How does one go from a punk-rock, bring-down-the-establishment social anarchist to a CEO working with brands like Nike and Google? That’s the story of Nathan Martin, the founder of Deeplocal, a Pittsburgh-based creative agency that’s produced a host of culture-jamming branding events for major corporations.
Martin is the first to admit that his dreadlock-sporting former self wouldn’t have predicted the line of work he’d end up in. In the '90s, Martin was the "singer/screamer" in a touring punk band. Creation Is Crucifixion never quite became a household name, but it had a certain cachet in the underground scene, enough so that a recent reunion garnered some media attention. Martin and his bandmates declared themselves anarchists, passing around leftist books published by the Oakland-based AK Press.
Martin stayed in Pittsburgh for college, attending Carnegie Mellon, in part to stay close to the band. In those years, the band began to blend with another initiative of Martin’s, a subversive art collective called the Carbon Defense League. Soon, Martin’s interest in media, art, music, and technology all blended together.
Three major projects from the next decade or so stand out as emblematic of the more radical period in his life.
Around 1998, the Carbon Defense League began a project called "Child as Audience." Martin and his collaborators thought it was striking that we would generally consider leafleting a kindergarten to be weird, and yet corporations like Nintendo were able to blanket youngsters with messages of all kinds with little oversight. So Martin et al figured out a way to hijack those messages. They bought Nintendo Gameboy games and modified the cartridges manually, soldering on an alternate game they programmed themselves. "You earned points by doing things you were normally not rewarded for in that era," he says. The Carbon Defense League game urged you to break into churches, steal money, evade police, and power up by doing crack.
Then Martin and his collaborators reinserted the modified versions back into the gaming boxes and returned them to stores, where they could later be purchased by the unsuspecting public. This wasn’t done at scale—maybe only a dozen cartridges were modified—but the whole project was documented and publicized through a gallery exhibition—it was essentially a work of performance art.
Another project circa 2003 wound up garnering media attention—and legal trouble. Re-Code.com (no affiliation with the tech news site) imitated the appearance of Priceline, whose tagline in those days was "Name your own price." Re-Code took this idea much further, encouraging users to upload actual barcodes from various stores into a database, label how much they paid for the goods, and allow others to download those barcodes and affix them to other goods in real stores. Don’t feel like paying $5.99 for that Raisin Bran? Slap on a sticker for the generic version, at half the price. Countless people did: "People still tell me how much money they saved on wine using the site," recalls Martin.
As a Salon article laid out: "The site’s creators call it satire. Wal-Mart’s legal counsel calls it an incitement to theft and fraud." The first cease-and-desist letter Martin got felt like an achievement badge. But when lawyers started to talk about a potential 10-year stint in prison, he started to lose sleep. He took down the site, and with the help of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, was able to stay out of jail.
A third project, pegged to the 2004 presidential election, went positively viral. "F the Vote" riffed on MTV’s "Rock the Vote." Its conceit was that liberals were hotter than conservatives, and that anyone could register on Fthevote.com, register as a model, and offer to trade sex for votes. The media went wild, with the likes of Keith Olbermann and Bill O’Reilly weighing in. Legal trouble again followed, says Martin, with the Ohio Board of Elections declaring him a wanted man for enabling election fraud.
Martin was living the subversive activist’s dream . . . and then, gradually, his interests shifted. He was adjunct teaching art at various schools around Pittsburgh. He liked it but didn’t love it. "I was doing artwork for a very small audience of peers that thought what I was doing was interesting, but I wasn’t changing the world. I was creating no impact," he says. He found himself looking for something else. And that’s when he learned that some mapping software he’d been working on was of interest to Nokia and Motorola. He entered the corporate world, at first, almost by accident.
Now, at Deeplocal, his clients have included Sprint, Adidas, Pillsbury, and Air France. The projects are cute, clever, and entirely on-meme—hardly your grandpa's advertising. But still: They’re for big corporations.
"I’ve been called sellout by friends I used to hang out with," Martin admits. He doesn’t quite see it the same way. "Yes, I’m working with corporations, or seen as working in the system or whatever, but I still have a code of ethics around the decisions I make and the clients I work with. I don’t see the world as black-and-white as I used to see it.
"I love changing who I am as frequently as I can," he says. "That’s the thing I hated about punk rock culture. It became this scene where people patted themselves on the back for not changing. With the company, I’m learning. I’m learning, ‘How do you organize and motivate this many people?’" He uses rhetoric familiar from the pro-business politician: "I became interested in being an employer and creating jobs," he says. "I love watching those people have kids, buy a home. I get so excited when someone here buys a house." He notes the irony that he—formerly distrustful of most institutional power—is now friendly with Pittsburgh’s mayor. "I’ve brought money into this city consistently," he says. "That’s what I enjoy. So the ‘sellout’ thing doesn’t bother me as much."
I ask him to imagine him thrown in a room with his dreadlock-sporting former self. What would he say? He pauses for a while. "I understand the perspective of both Nathans," he says. "They’re both right for their time and place. I don’t think I know any better than the 20-year-old that looks at me as some yuppie sellout right now. I don’t think I’m right and he’s wrong."
He doesn’t maintain that he "grew up," only that he made a series of choices. "Crust punks on the street, I don’t think they’re wrong. I don’t think anarchists of today are wrong, or that I was wrong at 21. In some ways I still really respect the dreaded younger Nathan."