforts to engage the community. But, given the promising start, I look forward to the day when our Brandcenter alumni return to find a more dynamic city where originality is celebrated – or better yet, I hope they never leave.

Additional information:




Click to hear comments on Steve Jobs on PBS

This week, the business news was dominated by an announcement that Apple’s Steve Jobs has temporarily stepped down from the role of acting CEO to take a medical leave of absence. This is not his first medical sabbatical; Jobs has struggled with health issues for years, but the timing of the announcement came just one day before Apple, Inc. posted record-breaking revenues and profits, blowing past all analyst estimates by a wide margin.

The company now has revenues of more than $70 billion, tenfold its size when Jobs returned to the company in 1997. It has the most desirable products in most of its categories and a stock value of more than $300 billion.

Certainly Jobs has proven to be a brilliant leader with an uncanny ability to identify opportunities and respond with beautifully executed products. So the question is, can Apple continue on this path once Jobs is gone? Does Apple’s success surface solely from the perfect-pitch vision of its charismatic CEO or is there more at work here — a recipe that other leaders can follow?

To find our answers we can look at the performance of not one but two companies that Jobs has led in recent years, Apple and Pixar. Prior to Pixar’s 2006 sale to Disney, Steve Jobs was CEO of the motion picture studio while simultaneously running Apple, a remarkable feat, made even more remarkable by the fact that Pixar has the best track record of movie hits in Hollywood.

Over the years, I’ve followed both companies closely as a student of creativity and a teacher of successful brand practices. In my observations, I’ve seen more than individual mastery at work; I’ve noticed a simple, clear pattern of behavior that drives the success of both companies. I call it “The Jobs Doctrine.”

This doctrine can be used to understand how Apple became the most influential company in computers, phones, music and consumer electronics, and how Pixar simultaneously became one of the most influential company in movies. The Jobs Doctrine can also be put to work in any company, or used to make any career more successful.

So what is The Jobs Doctrine? It isn’t a lengthy set of rules or a mathematical formula. It is simply a disciplined approach to making things that delight us: Design fewer, simpler, greater things.

This recipe would seem so obvious that it’s barely worth mentioning; except that it is so little understood as the driving force of Jobs’s creativity and it is ignored by most corporations and individuals.

Let me demonstrate the doctrine in action. In 2010, a Businessweek survey named Apple the most innovative company in the world. While that may be no big surprise, most people associate innovation with constant change and multitudes of innovations. But Apple’s only major new product for the year was the iPad® and its last major new launch was the iPhone®, released in 2007, three years earlier. And to get to the launch of the iPod®, you have to go back to 2001. The point is that while Apple’s products are inarguably innovative, their releases are much less frequent than those of their competitors.

Take a quick look at the phone lines available from Samsung, Nokia or Motorola and you’ll see dozens of models with a wide variety of features. Even the more selective BlackBerry® brand has seven current models. Apple has only two: the new iPhone 4 and the earlier 3GS model. Both come only in black. They are currently only available from one carrier. The remarkable truth is that Apple gives consumers far fewer options than all of their major competitors, yet they sold an astonishing 16 million phones last quarter.

Think of the dilution of effort that a company experiences when it has dozens of phones to design, manufacture and support. Imagine the focus that would come if it decided to scrap their massive product lines to instead focus on designing a single, beautiful phone.

Jobs’s genius is that he fully understands the power of simplification. Go to the site of any competitor, from Microsoft, to Google, to HP, to Samsung, to Dell, and you’ll find they all have larger product lines and operate in more categories. Jobs presides over a company that prizes simplicity not only in its product line but in every feature that appears on every product. This allows the company time for meticulous development, which in turn leads to superior products. Jobs fundamentally believes that consumers are more interested in perfection than variety. And this is plainly evident at his other company, Pixar.

It seems unlikely that a technology mogul could succeed in the movie business but Jobs has been more than successful. He bought Pixar from Lucasfilm in 1986 for $10 million and sold the company to Disney in 2006 for $7.4 billion, 740 times what he paid for it. But what is more remarkable is that at the time Jobs sold Pixar to Disney, it had released only six movies.

As with Apple, Jobs revolutionized the animated film industry and made a killing doing it, following the identical recipe: design fewer, simpler, greater things. While the studio had made only six films at the time of its sale to Disney, each had been released to become number one at the box office. And the streak continues today, several years after Jobs stepped down as CEO. Its most recent film, Toy Story 3, was the highest-grossing animated film of all time.

The company continues to release fewer films than its competitors and it takes longer to perfect the films, but each of Pixar’s 11 movies is listed among the 50 highest-grossing animated films of all time and each has been acclaimed by critics.

So, the successes of Apple and Pixar are based more on a consistent formula than on individual genius. If this successful formula can continue in the absence of Steve Jobs, as it has with Pixar, than maybe we can all take lessons from it.

Let’s break down the formula a bit. I’ve used the term “design” because Jobs considers Apple to be in the design business. The evidence is printed on every package. The words “Designed by Apple in California” suggest a company that is concerned with design. But what if your business has nothing to do with design? Perhaps you should alter your perspective.

Webster’s has several definitions for design. They are:

• to create, fashion, execute or construct according to plan

• to conceive and plan out in the mind

• to have as a purpose

• to devise for a specific function or end

These definitions can apply to anything you do, whether it’s creating a research report that might change the direction of your company, perfecting a smoothie to make your restaurant famous, developing curriculum that will really get through to your students or building the finest website for adopting puppies that anyone’s ever seen. When you think of your role as that of a designer, rather than just someone who performs a routine job, it liberates you to build your project from scratch. You are not just executing or refining but are creating something new and better. But of course, you can only do this if you’re focused on a few things.

Designing fewer things may be hard to do if you’re an employee and someone else is setting your priorities, but it is still possible. Think of an advertising designer who must work on a dozen projects every week. If she looks at each project as equally promising, she will have her efforts divided with little hope of perfecting her work. But if she works to identify projects with the potential for greatness, she can focus most of her time on those and fight to get them approved. Many famous advertising creatives have built their reputations on a few, brilliant campaigns. So look for these opportunities, and concentrate your skills on making brilliant work.

One last piece of The Jobs Doctrine is the quest for simplicity. This is where Steve Jobs may be at his best. Almost everything he makes has fewer features than almost everything his competitors make. Fewer buttons. Fewer menus. Fewer cables and ports. Fewer options. Steve Jobs is absolutely fanatical about designing products with simplicity. There are trade-offs, of course. The MacBook Air® has no CD/DVD drive, but that allows it to be smaller, lighter and more elegant. The remote for Apple TV® has only a few buttons, but this eliminates confusion.

We live in a complex world, where simplicity is a rare commodity, and like all rare things, it is valued. Take a look at your work. Can you make it simpler? Can you eliminate confusion? Can you edit out the excess until only the essential ingredients are evident? If you’re like most people, the answer is “yes.” But it takes time. Mark Twain famously commented, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Most of us fall into this trap. We would make things simpler, but we just don’t have time for the needed refinement. And this comes back to doing fewer things.

One last point about the doctrine: Designing fewer, simpler, greater things doesn’t just make the products better, it makes them easier to sell. Jobs is considered a masterful showman, and he is. We can all learn from watching his keynote presentations, but what enables him to be so persuasive is two things: He has only a few things to talk about, and each has been refined to make them better than the competition. We all know the feeling of going into a meeting with great work in our hands. We almost can’t wait to show it off. Our excitement and confidence are palpable. Selling a few great ideas is considerably easier than selling a lot of mediocre ideas. We have the time to romance each idea and we gain power from knowing the work is good.

Steve Jobs will be remembered as a remarkable individual who reshaped every industry he entered. The fact that much of that genius has been concentrated on designing and perfecting a small number of things does not diminish his accomplishments; it is the source of them. Applying this formula to our own efforts may not make us a billionaire or a celebrity, but it will make our work stronger and our efforts more purposeful, and that’s a good idea.

stick it to the manIntroduction

A few weeks ago, a brilliant marketer and former colleague of mine, Dee Papit, commented on my article about the “Branding of Barack Obama.” Her reference to Obama’s use of the Internet and social networking led me to reflect on the way he and libertarian candidate Ron Paul bypassed the smoke-filled rooms of power to connect directly with supporters. I thought I’d share a few of my thoughts on the cultural evolution that made these events possible and continues to reshape competition in the new century.

The Seeds of Change

In 1960, Ford didn’t need a better idea. They had manufacturing capacity, supply chain efficiency and a distribution network. The investment required to build this kind of capacity was an enormous competitive barrier and it successfully choked off the efforts of all but three of the world’s most powerful companies. By a wide margin, General Motors was the largest company in the world and industrial powerhouses like Ford, Chrysler, General Electric and U.S. Steel were all in the top 10.

It was an age of consolidated power. Three networks controlled all television programming. A handful of Hollywood moguls controlled mainstream film. IBM controlled 70 percent of the computer market, and the only phone service you could buy came from AT&T. In the ’60s, the scale that such companies operated on made it nearly impossible for smaller companies to compete. Fortunately, the ’60s also laid the groundwork for all this to change.

The rebellion by young people in the 1960s, punctuated by the popular slogan “Power to the people,” didn’t disrupt established power bases overnight, but it did establish a pattern of independent thinking that led to the proliferation of entrepreneurship. As more young people questioned authority, we saw the rise of cultural classes that would begin to reshape our world at the end of the twentieth century. Most notable among these were the hippy, the artist and the geek.

Hippies and their ilk openly questioned the motives of big business, big politics and anything that came out of an assembly plant. Their back-to-nature message set the stage for the rapid rise of the organic movement, but it also coincided with the spread of the creative class.

In the ’60s, the creative community came alive with writers like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Maya Angelou, Ken Kesey, Gloria Steinem, Truman Capote and Harper Lee; musicians like Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, The Velvet Underground, Jimmy Hendrix, Bob Dylan and Neil Young; and artists like Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg. These influences worked their way into film and television. They also inspired advertising leaders like Bill Bernbach to usher in the era known as the “Creative Revolution.”

At the same time creativity was on the rise, the growth of technology was accelerating, sparking new innovations in the ways people worked and communicated. “Geeks,” a derogatory term for social outcasts who tinkered with technology, would soon become a badge of honor as young geniuses like Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, Adam Osborne, John Draper and Bill Gates turned their parents’ garages into the primordial pool of the evolution of technology. This growing subculture of basement businessmen was greatly influenced by social activists like Fred Moore, cofounder of the Homebrew Computer Club. In the 1970s and beyond, Moore and others around him pushed for the democratization of technology. This led to an increased number of these garage geeks breaking away from corporate confines to start their own, venture-backed businesses.

Throughout the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, anti-establishment attitudes, increased emphasis on creativity and expanded democratization of technology provided fertile conditions for the incubation of changes that were to erupt onto the scene in the late 1990s. The rocket fuel that propelled the final stage of transformation was the Internet.

Ironically, the Internet was born out of the US Department of Defense in the 1960s. It was originally known as the ARPANET and developed through the ’70s and ’80s, but it wasn’t until the launch of the Mosaic browser in 1993 and Netscape in 1994 that the “Information Superhighway,” as it was called, came into popular use.

In the latter half of the 1990s, the Internet would go from a largely unknown plaything of geeks, phreaks and researchers to a middle-class mainstay. With this change, virtually any individual or business had an equal shot at capturing the attention of a global audience. While the dot-com bust in 2000 purged the new economy of many of its weakest businesses, the transformation of the economy continued, altering the landscape, weakening large institutions and emboldening challenges to the status quo.

Aided by technology and a strong will to break away from mainstream institutions, independent enterprise has flourished. The Sundance Festival launched the era of the independent filmmaker, while cable access broke down the dominance of the Big Three Networks. AT&T’s breakup led to the vast expansion of communications options, including the development of mobile telephony, texting and smart phones. IBM’s dominance in computers gave way to dozens of new companies, like Apple, Microsoft, Oracle, HP and Dell. Electronic publishing, paired with distribution through online retailers like, would allow any author to bypass the major publishing companies and self-publish their book. And thousands of innovative new businesses, from eBay to Google, would change the nature of the way we trade and promote goods and services, democratizing access to online markets and advertising.

So where does all this lead? It is bringing us to a time when anyone with an innovative idea and the conviction to pursue it can compete in a global marketplace. We are seeing small branding boutiques pull choice assignments away from global giants. Multinational banks are crumbling, even as small community banks thrive. And political candidates like Ron Paul and Barack Obama are able to raise millions of dollars from small donors, while bypassing the traditional paths to power.

Only time will tell what lies next along this path, but it is certain to lead to greater diversity of opportunity and unprecedented competitive freedom.


Painting by the River

After all the heightened emotions experienced in the final days of the presidential election, it was wonderful to slow down and enjoy the great outdoors with an art exhibition along the river. Five artists were featured in the show hosted by Lazare Gallery. A handful of students and chatted with the artists as they worked, then ducked inside for wine and cheese and more art. It was an enriching way to spend the afternoon.


Inside Lazare Gallery


Aaron Pavelis Completes A Portrait


Ronald Renmark Captures A Landscape


According to published reports, Barack Obama’s victory in the Presidential election was celebrated around the world. Here in Richmond, Virginia, the former capital of the confederacy, election night took on powerful symbolism as supporters encircled the statue of Robert E. Lee with Obama signs.

But what led to this historic outcome? The sharp contrast between the campaigns of John McCain and Barack Obama provide a lesson in the fundamental nature of brands.

Brands are not the product of logos, slogans or jingles. They are built through consistent, predictable behavior. This predictability provides consumers with a reference point for the brand. They come to expect a consistent experience that gives them confidence that future experiences will be equally positive. When companies behave unpredictably, they imperil their brand. 

So which campaign was more consistent and predictable? Barack Obama’s team never wavered from the calm, pragmatic optimism that characterized its communications. Contrast this with McCain’s campaign, which seemed to leap from one opportunistic message to another. His team abruptly halted the campaign, and then hastily restarted it. They drifted from Bill Ayers, to Joe the Plumber, to celebrities to socialism. It felt like we were all sitting in a focus group as their campaign staff asked us “how about this one? No? How about that one?”

Another major failing of the McCain campaign was their focus on the competition. Look at the TV ad section of their website (below) and you’ll notice the face on most of McCain’s ads is Obama’s. It’s hard to build a brand while constantly invoking other brands. Consumers want to know your story, not the other guy’s. What were his campaign managers thinking when the chose to bypass McCain’s own accomplishments to latch onto the dubious saga of a tax-delinquent plumber?

Great brands become great, not by skipping from place to place in an attempt to pander to consumer whims. They act with conviction and they communicate with clarity and consistency. Ask yourself which candidate best fits that description and I don’t think you’ll have any trouble picking the winner.


McCain ads from his campaign website

As a final word on Alan Pell Crawford’s exploration of Thomas Jefferson, I want to cite one passage of the work that has haunted me ever since putting the book down.

Crawford details how Jefferson railed against slavery in his first draft of the Declaration of Independence, stating that by introducing slavery the British Crown had, “waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery.” As part of a compromise with delegates from South Carolina and Georgia, Jefferson dropped the language from subsequent drafts.

We can only speculate as to whether Jefferson’s move was the only way to keep the American independence movement from derailing or whether he could have held his ground and prevailed, but I continue to be staggered by the implications. 

Is is possible that one moment of pragmatism in June of 1776 condemned millions of people to a life of slavery for another hundred years? Is it possible that the burning of Richmond, the killings at Gettysburg, and countless lynching throughout the south all came about as the unanticipated after-effects of a moment of weakness?

I’m raising this question, not to suggest that Jefferson was a weak man, but to illustrate how even a strong man, with great intelligence can cast a dark shadow by putting practicality ahead of principle.



The first writing assignment in our Cultural Exploration class was to read David Renmick’sKing of the World” about the life and career of Muhammad Ali. The book takes us beyond his career as a boxer to portray his life within the context of the turbulent cultural tapestry of the 1960s.

We are confronted with Ali’s role as a civil rights advocate, a Muslim and a draft resister. A flawed husband to several wives, a conflicted friend of Malcolm X and a constant fascination of the press and public. Ali pursues peace, while thriving at violent sport. He speaks for the rights of blacks, while ignoring those of women.

He begins the book a near-perfect athlete – strong, fast, intelligent and intimidating. Yet as he deteriorates physically, his character grows. Ali’s story is really a dozen stories woven into the life of one man. A cultural potluck with a little something for everyone.

Most of all, Ali is a hero.

Like all heroes, from Hercules forward, he is not without his flaws, but the strength of his conviction and the triumphs of his life will long outlast the frailties of the man.

Maybe it’s not so surprising that I would strongly endorse the new name for the most influential school in advertising. After all, I’ve deliberately avoided the “advertising” moniker since I formed O’Keefe Marketing in 1990. On the other hand, I’ve been associated with the Adcenter since its formation. Aren’t we turning our back on the principles that made this organization great? Thankfully no.

I took a little walk through time on the Internet Archive (better known as the “WaybackMachine“). Here that I found an article in CMYK heralding the launch of a new advertising school. The article quotes visionary leader, Diane Cook Tench, in saying the need for the school arose because:

“While advertising education has stagnated over the last two decades, the ad industry has not.”

The quote reminds us that the sole reason for the Adcenter’s formation was that other schools failed to change and adapt to a turbulent industry.

When industry leaders gather for our semi-annual board meetings, they seldom question whether the school is changing too much. Instead, the conversation is rightly focused on whether we are changing enough. Are we keeping up with the astonishing growth of new technologies, new techniques and new mediums? Are we opening our door to a diverse population that reflects the globalization of commerce? Are we immersing ethics and responsibility into the subjects we teach?

Thankfully, the school that Tench brought to life and Rick Boyko now stewards has not falling into the stagnation trap. The new logo is the school’s fourth. There have also been four directors of the school. The Martin Agency’s Mike Hughes is the only remaining member of the original board. (Sadly two of the three board members pictured here have passed away.)

In changing its name, the school is not following others, but asking an industry to follow us. This editorial from Creativity Magazine says it well:

VCU, One of the most esteemed educational institutions connected to this business of ours, a school charged with grooming the next generation of creative marketing torch bearers, is no longer an Adcenter. School steward and MD Rick Boyko recently announced the school would now go by the handle VCU Brandcenter.

Aside form provoking relief that the school’s deciders didn’t go with something more oblique and annoying (or something with “Idea” in it) the name change seems apt. Boyko has spent his tenure at VCU retooling the center’s program to mint minds for the new era, expanding the scope of the school’s teachings with the goal of creating graduates that aren’t merely carriers of attractive portfolios and makers of attractive ads but creative thinkers and marketing problem solvers. In addition of a Masters in Creative Brand Management in 2005, to help spawn a new breed of creatively enlightened marketer and account person, and last year, the Advanced Management Training program for creative directors.

So if the Adcenter isn’t an ad center anymore, is the industry into which its students will graduate still an ad industry? Are you people still as men and women? The head of our agency of the year David Droga called himself “absolutely an advertising man” in our last issue and yet we recognized his agency’s work in part for its non-advertisingness. Is the distinction important? We’ve talked at length in Creativity about name calling–if it’s not advertising then what? –as have others. TBWA’s Lee Clow has famously pursued a vision of a “media arts company” as the evolution of an ad agency and has told us in the past: “Brands today cannot be sustained by what in the past has been called advertising…everything a brand does that connects to the consumer is media, is brand communication. If orchestrating the art of all those media conversations isn’t advertising, then perhaps the creativity of what we’ll do in the future needs a new name.”

So this week, as the Adcenter changes its name to the VCU Brandcenter and inhabits an astonishingly forward-thinking new building, we are again refusing to stagnate. Fulfilling the original vision for the school and ensuring that once again, our future will be more interesting than our past.


This week, an observant Los Angeles Times reporter, Alana Semuels, called me to discuss an announcement by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, demanding that Unilever pull its ads for Axe, citing the company’s hypocrisy and degradation of women.

At issue is the way Unilever’s Dove brand attacks advertising that promotes artificial images of women – precisely the kind of imagery seen in advertising for Axe.

According to CCFC’s director and co-founder, Dr. Susan Linn, “Even as Unilever basks in praise for its Dove Real Beauty campaign, they are profiting from Axe marketing that blatantly objectifies and degrades young women.”

This raises the question of whether its wise for a large company like Unilever, with a varied portfolio of brands, to promote conflicting points of view. After all, the Dove campaign is a positive step, isn’t it?

Many of you know I sounded out on this subject last year. This week, in addition my quote in the LA Times article, I posted this comment on the Advertising Age blog discussing Bob Garfield’s similar article:

It’s nice to see positive imagery in advertising, but it’s a lot nicer when it’s authentic, not just a cynical corporate trick to sell soap. Dove is a product and products don’t have beliefs or values. Companies have values, so why don’t we ask Unilever what they think?

Unilever, if you’re listening, what’s it going to be? Treat women like real people, or sex slaves? Pick one.

Bob Garfield probably put it better when he said:

“A worthy cause, a brilliant strategy, a flawless video. It all amounts to something very close to perfection. So, yes, absolutely, four stars…Damn, if it just weren’t for the nagging hypocrisy of it all.”

Do you have an opinion about this? Please comment.

LA Times Article

Advertising Age Article