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Are writers selling out to marketers? Alain de Botton's "Heathrow Diary"

For one week, Swiss author Alain de Botton was living the life I've always wanted to live.

LA Times
For one week, Swiss author Alain de Botton was living the life I've always wanted to live. As the first-ever writer-in-residence of London's Heathrow Airport, he was working on his new book on site, observing, documenting, and philosophically charging the emotions and motions of the two arguably most interesting things in life--people and planes--in transit, in situ.

My own fascination with airports started at an early age thanks to the location of my parents' house. I grew up with planes taking off and landing at the nearby airport, and as a student I spent one summer vacation working as a baggage handler on the tarmac. Ever since, aircraft noise makes me feel at ease, and if I could, I would become a permanent tenant of Narita's Star Alliance lounge, where I would watch planes all day.

Airports have also long piqued the interest of artists of course--from Brian Eno's "Music for Airports," to Steven Spielberg's "The Terminal," to 747-turned-designer hotels. Exhibiting equally the technical routines and the emotional excesses of 21st century civilization, airports serve as mundane settings for the dramatic and dramatic settings for the mundane--de Botton, as Heathrow's writer-in-residence, set out to capture both.

The assignment was simple: De Botton was commissioned by the British Airports Authority (BAA) to spend a week in the middle of Heathrow's bustling Terminal 5 and write about life at the airport. He got his own desk, was awakened by Air Canada every morning, and immersed himself into the airport logistics while living his usual ascetic life (judging from all photos, he wore his signature blue shirt all week). Most of the time he observed and conducted what design researchers would call ethnographic research--knowing that you can best study human behavior, on any given scale, when you're close enough to the action but not part of the commotion. The personal union of researcher and writer raises some interesting questions: Where exactly do you draw the line between observation and interpretation? Where does research end and authorship start? Is research even possible without storytelling?

But these are technicalities. Of bigger concern for reviewers appears to be the "precarious line between creative independence and commerce," as the Guardian calls it. Blog site Gawker, among others, was fast in chastising the unconventional book deal as a shameless and rather desperate PR stunt, but the alleged cynicism reflects more poorly on the critics themselves: Isn't the greatest cynicism of all to look for the cynical in all things? For the record, de Botton insists that BAA gave him complete editorial freedom and that his writing was thoroughly subjective and as unbiased as it can possibly be. He is not the first writer to experiment with commercial book mandates (bestselling author Fay Weldon shocked the arts world in 2001 when it emerged that her latest novel had been sponsored by Bulgari) and smart enough to know that his "Heathrow Diary" project might stir up a controversy. It would have been much safer, from his PR point-of-view, to not pursue it.

Yet de Botton's interest in airports seems genuine: "There are many places in the modern world that we do not understand because we cannot get inside them," he told the Guardian. Moreover, he believes the project is philosophically sound and in fact truly innovative as it revives an old tradition of underwriting: "That one of the largest organizations in the UK should take an interest in a book is almost quaint, like sponsoring a poet," he said. "On behalf of my fellow beleaguered writers, it's nice that writers seem to matter."De Botton already has plans for the next underwritten project: "I'd like to be a writer in residence at a nuclear power station."

And sure--why not? I think we have to overcome the notion that a distinction between marketing and publishing is still possible. Herman Miller's See magazine was one of the most artful and best-curated print magazines out there, Strategy + Business by Booz is one of the sharpest business publications, and there are countless other examples of high-quality corporate publishing. What is wrong with the idea that not only marketers need to be good writers, but writers can be good marketers, too--for the common good of public life? Brands, advertisers, and PR agencies shape the cultural fabric of our societies as much as museums, galleries, artists, and writers do--if the mechanics of their complex interactions are more exposed these days, this can only be a good thing. As long as the involved parties' agendas are transparent--as they were in De Botton's airport project--readers can judge for themselves how valuable they find the products of such collaborations: there is no free lunch, there is no free content, after all.

Aside from that, it is naïve to assume that PR agencies and brand marketers are all evil and unconditionally push for a lopsided, overwhelmingly positive expression of their brands. By now, most of them are happy to tune into the choir of conversational marketing evangelists who understand that authenticity trumps news which may be good but lacks credibility. In this vein, Dan Glover, creative director at Mischief, BAA's PR agency, told the NY Times that "If we funded a brochure that said how wonderful the airport was, people would switch off because they'd think they're being marketed to." Instead, he added, the Heathrow Diary campaign sought to stimulate "branded conversations" among travelers "through the experience of seeing a top literary figure at the airport--and potentially being a character in the book--and by receiving an exclusive copy to read on your travels. The overarching objective is to make a passenger's time at Heathrow the best memory of the trip."

It all goes back to the pillars of "meaningful marketing": Add value, create a (social) event, be a change agent, engage the audience, don't market products, produce! Clients turning to artists and storytellers to create "meaning" for their brands intend that the return-on-meaning transcends the original assignment--the wealth spreads and generates a "meaning surplus."

In this case, De Botton wasn't hired to write an image brochure for an airport whose bad reputation is well known. The "Art of Travel" author took advantage of the opportunity to study one of his favorite subjects first-hand, and rather than just bitching and moaning about the notoriously inhumane experience of having to spend time at Heathrow, he and his client actually did something to make the experience better for travelers. The result of his work, "A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary," was published on September 24, and BAA is distributing 10,000 free copies of the book to Heathrow passengers (it is not devoid of irony to create artificial scarcity by limiting the book's free distribution to one of the world's most frequented travel hubs). Afterward the book will be available for sale through Amazon's British Web site and traditional bookstores. De Botton's "Heathrow Diary" benefits the publisher, the writer, BAA, and travelers--a win-win-win-win and a story with a happy landing.

Read excerpts from "Heathrow Diary"

[Image credit: LA Times]