The Copycat (part 1 of 2)

It was Friday evening and their weekend should have already begun, but instead the team at Praxis Adaptive were rapt around a single conference phone. Praxis, as it was often called, was an advertising agency that occupied a former industrial space in Brooklyn’s DUMBO district, by the water. The sun had just set over the Manhattan skyline to the west, and pink glow of late April hovered over the river, casting their silhouettes on exposed brick. Praxis had the requisite digital agency vibe, with beanbag chairs, an open office plan and hardwood floors.  A ping-pong table.  A kitchen stocked with iced teas and Lima Soda, the brand they represented and were about to lose.  

Ana Rivera, Account Executive, looked cautiously around the table in an attempt to gauge the room, but everyone was silent in tense anticipation, deferring any and all action to Christy Harris, the Account Director at the end of the table.  This was a job best left to professionals, after all.

Christy was Ana’s boss and mentor, and as one of the youngest in the room, Ana was obligated to see how the seniors played their losing hand, ostensibly for the benefit of her career, but also because the number of actual train wrecks one might see in their career was mercifully small, and Ana wanted to watch this one play out.

Praxis prided itself on being low-key.  Many commuted daily on bicycles that they stacked in the corner by the elevator.  They were underpaid, mostly twenty-somethings, and dreaded to be the first to noisily unstack their bike at closing time, lest their commitment be put to the question.  This wasn’t some kind of joke.  They were creative.  They were building something.  They would leave something behind, in code and light and electricity: internet ads that took you to websites that promoted crackers, apps to find the closest place to find a soda, 30-second spots that celebrated refreshment.  And so, they reasoned, they would never die.  But they could be fired.

Accounts were lost, positions terminated.  You could get a Good Run.  Some of the old soldiers that had come from larger agencies spoke of contracts and re-bids for a business, accounts that were held for multiple corporate generations.  Few at Praxis Adaptive had been in the game that long, and to the young ones like Ana, the idea of staying in one place for more than three years was bad juju, like calling dark forces down on oneself that were best left alone.

They expected to jump jobs several times before they were thirty, to increase their range of experience, mainly their salaries.  Jumps were delicate, precisely-timed things, and  should be worth an extra 10-20k, at least.  With the right timing, the ambitious ones might be making over a hundred thousand dollars a year, not a lot of money in Brooklyn, but enough to keep you in Friday night sushi and an active gym membership, if you didn’t mind having a roommate, or a studio apartment.  You had to prioritize.

But losing an account meant layoffs, which killed the timing of your jump, indeed, put you at the back of the line. Layoffs meant claiming you were “freelancing” to recruiters who read easily between those lines, taking “Associate” back on your title. Sure, layoffs weren’t being fired, per se.  You never said, I got fired today.  You said, ‘I got laid off,’ or ‘they laid me off,’ or ‘I lost my job.’  This was how you told your friends, your family, your girlfriend or boyfriend.  Your boyfriend might say to his friends that “she got laid off,” but your friends would say “girl got fired.”  Because that’s what it was.  Some people might still be bobbing in the lifeboat behind you, but sorry, you’ve been voted off the island, declared inessential, redeployed into the economy.  All of this swirled in the minds of everyone at the table, knowing that due to their recent performance, the likelihood of the agency being fired was at an all-time high, and for Ana in particular, the prospect of losing the health insurance that supported herself and her rapidly deteriorating mother filled her with dread.  Someone would need to salvage the situation.  Three people would be essential:

Christy Harris, the woman at the head of the table with her finger guarding the mute button, was the Account Director for the Lima Soda account.  Lima was worth $20 million to the agency. This employed 44 people, including offshore production in India (that truth be told, wasn’t totally working out, but lowered the average billable rate) plus a roomful of social media oompa-loompas somewhere in the forests of New Jersey (who were working extremely well, and were criminally underpaid, because, well, Jersey).  Christy, a fortysomething blonde with dark, assertive eyebrows, had apparently been some kind of badass over at Fanta in a previous life and Carlsberg before.  The first Lima spot Praxis had done was hers. “Agent Citrus,” a long-running campaign whereby an handsome male/female pair of spokesmodels delivered improbably death-defying, parkour-inflected saves to thirsty people in exotic locales, was an instant hit.  The agency did a number of 30-second spots, web games, and a fast-food tie-in with a movie franchise.  After that, Christy’s agency was acquired by Praxis and she brought Lima with her.  She spoke fluent French and some had claimed to hear her speaking Danish in her office after hours.  Danish.  Word on the street was that Christy bagged Lima Soda near single-handedly. In a large agency she would have been exalted with Executive Vice President, Partner, or both.  Praxis liked to think of itself as a scrappy Brooklyn Agency and accordingly, didn’t roll like that.  She was the boss, she was obeyed, and everybody knew she had points on the company.  Praxis didn’t do ‘Executives’ and had no patience for anyone foolish enough to call themselves a ‘ninja.’  This was enough, Account Director the title.  Christy did not bike to work and paid for her own parking.  Her finger rested with authority on the black phone, and she listened intently to the voice on the other end, who was deciding the fate of the aforementioned twenty million dollars.

Damian Harris, no relation, was Associate Creative Director (ACD), and Karen Willow, his partner, ACD, were also seated by Christy.  They were a non-mated pair.  Ana couldn’t figure out why they weren’t just co-’Creative Directors,’ instead of both Associate Creative Director, since that was the function they performed, but Praxis seemed to be taking a hard line, here.  Damian had short, curly hair and a nine-o-clock shadow, and preferred a black blazer and chucks.  He looked faintly foreign and exhausted, like he had given up on something he could not catch.  He filled the (Associate) Creative Director template very well but was, notably, perhaps 5’4” if he was a foot, which, Ana reasoned, must have cost him in negotiations.

Because of this, and perhaps because it was widely known he was being financially devastated and losing custody of his child in a contentious divorce, Damian was the unexpected beneficiary of quiet sympathy.  One of the creatives below him (and his only Facebook friend in the company) reported that his private Facebook profile showed albums brimming with photos of a proud father and his four-year-old daughter, cackling wildly.  A lot of his tantrums and attitude were overlooked for this reason, but mainly because Damian had the almost supernatural ability to pull it out at the last minute and give birth to ideas that should have won awards, even if they hadn’t yet.  Recently, his bike had quietly joined the pile.

Karen Willow, his partner and copywriter, had very straight, flat blonde hair and bangs, and cultivated a strange conversational off-tempo and “I wear black” vibe that was converted, seasonally, to a single color, this spring’s selection being the range from lilac to violet.  Her eyes were perpetually a little too wide open, and she had a low monotone, the combination of which made it sounds like she was always in the process of blowing her own mind.  Karen was mysterious.  She had awards at a previous agency. Now, she was widely assumed to be on her way out when the right job offer materialized, appreciating neither Praxis’ coyness on the ACD tip, nor being thought of as Damian’s partner and not the reverse.  That offer had not yet materialized, so here she was.  Karen Willow did not know how to ride a bike and walked to work from Fort Greene.  Collectively, Karen Willow and Damian Harris were referred to internally and openly as “The Demiwillow,” which stuck because it alluded to both Damian’s crass ambition and Karen’s wispy, unmatured aloofness.  

Ana rounded out the group, and was usually the one to manage them, in quotes, but it might have been said she was responsible for them.  This was her third real job, and she was one year past the three-year cutoff.  The upside to this was that she was the only one who had been there long enough to gain Christy’s trust.  Ana could remember Praxis prior to Lima Cola, 20 employees, then 25, then 45, now this.  In the beginning, the clients were local and every meeting had at least half the company in it.  Now, things were different, and she had been through three battlefield promotions.  She had a roommate in Williamsburg, and made a salary that was good for the Earth, but would not do for DUMBO or Brooklyn Heights for much longer. Of course one of the bikes was hers.  She was twenty-seven years old.

Two days before, a new TV spot for Lima Cola had aired.  The TV direction had been developed by Praxis, but cast, recast, redirected, re-interpreted and finally approved by the internal team at Lima, before being handed back to Praxis to execute.  This was the worst of both worlds: enough responsibility to own it, not enough to have built it, unimpeded.  The Demiwillow were, predictably, apoplectic.  They hated the spot.  Hated it.  They felt that their original vision was unrecognizable in the final product.  Creatives always make this complaint given any small deviation to suit the needs of the business, of course, but anyone involved had to admit that they had a case.  The spot itself, of course, had been a fiasco.  It aspired, simultaneously to be topical yet noncommittal, revolutionary yet peacemaking, deeply rooted, yet superficially concerned. It argued for a world that was diverse, frenetic, charged, yet delivered a visual story that was benign, predictable, insipid.   On the other end of the line was The Client at Lima, Mrs. Yvonne Dratch, Regional Associate Marketing Director for Lima Cola. The Client was unhappy with it.

They all were watching the spot again, and Damian couldn’t even bring himself to look at the screen.  Onscreen two twenty-something models accepted a Lima from a golden demigod with an improbably gravity-resistant afro on a unicycle. A unicycle!  Damian slammed his head audibly, painfully on the conference table and Karen gave him a rub on the back, as if to say, ‘get back in there, slugger.’  He moaned.

Two days into the campaign the oompa-loompas in New Jersey called to say that social media sentiment analysis indicated the brand was in freefall.  Paradoxically, visits to the website were up 1700%, presumably, tut-tutted the strategy team, to hate-watch the video.  Twitter, Facebook, even Tumblr and Medium were uniformly opposed, some even going so far as to call the spot ‘racist’, ‘sexist’, ‘insensitive,’ and in some cases even ‘triggering’, which was an easy term to search for but notoriously hard to define.  All around, it was agreed that the spot was a disaster, and The Agency’s recommendation, if asked, would be to pull it.  There was a long silence on the phone as the ad came to an end with the unicyclist taking a long, meaningful drink of Lima soda while balancing, for no compelling reason.

“Vodka,” whined Damian to the table. “Vodka is what I need.”

They were still muted.  Christy pointed at him gently as if to say, “you have been heard, but it is time to be quiet,” but did not look up.  

Yvonne, who had the gentlest phone-voice of client they’d had the pleasure to have, said airily, “Well, it doesn’t quite scrape at the firmament, does it?”

This reference was more biblical that most of the team were accustomed to from a Regional Associate Marketing Director.  It did not bode well.

“It did when you approved it,” whispered Damian musically to the table.

“No,” said Christy, speaking into the phone.  We’ve gone through the figures together.  For whatever reason, it’s not being well-received, as we all know.”

“So let’s come to it then.  Why do you think that is?”

“Because if you mate a platypus with a wad of dogshit,” offered Damian, bumping his fists to indicate fierce, indifferent animal copulation, “the result is not a Swan or even a duck, it is an abomination against God.” The red light of the mute indicator was still on, thank God, though Ana.

“We can shoot from the hip, but that would be our intuition.  We’re preparing a fuller analysis that you’ll have by the end of the week.  We think the key decision for this conversation is, what do we want to do in the near-term.”

“I think the reason is the creative,” said Yvonne.  “People are responding to the creative.  It doesn’t work.”  This was Client-ese for ‘your creative team fucked this up,’ and was typically, at this scale, followed by the creative team being fired, or “taken behind the shed,” sometimes even “take them out back and shoot them,” though no one died.

“The Agency concurs,” said Christy.

“Well, I think we have to pull it.” Media was already committed in the millions.  This was a glorious shitburger, thought Ana.

“We agree.  It’s our recommendation that we pull it immediately.”

“That was fast.  I didn’t realize you agreed with me.”

“We don’t like to be wrong a minute longer than we have to, Yvonne.”

“Well, good.  Me either.  We’ve done a lot of good work together, guys,” said Yvonne.  We need you to really go back and figure out what happened here, Ok?”

Everyone tensed. Coming from Yvonne, this was the approximate analog of being told to die in a fire by someone less measured, and Christy didn’t miss it.

“We understand, of course. We will. We are.”

“So,” said The Client, “intuition now.  What went wrong?”

“My guess is, a slight case of the EFT’s, or every-fuckin-things,” said Damian.

Christy released the mute button and pointed at Damian as if the force of a thunderbolt flared from her manicured fingertip.  He was silent, but it was Ana she excused from the call.

“Price three train tickets to Boston for Monday.  And don’t leave yet,” she said.

Ana left Christy and the Demiwillow alone in the East River sunset of conference room ‘Mailer’ and returned to her desk.  After getting the tickets, she navigated to LinkedIn to look for jobs.

Shortly after, Ana was summoned to Christy’s office.  Christy had already poured herself a scotch, any by now it was the three of them: Ana, Christy, and the glass of scotch by the light of a single halogen desk lamp, together in the dark. She didn’t offer Ana one.

“So,” said Ana. “Boston? I thought you needed all hands-on?”

“I do.  But this is a black op.  It’s Lima business, though.  I need you to come up with the new concept.”

“I’m confused.  We’re using the original concept.  Yvonne was pretty specific.”

“That’s just it, said Chrissy, smiling deviously.  “She wasn’t.  Which means this time, we get to save them from themselves.”  She slid a business card across the desk, from darkness to center stage under the halogen, like an ace she’d been palming.  “These guys have a unique technology that can help us work up the message.”

“I thought we were just going to do the original version, the one before they changed things?”

“We never got to shoot those.  Besides, we need something bigger now, something that hits the, you know, the spirit of the moment.  She tapped the card.  This is the thing, trust me.”

“It’s a technology solution?”

“Kind of. It’s a secret sauce.”

“I’m a little concerned.  We need to be shooting, now.  We have three weeks to get something in the can.”

“You won’t need that long.” She motioned Ana closer.  “Close the door.”
She leaned in.

“These guys,” she whispered, tapping the card, “gave me Agent Citrus.”

“Are you serious?  The whole thing?”

“Basically. And now, I’m giving them to you.  Keep it a secret.  You’ll see what I mean. It’s easy.”

Ana didn’t know what to say.  Christy had basically confessed that the bedrock her creative career rested on was a sham.  

“It’s just a tool,” she continued, taking a violent swig. “To help you generate ideas.”  Her eyes narrowed, she seemed to have found a flavor she’d realized she was stuck with.  “You’ll have to take the Demiwillow,” she continued.  “Try to keep them from collapsing in on themselves like some–” her eyes searched the room.  “Like some hipster black hole.  And make sure they feel in a position to take credit for what they come up with.”  She wagged the glass.  “Give me something sharp, give me something smart.  And humble. No high-concept.”

“Christy,” said Ana slowly, “It sounds a lot like you’re asking me to handle creative direction.  I mean, I’m thrilled, but, I’m still just an Account Sup.”

“Once you see the tech they have, you’ll understand my confidence.  It’s not really a creative process.  I think they call it… piloting, or something like that. Operating, I think.  I mean, don’t tell Damian and Karen that.  They should feel like it’s a really creative process.  We need their sign-off, but it’s kind of color-by-numbers.  

“I’d go if I could,” she added, “But I can’t ‘operate’ anymore.  I need somebody new, somebody who can manage them.  After me, that leaves you.”

Something about her tone made Ana uneasy.  “Why can’t you?”

“They have a bunch of special rules,” she said, her eyes veering into the dark.   “For safety.  Besides which, I need to be on-site with the client, fixing this mess.  There’s no one else I can send to do that. I had my time.  Now it’s yours. It works.  You have to, you know,” she took a swig and was left gesticulating into the air to run out the clock before she could swallow.  “Trust the process,” she said finally.

“We’ll come up with something,” Said Ana. We are fucked, she thought.

Christy looked up sharply, as if she’d heard, her eyes lit from below.  “Take the Acela,” she hissed. “You can be there by Monday morning.”   

***

They were on the train early Monday.  Ana toyed with the business card loosely between her fingers, gazing absently out the train window.  The card itself was the classic textured eggshell white.  It was glossy black letters in serif font, which was unusually conservative for technology companies, she thought.  The text itself was simple:

Fauna & Function

Abstract Possibilities Made Concrete Realities

Which, she had to admit, sounded promising.  The Demiwillow were chock-full of abstract possibilities, it was the concrete part where they floundered.  Of other clues, the Internet had held very little. The ‘News’ page of their website was basically a very long list of patent applications in the vaguest possible language: “Mammalian hybridization in CRISPR-Cas9 for genome engineering,” and “A process to suppress deficiency of methyl-CpG binding protein-2 in CNS neurons.”  There was no sizzle, not even stock art.  As a marketer, Ana inferred that their hearts clearly weren’t in it. That usually meant the client was used to having prospects come to them, which suggested that they had specialized tech.  

The name of the card’s owner was Chambers Sherman, Director of Research.  One of those weird last name-last name combos that always ended up sounding like a southern woman or a new brand of paint.  The internet was light on details about Sherman as well, but he did have a sparsely-populated LinkedIn page with a photo showing he had worked there for some time.  Ana rehashed the creative brief, added a few more images to her deck, and watched the eastern seaboard go by.

After a while her phone rang. It was her sister Carolina, up in Holyoke.  Ana felt her blood pressure rise.  These calls usually built to revealing some new familial crisis.

“Hi.  What’s up?”

“Hey. Listen, I’m sorry to bother you, but a couple things have happened, and I’m starting to get really concerned.  I told you how I was at mom’s a few weeks ago?”  

“You said she had left the bathroom faucet on, and it had spilled and was starting to flood.”

“Right.  Well, last night I came by to the house to drop off some groceries, and I nearly hit her with the car.  She was in the driveway. God knows how long she’d been out there.”

Ana sat up.  “Oh, Jesus.”

“It’s pretty bad.  Do you think you can get up here pretty soon?  We need to talk about this, but I want you to see for yourself.”

“I’m on a train headed to Boston for an onsite.  Do you think it can wait?”

“I don’t… I can’t say.  I don’t think I can lock her in her own house.”

“You have the car keys?”

“No, should I?”

“Yes. Get the keys.”

“Ana, I feel like this is more of a family meeting kind of conversation.”

“You’re right, it is.  Right now, the timing is not ideal.  I’m kind of–” her eyes flicked to Damian, fiddling with his phone a few seats up, and dropped a few decibels.  “I’m kind of fighting to keep my job right now.”

“Was it the commercial?”

“Yeah.”

“I saw it.  It was definitely confusing.”

“That’s what the client said.”

“I get it. Well, we’ll just try to hold it together over here.”

“I’m sorry.  All I can say is that I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

“I know.”

 

Fauna and Function was situated not far from the river, in a historic building with a  mansard roof, ivy creeping up polished brick.  The windows were very clean.  It looked like a keycard-entry public library, recessed far back enough from the sidewalk to fit its own bike rack. A lonely, unused Shinola bicycle rested within.

Chambers Sherman was waiting. He welcomed them to what he called “F2.”  He looked exactly like his Internet photo, which meant he had aged very, very well, clean shaven, salt and pepper hair very close cropped, indiscriminately 30-going-on-50 with thick, black-rimmed glasses. His black suit was nearly form-fitted to his slender shape, and it opened to a white undershirt so high up on his chest that the effect was something like a spacefaring Jesuit.  Sherman’s voice was gentle and measured, and though he motioned generously with his hands, they were restrained, as though he was accustomed to giving tours from within a crowd and at low volume.  Ana though he looked kind of like a middle-aged lesbian creative director.

“That Shinola is a very nice bike,” observed Damian. “Yours?”

“Oh,” chuckled Sherman, “that’s something of a company prop.  I’m fortunate enough to drive a Tesla. I’m terrible on a bicycle.  A danger to myself.”   

There was a tastefully restrained security desk with a metal detector.  Gentle curves, as though built by Apple.

“I have to apologize in advance,  we don’t allow any phones, photography, or recording devices of any kind past this point.  You can of course reclaim them at the end of the day, or anytime you want to come back.”

Three clipboards had been prepared on the other side of the security desk, pre-filled with each of their names.  “I’m sure Karen told you about the non-disclosure agreements.  From this point on, everything is strictly confidential.  You can’t disclose anything you see in this building, including the names of any other visitors or companies., some of whom you may pass, or recognize.”

No, Karen hadn’t.  “Of course,” she said.  They all signed.

“Great,” said Sherman, hanging their coats.  “Let’s get started.  Follow me.”

Sherman had prepared a meeting room set with coffee and chocolate schoolboy cookies.  The pleasantries were brief: after the uncomfortable moment at security, the pantomime of did-you-have-any-trouble-finding-the-place seemed off-note.  So they began.  They line-itemed the agenda, and then Ana felt the pressure of her position driving her to push action.

“Christy tells me what you guys have got here is a very complete solution.  The kind of thing that’s exactly what we need.  Can you tell us about the tech?”

Sherman grinned, dimming the lights as a screen descended from the ceiling.  “I can.  That would be a perfect segue into our agenda, actually.  We have a little intro video, if you can stand it.”

“We’ve got all day,” said Damian.

The lights dimmed.  A polished radio voice surrounded them in the dark. 

“Where do ideas come from?” The voice asked.  “TV? The internet?” Images passed at high speed– a blur of people walking in an urban landscape, a crowded subway, a combine on a farm.

“Whiskey?” Asked Damian.  Sherman smiled good-naturedly.  Ana was glad to see Damian was finally warming up.

“The voice,” said Karen.  “Is that–”

“Benicio Del Toro,” said Sherman.  “Not a client, unfortunately.”

“Of course.  Ideas come from all those places,” continued the voice.  “But the most important place is– you guessed it– other people.  But then, we never know what other people are thinking.  

“Or can we?  Certain animals can feel… almost supernatural in the way they seem to know how we are feeling.” On the screen, a pod of dolphins buzzed the camera, cutting to a dog flanking a hunter, both jogging in slow motion across a field, and finally a cat stretching hedonistically in a pair of human arms.  “The bond we can feel with our pets can go very deep.  What if we could turn up the volume on some animals’ ability toward natural empathy, even mix-and-match the skills and talents of certain animals with others?  

What if, the voice added with gravity, “we could extend that sensitivity far beyond ourselves?  What could we learn about each other?

“With F2’s patented genetic engineering technology, we have the capability to create empathic animals that never existed before.   Real, telepathic bonding, with one or multiple consciousnesses.  Some of the most exciting research being conducted now, or ever, in the field of decision science.

“Introducing the Copycat.”  A logo of a what looked like a mountain lion silhouette in a circular logo took center stage, after which what looked like a Lynx, or a Bobcat– Ana didn’t know these things– was shown in a pen, sharing a tryptych with dolphins and then  a parrot.   It didn’t really make any sense, the presentation crowded.

“The Copycat is F2’s best-in-class marketing decision science program.  Paired with a trained marketer, creative, or data scientist, the consciousness of the Copycat can be guided to extract buyer data from the ambient consciousness of your market of choice.  You can know what you prospects are thinking: what they need, who they love, who they fear, what they need to have, what they want to buy, what they are willing to pay.  This data is filtered to be randomized and untraceable (in compliance with data handling and safety laws) but if you tell the Copycat what you’re selling, the cat can read the ambient thoughts around the topic, reshape them, and play it back to you in the way your prospects never realized is exactly the way they want to hear.”

Ana saw Damian and Karen make eye contact in her peripheral vision.

On screen, the graphic had changed to a neutral male human icon and a cat icon in the center.  The cat extended a dotted line to the man.  The dotted line then exploded into multiple other dotted lines, bridging connections to other human icons who then rebounded the signal outward to a growing cluster of people icons.  As each icon was touched by the line, they changed color from neutral gray to royal blue and scaled down, making room for others, eventually covering a planet icon in an outbreak, an infestation.  The voice narrated.

“The operator is the first link the Copycat has to the outside thought-sphere. Its tunnel in.  It begins with scanning the consciousness of the operator, then, identifying the reflected consciousness of the operator’s family, friends and colleagues– that is, their social network– it extends outward.  In just– you guessed it– six degrees of separation, a dedicated operator can drive the Copycat to read a market equal in size to everyone on Earth!  Most campaigns aren’t quite so large, and a good handle on your desired audience can make effective targeting a snap!”

Damian cackled.  “Sweet.”  Karen snorted.

The image had changed to a large feline looking creature being pet by someone in a lab coat when Ana intervened.

“Okay, stop,” she said.  The lights came on.

The lights came on.

“Darn,” said Damian.

“What is–” Ana started to speak, then stopped, reconsidered.  She realized her mouth was open, covered it with a hand. She scanned the room again.  Karen Willow was openly giggling.  Damian Harris had a huge grin on his face.  

“I’d just like to say, before this goes any further, that this has to be one of my favorite presentations of all time,” he said, to no one in particular.

“Okay,” said Ana finally. “This makes no sense. What you’re saying doesn’t make any sense.”

Chambers Sherman rose to turn the lights back on.  “I’ll admit, it’s a little weird,” he replied.  A lot of it is, well, spooky.  The program is a really interesting combination of advances in cryptozoology, bioscience, parapsychology, and of course, marketing and decision analysis.  Certain things just aren’t going to be familiar–”

“I’m pretty sure two of those sciences aren’t actually real,” grinned Damian.

“Once you get them to work, it’s a whole new kettle of fish, believe me,” said Sherman.

“Look,” said Ana.  “I thought we were here to talk about some kind of marketing technology, but you’re not talking about technology. You’re talking about an animal.  Help me understand… this.”

“It’s a bioengineered organism.  For reasons of familiarity and operator comfort, we used a cat’s DNA.  Primarily a cat’s DNA, I should say.”

“Please,” said Damian, gesturing benevolently, “do go on.”   

Chambers Sherman had heard this reaction before.  “This is the solution.  We branded it the Copycat, because of its focus on advertising optimization, and obvious feline similarities.”

“Sensible,” echoed Damian.  Karen took her phone out to take a picture of the screen.

“No pictures,” said Sherman.  “Remember your contract, please.”

“The technology is psychically sensitive.  It pulls ideas from the ambient noemosphere.  It combines them into workable concepts, connections, phrases.  Admittedly, ‘ad copy’ is a little facile. It really offers more than just words.  It’s more like pulling stories from the collective unconscious.  Nothing it generates can ever be truly original, of course, that takes individual genius.  But it reliably comes up with ideas that appear just a few months, weeks, sometimes even just a few days– ahead of their time.”

“So the cat then has the ideas locked up in its head, “ observed Damian.

“Briefly.”

“How do we get these ideas out of the cat?”  Asked Karen Willow, concerned.

“That’s probably the spookiest part,” said Dr. Sherman.  “He’ll tell you.”

“‘He’ being a talking cat, of course,” said Damian.  

Ana interjected.  “Wait. You’re telling us we basically wait around for a talking cat to deliver us our campaign concept?”

“No,” said Dr. Sherman.  “The campaign was already arranged when you came here.  That’s work your team already did.  The cat will deliver concept ideas pulled from the noemosphere.”

“There’s that word again,” said Karen.  “Speaking as the English major in the room, I don’t know that one.”

“It refers to a thought-sphere that psychic sensitives can access.  Sort of like a repository, or an arena, if you will, of ambient human thought.  Think of Jung’s collective unconscious, updating in real-time.  So, imagine all of us here concentrating on something– Lima soda, for example– and the Copycat will then take that as the basis to interrogate other consciousnesses.  What do they want?  What do they fear?  What do they need?  What’s the best way to tie all that in to Lima soda? It wants to play this back to you to please you, to bond.  Sometimes, especially early on, it’s crazy, irrelevant, non-sequitur.  But with time– with time, it can give us exactly what we needed to hear.  Why you might want a coat, buy one car over another, or choose a specific drink from a freezer.”

“Enough bullshit,” said Damian.  “I want to see this thing.”

“After lunch, we had planned–”

“Stop. Stop wasting our time.  I want to see it, and I want to see it now.”

Ana pivoted the mood. “Mind reading, talking cats.  You’re asking for us to take a lot onboard.  Maybe we can modify the agenda and move right to a demonstration?”

Sherman looked back and forth between each of them, as if he were measuring out the moment.  “Of course,” he said.  “Please, follow me.”

 

To Ana, the chamber was basically a market research room converted into an animal habitat.  

Ordinarily, a focus group might sit on one side, researchers on the other, separated by a one-way mirror.  Here, there was no table for the subjects. Instead, there were the most elaborate feline towers she had ever seen.  Everything was scaled up to accommodate a very, very large cat.  

Splayed perilously on the top of the tower, regal and alert but stocky– fat, really– was something between a panther and a lynx.  Its head raised as if it had heard a sound, dangling a massive, sassy paw noncommittally in the air.  The fur was brightly colored red, with yellow and blue flares up the legs.  A red-to-orange-to-yellow mohawk was styled to an avian point.  It was great and terrible, an eccentric Mongol warlord chosen to preside over marketing decisions.  

On the researcher side, two digital tripod cameras were pointed at the glass.  There was a control desk, a solitary microphone, a black office chair, black couches, a refrigerator, a coffee machine and some kind of pretzel snacks on a plain table.  The air smelled of fresh carpet and hung with the sticky resonance of an open microphone.

“If you’re wondering about the coloration,” started Sherman, “it’s a side effect of some of the other elements we used in his creation.  Parrot DNA, to get certain vocal effects. Some dolphin, too, for the problem-solving and empathic behaviors.  Turns out the Copycat is a great swimmer!  We can’t get him out.  Loves to swim.”

Silence.

“We had used the Dolphins for the social media solution, which is a different product we offer, by the way.  Unfortunately, too much made them depressive and ultimately aggressive to each other, so we switched to a single Narwhal, which ended up working great.  We haven’t branded that one yet, mostly we just call him ‘Social Media Narwhal.’  He can be added in a package we offer, the cat is better for the above-the-line stuff.”

Silence.

“He’s bred to be quite docile, by the way.  Very safe. Declawed.”

“Can he hear us?” Asked Karen Willow finally.

“No, the microphone is off.  You’re hearing the inside of his room, but he can’t hear ours.”

“So, it’s a he,” said Damian.

“A male, yes.”

“How have we never heard of this?” Asked Ana.

“Well, firstly, we pride ourselves on total confidentiality.  Each of you signed at least three separate and binding disclosure agreements to be here.  Our clients, who at this point include prominent businesses, writers, artists– we’re even working with a movie studio in Asia– are roundly satisfied.  We have a 100% retention rate.  So, we’ve been successful to the point that our clients are referred directly to us.  We’ve had no need to issue press releases or to engage the public at all, and at this point it might antagonize some of our best clients.”

Karen Willow asked, “Why not just use people?  If you can give a cat these powers, why not just give them to yourselves?”

“The Commonwealth of Massachusetts wouldn’t look too kindly on it, though we’ve patents pending.  In fact, it’s not the kind of thing authorities anywhere are supportive of.  “In the United States, that is.  Within the current administration,” he added a second later, laughing perhaps a little too long, thought Ana.

“So it talks,” said Damian.

“Basically.  It’s half talking and half telepathy.  Everyone hears it, but they report its voice differently, for example.  But on videotape, it sounds terrible, barely intelligible.”

“I wanna talk to him.”

Sherman motioned for Damian to sit in the control chair.  “Please.  Just talk.”

Damian sat.

“Hello.  My name is Damian Harris. I’m Creative Director with Praxis Adaptive.  What is your name?”  

Ana quietly noted his battlefield promotion.

The cat’s head turned, registering the sound.  The room was filled with a low, volcanic rumble.

“He’s purring!” Said Karen Willow.

Sherman smiled, nodding.  “Mmmhmm. He likes you.”

“What’s its name,” asked Karen.

Ana detected sharpness in Sherman’s voice.  “It’s not a pet.  It’s a technology.  It doesn’t have a name.  That would be ridiculous.  If you need to call him something, some of the technicians call him Number Seven.”

Karen caught Ana’s eyes and lip-synched an over-elaborate “O-kay.”

A few beats passed with no response from the cat.  

“I thought you said he talks,” said Damian.

“He speaks.  He does not converse.  He’s a cat.  He talks when he wants.”

Damian Harris exhaled sharply, which was picked up by the microphone.  The cat flicked its ears.

Then, it spoke.  The voice was low and soporific.  “Associate Creative Director,” it said.  

Karen Willow made a yipping sound and clapped.  Ana noticed how quickly the reality of it had taken hold– a moment ago she lived in a world without talking cats. And now, now that was something that happened.  

“How’d he know that,” asked Damian.

“He knows whatever you know,” he said.

“Was he correcting me?”

“No.  Imagine two tracks playing in your mind.  One is the forebrain thought, what you’re going to say, what you’re trying to do at the moment.  Another is the rear-brain stuff: your preoccupations, a song you’ve got stuck in your head, the bills you haven’t paid, commercials you saw, the things you thought on the way to thinking about something else.  People want to use the word subliminal sometimes, but that’s not quite right.  It’s just chatter.”

“In other words, he knew you were Associate Creative Director because you knew you were Associate Creative Director, said Karen. And some part of you was thinking about it.”

“Exactly,” said Sherman. “Once you speak into the microphone, he can psycholocate you.  The bond only lasts for a few seconds longer than your conversation and in sight range. So he can’t track you out of the building, but the connection is two-way, so.”

“Can you make him talk?” Asked Karen.  “He’s not really talking.”

“You can’t make a cat do things, of course, but I can assure you, if you get him going, he won’t shut up.  The trick is to get him to talk about the things you want.  Remember, he’s picking up everything and everyone. The more you talk to him, the more focused he gets.  So you should be talking– and thinking– about soda and the kind of people you want to buy it.  Then he’ll seek them out.”

“A revolution, in flavor,” interrupted the cat. The sound reverberated in the room.  It began to lick its forepaw and then added slowly, “For a new generation.”

“Sounds familiar,” she replied.  “Is he hungry?”

“Always.”

“A thirsty generation,” said the cat finally, it’s voice low and soothing.

“Good,” said Sherman. “It looks like the bond is taking.  Generally, F2 personnel don’t stay in the room, so the session isn’t tainted by outside consciousnesses that might start to drive the results.  If I stayed in here, he’d be wanting to talk about gene therapy and the Sox before long.  We recommend the creative team be alone.  So, we should probably talk about some ground rules, for safety.”

 

Operators would work with the cat for no longer than 15 minutes.  Then there would be a break of ten minutes, during which no one could speak to the animal.  A new operator could be introduced, but the animal could not work for more than three hours at a stretch.  Critically, there would be no touching, no entering the enclosure.  At two hour marks, a loud siren would go off in the research room, as an alarm clock, just in case.  There was absolutely no smoking.

“I thought you said he wasn’t dangerous,” said Damian.  

“He’s not,” said Sherman.  “He’s addictive.  We’d have to drag you out of there.  It’s not dangerous.  It’s too relaxing. Anyway, it taints the data.”

“Far out.”

“I’m going to leave you three here,” said Sherman,” but I can see you through the cameras here.  “You can text me, email me, or, in case of emergency, press this button.”

Nods all around.

“Okay. One last thing. This isn’t a requirement so much as a best-practice.  But we find that tightly-knit teams are at risk of having things come out, during the process, that they might prefer stay private.  He’s pulling from your mind, and some of it can be personal. You’re already on NDA with us.  But we recommend some kind of internal non-disclosure agreement, among yourselves.  What we around here call the ‘Vegas rule.’

“What happens in the room stays in the room?” Asked Ana.

“What happens in the room stays in the room.”

Sherman turned to leave. “Don’t worry,” he added from the doorway. “You’ll do great.”  He winked gently at Ana as he closed the door.  “We’re just selling soda here, right?”  

***

They showed it the brief.  They showed it the mood board.  They showed it photographs and videos.  The read to it from the scripts of a number of previous spots.  Mostly it was quiet, taking in everything.  After some discussion, they capitulated and showed it previous Lima work done by other agencies.  They rotated three times, took the prescribed breaks, and had each gone through two shifts by the end of the day.  The cat was quiet, thoughtful.  Karen Willow fell asleep.

“Soda, soda, soda.”  Damian said into the microphone.  “Limalimalimalima.”

The cat turned its head, but continued to breathe rhythmically.

“Mmm.  Refreshment,” said Damian.

Days passed.  Number Seven couldn’t be cajoled into conversation, so they came into the habit of leaving the mic on, and the cat would occasionally throw out an off-the-cuff remark.  At one point they were talking about one of Christy’s old Fanta ads and the cat hissed back, “Fuck Fanta!”  He really sounded like he meant it.

 

The next day something happened in the afternoon shift.  Damian was operating.  A janitor came in to empty the trash baskets.  He was black.  Damian’s eyes glanced at the door, and he gave him a tight-lipped, pro smile.

“Black,” said the cat, plainly.

Karen Willow said, “Oh.”  She looked at Damian and then the janitor and then looked at the floor.

“Don’t worry,” said the janitor. “That happens all the time.”

“Does it?” Said Karen Willow, incredulously.

“Yeah,” he said.  “It does.”

“Break time,” declared Ana.  

 

During the break, everyone agreed it was time to show the previous ad.

The room was hot with shame as the commercial played.  When the guy with the afro came out on the unicycle, Damian let out a loud “Jesus Christ!” He caught himself, and began to chew his thumbnail.

“I miss you, daddy,” said the cat, in a small, squeaky voice.

“What?” Damian stood and pressed his hands against the glass.

The cat started talking.  It started talking a lot.  But it had changed the subject, and its voice had changed to be young and enthusiastic, like an MTV announcer.

At first, it talked about soda.  It talked about moments of happiness, brief moments that captured the essence of a summer day.  Then it talked about first loves, afternoons with grandparents that you miss.  Then, it told a story of the sacrifices of immigrant parents, taking risks and the thrill of overlooking the backyard to your first house.  It talked about the struggles of getting up, every morning, clocking in-and-out, and the moments of fleeting success that make it worth it.  And it talked about loss.  Of losing the race, the account.  Failing the people you care about.  Losing love.  Being passed over, being alone.  And the urge, the primordial urge that forces us all to want to undo the mistakes of the past, break the cycles of our parents, to crawl out of the muck and evolve, better ourselves, clear our name and bring something new and grand into being. Change as the constant, love as the glue.  All of this could be had, in a moment of refreshment.  All of the generative power of this cycle could be unleashed on the world, in the single gassy pop of a 12 ounce aluminum can.

Damian looked dazed, betrayed.  Then his eyes refocused.  “Someone write this down!” He shouted.  Karen was at the whiteboard, scribbling in marker.

“Also available in zero calories.” Added the cat, which was true, and marked up in the brief.  After that, he did not speak again.  Damian pressed it further, but was interrupted by the sound of the day’s last alarm.  Karen was scribbling notes in lieu of iPhone photos.

The three of them went outside to smoke.  

“Shit,” said Damian.  “Some of that was really good.  We couldn’t have use all of it, but–”

“It was us,” said Ana.  “It was telling us our stories.  “That immigrant stuff, the bit about the Abuela?  That was me.  I told it that.”

“Same,” said Damian, taking a deep drag of his cigarette.  “A lot of that lost love stuff resonated a little too well.  It pulled it right out.”

“And the disappointing people you care about,” said Karen.  She looked up, noting the discomfort.  “And the first house,” she added quickly.  “The first house was my story.  That was a great day.”

“Yeah,” everyone said.  

“Yeah,” said Karen.  “But, anyway, I think I got it.”

“You got it?”

“I got it.  The campaign.  We can go home!”

“You think that’s enough?” Said Damian, unsure.  

“We can massage it, don’t you think?”

“I guess,” said Damian, looking unconvinced.

“I can do the lifting,” said Karen. “We’ve got a commercial to produce, guys.  Let’s get out of here.”

There was a general high-five, and then Ana said, “Let me get my coat.”

In the chamber, she grabbed a handful of pretzels and her coat and purse.  Damian had left the microphone on.  She stepped up to the mic, said, “Goodbye, Copycat,” before turning it off with a thump.

The Copycat came to the mirror, and pressed its forelegs against the glass.

“Set me free,” it whispered.

Ana stumbled backward, knocking the pretzels over onto the fresh carpet.  She ran.

They were on the train that afternoon.

Coming: Continue on to PART II.


Also published on Medium.

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