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Independent Influence: Signs from the homeless line the walls of Atlanta-based Fizz

Some of the sign's displayed at Fizz's office in Atlanta

Welcome to Independent Influence, a weekly series that spotlights the work, perspectives and inspirations behind independent agencies across the country. This week we're featuring Atlanta-based word-of-mouth marketing agency Fizz and its collection of signs that employees have purchased over the years.

Ted Wright, founder and chief executive of word-of-mouth marketing agency Fizz, has a thing for outsider art.

His interest in art began as a child when he began reading books by best-selling author and illustrator Richard Scarry, whose illustrations are notable for their rich and colorful details. As a teenager, he became interested in outsider art - a term that’s typically used to describe artwork created by those who don’t consider themselves to be professional artists - when he was exposed to the work of Reverend Howard Finster, a self-taught folk artist.

So it comes as no surprise that Wright, who founded Fizz 17 years ago, has in recent years taken an interest in signs created by homeless people, street performers, peddlers and others who are vying to grab the attention of weary passersby. When done well, he believes these signs are often much more than cleverly worded pleas for cash; rather, he considers them to be pieces of art that have the ability to stop and make someone think. They’re also often prime examples of how to break through in a cluttered environment, something that advertisers are increasingly concerned with since consumers are faced with a barrage of ads on a daily basis.

“Whether you are a musician or you’re just asking for a donation, you’re trying to cut through a lot of visual clutter and you’re trying to get people to stop what they’re doing,” he said. “The really successful signs are those that get people to stop, break out of their day, think about what’s going on and maybe have an interaction with you.”

While Wright has long had a fascination with these types of signs, he never went so far as to actually inquire about purchasing one of them until about eight years ago, when he’d just landed in San Francisco after visiting a client in the Philippines. While walking through the city after the long flight to clear his head, a homeless man’s sign caught his eye.

Wright said the sign (pictured below) stood out to him for a number of reasons, not the least of which being the fact that he humorously decided to ask for 98 cents rather than the usual dollar. The use of different colored markers and arrows that guide the reader’s eye also made him look twice.

“It’s got a lot of really good copywriter tricks [and] a lot of really good retail tricks,” he said.

After spotting the sign, Wright said he kept walking, but after about 10 steps decided to turn around and see if the man would accept $10 in exchange for the sign. After some back-and-forth, the man eventually obliged — and Wright walked off with what is now the first of many signs that he and Fizz’s employees have purchased since then.

More than a hobby

After buying his first sign, Wright began keeping his eyes peeled for other interesting signs during his travels.

He ran into a snag after his third sign purchase when a man refused to sell Wright his sign because he didn’t have anything to write with to make a new one. At that point, Wright went into a nearby CVS to buy him two markers. Realizing that this could end up being a common occurrence, Wright began making it a habit to always carry two Sharpies on him in addition to $10.

He also decided to tell his agency about what he’d been doing to see if any of Fizz’s staffers would be interested in sign scouting too, particularly since he’d begun hanging his collection of signs in the office. While some employees expressed no interest in the idea, others became so taken with it that they began going out of their way to try and find signs to bring back. Seeing that the idea was beginning to take off around the office, Wright eventually put a bucket of $10 bills wrapped around two black Sharpies in his executive assistant’s office so employees could come and grab a bundle or two before heading off somewhere.

To date, the agency has 17 of these signs hanging in its office. One of Wright’s favorites is a sign that an employee bought from a guy in LA who was standing outside of a Starbucks. Pictured below, Wright said he thinks it is the “most LA sign” he’s ever seen.

Another favorite is a sign purchased from retired seltzer delivery man Marty the Seltzer Man in New York City that explains why he’s allowed to sell his artwork in the streets. According to Wright, one of his employees recognized Marty while walking to a meeting and decided to see if he could get the sign. After purchasing three of Marty’s t-shirts, all of which have his artwork emblazoned on them, the employee was able to make a deal.

“He has a little tiny sign that talks about how it’s legal for him to sell stuff and he actually has a legal precedent case, and he makes a little tiny argument on this card. It’s got pigeon poop on it,” said Wright.

At first glance, Fizz’s collective interest in searching for and purchasing these signs may seem like a random - if not exploitative - hobby, but Wright argues that it is more intrinsically tied to the agency’s roots than one might think. As a word-of-mouth agency that specializes in creating conversations about products and services - the firm is perhaps most famous for helping PBR reverse years of sluggish sales by helping it garner favor with hipsters - Wright said it’s important that the agency be constantly on the lookout for things that effectively grab people’s attention.

“We like these because at the core of Fizz’s ethos is effectiveness,” he said. “Because we’re trying to create conversations, and because we need to have two people to have a conversation, somehow you need to get their attention. So when we find people that are really good at getting people’s attention, we like to take pictures or we like to buy the object. We bring it back and it reminds us that different just to be different is annoying, [but] different to be effective is cool because at the end of the day, our clients want to sell more stuff to more people more often for more money. So we need to be effective at doing that if we want to keep doing this.”

As for those who think the schtick takes advantage of homeless people and the like, Wright said he believes he and his employees aren’t doing that since they view these signs as pieces of artwork. Regardless of whether they want to sell their sign or not, Wright said he treats the people he meets like artists in the sense that they’ve created something that he’s willing to pay money for to have.

And for an agency that prides itself on creating buzzworthy stories for brands - stories that people will hopefully find interesting enough to tell their friends and family - Wright thinks that the agency’s offbeat collection of signs helps bring its mission full circle since it gives Fizz its own story to tell.

“When you’re in my executive assistant’s office and you see a bucket full of wrapped-up markers and ten dollar bills, then of course you say, ‘oh, what’s that for?’ Then she gets to tell the story,” said Wright.

Independent Influence is supported by Choozle, an independent digital advertising platform.

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