Lost Cities and Emails: A Journey of (Re)discovery

SAN JUAN TEOTIHUACAN, MEXICO – One of the joys of discovery is that it’s recyclable.

For instance, this sprawling city of pyramids and temples -- “The place where gods were born.” I've lived my whole life in North America, yet somehow had missed this wonder of the world. It is an astonishing (and somewhat horrifying) testament to the labors of man in service of belief. The Avenue of the Dead is not named for the generations of pre-Columbian laborers sacrificed to its construction, but it could be.

Yes, quite a find.

Of course, I didn't discover it. The Spanish conquistadors did, back in the early 16th century. And more than a century before Cortés, Teotihuacan was discovered by the Aztecs. And God knows who stumbled across its ruins over the previous five centuries since the civilization's collapse. The place dates to 100 BC. When the vendors of jade masks, silver jewelry, textiles and popsicles arrived is unclear -- but it was before me.

Anyway, the most popular archeological destination in Mexico is one of the two previously noted works of man I became acquainted with on a visit to Mexico City. The other, somewhat more modest in scope, was a 2011 campaign honoring the 15th anniversary of Hotmail.

Granted, Teotihuacan it isn't -- but it sure was a delight for me to run across it, however after the fact. That's because I am utterly absorbed in Relationship Era marketing, and this initiative from DoubleYou for Microsoft just warms a relationship evangelist’s heart.

"The client wanted to make a celebration," says Luis Gaitán, executive creative director at DoubleYou.

This was last fall, and there were two obvious obstacles. 1) Who among Mexico's 40 million Hotmail account holders would possibly care about the anniversary of an email service? Because, 2) As Gaitán informed Microsoft: “Guys, you’ve got to realize that Hotmail has become the biggest trash email box on the internet.”

Yeah, G-mail had relegated Hotmail to secondary status. The brief thus was to connect Hotmail somehow with Mexican culture and to establish an emotional connection, so that users could discover how much the service has improved.

To accomplish this, the agency then hit on the idea of 15th birthdays. In Mexico, quinceañera is a central rite of passage for girls on their 15th birthday -- the moment when they are deemed to become women. It's like a Bat Mitzvah, only with many more tortillas. So the idea emerged: what if Microsoft asked account holders to submit emails that documented, or triggered, critical changes in their lives?

What happened next was 8000 submissions of varying degrees of drama and poignancy.

“We had all kinds,” says Gaitán. There were a lot of stories about love. Others announced that they were pregnant. Job offers. University acceptances. One that especially brought a tear to my eye was a notice of approval on a car loan.

To a professor: “From your mouth I learned that to live is not just to be breathing.”

To an unrequited love interest: “If I could be your blood today, opt for the poison to take me to your heart.”

And from an immigrant in Detroit to those at home: grim news of a rapidly spreading cancer. He did not get back to Mexico alive.

If you believe, as I do, that the future of marketing resides not in promulgating brand image or slogans on the back of paid advertising, but rather in the cultivation of interests and values shared with the brand’s constituencies, what more could you ask for? This effort became a true celebration of what was deeply important to Hotmail and Hotmail users alike.

It wasn’t some self-aggrandizing and pointless brand anniversary, but a national archeological expedition, unearthing not ancient tombs and temples but the epistolary artifacts  of contemporary existence.  Never mind that many users reactivated dormant accounts  to participate, or that the emails were so resonant that a book compiling them immediately sold out.

What matters is that for one month last fall, the vaunted information superhighway became the Avenue of Life.