“A very special Ad Astra holiday”

ad astra logo by Nathan VogelSometimes I described the Ad Astra (Analysis and Development of Awesome STRAtegies) work at Microsoft as a sitcom on network TV — most explicitly when we had a “wrap party” at the May Mashup. In this worldview, the Ad Astra narrative is something along the lines of …

Building on the small audience success of Pogo, and the cult fave Project Fabulous, Ad Astra “starring Jon Pincus” started as a late-season* miniseries produced by McKinsey on the butterfly network, and got picked up by the post-merger entity OSMG for the summer and next year. Unfortunately the showrunner who had put the deal together left; and the cancelling of the ensemble-cast Google Compete Executive Workgroup supporting series meant that the solid lead-in we had expected didn’t materialize. So despite steadily-increasing ratings (helped by my role as a recurring guest character on the popular but stuck-in-a-rut Litebulb), unique and valuable demographics, fabulous guest stars like John Sweeney and Kathy Cramer, and great reviews, the network announced in January that it would not be renewing Ad Astra for the next season.

Hmm, well, potentially a reality TV show, or a soap opera, would be a slightly better analogy than a sitcom. You get the idea though. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter/Tune in Tomorrow meets a collaborative version of The Apprentice.

The off-the-charts January Mashup and “Gary Flake, Live at Sammamish” introduced the second half of the season — as well as some new characters — and on-site Mashup specials at the MVP Summit and MiX built a lot of energy. The attempted spinoff Project Venice didn’t get off the ground; on a more positive note, Mashups are big in in overseas market and several Ad Astrans got roles in IdeAgency (expected to be this year’s blockbuster) and other shows.

There was a serious opportunity underlying this analogy. The work Microsoft does and the scale it operates at is a lot more interesting than the scenarios for The Apprentice or most imaginable clones — and the stakes are a lot higher. The people involved are more interesting, generally far more appealing, and much much much more diverse. The artifacts they produce and many of thee challenges they face are a lot more relevant to real people’s lives. So once Ad Astra was at scale it could become possible to produce a network-quality TV series essentially by telling our stories, arranging the non-confidential narrative aspects of our work in interesting narrative arcs. Sure, some post-production would be needed; still, it certainly seems likely to be hugely less expensive the typical cost to produce a network series.

This same kind of cost advantage may well transfer to other kinds of video: direct-to-web, direct to DVD (where lots of other goodies can be included — “see the PowerPoint presentation they were working on!” and hints for effective PPTing), and perhaps even reused in the newly-emerging category of corporate role-playing games. And once you start thinking like this, there are other options as well, especially for Microsoft: a web-based series; content for Microsoft.com [for recruiting and highlighting Microsoft’s diversity] Technet, Channel 8/9/23, on10, MSN, internal use for TCN as a companion to “behind the code”; etc. etc.

What makes this so interesting is that if there are ways to monetize this cost advantage, it potentially means an entertaining, participative, appealing, diverse grassroots organization can be largely self-funding.

Oh well; it didn’t happen with Ad Astra … maybe next time.

Nobody bit when I pitched Ad Astra, so it’s now “on hiatus”. Of course in this world everybody knows that “on hiatus” is code for “looking opportunties to bring the brand back”**. So we did a few summer specials that came off great: “hey kids, let’s put on a show” (high concept: “oh no! the interns are here for the summer … and nobody scheduled a Mashup! can Channel 8, Windows Diversity, the MSR Intern program, and Popfly help the wacky Ad Astra crew save the day?”), the collaborative Harry Potter and the Future of ThinkWeeks.

We also did intriguing ultra-low-budget experiments with community-access media and political theater on the wiki, our blog, Litebulb, and Mini, with the expected extremely mixed reviews. On the way out, I made several cameos at the company meeting, was a “with special appearance by” in IdeAgency’s star-studded launch episode, and had a small part in their “girl on top/soul in the machine”, shot live on the floor in 34.

So it’s a golden opportunity for that classic TV holiday special. You know, the one where production costs are virtually zero because it’s mostly reused clips and stuff shot on one big party set, and various people show up and say hi and we get to hear about what they’re doing now — and their favorite moments from the last year. “A chance to say hi to old friends — and maybe make some new ones????” A few serious moments mixed in, and perhaps some manufactured tension (usually hinging on travel schedules or inadvertant misunderstandings), but basically happy and festive. And low production costs, did I mention that? I remember Queer Eye doing a particularly good one of these; it’s a high bar, but why not shoot for the stars?

An advantage of doing it on the web is that we don’t have to come up with ridiculous plot twists for why everybody’s in town. Oh yeah, and also it can be participative.

So for those of you who were part of Ad Astra — or were in its prequel Project Fabulous and sister series Pogo, or are friends and family, or were fans who never got a chance to get involved — if you get a few moments this holiday season …

Welcome to “A very special Ad Astra holiday!” Drop in, say hi, have some chocolate, eggnog and/or champagne, let us know what you’re up to … and maybe share a few of your favorite non-confidential moments from the Ad Astra experience!

No urgency here; I’ll leave this thread open at least through Epiphany***. Hopefully between now and then most people will have at least one moment when they either (a) need escape from doing technical support (b) want to demonstrate to a relative how easy it is to use Firefox/IE/Camino/the browser on somebody’s new phone or (c) are curious what other Ad Astrans are up to these days. Or all of the above, of course. So, if and when you get a chance, please get involved!






(no, i don’t know what these blank boxes are doing here. looks like a bug. sorry ’bout that.)

And sometimes the cliches, perhaps slightly updated, really are the best wording. So, both in the time-honored tradition of holiday specials, and because it’s what I really mean, I’d like to wish everybody reading this a happy holiday season (now or whenever you choose to celebrate it), and to the extent they apply:

spiffy Saturnalia,

merry Christmas,

happy Hanukkah/chappy Chanukah,

kreative Kwanzaa,

psychadelic solstice,

and/or a happy new year


* because many groups are in budget paralysis from May to August, Microsoft’s FY somewhat mirrors network TV seasons

** just like how in the music biz “broken up” is frequently synomyous with “available soon for a reunion tour”

*** not to be confused with the startup e-piphany.

 Originally posted December 20, 2007