Q&A: Bob Garfield on Chaos and How to Survive It

Plus How Rick Warren Inspired His '30 Days' Program

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Ad Age Editor-at-Large Bob Garfield, author of the new book "The Chaos Scenario," has sown fear and controversy with his apocalyptic vision for media and marketing. But his book also articulates a vision for the future. This month, in cooperation with major industry groups, Garfield is introducing the practice of what he calls "Listenomics" in a national program titled "30 Days of Chaos." Garfield sat down with his boss, Editor Jonah Bloom, to talk about his scheme.

Bob Garfield
Bob Garfield
Bloom: Before we discuss this scary-sounding "30 Days of Chaos" thing you've dreamed up, tell me, is anyone actually buying the book?

Bob: Beats the hell out of me. Because of the way we're publishing it, we have no frame of reference. As of the end of September, we're only just now getting into brick-and-mortar bookstores, but we've already got sales of 8,500 or so, largely online. That's way ahead of the average business book, and even further ahead of self-published titles. But we have no way of extrapolating it. Furthermore, 8,000 books sold into the distribution doesn't mean 8,000 individual buyers. Only 4,500 books are in actual readers' hands so far.

Bloom: You're using what's probably best described as a social-media strategy to market the book, right?

Garfield: Yeah, essentially. We have undertaken one of the most ambitious social-media programs in publishing history. We have a video trailer, a widget, a Facebook fan page, a blog, a Twitter feed, a highly produced 35-minute presentation that will be streamed by a number of huge organizations. We've just partnered with a company that will map and optimize our social-media connections. A digital outfit called Adyatra has built our website, which is pretty robust already, but will soon be an unbelievably heavy-duty site that we envision as a crossroads and a community for everyone in media and marketing affected by forces of chaos. But, believe me, we're not abandoning traditional media just to prove a point or whatever. I'm doing every radio show, TV show, newspaper and magazine interview that comes my way. Next week I think I'm doing Outlaw Biker and Highlights.

Bloom: I can see Outlaw Biker digging "Chaos Scenario." So, it's a classic, integrated social-media, PR and mass-media outreach program. Now I know you're not actually doing all this, because you can only just about manage to squeak out one column a week, so who's actually doing all the work?

Garfield: "We" are Stielstra Publishing, which is a partnership of me and Greg Stielstra, a social-media guru with tons of publishing experience and who also happened to be the marketing brains behind a title called "The Purpose Driven Life."

Bloom: Thirty million sold.

Garfield: Impressive, no? But I told Greg I'd personally be perfectly satisfied with 20 million.

Bloom: So you were inspired by a man who is against basic equal rights such as marriage and life-saving science? Really?

Garfield: Well, in marketing terms, yes. Rick Warren and his publisher were pretty sure their book would appeal to the whole universe of evangelical Christians, but they knew it would have particular appeal to pastors and bible-study groups always on the hunt for sort of turn-key sermon and discussion materials. So at very low prices, they got it in the hands of as many of these folks as possible, then, when the buzz began to build, offered a program called "40 Days of Purpose." Churches and bible groups all over the world took up the day-by-day, step-by-step program, and a lot of them bought books. And the people who read the book recommended it and bought more copies as gifts. Thirty million copies later Rick Warren was doing the invocation at the Obama inauguration.

Bloom: It's remarkable how similar "30 Days of Chaos" is to "40 Days of Purpose."

Garfield: It is indeed a remarkable coincidence. But seriously, it seems to us that the collapse of traditional media and marketing will affect businesses and other institutions large and small in every community in the world. So why not get every community discussing the problems, the solutions, the stakes, the strategies among their own colleagues and business associates border to border, coast to coast? So, more or less according to the Rick Warren template, we've built a 30-day program based on book excerpts, commentaries from outside experts and my video presentation, and we've made it available to members of the American Advertising Federation, Direct Marketing Association, Public Relations Society of America, American Marketing Association, Marketing Communications Agency Network and others.

Bloom: I have heard a few people criticize "Chaos" as a fairly destructive tome that doesn't offer much in the way of solutions. Is that fair? And is "30 Days of Chaos" the way to actually start helping people solve some problems instead of just telling them they're going to hell in a handbasket?

Garfield: It's fair. Just not quite true. I mean, if people want Humpty Dumpty put back together again, my critics are absolutely right; I've got nothing much to offer. But if people wish to find out how to exploit the digital revolution to replace a bit of what is lost in the collapse of "mass," and to take advantage of the extraordinary opportunities in "micro," well, the book offers plenty of solutions. "30 Days of Chaos" is all about confronting reality, then moving forward.

Bloom: And, of course, you're shaking these people down to buy books?

Garfield: You make that sound so ugly.

Bloom: Won't a quid pro quo seem obnoxious, or even sleazy?

Garfield: It would, if there were one. But there is no quid pro quo. Nobody has to buy anything. The whole program -- 30 days of discussion materials, the video, etc. -- it's all free. Obviously, we're betting that lots and lots of the people who participate will wish, of their own volition, to own the book. At attractive bulk rates, I might add. Plus a free index and easy-to-grip cover.

Bloom: Ha ha. Now, I happen to know your plans have changed somewhat, because you guys sort of ...

Garfield: Screwed up?

Bloom: Yep.

Garfield: Well, we did screw up. And this time, by "we," I mean "me." I simply didn't work closely enough and fast enough with AAF and the others to assure maximum participation. We imagined hundreds and hundreds of individual chapters participating in "30 Days of Chaos" simultaneously. But I simply didn't budget the time to pull it off. So that's the bad news. The good news is that we're going to wind up involving many more people. Because with our e-mail partner, Emma, we're building on Chaos on Demand. So any group can begin its 30 Days of Chaos at any time. I think we have blundered our way into a larger audience.

Bloom: The New Coke.

Garfield: Exactly! They had this fiasco with the New Coke that nobody wanted, but it led to Coke Classic, and many line extensions that changed the shelf-space dynamic at retail and wound up building corporate market share. It was the biggest accidental windfall since Jed Clampett missed the possum.

Bloom: I was being sarcastic about New Coke, by the way. But seriously, good luck and remember who assigned the original "Chaos" piece.

Garfield: Oh, I remember, all right. If this becomes a bestseller, I'll be forever in your debt. So far, it's just a five-year-long expenditure.

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