Nathan Phillips is an advertising exec with an unusual side project that involves writing break-up letters, wedding speeches and TED talks.
Mr. Phillips and his wife Victoria Wellman were included in a New York Times story last month about so-called "toast whisperers" -- professionals who ghost write for personal milestones. Their company, Oratory Laboratory, offers this service. Here they are in 2012 telling Martha Stewart how to give a good toast:
The Times story, which appeared in the Sunday Style section, mentioned that Mr. Phillips "works in advertising." In fact, he's chief creative director at Narrative, a digital marketing agency co-founded by Russell Simmons. Narrative is a New York-based company with 21 employees and clients like Under Armour, Samsung and Universal Pictures. Mr. Phillips joined in April.
Ad Age spoke with Mr. Phillips at Narrative's office in New York's garment district and continued the discussion over email about Oratory Laboratory (which he pronounces La-bor-atory) and how this side projects informs his advertising work. The conversation has been condensed and lightly edited.
Advertising Age: Tell me about the genesis of your company? How did you come up with the idea for a company that writes wedding speeches?
Nathan Phillips: My wife, Victoria, who's British and my partner in the Oratory Laboratory, and I were driving back from a wedding upstate and she said [affecting a British accent], 'Why aren't there people to make sure the speeches aren't like that?'
It's true! Why aren't there people who do that? So we made a little placeholder website, which got picked up by Cool Hunting and then Urban Daddy and basically kind of blew up from the little Wordpress jam I put up. And it turned into a business.
Ad Age: When was that -- when you started the company?
Mr. Phillips: 2009.
Ad Age: So how many hours a week do you devote to something like that?
Mr. Phillips: It depends. At times, when I wasn't working at an agency, the Oratory Laboratory might take up a ton of time. Victoria is fulltime there. For me, it's a much lighter touch. I'm here [at Narrative] all the time.
Ad Age: Who are some of your clients at the Oratory Laboratory?
Mr. Phillips: I can tell you stories, but I can't tell you who they are because part of the thing is it's a luxury service that thrives on discretion.
Ad Age: OK. Tell me about the different types of work you do for clients.
Mr. Phillips: Wedding speeches -- every wedding speech you can possibly imagine from all the different positions: maid of honor, mother of bride, groom, best man. Some are different than others. We do, for example, a lot of finance guys who don't have the time but they have the means and they'll hire the Oratory Laboratory to knock a speech out.
But I also wrote a speech for a 65-year-old gay man who's getting married and the speech was about how he'd been a guest at everyone's wedding and finally this was his chance to stand up and be the man of the hour. I cried reading it. It was a super emotional, very powerful, once in a lifetime experience.
We have everything from that type of speech to the more kind of quick one-offs. Corporate scenarios like keynotes -- 45 minutes on the state of the business or launching a new product -- to more of 'I have an important presentation coming up and I need to find a way to integrate my personal brand into me speaking about the business.'
And then there are college commencements; we've done TED talks; we've done eulogies, we've done break up letters.
Ad Age: Break-up letters?
Mr. Phillips: Yeah, one of our very early clients was this woman who had been in a relationship for, like, decades and she couldn't write the break-up letter, so she engaged us to do it and it was super emotional for her but she needed someone to help her with it.
Ad Age: How much does a wedding speech cost, give or take?
Mr. Phillips: A wedding toast starts at $500 and can go over $10,000 for a major event like a keynote, commencement or a TED talk. It all depends on research and additional elements like presentation materials. We also do retainers and media training.
Ad Age: It kind of sounds to me like you're running a PR agency that also does wedding speeches and break-up letters.
Mr. Phillips: A PR agency has rules, standard methods of operation. What we do is much different --much more special and personalized. The way I think about it is I use technology to turn ordinary people into heroes. The technology might change, the context might change, but ultimately that's a big through line.
Ad Age: I'm sorry, but wedding speeches and technology don't sound like two things that jibe.
Mr. Phillips: So with the Oratory Laboratory, we craft these questionnaires, which are a type of technology, and we find a way to pull stories from these people that they would never think to put in a speech. The other piece of technology we work with is their mouth because people might be great at texting, they might be great at speaking on Twitter, but they're losing the ability to really effectively communicate with their mouth. So we work with everyone on how their speech is delivered.
Ad Age: How does all of this relate to what you're doing here at Narrative?
Mr. Phillips: User-generated content has such a bad rap. But, ghostwriting speeches is like the deepest UGC campaign you can possibly do. You have to set them up for success, train them about best practices and make sure they stay on track to nail the brief, which is not to offend anyone, sound like a hero and actually make funny jokes. It's a big ask, but I've definitely learned that with the right process in place I can get amazing content out of anybody which has really changed the way I think about designing interactive work. No one is too nerdy, wacky or quiet to make a roomful of people weep or laugh hysterically. No one boos at a wedding. You just have to know your audience.
I think the best content is when a brand works like a ghostwriter. Giving people the tools they need to tell their own story in a much bigger way. We like to say that the goal of the Oratory Laboratory is to get people laid at weddings. But however you measure success, making people feel like the hero of a story is a righteous goal -- for brands and for speechwriters.
Ad Age: You said you've written a book and sold a pilot to TV. Tell me about it.
Mr. Phillips: This past spring I had a book come out called "The Unorthodox Haggadah."
Ad Age: What about TV?
Mr. Phillips: Like quite a few of my copywriter brethren, I have sold a few pilots, some of them shot, none of them aired. But I had a reality pilot; I had a deal for two different comedy shows. I had a blog called Manfear, which is about the thing, once you turn 30, that wakes you up at 5 a.m. and makes you bug out, which got turned into a TV show.
Ad Age: What's your Man Fear right now?
Mr. Phillips: Right this very second?
Ad Age: Right this very second.
Mr. Phillips: My voice is going to sound funny and it's going to make you respect me even less as a human being and as a man when you're transcribing this and ultimately that will reflect poorly on this interview.