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The Time We Turned Down NBC’s The Office

A simple decision that cost us millions

I took my first office job in 2001 working the customer service desk of a company called Despair, Inc. (Yes, that is an actual company name). Despair had built a nice little business making products that parodied a specific type of motivational posters. 

If you’re of a certain age, you’ve probably seen this particular style of poster in a workplace conference room: 

These ridiculously cheesy images graced the walls of countless conference rooms in the 2000s. The idea behind them was simple: Combine eye-roll-inspirational sayings with dramatic nature photography on a framed black print. Sell them to managers to hang in the hallways of small businesses and corporate America at huge margins. 

A pair of twin brothers in Texas took issue with this. They thought the entire concept of motivational poster was a psyop. Their theory was that most people secretly hated them. In the brothers’ minds, the managers were to blame. They thought most managers were too lazy to give the effort required to cultivate leadership skills, so rather than do the work of becoming great leaders, these managers would buy motivational posters, throw them on the walls as a signal to their bosses that they took their responsibilities as leaders seriously. 

It was smoke and mirrors. 

The brothers were skilled designers, so as a joke, they started making “demotivational” images and emailing them to friends:

Friends forwarded these images around, and before they knew it, people started asking where they could buy these posters.

The brothers had recently been laid off from a tech company, so they took their shot at turning these images into prints and selling them on the internet. 

Their ideas struck a nerve. The business went viral before going viral was a thing. They became the Yahoo! “Site of the Day” back when that meant you were the biggest thing on the internet on that particular day. Their images got shared on message boards, email chains, and early Reddit. 

These posters gave rise to the demotivational meme, one of the first internet memes to take root in popular culture. 

“Your call is not important to us”

Given that this was a niche product and ecommerce had not yet evolved into an industry, Despair was one of the first DTC companies. Buying things on the internet was a buggy, confusing process and shipping mistakes have been happening since the beginning of…well, shipping. What this means is that in order for their business to work, Despair needed live customer service.

That’s where I came in. They hired me to answer customer support emails and field calls which, oddly enough, was fun. If you’re buying something from Despair, you have a sense of humor. And people with a sense of humor tended to be understanding about late shipments and mispacked orders. And the brothers took every opportunity to inject their brand into the customer experience—when you called the support line, the hold music told callers that their call was not important and they should probably just give up.

NBC Reaches Out

In between the usual requests for tracking numbers and order changes, my eyes went wide: an email showed up in my box from someone with an “@nbc.com” email address. The sender was asking to speak to Despair’s founders because an American version of the hit British show The Office was in the works. The producers thought that Despair’s posters hanging in the halls of Dunder Mifflin would be perfect.

I forwarded the email to the brothers, who responded almost immediately: Not interested. They were huge fans of what Ricky Gervais had done with the British sitcom. But they were confident that a big budget American network version of the show would crush everything that had made the original so special.

I responded to the email, politely saying that we weren’t interested.

Over the show’s eight year run, I got to witness The Office become the most popular show in the world. Michael Scott, Dwight Shrute, and the rest of the cast dominated popular culture. 

Every time the camera panned across that fictional workplace, we witnessed shoddy knock offs of our posters thrown together by the NBC art department. What could have been our brand in front of global audiences ended up being a missed opportunity.


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Thanks to early readers Nate Kadlac and Charlie Bleecker.