I achieved the near-impossible Monday morning, October 7, at approximately 9:30 am. I got fired from BuzzFeed.
I got fired from a website with a staff that had grown from under 100 to well over 400 during my 18 months of employment. Fired from a place that basically fires nobody.
BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith called me into his office via GChat and said something like, "This is just not working out, your stuff. Let's just say, it's 'creative differences.'" (I paraphrase, but he most certainly used the c and d words.)
I reached down to pull up one of my socks. It's a nervous tic.
Ben got a worried look on his face and started to peek under the table. I smiled inside as I imagined him wondering what I might have hidden in my sock.
At the time of my termination, I ranked seventh out of about 100 writers for traffic brought into the site. On average, my posts would place me in the top 15 as far as "viral" traffic went. If this sounds to you like I was obsessed with traffic, then you've obviously never been to one of BuzzFeed's uncomfortably cultish Thursday evening all-hands-on-deck meetings.
I was "officially" fired at my apartment on Halloween, via a letter delivered by UPS. Inside the envelope were two copies of the legal document, one to sign and return and another for my records. Both copies had CUTE stickers affixed to the first page.
I did not LOL.
I know for a fact that there are more appropriate varieties of sticky notes in the BuzzFeed office supply cabinet that do not have "CUTE" printed on them, including white ones with a ghosted red BuzzFeed logo.
A 53-year-old man, BuzzFeed's oldest ever employee, jobless and without health insurance? CUTE as a fucking bug's ear. Not as CUTE: Making your advertising critic disappear posts that criticize the advertisements of big advertisers, which Ben Smith did to me on at least one ocassion. BuzzFeed has a "no haters" hiring policy and an overweening desire to draw big-name advertisers into its "community" of users, in exchange for money. Which makes ranting about ads professionally for the site a complicated endeavor. At which I FAILed.
When I was hired by Ben Smith, in March of 2012, his editorial directives were to be a kinder, gentler version of the copyranter persona I had created—the hard-to-please ad critic whose seven-year-old blog had at the time roughly 18,000 followers on Twitter. (Those followers were probably the main reason I was hired.) Copyranter with fewer "fucks," basically.
So I took a $43,000 annual pay cut to leave my small New York City ad agency, where I had worked as a copywriter for 20 straight years, to come to work for Ben Smith and BuzzFeed. Why would I make this seemingly idiotic move? I liked Ben Smith, and liked what I had read about BuzzFeed's growth, potential, and future. So I reached out to him and asked him for a job. I still like BuzzFeed's future.
During my 18 months there, I worked seven days a week, 11 or 12-hour days, Monday through Friday, and somewhere around five hours a day on the weekends. I don't really understand what "creative differences" means, as I did exactly what I was hired to do for BuzzFeed.
Anyway, let's countdown the possible real reasons I was fired, using the fun, easy-to-digest, BuzzFeedy listicle style. Yay, BuzzFeedy listicles!
The average age in the editorial department is late 20s. I am 15-plus years older than Ben Smith and CEO Jonah Peretti. Maybe I didn't fit their core demographic, and therefore, their big-picture plans? All my young colleagues thought this post—"What It's Like Being The Oldest BuzzFeed Employee"—was CUTE, but I wasn't kidding.
9. I Occasionally Got Into Petty Twitter and Email Fights with Trolls
Sometimes I invited particularly sad trolls to come to the BuzzFeed office and give me their personal insults face-to-face over coffee (none ever came). I have no rope for digital anonymous "tough" guys. But hey, I was just being "copyranter." LOL.
8. I Don't Know How to Make a .GIF
You laugh, but many of BuzzFeed's most viral post are lists of .GIFs. I will never learn how to make a .GIF. I consider .GIFs the "creativity" of the new Stupidest Generation.
7. I Drummed at My Desk Incessantly
I am drummer, have been since I was six. So—other drummers will identify with this—I am constantly playing an imaginary drum set at my desk, using my feet and hands. This annoyed the hell out of Ben Smith and a couple other editors who threw paper at me or sent emails to try to get me to stop. I can't stop; it's a subconscious thing. BuzzFeed should have bought me a nice Ludwig chrome drum set, and set me up in a soundproof room. Inconsiderate assholes.
6. I Regularly Challenged Editors
Everybody at BuzzFeed is a fucking "editor." If what I thought was a worthy post for the front page was rejected, I'd argue my case. I got scolded a couple times for being too aggressive. So that's one plausible reason I was canned—defending my stuff too much. I'm sorry, but I call that "journalism."
5. I, occasionally, sent out inappropriate editorial-wide emails chastising the cleanliness of the department.
What can I say, I hate untidiness.
4. Ronald McDonald Blowjobs
One of my last posts, before I was fired, was a collection of all the photos I could find on the web of people "servicing" the Ronald McDonald mascot. (For the record, I found 13; College Humor only found 10). Ben Smith immediately pinged me with a "WTF are you doing?" I wrote back, "I feel the post is a comment on the human condition." He wrote, "It's pretty great" but delete it. Which leads to reason No. 3.
3. I Am Just an Asshole
Well now, this could be it. You see, this online copyranter persona I created does—sometimes—take over my actual, real-life personality. If Ben Smith has said this to me as a reason for my dismissal, to my face, I would have stood up, taken two steps back, given him a sharp salute, and marched out of his office.
2. They Just Didn't Want an Ad Critic on Staff Anymore
Let's get to a meaty reason—a reason BuzzFeed and Ben Smith have zero interest in discussing. Because BuzzFeed had grown so big so fast, they didn't want some loose cannon highlighting the shitty ads of potential or current big name advertisers. Yeah, that's a pretty good reason to fire me.
Being a visionary, I brought this point up in my initial interview with Ben Smith. He said, more or less, "You don't worry about that, that's my problem." Boy oh boy did it become his problem.
Ben Smith made me delete a post I did on Axe Body Spray's ads, titled, "The Objectification Of Women By Axe Continues Unabated in 2013" (it was initially called something to the effect of "Axe Body Spray Continues its Contribution to Rape Culture," but I quickly softened it). Get this: he made me delete it one month after it was posted, due to apparent pressure from Axe's owner Unilever. How that's for editorial integrity? Ben Smith also questioned other posts I did knocking major advertisers' ads (he kept repeating the phrase "punching down"), including the pathetically pandering, irresponsible Nike "Fat Boy" commercial.
I of course understand that websites like BuzzFeed need lots of advertising dollars to operate, and that no media outlets—including the one you're reading this on—are immune to advertiser pressure. I understand that my posts may have pissed advertisers off. I also understand—very clearly—the job I was hired to do because I invented it. I had a longstanding blog that clearly outlined what BuzzFeed was getting into. Turns out Ben Smith didn't want what he asked for, and I guess I was too gullible to think it could be any other way.
And the number 1 most likely reason I was fired from BuzzFeed (drumroll): They shouldn't have hired me in the first place—DING-DING-DING!
Many editorial job openings on BuzzFeed's jobs page feature a "no haters" (say it a singsong voice) caveat. But hating is what I do, and have always done. Hating was what built my following. I was specifically hired, by Ben Smith, to hate ads. After a few months of being forced to delete posts because they knocked big name advertisers' "mediocre" (Ben Smith's word) ads, what I started doing instead was make fraudulent posts about decent ads with "best ____ ad ever" titles.
Wait! Maybe that's why I was fired: too many posts with overpromising, hyperbolic click-bait headlines that led to underwhelming content?
Mark Duffy writes about ads for Vice and other outlets. Read his blog here.
A response from Buzzfeed's Ben Smith:
We parted ways with Mark in because his tone and vision are really different from ours. In particular, it's important to him to make charges — and in one case, imagine dialogue — without the reporting to support them. That's something he is perhaps doing with me here. Our editorial team operates independently of advertisers, and I've never based a decision about reporting on an advertiser's needs.
In fact, if you glance at his page, you'll see any number of unflattering posts about businesses, some advertisers and some not (and I'm not always in the loop on which is which); in both cases, I took the angry calls and emails and usually didn't tell him about them, which is what I think an editor is supposed to do.
(Five from a very quick scan — i'm sure you could find more: http://www.buzzfeed.com/copyranter/you…; http://www.buzzfeed.com/copyranter/ver…; http://www.buzzfeed.com/copyranter/9-m… , http://www.buzzfeed.com/copyranter/sil…, http://www.buzzfeed.com/copyranter/the…)
Also, here's the email I sent Mark on September 4 about that Axe post, which I think is pretty clear:
"Have been thinking a bit about tone, and we need to talk. I absorb a great deal of heat from targets of stories that we write, from Beyonce's publicist to politicians to businesses, and I've just realized the stuff I am least able to defend is, occasionally, yours. I'm not sure how to change it, but there are certain posts — http://www.buzzfeed.com/copyranter/the… for example — where I reflexively stood up to a complaint (in this case from and advertiser) but realize in retrospect that I'm not really comfortable defending it, and that it doesn't fit with our ethos on the site; the issue for me is the way in which it basically projects motive on to the people making the ad, and insults them in really vitriolic terms. I don't totally know what to do about this: I love a lot of what you do, and love having you here. I also know that some of this is pretty central to what you do. But I'd like to take that post down; and I think we need to figure out a way to avoid making more like it. And I'm sorry if I'm making your head explode, but I figured I might as well make it explode in email so that we could have a conversation tomorrow."
As to timing — I hadn't seen the "rape" charge until it was pointed out by the target of the post — I can't remember if it was the company or the agency. (I don't think it was "repeated," though I could be wrong.) He was wrong to write it and I think we made the right call by taking it down.
I also, toward the end of his tenure and when we were trying to save the relationship, asked him to run posts by me that might violate our standards. (He had been the only writer posting directly, a legacy thing based on when he started.) I took down a post or two when he ignored that request, and for that reason - the McDonald's one was in that category. I also really like Mark, and he was a lovely colleague. He stuck around for three weeks after we decided to part ways, and we gladly hosted him while he looked for a job. We tried to make his exit as easy as possibly, as he mentions, and I'm sorry if the Cute sticker upset him.