The Dockter is In
It’s induced either anxiety or melancholy among many content producers, but the seismic shift in publishing’s M.O. has not thwarted Jake Dockter’s ambitions, not even one pixel. For him, a Portland-based PR and marketing pro, it’s cracked open an egg of opportunity.
“We think it’s the most exciting time to be in publishing,” says Dockter, speaking about his LLC, Sharp Stuff. “The world, especially when people look toward the future, is pessimistic—the collapse of the economy, violence, war, global warming, etc. But we’re optimistic, and we wanted to take that spirit and do something with it.”
There’s no better expression of optimism than dreaming large and inviting risk—some call that the American way. Armed with a germ of an idea to explore “higher levels of connection points,” by deploying new technology in the service of story, Dockert and a partner, Mark Searcy, decided to throw a harpoon at the White Whale of the West, advertising giant Wieden + Kennedy.
Dockter had been impressed by W+K’s “Go Forth” campaign for Levi’s, which deputized the spirit of Walt Whitman. “He understood the glory and beauty of America,” says Dockter of the Bard of Brooklyn. “But his is also a more honest understanding of the difficulty of America, its dark side. So that campaign shows Levi’s as part of the real American identity, instead of a traditional hot model wearing a pair of Levi’s. To W+K, ads are stories first, and advertising is a way of storytelling.”
In the pitch meeting, Dockert and Searcy, whose friends in W+K’s design department steered them to the appropriate stakeholders, said they’d like to inspire people to dream, and to use technology and new media to do it. “We thought it would be great for us to start something and it would be great for someone like Wieden and Kennedy, who are all about experimenting with new ideas and cool start-ups, to benefit from this.”
Wieden and Kennedy said great, sure, they had been thinking about doing something like this, another detour from the traditional ad-client relationship. They helped Sharp Stuff organize in August 2011 as an LLC, and contributed seed money and support, hoping to absorb some ideas from the project, to help serve clients better, explore ways to use new technology, and, most importantly, tell new stories.
Brainstorming sessions—which at W+K are said to bear resemblance to a turbulent flight landing in a pristine and unexpected oasis—began in earnest. The Sharp Stuff team told W+K about amazing people working on amazing projects, “and if they had their way, the world would be a far better place,” says Dockter.
These sessions yielded “American Dreamers,” a book project of original essays, authored by inventors, artists, musicians, and “mad scientists,” all collected, commissioned and edited by Sharp Stuff. Words from radio host John Hockenberry, new media titan Arianna Huffington, futurist Ed Finn, Stan Lee, Kurt Andersen, and others began to land in Dockter’s inbox, on topics ranging from colonizing Mars, new American heroes, and global cultural networks. “Whatever the writer’s passion was, we asked them to write about it.”
To publish, the Team adopted a hybrid approach—traditional print-on-demand paperback, e-book, and the still-in-beta platform courtesy of Twitter, Medium.com, a long-form yet shareable platform
“If we want to scale for customers,” says Dockter, “we need to treat the story as the star and then find how it can live in different places. Print on demand allows us to be more sustainable, and allows us to be flexible. If anything happens in the next two months, like a world event, we can have someone write content for it and create a new version. We’re really viewing American Dreamers as a platform, instead of a title. The traditional model says the publishing company makes a book and charges $25, and the customer decides whether they want it at that price. If they don’t want to pay $25, then they’re not engaging that story or that book. So we want to say, ‘We’ve got our story, and the paperback is $16.99, or you can purchase an e-book for $10, or read some free content online, where eventually we’ll have smaller versions at a cheaper price—Variety Packs at $1.99, for example.’ This allows the reader to move up at every level they want to engage, and at every point we want to have a product for them.”
For Dockter the process of gathering the material was its own reward. “I got to talk to people who are leaders and dreamers who are making the world a better place,” he says. “It inspired me. Talking to chefs who are trying to change the future of food, with artists whose art is about engaging people in their communities. How can you help but be inspired when every day you’re hearing people’s amazing dreams?”