New Orleans, a love story

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I met Robbie Vitrano six months ago, during the 4A's media conference in New Orleans. A friend of Media Kitchen's Paul Woolmington, Robbie showed up at the tail end of an evening to give us an authentic N.O. bar and music experience, the kind that lasts too long, involves too much alcohol and winds down in places you wouldn't want to see in the daylight.

Robbie himself was as authentic as they come, a New Orleans native who owned a local ad agency called Trumpet, on Charles Street, which includes Louis Armstrong's red beans and rice recipe on its Web site.

It took a couple of days last week for me to find Robbie, but an e-mail arrived on Sept. 2, saying that he and his wife Tricia, daughter Meghan, 13, son Shane, 17, and dad Ray were safe at a friend's house in Atlanta after a frightening ordeal and trip out. Robbie was already setting up new offices.

My thought was to ask him to write something personal for us, as a New Orleans native, a businessman and an ad guy. But the poignancy and poetry of his stream of consciousness e-mails tell the story as well as it can be told.

Scott Donaton

Coming up for air in Atlanta. Surreal. We're establishing an office here, in Baton Rouge and in L.A. Amazing outpouring of support-overwhelming. Plenty of good in this.

For N.O., that clean sheet of paper that comes from hitting rock bottom. Andrei Codrescu, our unofficial poet laureate said on NPR, "For centuries, the nation has sent us their shit and we turned it into art. But this time our blues are too big." Amen.

The old saw about N.O. is that what's good about the place is also what's wrong with it.

This dear, eccentric, creative, cultural-clinging place. Many of us wondered if that legacy could be harnessed and put to work in the modern world, in the wheels of capitalism. Especially, those with heart-on-sleeve arrogance. People like the ones attracted to Trumpet.

But (like Codrescu understands,) much of the art comes from poverty. And poverty and everything that has contributed to it has manifested as this apocalypse.

Irony of this was a summit held just last week-Cultural Economy Summit, initiated by an old friend and bright shining political light, Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu. Mitch had the brilliant insight to develop a vernacular everyone could understand-money. He commissioned an economic development firm called Mt. Auburn to assess the impact-jobs, dollars-of the creative "cultural economy." Richard Florida's creative class. No surprise the numbers were huge. Eclipsing tourism (another slippery slope for our city/state-today and tomorrow with the thousands of low-wage workers displaced/unemployed for months, more slippery than anyone imagined). The consultant proclaimed that Louisiana could be the national and international model for this type of thinking.

The creative in me, the ad man, beamed at that thought. I love this city. I love the nuance, access, texture, soul. I am enraged and entertained by her dysfunction. Dragged my wife, an Irish immigrant who fled her country in search of West Coast sunshine, back to a place with 100 inches of annual rain. Tried to run-a son born in Santa Barbara, daughter in Atlanta-but the pull too strong. NOTHING is New Orleans. Charles Kuralt called it "the unique American Place" after acknowledging that unique is an almost impossible word to define. And now there was some real energy about putting it to work in a way I completely understand.

The talk of manifesting New Orleans' creative soul into an ad agency, even in some comparable standing to the jewels of our business like Wieden or Crispin, is so fucking arrogant. But the local boy, teaching the "new" advertising at his alma mater, working with a bunch of true believers-half expats like him, half big agency talent from around the country having sniffed around the national ad scene and saying "why not from New Orleans?"-wanted to put that to work in an authentic way in the only place he could love.

New Orleans itself was the ultimate creative assignment. When our then-client Ray Nagin came into my office and took a straw poll about running for mayor, when he won and several close friends took cabinet positions, it was game-on. The ultimate branding opportunity. Recently winning Louisiana Department of Economic Development account was another opportunity to evolve that effort, tell the story.

Now it's a different job. But requiring no less a creative solution. We're all familiar with the concept of creative destruction. That comes off as far too glib, but room has been made for innovation, wisdom, and courage.

What's next? Yes, exposed-geographically, socially, culturally. That "clean sheet of paper." New Orleans cannot be remade like she was before. She can only be new.

A three, five, 10 and 20-year plan. We dream big, edit mercilessly then agree. Sign a contract for a new New Orleans. Authentic, inside-out branding. Purpose. There's a place for the best minds in our biz in this process.

Thanks for caring, Robbie

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