David Justus, the technology director at ad agency Droga5, recently had a week off.
A friend of his, a tech director at another company, also had the week off—a rare coincidence. Justus and his friend wanted to celebrate—and they found what he concedes is the nerdiest way to do so. They mapped out a way to have a drink in every one of New York’s boroughs, drawing inspiration from "one of the fundamental theorems of graph theory."
The city of Kaliningrad, Russia, formerly known as Königsberg, features seven bridges that span the Pregel River, connecting a set of landmasses. The Seven Bridges of Königsberg problem asked whether it was possible to walk through the city and cross each bridge only once (it wasn't, Euler proved).
The city of New York, with its set of landmasses, rivers, and bridges, bears some similarities, so Justus and his friend set about plotting a route. "We started at 11:30 a.m., and we drank at least once in every borough," he reports. "Towards the end, more than once." They started in Brooklyn, went down to Staten Island, passed up through Manhattan and into the Bronx before looping down into Queens and back into Brooklyn. Euler would have been proud: "It was the nerdiest pub crawl ever."
Finding unconventional solutions to conventional problems: It’s how Justus spends his days off, but it’s also central to his role at Droga5, one of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies of 2013. Last year the agency worked with the New Museum for an exhibit about the year 1993. But how to get people excited about an era that’s not quite old enough to be Mad Men nostalgic, and just recent enough to be vaguely embarrassing? Justus and his team decided to leverage that technological vestige: the payphone. He and his team rigged up 5,000 pay phones around the city, and created an 800 number people could call to learn a bit about the surrounding area 20 years ago. A total of about 50 time capsule stories were told across those 5,000 phones; months after launching, Droga5’s system still gets about 250 calls a month.
This is the curious thing about working in advertising today: In a fractured media landscape, it’s not merely magazines and television that are your mediums. Rather, the whole world is your canvas. (Droga5’s blockbuster project to date was probably its collaboration on Jay-Z’s "Decoded," in which pages of his book were hidden across the entire city.)
Is it a daunting feeling? "It’s an exciting feeling, I think, actually," says Justus. "Shifts are occurring. Everyone used to be one way: Brands would send their messages out there, and consumers would passively consume. Now with digital, there are two-way communications, and that’s shifting how a lot of advertising works."
Other recent projects have included Bringyourchallenges.com, with Prudential, as well as an arcade social gaming experience for iD gum. Justus also brings his tech know-how to bear on problems to solve within the office. Droga5 tends to order takeout every night, Monday through Thursday. Until recently, someone would manually send out an email informing people their dinner had arrived. Justus decided that was too unceremonious, or laborious; he instead built a notification button around a Raspberry Pi computing device. Like Pavlov’s bells, a press of that button shoots out a friendly staff-wide email from "Dinner Button" announcing, "Dinner is here."
Should he ever want to exit advertising, Justus clearly has a career cut out for him in alternative ways to eat and drink.
[Image: Flickr user Geraint Rowland]