Snowed in with local heroes...
From Hurricane Sandy to a leak in your apartment building, adverse weather conditions have a way of bringing people together. During New York’s last blizzard, I found myself snowed in one of the few East Village bars with a fireplace. Here I met David Everitt-Carlson: Super Bowl ad writer, Occupy Wall Street front man and mastermind behind the world’s largest collection of public art, I Think Outside My Box (#ITOMB) project.
With his MacBook, perched at the bar, David was managing #ITOMB’s social media presence.
“ITOMB is a global community painting salon celebrating freedom of expression by engaging the public in public art,” he told me.
The concept is simple enough: For a small donation, members of the public are encouraged to paint 3”x 3” pieces of cardboard at David’s makeshift studio on the High Line. Some are grouped (categories include city skylines, human portraits) and featured on a display next to his set-up. These are then added to David’s collection of over 20,000 pieces.
The idea was born out from 2011’s Occupy Movement. In Occupy he found solace, after moving to Zuccotti Park in a tepee to what he called “America’s largest self-help group”.
David traveled the vast spectrum of life from hugely successful ad exec to homelessness on the streets of NY. But this is the tip of a very, very remarkable life.
Early life in advertising: The Super Bowl and Ridley Scott
David started his professional life as a contributing editor of a city college newspaper but soon became disillusioned after running into censorship issues. “If you have censorship issues at a peanut college, it won’t get better. Every paper has a management team, and somebody in that team has a place in the political spectrum. Right or left,” he noted.
The world of advertising gave him a way out.
"Copywriting enabled me to be non-committal, and leave my work when I left the office. I didn’t need to wrestle with myself on how I made a buck," he said.
Then, as a creative director, came the chance to work with Ridley Scott on a commercial for the 1988 Super Bowl.
“Ridley was the man to be chased. He’d recently done Apple’s 1984 ad,” he said.
The commercial featured a US fighter pilot leaving the Air Force to fly for American Airlines. 3-day shoot. 100 crew. Shot in the Mojave Desert boneyard. 137° F. Water trucks constantly hosing down the runway.
“The boneyard is where planes go to die. It’s a haunting place. The planes are all dead," he recalled. "We had to build an air base and our own air force, paint two DC8 Cargo planes to look like fighter jets. We couldn’t use an American fighter plane, or anything that represented the US Air Force. This wasn’t Top Gun. It wasn’t recruiting people into the Air Force. It was recruiting people out of it!!”
Everitt-Carlson took me through the advert, revealing the goofs and inconsistencies. I assumed this was his career highlight.
“One would think," he said. "But what tends to be the case with these things, is that it’s somebody else’s highlight. I never thought it was such a big deal.”
He remembers the night it was broadcast to the world. He was at a house party in Dallas complete with chips, dip and beers.
“The actual airing was anti-climactic. Pretty unremarkable. I saw it hundreds of times in the editing room. I could tell you the fights people had over over two seconds of the ad," he said. "At the end of a television commercial, the credits don’t roll. Unlike a film, where they roll with nice music for you to reflect.”
He recalls going to the back yard to ring his father.
“Dad, you see the ad?”
“Yeah we saw it, but you’re not in it?”
“I’m not supposed to be in it”
“You shoot it?”
“No, we hired a director, Ridley Scott. But the idea was mine.”
“Well that’s the easy part.”
This exchange was only a small part of the anti-climax.
“At that point you’re questioning your entire value on this planet. It’s probably not different for the guys on the field. Get out there, do your work and forget the 60,000 people in the stadium. Or you might not catch the ball. Or throw the touchdown pass.”
The glitz and glamour with the beautiful people
While it’s true the credits don’t roll after the ad, they do roll throughout the industry. Soon, David found himself nominated for four Clio Awards: the most prestigious awards in advertising at the time.
“It got nominated. It didn’t win, it didn’t matter. You’re in the game. You get to hang with the beautiful people. I got to wear a white Armani tux and walk around the culture gardens with a beautiful lady on the arm. It had all the glitz of Hollywood, free champagne, lots of bulbs going off. This is all good, it doesn’t suck. Nominated for four Clios!”
In 1990, he was again nominated for his creative work. It would also be a turning point for the event.
“The following year, hundreds of people showed up in black tie only to find the gates of the Lincoln Center padlocked. The organizer’s check had bounced. People started protesting in black ties outside. Eventually, they found the organizer at his townhouse on the Upper East Side passed out on the floor from a suspected overdose with a gay lover. Real drama of Hollywood stuff,” Everitt-Carlson recalled.
Eventually they let everybody in, sensing it would be bad for publicity with a load of angry media people outside. The janitor appointed himself emcee for the evening shortly before people rushed the stage and took the statues for themselves.
“I think somebody bought the rights to the awards for $100, but the event was trashed. There was nothing left for banks to collect on.”
But David was busy playing his own hand.
Hitting the big time in Chicago
In 1989, Everitt-Carlson was called upon by advertising agency Leo Burnett in Chicago. His salary doubled and so did his responsibility, working on Nintendo, Miller Beer and Kellogg’s.
“It was like going from the minor leagues to the major leagues. So what, you made a Super Bowl ad? They had Hall of Famers. Clio award winners," he said.
He lived in the Belden Stratford, a luxury apartment building in Lincoln Park, right across the street from the Zoo.
“[There was a] grand piano in the lobby, door man with top hat, 5-star restaurant below. With our windows open at night, we could hear the animals. Of all the din of a city and to hear an elephant crying. Pretty amazing.”
Segue to South Korea
“One day I’m in my office, on the 26th floor of the Leo Burnet building, watching the sailboats on Lake Michigan go by when the phone rings. It’s Michael Conrad, the global creative director. He says 'David, what do you know about Korea?' and I said 'nothing' - and that’s how I got the job.”
I assumed because of his work on Nintendo.
“[That had] absolutely nothing to do with it. Korea in 1995 was a backwater. It wasn’t K-pop, it wasn’t Gangnam style. It was frowned upon. The job had been turned down by three people before me. They were out of options.”
They just needed somebody who wouldn’t be put off by the things people said about it. He moved. His wife stayed.
“The US in 1995 was a bad time for the agency. They had been through three rounds of layoffs. You’d come back from lunch and the guy next to you would be clearing his desk.”
In May of that year, he moved to Seoul as chief creative officer of Leo Burnett Korea. The office consisted of 45 employees. Chicago had 2,300.
Despite the relative lack of talent and budgets versus the US practice, people weren’t poorly paid. He lived in the Westin Chosun hotel for two years. After turning the office around, he returned to Chicago in 1997 only to find he was to be made redundant.
A Return to Seoul
Sensing an opportunity, he headed back to Seoul with his severance pay and set up the first 100% foreign-owned agency in South Korea: Carlson Creative Inc.
In a one room office with a fold-out table and internet connection, he soon won big business from British American Tobacco (BAT), LG and Samsung. On pitch days and client visits, the cleaner would pose as his receptionist.
“I was the rock star. I had to learn very quickly to be the front man. I’ve still got a storage room in Seoul with all my awards and trophies. Completely untouched since I left [over a decade ago].”
Going into the Millennium, David was spearheading an exciting time in Korean advertising.
However, after BAT merged with Rothermans International, the two brands decided to consolidate the advertising business. The account was sucked up elsewhere. Furthermore, they decided to direct ad spend in South Korea to the Dunhill brand. This left very little for Carlson Creative Inc.
“I told my accountant it’s not good. BAT has left. That was the big nut. That paid our fucking rent."
Despite the loss of BAT, things had looked promising in early autumn 2001. He was certain to land Cebu Pacific, a Filipino airline looking to launch in Korea. One week after 9/11, David received the message from their marketing director:
“David, I don’t know what to tell you. Sometimes it’s an act of God, but this was something else. But we’re not launching in Korea. Last week four Boeings were lost. The queue for new planes has just got longer for us.”
Problems compounded when George Bush coined the phrase “axis of evil” to refer to Iran, Iraq and North Korea.
“You ask most people around the world, what the difference between North Korea and South Korea and they can’t tell you. Within two weeks every single one [of my international clients] rang me and told me ‘Spending freeze. You’re sitting on a nuclear flashpoint. Mr. Bush doesn’t like the way things are going over there. You could be the next cold war.'"
The loss of your biggest account. A six month spending freeze from international business. The loss of a potentially huge airline account. Carlson Creative couldn’t even afford to pitch new business.
In March 2002 he locked the doors and paid off the staff.
A foreign real estate company bought Carlson Creative, but only to inherit the tax benefits it had accrued for operating in the country for over five years.
“They bought the corporate papers. It was a consolation prize. But I’ll say this, there’s nothing more exhilarating than starting your own business in an emerging market and just running with it”
He stayed in Seoul for a couple of years teaching advertising at a university. In 2005 he left for Vietnam, where he also tried his hand at starting another agency. But found himself “pushing sand up a hill” in a post-war country that was a long way off reinventing itself in the same way as South Korea. He taught English to students before following a girl to Germany in 2010.
He stayed in Germany for a year, before returning home after 15 years as an expat.
Moving back to New York: In a world of insane people, only the sane person is insane
I imagined him driving a convertible over the Brooklyn Bridge, to the tune of Ace Frehley’s "Back in New York Groove'. But his return to NYC wasn’t as romantic as that.
Through a government program, he was loaned money for his return airfare home and given a $400 loan on arrival. His first few months were spent in the 30th Street Men’s Shelter, “the homeless industrial complex” in David’s words.
“I was out of money. No way to start over. My beginning was spending a week in the shelter. Which was one of the most dreadful experiences anybody could have”.
It wasn’t the dire food or the dorm room he shared with seven other people. It was the lack of a library, computers or Wi-Fi. Ultimately, a lack of means to find a job. It wasn’t in the shelter’s interest to help him find work.
“There is an entire industry that makes money out of homeless people. And the problem will never be solved as long as other people’s income depend on it. You solve the homeless problem? You’d have roughly the same people in the homeless service provider industry lose their jobs.
“Having me return as a productive member of society wasn’t a benefit to them. Being homeless was. They don’t get a bonus when you get off the dole. When you’re on the dole, it’s their interest to manage you down.”
Shortly after, with a piece of tarpaulin and some scaffolding, he set up a tepee in Zuccotti Park to join the Occupy movement.
Occupy Wall Street: America’s largest self-help group
“Occupy was the opposite to the shelter. It was support, camaraderie, safety in numbers. It was strength of a particular group of people to rise up and challenge the status quo. Supportive, empowering and liberating. And I responded positively to that.”
One day in Zuccotti Park, he was looking for some cardboard to make a protest sign.
“I pulled a piece out and it folded out into a box. So I sat in it and painted 'I think outside my box' on it. Moments later I was photographed. Next day I was on the front page of the Wall Street Journal’s website”.
People came down to meet the “guy with the paints.” With the help of the onsite Occupy Art Department, I Think Outside My Box was born.
Today in warmer weather
Needless to say I got more than bargained for in Keybar, that cozy East Village bar, during that New York blizzard. He turned back to his laptop and I finished my Guinness before heading out into the white streets, turned a faint orange by the street lights.
A week later we had golden sunshine in New York so I visited David on the High Line, between 22nd and 23rd Street. I like to think I’ll be part of David’s next narrative as he takes I Think Outside My Box to new levels. He too lives in East Village now.
“As someone said to me recently,” David told me over a recent a pint, “’you’ve been rich and you’ve been poor – but boy have you got a story to tell.’”