This is Water

A screen shot taken from The Glossary's video interpretation of David Foster Wallace's speech, "This is Water."

If you’ve poked around AdWeek within the past few days, you’ve probably noticed an article about a recent YouTube sensation called, “This is Water.”

A little bit of background

This video was made by a small video production shop called The Glossary and was born from pure passion and a whole lot of risk. The video is a little over nine minutes long and uses an abridged version of a 2005 commencement speech given at Kenyon College by David Foster Wallace. The speech  revolves around the realities of the “day-to-day trenches of adult existence” that typical graduating seniors have not yet experienced or prepared for.

Hold the phone. They did what?

Like I said, this project was not without heavy risks.  In an email interview with AdWeek’s daily blog AdFreak, the video’s director, Allison Freidell, and producer, Jeremy Dunning, admitted they had “little to no budget” for their video and  relied on faith alone that their project would be seen as something created “with the best intentions in mind.” AKA: They did not get formal permissions to use Wallace’s speech. Everyone who has worked with permissions or knows about them should have just heard a collective record-scratching sound in their head and thought “Waaaait a minute. This is a big no-no.” And in most cases, it is.

But The Glossary’s risk paid off. In six days, the video has been viewed over 3.5 million times via YouTube and has been a major talking point for both viewers and marketers. An article from MDG Advertising admits that while the speech alone is quite powerful, “the addition of visuals elevates the importance of his words even more.” Not to mention, the fact that The Glossary did this out pure passion and they are “in no way making any money directly from this video” is probably a major reason why they got away with this. The risk paid off.

Risk and fear go hand-in-hand

This is not to say that The Glossary went into this endeavor with an air of supreme coolness. Like most major successes, risk is necessary but also terrifying. Freidell and Dunning admitted their worries and acknowledged that “it wouldn’t be easy to adapt the original [This is Water]” since Wallace has “an extremely passionate following.” But I can say that as a fan of both Wallace and The Glossary’s adaptation of his commencement address, they did the piece justice.

Why this video matters

I stumbled across this video last Friday and have watched it several times since. It has been bookmarked on by browser and shared with friends and followers alike.  A disclaimer: I’m not telling you to go out and use copyrighted material without permission.  Remember: These guys did this strictly out of passion. All expenses were paid out of pocket and there was no hope of garnering a profit.

For me, there are several lessons to take away from this piece. Not only has Wallace’s speech been revived and honored in a beautifully conceived video, it also serves as a lesson to all marketers out there. This is a commencement speech that could have easily disappeared into the archives of David Foster Wallace’s publishing house. Instead, it has been revived and repurposed in a way that has struck a chord with almost 4 million people. Sometimes a little risk and a healthy dose of fear can go a long way in creating something beautiful that connects with your audience. Not to mention a good marketing professional can go a long way to appease the fears of their clients.

If you haven’t seen this video yet, I highly encourage you to take 10 minutes out of your day and check it out. If anything, it will at least give you a good chuckle and insight into the life of a typical 9-5er.

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