This column is never so much fun for me as when Richmond hands me a delicious little plate of absurdity. Like people stampeding for Apple laptops. Or George Allen calling someone "Macaca." Or Doug Wilder talking.
So imagine how delighted I have been to feast at the veritable buffet of absurdity that is the city's decision in July to hire a Denver advertising agency to handle a branding campaign for Richmond economic development.
On the face of it, it is ridiculous enough. The best creative minds the city could find to sell Richmond as a place for business and investment are apparently 1,700 miles west. And one mile up. It feels sort of like buying an American flag stamped "Made in China."
While that decision may seem absurd enough, there's more, so much more on the buffet. Let's go down and grab a heaping helping of irony, because it was just about a month before the announcement that Mayor Dwight Jones was part of the public launch of i.e.*, an effort by local businesses and creative professionals to market Richmond as "the capital of creativity" and to "transform this city from a Civil War attraction into a nationally renowned hotbed of creative talent." That's a whole other effort, by the way, from RVA Creates, a partnership between the city, Richmond Ventures, VCU BrandCenter and several creative firms including The Martin Agency, working to raise the creative reputation of Richmond.
Now just as an aside, a palate cleanser if you will, take a bite of the morsel of "Huh?" in the goals stated by i.e*: "to transform this city from a Civil War attraction into a nationally renowned hotbed of creative talent." Come again? You want to ignore the immense historical value of this region, which people will spend millions of dollars to visit if marketed correctly, and replace that with the idea that a lot of creative people work here? And people will want to visit ... why? Why would these things be mutually exclusive to begin with?
I've got to move down the buffet. Seriously, I don't even know what that was that I just ate. But there's always room for misplaced outrage. After the announcement there was an awful lot of griping, which at first glance seems reasonable. David Saunders, president of Madison+Main, one of the finalists for the $100,000 branding contract, stated that he believed the business should have stayed in town, and there is a solid argument for that. However, out of the seven firms that bid, only two were from Richmond. Two!
The Richmond Ad Club lists 43 full-service local ad agencies. Where were all the bidders? Mayor Jones wrote in an August Op/Ed piece in the Richmond Times-Dispatch that the city "broadly encouraged local participation."
So why exactly were the local agencies passed over? Jones falls back on the well-worn, my-hands-are-tied-by-the-state defense: In the T-D piece, Jones wrote that Virginia's Dillon Rule limits a locality's power to do certain things, such as award "bonus points" to local firms in contract bids. That's something he says he'd like to change: "We will move forward in asking the 2012 General Assembly to give the city of Richmond the authority to award points to local businesses."
On second thought, he writes, it's fine the way it is: "We cannot and will not alter a fair and legal process to get a more popular choice."
How's that for a side order of contradiction?
You know, I'm still a little hungry for something sweet and gooey. Is that a whiff of scandal I'm getting from the end of the buffet? Ah yes, the undercurrent of impropriety that has surfaced because Peter Chapman, the city's deputy chief administrative officer of economic and community development, was hired from — wait for it — Denver! And in 2007, Denver's auditor raised questions about a possible conflict of interest concerning the awarding of contracts to a firm where Chapman worked after having left employment with the city.
Wow. I am really stuffed. I intended just to take a little taste of everything, but there was just so much to choose from, I'm afraid I really gorged myself.
So if you don't mind, I'll excuse myself now. I've had all the absurdity I can swallow, and I'm a little sick to my stomach.