Send in the clowns

In a quest to define its brand, a dot-com start-up turns to that old standby of corporate America: The Bunny Game.

Topics: Advertising,

Send in the clowns

Imagine you work at a consumer Web site, a late-entrant player in a second-tier space. You don’t know exactly what it is you’re selling, or if you’re selling anything. Actually, truth be told, you don’t really know what you are. Of course, that hasn’t stopped dozens of start-up Web sites just as amorphous as yours from driving away with vanloads of venture capital cash. All the same, it’s a little unnerving to be in business, with offices, payrolls, fax machines, leased potted plants and everything, and not know exactly what it is you’re supposed to be doing. And so, just days before the big launch, there is a whiff of panic in the air, an undertone of concerned murmurs about the future of “the brand.” OK, so you have no brand to speak of. But the fact that its “equity” may be “eroding” is worrisome all the same.

Fear not. An army of consultants stands at the ready, eager to uncover your mission and vision, anxious to apply the time-tested techniques of Fortune 500 brand building to corporate identity in the digital space.

And what are those techniques? In the dark, pre-dot-com days, corporate executives suffering a brand-identity crisis would spend the day holed up in a sterile conference room at the Marriott Marquis, armed only with pens, notebooks and a sweating pitcher of ice water. But these days, execs are making a conscious effort to lighten up. Mindful of Fast Company’s injunction that in the Internet age, the competitive edge will go to “those with a sense of exploration and playfulness,” CEOs are adopting furry mascots, hopping around on pogo sticks, even creating “mirth committees” to monitor fluctuations in their organization’s “happy quotient.” All of this managed cheer is supposed to stoke team spirit, refine a business model, even reveal the “brand essence” — that sparkly pebble of meaning that lies at the heart of a brand.

At seminars, retreats and executive off-sites, a playful new ethos is taking hold. “We actually hired mimes,” confesses Lon Fialla, vice president of corporate communications at PeopleSoft, a business-management software maker. “We wanted our employees to spend a day really reflecting on what we’re all about. But we also wanted to keep them awake and entertained.” The solution, she says, was to hire a troupe of mummers. “Jugglers,” Fialla marvels. “Dancers. Stilt walkers. They were extremely creative and flexible … They had costumes lit up with lights … One woman was a fluttering bird moving through the auditorium. Another gentleman came through on a shoe.”



Fialla confirms something I’d heard from a few bemused PeopleSoft employees — that the mimes were actually encouraged to interact with the presenters onstage. “One of the things I know about working with mimes is that they don’t detract, as long as they’re focusing attention on who’s speaking,” Fialla assures me. When it came time for Craig Conway, PeopleSoft’s CEO, to speak, “I had two mimes working with him,” Fialla says. “If he was referring to a slide, they were pointing to it.” While Conway seemed nonplussed at first, “as the day went by, he got more comfortable interacting with them,” Fialla says. “Our CEO is extremely strong, extremely charismatic.”

The results, Fialla says, were eye-opening. The mimes “helped us break through some of our old assumptions,” he says eagerly. “We came away with a whole new understanding of what we do as a business.”

While mimes produce indisputably fertile results, there are also corporate hypnotists, who will find traces of lost brand equity in the middle-management subconscious. Then there is Face the Music, a “collection of consultants and musicians” who, for a sizable fee, will compose a blues ballad about your brand’s difficulties. According to Fast Company, clients include Con Ed and Bell Atlantic.

And now, say hello to On Your Feet, a Portland-based consultancy that rehabilitates brands through improvisational comedy. Gary Hirsch, who heads the group, promotes improv as a metaphor for the new-economy manager, who must be nimble, flexible, able to cope with change in midstream. “In a network economy, what matters most is the ability to improvise,” Hirsch told me when I met him in San Francisco recently.

It’s easy to see how a dose of improv would be a treat for addled brand managers, a welcome respite from a day spent negotiating licenses and poring over budget spreadsheets. And indeed, Hirsch’s promotional material brims with blurbs from blue-chip clients, from Audi to Starbucks to Southwest Airlines. Particularly appreciated is that fact that, unlike its presumptive competitors, OYF takes a businesslike approach to fun. “I’ve worked with improv groups on two prior occasions and felt that they were too fluffy, in that we didn’t end up with any actionable outcomes,” writes David Waluk, vice president of international and prestige brands for spirits giant Allied Domecq. “With On Your Feet, I felt like I could relax … I could tell that we were going to end up with something that would really benefit the brand.” Jerome Conlin, former vice president of customer insights and brand planning for Starbucks, is also a fan, describing his encounter with Hirsch as nothing less than “inspiring.” Of his work-over of the Starbucks team, the modest Hirsch will say only that “the customer-barista interaction was a story waiting to be retold.”

To witness Hirsch’s nonfluffy techniques in action, I was invited to attend an all-day workshop with teen Web site Kibu, a digital lifestyle brand for the sparkly-nail-polish set. What was Kibu? As with so many dot-com upstarts chasing big money and even bigger odds, no one at the company seemed quite able to say. On the one hand, Kibu was up to something richly virtuous, “bringing together girls’ interests with all kinds of digital tools,” providing them with “fun, uninhibited, fresh perspectives on everything they care about.” And if those interests and perspectives also happened to “seed product,” “showcase merchandise” and “drive girls to retail,” well, so much the better. For Kibu, in addition to being a vessel of teen spirit, was also an “online integrated marketing company, offering its partners and sponsors complete marketing solutions.”

“We’ve done research,” explains Katherine Phillips, the site’s vice president of business development. “The girls are completely comfortable with our business model.”

So, it seems, are investors. Eight months ago — back when Boo.com was going to overthrow retail marketing, back when the most doddering of dot-coms was splashing about in pools of cash — Kibu managed to vacuum up $22 million from some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley investing, including Jim Clark, the 50-something founder of Netscape and Healtheon. Ever since then, members of the company’s peripatetic management team, who hail from Excite@Home and BananaRepublic.com, have been too busy ramping up the complex site to resolve the nagging question of what the company actually stands for. Would Kibu play the role of sprightly big sister, or avaricious marketer? Would it minister to teen problems — or monetize them?

That, it seemed, was where Hirsch came in. “They’ve got some contradictions in their brand,” the improv veteran acknowledged. “There are some tensions there.” But he believed that the workshop, while not resolving that question absolutely, would “make the tensions visible,” as he put it. “My hope is that they’ll end up in a make-the-world-better kind of place.” The session would definitely make Hirsch’s bank account a better place — he was charging Kibu around $10,000 for the one-day session.

The pairing of On Your Feet and Kibu.com did not, at first blush, seem particularly auspicious. Using improv comedy to refine an established brand, such as Audi, might make some sense. The people at Audi know what their brand is — they make a high-end car — and so they can afford to play around with it. Pulling out scarves, juggling beanbags, playing wacky group games and generally getting all funky and outside-the-boxy might be useful in shaking up ossified ideas and stirring creativity. But Kibu’s brand-identity problems seemed more fundamental. It didn’t seem to need an improv comedy session as much as an old-fashioned, logocentric management consultant. Which raised fears that the collision of Kibu and On Your Feet would be a futile festival of fuzzy logic, a close encounter between a cloud and a miasma.

The Kibu team, for its part, didn’t seem worried. On the contrary, everyone seemed to have high hopes for the session. “At this point, we have a lot of needs,” spokeswoman Kristi Dyer told me. “We have to build community really quickly. We’ve got to create all this original content … And we’ve got to really nail our five branding pillars: Fresh, Inspired, Knowledgeable, Uninhibited and Fun. So, hopefully, Gary will give us some tools to tackle that.”

At 8:30 on the appointed morning, the team gathers dutifully at a San Francisco conference center. In attendance are senior Kibu execs, representatives from Kibu’s P.R. and ad agencies and, of course, “The Faces” — a passel of kohl-eyed women in their 20s, tapped to personify the brand and populate its synthetic community. There’s Monique, the Face of Fashion; Lori, the Face of Beauty; Tina, the Face of Therapy; and 14 other Faces, embodying teen hang-ups from sex to homework. “Think of them as half big sister, half MTV veejay,” Phillips tells me. “We’re creating celebrities. We’re creating big personalities for these girls. The Faces know that. They all know where this going … And so, for them, there is a level of anticipation and excitement around all of that. And, frankly, a sense of awesome responsibility.”

As facilitator, Hirsch stands at the front of the room, a genial camp counselor, bouncing on the balls of his feet. Well might he bounce. “Boy,” he says. “It’s an estrogen fest in here!” When the cross-talk subsides, Hirsch explains the rules.

The first rule, he says, is that all shoes have to come off. The girls squeal happily as they scuff off their slides, revealing perfect pedicures. The next rule is a bit harder to swallow. “All cellphones — off,” Hirsch says. “I see anguish and dismay, but yes, turn that off, please.” Sighs all around as a dozen little Nokias splutter and go dark.

The third, and most critical, rule, Hirsch tells us, is to “let down your guard … respond in the moment. Try not to be self-conscious.” The group, he says, should feel free to cut loose, to let their hair down, to generally run amok. “This is the time to take chances,” Hirsch urges, “to find new starting points … Because you need content. And you need it now.”

The first step toward creating truly breakthrough content, he says, is to get to know one another a little better. Toward that end, Hirsch commands the Kibu staffers to begin walking around the space. “Just walk around,” he says. “Do it slowly … Don’t make eye contact. Don’t verbally recognize anyone.” And with that, 30 barefoot men and women begin padding up and down the floor of the hotel ballroom, heads lowered obligingly. “Now,” says Hirsch, “designate in your mind’s eye a person. We are going to call this person your enemy.”

“Ooh,” says Jennie, the Face of Care.

“Now,” says Hirsch, “designate someone else. We’re going to call them your — defender. The idea here is that you must keep your defender physically between you and your enemy.”

Pandemonium ensues as the Kibu staff skitters off in all directions. “Wow, they’re getting into it,” Hirsch says approvingly. He’s right. Kibu staff members are climbing on chairs, crawling on the floor, tripping over their sarongs as they attempt to follow Hirsch’s instructions. “Oh, shit,” someone says.

“Someone stepped on my hand!” bellows the Face of Books and Writing.

“Stop making me your enemy and your bad person,” the Face of Beauty yells at the Face of Film.

Hirsch is standing in the corner, arms crossed, watching sagely. “They’re clicking,” he whispers to me. “They’re getting it … It’s working.” I nod my head and murmur my agreement, though, in truth, I’m a bit mystified. Clearly, the group is on the brink of something. But what?

Before I can figure this out, it’s time for another game. “What is the sound cats make?” Hirsch asks the group.

“Meow. Meow,” they say.

“What’s the sound dogs make?” he asks.

“Ruff. Ruff.”

“What about monkeys?”

“Ooo! Ooo! Eee! Eee! Ooo! Ooo! Eee! Eee!”

Hirsch asks participants to choose an animal, and to walk around the room, eyes closed this time. “You’re either a cat, a dog or a monkey,” he says. “And you’re lonely. You need to find others in the crowd who are like you.”

The Kibu crew makes only the feeblest protest before doing as he asks. Within seconds, they are roaming about the conference room, eyes squinched tightly shut. I barely have time to get out of the way.

“Me-ow! Me-ow!”

“Ruff! Rrrrrruff!”

“Eee! Eee! Eee!”

“Me-ow!”

As the young marketing whizzes stumble blindly about the room, ululating madly, I sit in the corner and take notes. Eventually, Hirsch stops the game and invites the participants to draw conclusions. “What did we learn from that game?” he asks.

“When I was a cat with my eyes closed, meowing, I felt scared,” murmurs Kenny, the Face of Hair. “It was scary to hear the dogs barking. Then, when I heard the other cats, I felt safer.”

“OK!” says Hirsch, scribbling excitedly on a giant easel. I notice he is treating the group very carefully, very kindly, as if they were invalids. “That’s great!” he says. “That’s great! So, guys, what can we learn from that?”

A pause. “Maybe, when you feel connected to the people on your team — when there are similarities — there’s a lot of power to that?” someone ventures.

“Great!” Hirsch says again, scribbling the words “connected” and “power” and underlining them several times for emphasis.

He then asks us to form a circle.

“How do you feel now, vs. how you felt when you walked in the room?” he asks.

“Stupid,” someone says.

“Silly,” someone else says.

“Happy and enthusiastic,” says someone else.

Hirsch looks vexed. “OK,” he says. “So, some different views. Which is fine.”

He pauses. “There’s something else I want to say,” he says. “If you’re looking at these games, and thinking: ‘This is kind of stupid. I’m too cool for this’ — if you’ve got that going on, it’s going to physically take you away. It’s going to take you to a place that we call the Land of Judgment. And it’s going to prevent your functioning here. Allegorically, it’s going to prevent your functioning everywhere.”

“Now,” he says, “we’re going to play a little bit of a different game.”

The game is called the Bunny Game. In the Bunny Game, the group gathers in a circle and designates one player the Bunny. The Bunny begins by putting her hands under her chin. The two people on her periphery each raise their inside arm and become the Bunny’s respective ears. Then, all three say:

“Bunny, Bunny, Bunny, Bunny, Bunny, Bunny, Bunny, Bunny, Bunny, Bunny.”

The last “Bunny” is said with particular emphasis as the Bunny points at another member of the group. Whoever receives the pass becomes the center part of the triad. And the players on either side become the respective ears.

The Bunny Game is an elimination game. Players are eliminated whenever three ears or one ear, as opposed to two ears, goes up and a mutant rabbit is formed. “It means people weren’t focused, weren’t present enough,” Hirsch explains to me later. Players can also be eliminated for failing to say “Bunny, Bunny” with the proper verve.

That’s how Jeff Rose, Kibu’s P.R. director, gets himself expelled from the game. In five minutes, though, he is caught sneaking back into the circle. As he is bellowing “Bunny, Bunny, Bunny, Bunny, Bunny” with mounting hysteria, an embarrassed Hirsch is forced to confront him: “I’m sorry, Jeff — you’re out.” Later, I see Hirsch shaking his head in bewilderment. “I’ve never had anyone try to cheat back into the Bunny Game,” he tells me.

After the Bunny Game has run its course, we have a discussion about what it all meant.

“Was that easy?” Hirsch asks. “Was it hard?”

“It was hard,” says Lynn, the Face of Homework.

“I was trying to anticipate, trying to plan, trying to win, win, win,” says Alison, the Face of Sex and Relationships. “But when you did that, you got eliminated.”

“What did you have to do to play this game?” Hirsch asks.

“You had to be the bunny,” someone says.

“OK,” Hirsch says. In large block letters, he writes: “Be the Bunny.” “Anything else?”

“You had to focus,” says the Face of Homework, thoughtfully. “You couldn’t focus on other things. Like, ‘Oh, what a cute shirt.’”

“OK,” Hirsch says again. “Focus. That’s good. Anything else?”

“It’s about being in the moment,” says Emily, the Face of Money. “It’s like, if you’re going to show up to work anyway, you might as well really get into it?”

“Exactly,” Hirsch says. “What we’re talking about is commitment. If you’re going to be the bunny — BE THE BUNNY. Whatever that means to you.”

A long pause, during which the group reflects on this gnomic pronouncement.

“What about judgments?” Hirsch finally asks. “Did your judgment about yourself or anyone in the group change?”

“Yes,” says Emily balefully. She glares at Rose. “I realized Jeff cheats.”

“That’s great!” Hirsch says. “The point of today is to learn a ton about each other — to be surprised by each other, even.” He clasps his hands together earnestly. “Time for lunch!” he says.

Following a rather upsetting lunch, in which Monique, the Face of Fashion, accidentally spills ginger-soy vinaigrette all over me, we play another game — Word at a Time. Hirsch asks five volunteers from the audience to gather at the front of the room. “These are our experts,” he says. “Now, we need a topic.”

“Squash,” someone yells out.

“Very good,” Hirsch says. “Our experts are experts about squash. Experts — tell us about squash.”

“The,” says a volunteer.
“Game,” says another.
“Of,” offers a third.
“Growing –”
“Yellow –”
“Squash –”
“Is –”
“Very –”
“Competitive.”

In this game, a group generates full, legible sentences about a topic, though each individual can speak only one word.

“Cooked.”
“Squash.”
“Is.”
“Smushy.”
“And.”
“Very.”
“Effluvial.”

“This is great,” Hirsch yells. “You’re getting to new places, creating new launching points of conversation about squash.” Now, he says, it is time to use Word at a Time to help the group come up with “new ideas for content.”

“We’re going to try to generate beginnings,” he says. “Let’s start by helping the Relationships person. Who’s the Face of Relationships?”

“I am,” says a tall, husky-voiced blond named Alison.

“Great,” Hirsch says. “Alison, maybe you could ask our panel of experts about relationships. What aspect of relationships would you like our panel to address? They’ll generate stuff one word at a time.”

“Hmm,” says the Face of Relationships. “Maybe — boyfriends?”

“OK, panel of experts,” Hirsch says. “What do you have to say about boyfriends?”

“Boyfriends.”
“Are.”
“Fun.”
“All.”
“The.”
“Way.”
“Home,” they said.

“Terrific!” Gary exclaims. “Maybe you should create a page about relationships when you’re traveling? When you’re in close proximity, in a moving vehicle … This is a game you can play with anybody, any time you’re stuck for ideas for content.”

“Boyfriends.”
“Are.”
“Not.”
“Necessary.”
“For.”
“Girls.”
“Like.”
“Me,” they said.

“Again, great stuff,” Hirsch enthuses. “Are relationships always important? Is it important not to have them? Are they interchangeable? These are starting points of conversation that may lead you to places.”

The experts were on a roll.

“When.”
“Your.”
“Dude.”
“Isn’t.”
“Home.”
“Scream.”
“Hey.”
“Loser.”

“This is fantastic!” Hirsch says. “When your dude isn’t home, scream, ‘Hey, loser.’ I mean, that’s fantastic advice about how to communicate with people!” Hirsch pauses. “Do you see the brilliance of this?” he asks. “These sentences, these images, that you’ve generated collectively are much richer, much more full of potential than any one person could ever create. Alison, are you finding this helpful?”

Before she can respond, Katherine Phillips, the site’s vice president for business development, pokes her head in the door. “Hey there,” she says. “Sorry to interrupt. I just want to relay a message from Amanda. She says, ‘Hey, they’re having all this fun today. Tell them to get their content done by Thursday noon — or I’m killing them!’

“So, I sort of have to be the mother hen here,” Phillips says. “Thursday noon is when everything is due. Your life is at risk.” She smiles broadly. “But hey,” she says, “now, with all these great new tools, your lives will be really easy.”

Phillips’ appearance is a downer. Hirsch acts quickly to lift our spirits, commanding us to play Word at a Time in small groups. My group includes the Face of Beauty, the Face of College and the Face of Therapy.

“Please — can we do mine first?” begs Dr. Tina, the Face of Therapy. “I have to write tomorrow.”

“Sure,” says Sarah, the Face of College. “Ask us a question, any question.”

“OK,” says Dr. Tina. “Um, what do you do when you’re depressed?”

“I.”
“Would.”
“Go.”
“To.”
“The.”
“Bathtub.”
“And.”
“Sleep,” we say.

Dr. Tina furrows her brow. “Hmm,” she says. “Anything else?”

“Outside.”
“You’ll.”
“Find.”
“Beauty.”
“And.”
“Serene.”
“Nature.”
“Everywhere.”

Hirsch is in his element, moving about Phil Donahue style, soliciting comments. “How’s it going?” he asks our group.

“Well,” says Dr. Tina. “I asked for advice about depression. They told me to go the bathtub and sleep.”

“We also said that outside you find beauty and nature everywhere,” volunteers Lori, the Face of Beauty.

“I like it!” Hirsch says. “Getting outside yourself! The relationship between beauty and nature!” Hirsch leans over to peer into Dr. Tina’s notebook. “You should be writing down these starting points!” he tells her. “I mean, this is content. You could run with it!”

By late afternoon, we had played Ad Bags, Assumption Dump and Trend Storming. We had tackled our branding pillars, honed our way down the offer funnel, learned to Be the Bunny. Now came the hard part. It was time to drill down — deeper and deeper, down to the very heart and soul of Kibu. It was time to play Idea Lake.

In Idea Lake, participants stride rapidly around the room, talking to themselves, “literally filling up the room with a puddle of ideas,” as Hirsch puts it. First, however, the group had to pick a topic — a topic that was central to the brand’s essence. “My understanding,” Hirsch tells the Faces, “is that there’s an emphasis on creating you guys as celebrities. Is anyone interested in exploring what that means?”

The Faces pout and wriggle, clearly embarrassed. Over in a corner, the Face of Sports begins to braid the Face of Adventure’s hair.

“OK,” Hirsch says. “Not a lot of interest in that.” He tries another tack. “What about freshness?” he says. “You say you want to be the freshest site out there. So maybe we should explore what fresh means to you. What is fresh?”

The participants began to prowl about the room as instructed, muttering quietly to themselves. “Salmon’s pretty fresh,” I hear someone say. “A fresh white shirt,” someone else says.

Hirsch stands on the sidelines, throwing out more questions. “What makes an idea fresh? What does your mother think of fresh? You walk into a fresh living room — what do you see?”

“Keep moving around the room!” he says. “No eye contact! Don’t talk to each other! Talk to the ether!”

It’s a strange sight: 30 or so well-dressed men and women, roaming about a conference room, muttering random word strings. “A fresh dresser,” I hear someone say.

“A fresh coat of paint.”

“A fresh mouth …”

After a good half-hour of this, Hirsch stops the exercise and asks the participants to be seated. Now that the lake is filled with ideas, it seems, it’s time to dredge up the good ones — to find some point of stability in the whole fluid mess. What is Kibu? What is fresh? What is the relationship between Kibu and fresh? It is time, Hirsch tells the group, to uncover Kibu’s true essence.

Kenny, the Face of Hair, takes a stab. “To me,” he says, “it would be fresh to go into a grocery store and see everything a mess. I mean, what if there wasn’t a spaghetti aisle? What if there were a … craziness aisle? I mean, that would be so fresh.” His conclusion, Kenny declares, is that the site has to be “edgy.”

Amber, the Face of Kibu Box, disagrees. “It’s so hard with that age group,” she says, clasping her hands together earnestly. “I mean, our fresh may not be their fresh … Sometimes, with the girls, we find that what we think they like, and what they actually like, are two different things.”

“People we think they admire — they really don’t,” says the Face of Fashion glumly. The solution, the group agrees, is to strike a balance. “We want to satisfy their aspiration to be a little ahead of everyone in the mall,” says Dimitri, the Face of Music. “But not too ahead, because that will scare them.”

“We’re ahead of the curve, but appropriately so,” says Jill, the Face of Film, with satisfaction. “We’re not necessarily crazy-extreme,” agrees Elizabeth, the Face of Travel. “We’re not targeting the girls getting really crazy tattoos. Maybe we’re targeting the girls getting, like, more moderate tattoos.”

So freshness, it is decided, is not necessarily edginess. Perhaps, someone suggests, freshness is “vulnerability.”

People are talking over one another, interrupting one another. This part of the program actually seems to be bearing some fruit — churning up ideas, generating areas of consensus. Oddly, or maybe not, it’s also the least improv-y part of the whole enterprise.

“To me, being fresh is showing people who you are,” says Jen, the Face of Books and Writing. “The freshest people I know are really wild. They tell stories about themselves that are a little bit personal, a little bit strange … To me, that is the freshest of all fresh things.”

“You’re talking about vulnerability,” agrees Shannon, the Face of Sun Signs. “The idea of freshness being vulnerability. I mean, this isn’t your bland, generic Web site. It’s like, you have all these big sister friends.”

Emily, the Face of Money, points out that the site is already moving in that direction. On the test version, she says, “Tanya shared something. Now, I don’t know if you guys read that piece. But she was pretty open about her first sexual experience. Actually, she was a lot open. And I just immediately felt a certain connection with her.”

Dr. Tina, the Face of Therapy, pales. “For me, making myself vulnerable is tricky,” she says. “I’ve got to balance it with my professional life … There have to be clear boundaries.”

Murmurs all around — and widespread agreement that the concept of boundaries wasn’t particularly fresh. “Freshness is being a little bit open,” explains Elizabeth, the Face of Travel. “In order to connect with the girls, you need to divulge certain aspects of yourself.”

“If I expose those parts of me, I could get myself in trouble,” Dr. Tina protests.

Eventually, a consensus is reached that while freshness is really important, so is the concept of boundaries. The site, therefore, will “maintain professional boundaries,” while all the while “keeping it fun and intimate.”

Up front, Hirsch is growing excited. “I am really proud of what you all are doing,” he says. “You see, this is why we play Idea Lake. It really forces you to think about the motivation behind what you’re doing. I mean, you’ve taken an amazing step with these Kibuki. It’s not just getting a lot of people to click, click, click. It’s: ‘I really care, and I want to help.’”

There is a pause. This ennobling glimpse of the brand’s true purpose, it seems, is not shared by the rest of the room. Finally, a Face speaks up. It’s Slick, the Face of Sports. “It’s not just about caring,” she broods. “It’s about the brand. When we create content, we have to think of the bigger picture.” She pauses. “We have to think of branding,” she says dreamily. “And revenue. And the need to monetize all these teens.”

Before anyone can pounce on this particular heresy, someone points out that our time is up. And so the Faces click on their cellphones, slip their feet in their shoes and file out of the room, clutching their notepads. Following them out, I pick up bits and pieces of their conversation.

“So important really to listen to people.”

“… open, flexible, vulnerable …”

“… keep the flow going …”

“Lots of times I don’t mean to block …”

Over the weeks that followed, the Kibu staff would be forced to direct its energies toward more pressing concerns. As the NASDAQ swoon put most consumer Web sites on a deathwatch, there would be no time to play Word at a Time, no safe place to Be the Bunny. The site would undergo scrutiny, be obliged to modify some of its more vulnerable premises, even consolidate a few of the Faces. (The Face of Therapy was merged with the Faces of Wellness and of Relationships, while the Face of Care was put out to pasture.)

When I called a Kibu staffer in early June to see how things were going, the mood was grim. “Right now, we are basically trying to conserve cash,” she said, then hung up. (Then, presumably, she got into the bathtub and slept.)

But at the moment, all that was far in the future. It was an idyllic day, cool, breezy, sunny, beautiful. Outside, we found beauty and serene nature everywhere — or, at least, a park bench and a patch of grass. We grinned dumbly at one another, happy to be in the sun. The Face of Adventure linked arms with the Face of Fashion. “Bunny, bunny, bunny, bunny,” someone said. It was 4 p.m. on a weekday, but the cellphones were quiet and there didn’t seem to be anywhere particularly urgent to go. “Bunny, bunny,” someone said again. It wasn’t clear if they were talking to each other, or to the ether.

Ruth Shalit is an account planner at Mad Dogs & Englishmen, a New York advertising agency. For more columns by Shalit, visit her column archive.

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