UPDATE: Turner Barr has taken to his blog (and emailed us) with news of a somewhat surprising happy ending. After a sustained social-media campaign and various negotiations, Adecco has conceded to all of Barr's stated demands — recognition, an apology, compensation for the use of his blog's name and his identity, and, most gratifying, a donation of $50,000 to SaveTheElephants.org. For his part, Barr seems to have made a complete 180, leaving his sad, confused state behind and promising "big things to come." The power of social media reigns again.
This post was originally published on June 26, 2013
Late this May, travel blogger Turner Barr — creator of Around The World In 80 Jobs — discovered that a major corporation was using his ideas and, yes, maybe his identity, without compensation or his permission.
For the last two years, he’s been traveling the world trying on multiple careers and blogging about it. He's been the Krampus during Austrian holiday celebrations, farmed rice paddies, and volunteered at an Elephant preservation in Thailand. He's sold timeshares in Mexico, and cleaned port-a-potties in Holland. With video and written accounts of his various gigs, positive messages and advice on how and where to find work all over the globe, it’s sort of the Lonely Planet of career-building sites. Maybe it could lead to a reality show or a book deal, but right now, Barr relies on friends and colleagues to keep it going (though he cleans the Porta Potties by himself).
Earlier this year, though, the Swiss multinational human resource consulting and job-placement firm Adecco launched their own "Around The World In 80 Jobs" marketing campaign and contest targeted at all those underemployed millenials out there (once, you could have won a "summer dream job!”) Since Barr's case has attracted public notice, the visuals that go along with the campaign have changed — but when we first saw them, the typeface, color scheme, and other elements of Adecco's site — like its name — echoed what's been on Barr's blog for years. Oddest of all are the videos used to promote it: an enthusiastic young man with an interesting haircut travels the world, trying on job after job, learning and broadcasting career lessons along the way with an attitude and a personality that is just inches off Barr's (if you ignored the British accent.) The videos are now listed as "private" on YouTube — something that happened after Barr's case hit Reddit — so you're just going to have to believe us when we say the similarities were past striking.
Back in May, when a friend forwarded Turner Barr a link to Adecco's program he was, as you might guess, floored. "At first," he told us, "I was confused, because I saw the tiny 'tm' in the corner, and I’ve been using this name for two years. Then he saw those eerie videos (the fact that Adecco's double was speaking in an accent couldn't have helped with the cognitive dissonance.) "I started to watch the video," said Barr, "and the similarities were...pretty uncanny." Uncanny is a fair word for it. Most would have said something worse.
Actually, despite the fact that his entire online presence may have been co-opted, Barr seems surprisingly forgiving. On his blog, one can see that this whole process is taking a serious emotional and professional toll. In a post titled "How I Got Fired from the Job I Invented," he says, "my creative energy has been zapped," and, "I feel like my dream job has been taken from me."
Still, all that confusion, sadness, and shock seemed turned inward rather than outward when we discussed his situation. "[Adecco] responded to my email I sent on the 20th," he says, "and I got one back pretty quickly," he said as if praising them for surprisingly good customer service. "They wanted to talk on the phone. When I talked to Ed Blust [Adecco's CMO, Marketing, Communications, and PR], it seemed to be a pretty positive exchange. I wanted to work toward a positive solution because I want to help people. I really felt I was in a great position to help these kids and help [Adecco] with their thing. I’ve been doing this for 10 years, really doing these jobs." Indeed, helping young people get jobs is something Adecco and Barr truly have in common. If not for the odd, possibly unethical elephant in the room, it's easy to think the two would be a perfect match.
Even though discussions started off on the right foot in Barr's estimation, they hit a wall when it came to the question of how Adecco developed their "Around The World In 80 Jobs" promotion. "I was quite confused as to where this whole concept came from," said Barr, "but I was still willing to work toward a positive solution." A resolution for him, however, required answers, which was something he couldn't get. There was "...nothing definitive," he said, "just dancing around the question. At first they were talking about compensating me for being a mentor. But then they changed their mind on that. From then on, I felt it was meeting after meeting, delay after delay — they kind of kept pushing it back."
Still, he was willing to talk to Adecco executives in person — so much so that he left a teaching job abroad behind and returned to New York City to iron out the details. "At that point, there was no monetary compensation on the table and I realized — because there kept being delays — that they weren’t seeming really serious about it. It was taking so long, and I’m talking to a lawyer and an executive of the company and it’s just me by myself on a phone to Laos and Bangkok." A return to the U.S. improved things. "We hadn’t been talking, but then they approached me and basically had offered me another contract that they put in writing that offered me $25,000, which I would have been really happy with. I think that’s a great amount of money for a lot of bloggers."
Perhaps unfortunately for Barr, he may be as earnest and open as he is positive and enthusiastic. "I would have been really happy with that," he said of Adecco's offer. "But, at this point in the game, it was after the fact. This was five weeks later, and it wasn’t even before the campaign started. The money came with a non-disclosure [agreement], so I kind of felt like it wouldn’t relay the proper story of what happened. I just didn’t think it was appropriate."
Talking to Barr, it seems as if what he's really concerned about is acknowledgement and respect. Back on June 20 he wrote, "I’m no longer even the first thing that comes up when you Google my brand name." Sure, that's a serious business problem. But it's also a question of being recognized for who you are. We get the impression Barr would okay with a lot of what's happened if he just received some recognition. He seems more dejected and confused — like someone who might be forgotten for all the interesting and difficult things he's done (including selling Mexican timeshares) — than anything else.
So what does a blogger do when you're feeling rejected and crushed online and need the world to hear you? They blog about it. Barr took that post he wrote — "How I Got Fired from the Job I Invented" — and promoted it through his social feeds. Eventually, the story landed on Reddit where it quickly gained momentum with that passionate, anti-establishment, anti-corporate audience. A social-media movement followed (check out #80jobs and #makeitright on Twitter) along with rolling press coverage. Ironically, after running out of options with the company that may have stolen his web identity right out from under him, Turner Barr and Around The World In 80 Jobs is getting more recognition than ever. The problem is, Barr's now recognized as a blogger who might have gotten screwed over by a big, bad corporation.
We reached out to Adecco's press office for comment, but we've never heard back — both email and voicemail of their PR officers seem overloaded. Still, they released this comment: "We have seen and heard your sincere concern about our recent youth employment initiative and take your feedback very seriously. We deeply regret if we hurt Turner Barr. This was never our intention when we set up our 'Around the World in 80 Jobs' contest. We clearly see that Turner is an inspiration to many people. We feel there should be more of such initiatives that inspire people to live their dreams and achieve their ambitions. Unfortunately, we moved forward with a name and contest that clearly upset Turner and his community. We sincerely apologize for that mistake."
It’s not quite an admission of guilt, but it does seem to recognize a wrong done and an understanding of what was at stake. While we’re still waiting to see how this all pans out financially and legally, we have to wonder if we’ll see more identity thefts (accidental or not in the future.) All we can say, kids, is remember to trademark everything — even your personality.