Greetings from a chair next to a screen in a public retail space in a rural part of the state in which we live, where we are waiting for our booster shot to be administered. Also a flu shot. Because we are writing this in the final weeks of 2021, when we are entering into that most social of seasons, amidst a surge in the global pandemic that we all have been battling these past, well, forever.

And if that seems like an odd way to begin this year’s The Year in (the Agency) Review” well, it shouldn’t. It should sound like about the most 2021 way to do it.

Welcome to the tenth edition. The “tin” anniversary, according to the internet – which is supposed to represent “preservation”. And what that may lack in romance for young marrieds, it more than makes up for after the past few years we’ve been through. Boring, dependable, flexible. We’ll take it. Despite the issues, disappointments and setbacks this year (and there have been many), it has felt a bit like a year of preservation, right?

Because despite the year kicking off with an attack on the U.S. Capitol as the Congress tried to certify the recent presidential election, it got better after that, didn’t it? Yes, a giant container ship got stuck in the Suez Canal which screwed up an already screwed up global supply chain, but at least a bunch of millionaires were able to fly their personal rocket ships into space (kinda, sorta). So that was good, wasn’t it? Oh and we had the Olympics in Tokyo! Even though we all had to watch them on TV because pretty much no one was allowed to go to Japan, but still. And yeah, wildfires burned the hell out of Greece, and Haiti got hit by an earthquake, and NASA had to shoot a rocket at an asteroid to keep it from hitting the Earth. Oh, and Covid.

All right so maybe 2021 wasn’t quite as tinny as we thought.

But if you’re reading these words then you made it, and that’s something to be proud of. And if you’re reading these words, then we made it too, and we’re proud of that. So give yourself a pat on the back and get ready to check out the stuff you came here to see – our annual interrogation of a bunch of smart people with three simple questions. Three simple questions that we hope will make some sort of sense of what we’ve just been through and what we’re likely to encounter:

What was the book you loved this year?

What is the book you’re looking forward to reading next year?, and

What is the book you wish someone would write because you would read it in a heartbeat?

Now, just like we did in 2020, we asked the preceding year’s contributors to nominate folks to participate this year. And boy did they – from two continents, and from the worlds of finance, literature, academia and, of course, advertising. People who are literally shaping the world we live in, and helping us understand it. And yet they took time out from all that to tell us what they’re reading.

And thank God they ARE reading, because that gives us hope as well. Because if really smart people are still pushing themselves to understand more, to fill in the gaps in their knowledge, then how can the rest of us do anything less?

So thanks to them for contributing, thanks to you for reading, and thanks to us for, well, I dunno, getting our booster shots and telling you that the perfect tenth anniversary gift is some god damned thing made out of tin. Not great but honestly, if that’s the worst thing that happened to you in 2021 then you got off easy.

Okay, let’s light this candle…


Paula Bloodworth:

Paula’s experience spans the world, from Melbourne to New York, Sydney, Shanghai, Tokyo, London and Portland working across a range of categories and clients. Recently, she was the heading up strategy on Nike globally at Wieden + Kennedy Portland having previously led strategy across Nike Greater China, Japan and EMEA. Currently, she is head of International Strategy at Uncommon Creative Studios in London. 

Her global experience has been crucial in developing strategies that appreciate cultural nuance and resonate with local markets. She developed the strategy for the highly awarded Nike ‘Nothing Beats a Londoner’ campaign. And more recently led the strategy for a number of successful campaigns including ‘You Can’t Stop Sport’, which won numerous effectiveness and creative awards including an Emmy.

What was the book you loved this year?

I’ve devoted far too much of my reading time to non-fiction, often forcing myself to finish books even when they have become dry, dull or laboured. Not surprisingly, I found myself reading less and less this year.

Lately I’ve been diving into fiction again. My old colleague and friend, Martin Weigel, writes poetically about the power of fiction in his review from 2017. He says it all better than I ever could (probably because he reads more fiction than me).

The Land of Big Numbers is a collection of short stories depicting life in China. It’s beautiful. Even though I lived in China, I don’t think I ever fully understood it; there’s far too much nuance, and depth to unpick in a few short years but this book does a wonderful job of bringing the reader a few steps closer to the characters who live there. Te-Ping Chen is a well-known and respected journalist so it’s no surprise I felt like I was reading truth, truth that struck so much harder than some intimidatingly thick non-fiction book about Modern China. 

What is the book you’re looking forward to reading next year?

Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe but it’s non-fiction! So I’ll add in – Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro.

What is the book you wish someone would write because you would read it in a heartbeat?

Anything written by the people who broke through in the entertainment industry to give us more diverse story lines and protagonists, Michaela Coel, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Mindy Kaling, Reese Witherspoon, Issa Ray etc. And perhaps the generation before these names too, the people who couldn’t get through because the old systems and perspectives were just too rigid. I’d love to hear what they all went through, how they did it and what they still want to do. 

Farah Jasmine Griffin:

Farah Jasmine Griffin is the William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University where she also served as the inaugural Chair of the African American and African Diaspora Studies Department. She is the author of Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature (WW Norton)

What was the book you loved this year?

I read so many good books this year, it is hard to select just one, but if forced to do so I would pick, The Love Songs of W.E. B. DuBois, the debut novel by Honorèe Fanonne Jeffers.  She is one of my favorite poets and her prose did not disappoint me — she writes beautifully in both genres and she creates characters who you remember long after the book’s final page. (The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr. is a close second here.)

What is the book you’re looking forward to reading next year?

Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge, another historical novel, but one that focuses on a black woman in 19th century Brooklyn.  I admire Greenidge’s op-eds and other writings, so I am looking forward to diving into her novel, which comes highly recommended.

What is the book you wish someone would write because you would read it in a heartbeat?

I wish Stevie Wonder would write his autobiography.  I’d read that in a heartbeat.

James Fitzjohn:

James is a freelance business consultant who specializes in marketing strategy, technology advisory and communication planning. A native of the UK but now applying the Factor 50 sun-cream in Perth, Australia. Alumni of Wunderman Thompson, Ogilvy, DDB, AKQA and a few more…

What was the book you loved this year?

A Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman – A heart-warming shift of tone from Scandi noir – this book has more in common with the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time or even The Boy in the Striped Pajamas in terms of its simple, descriptive, yet-knowing language.

The aforementioned Ove is a principled yet cantankerous man, whose love of routine and order jar with the quirks of modern life, until a new neighborhood family reawaken his zeal for life and we discover more about his heart-breaking past. A wonderful book which is easy-to-read and will make you laugh and reflect in equal measure. You will also find the film version across some of the more obscure streaming channels, resplendent with English subtitles to give you that smug, high-brow feeling just in-time for the Christmas dinner party scene.

Related to advertising, why not? Ove’s devotion to consistency and discipline hark back to less frantic times, when objects were built with care, nurtured and protected. The lessons for brand building and application of marketing fundamentals are loud and clear – even in Swedish.

What is the book you’re looking forward to reading next year?

How Brands Grow by Byr….  No. Joking. I have read it. Pretty dense text. Valuable lessons for sure but it assumes almost perfect brand conditions for said growth. I recommend finding a breezy 16-page deck online to get the executive summary.

My aim for this year is Look Out by Orlando Wood. Co-sponsored by the IPA, Look Out aims to teach marketers to evaluate their tactics in order to create effective and memorable advertising in a technology enhanced world.

And the illustrations look great too.

What is the book you wish someone would write because you would read it in a heartbeat?

An all-encompassing, factually correct, independent, relatively condensed, illustrated, informative, enjoyable book on the history of the American civil war.

Totally playing to the audience here – but a one-size solution would be awesome.

Oh, some diagrams would be most welcome too.

Jeff Monahan:

Jeff Monahan, Founder and Design Principal at Proper Villains, has written, designed, and directed a diverse portfolio of award-winning work for organizations such as Bang & Olufsen, New England Baptist Hospital, Godiva, Cure Alzheimer’s Fund, and GMAC Home Services. He was instrumental in helping Vera Wang evolve from celebrated touchstone of bridal design to world-famous lifestyle brand. During the course of his 25+ years in the industry, he has overseen brand strategy and creative director for clients ranging from startups to world-famous brands. Jeff is board chair of 4As New England Council, founding member of 4As CX Council’s Brand Strategy Committee, and cochair of the nonprofit 4As Foundation. As cochair, Jeff provides direction for the Foundation’s efforts around diversity, equity, and inclusion within the industry as well as its high school and college education initiatives.

What was the book you loved this year?

I read four things in 2021 that I loved:

How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

The Moment of Lift by Melinda Gates

The World by Richard Haass

Thank You for Being Late by Thomas L. Friedman

These books are all important in different—yet connected—ways. Each provides insight and guidance about the state of the world around us and how we might think about ensuring the best collective future. 

What is the book you’re looking forward to reading next year?

I haven’t yet thought about what I’ll read next year, except for rereading Daniel Kahneman‘s Thinking Fast and Slow. That said, The Authority of the Court and the Peril of Politics by Justice Stephen Breyer looks intriguing, so that looks likely to make it onto the list.

What is the book you wish someone would write because you would read it in a heartbeat?

A deep look at the impact and value that design—in all forms—has had on human culture and progress (including how the lack of thoughtful design can create unintended consequences).

Kevin Mulroy:

Kevin Mulroy is an award-winning Executive Creative Director and founding partner of Mischief USA. He was named top five creative people of the year by Campaign Magazine, nominated for creative director of the year in Ad Age’s 2021 Creativity Awards, was recently named among Adweek’s Creative 100, and has won over 100 international awards. Throughout his illustrious career, Kevin has written advertising campaigns, websites, video games, screenplays, teleplays, ESPY award speeches, greeting cards, blog posts, birthday invites, and Internet comments with a thrilling fusion of insult and education for which he earned the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor during a lucid dream while napping at work. Kevin lives in Montclair, New Jersey with his lovely wife and three children.

What was the book you loved this year? 

The books I obsessed over (and bored people talking about) the most this year were part of a trilogy called the Three Body Problem by Chinese author Cixin Liu. It’s a hardcore science fiction trilogy that I’m not nearly smart enough to actually understand, but the concepts are impossibly brilliant and vast and mind boggling, and yet could easily handle the rigor of my constant Google searches. The primary theory of the second book is such a profoundly insightful answer to one of humankind’s biggest questions that astrophysicists read it and were like, yeah that’s a pretty solid explanation. I recently read it’s the Game of Thrones guys’ (David Benioff and Dan Weiss) next project for Netflix, so we’ll see if they can pull it off, and how hard I whip my shoe at the tv after the final episode.

What is the book you’re looking forward to reading next year?

These Truths by The New Yorker writer Jill Lepore. It’s a meaty, comprehensive history of America that stretches from 1492 to current day, and shows how technology, politics, media, and propaganda have altered the way we define and understand the truth over five centuries. Which is a summary I paraphrased from Wikipedia so I’m assuming it’s true. 

What is the book you wish someone would write because you would read it in a heartbeat?

I’d love to read an unbiased biography of Thomas Midgley, the 1920’s inventor who created lead gasoline, and later in life, chlorofluorocarbons (aka freon). He was an incredibly successful and celebrated inventor of his time who has since been described by one environmentalist as a man who “had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth’s history,” and another as having possessed “an instinct for the regrettable that was almost uncanny.” I first heard about him from this podcast episode called the House of Butterflies, which refers to the butterfly hallucinations many employees shared at his ethyl gasoline plant just before going insane from lead poisoning.  

Tracie Ninh:

Tracie is an aspiring retiree, hoping to achieve that stage of her life sooner rather than later with soon-to-be husband and future children. While pursuing retirement, she is a sourcing professional at a financial institution where she helps the enterprise find opportunities to work with diverse suppliers to build a more inclusive and resilient supply chain. She currently resides in New Jersey where she is surrounded by deer and supports her fiancé’s love of running by cheering for him during 5Ks (which usually start at ungodly early hours of the morning).

What was the book you loved this year?

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

I’ve been really interested in reading books by Vietnamese authors since I wasn’t aware of any growing up as a first generation Vietnamese American. A lot of my reading was very focused on school assignments, so of course I only knew of American and classic authors. When Vuong’s book came out in 2019, it was on my list to read and came highly recommended by my cousin. This semi-autobiographical novel written in the form of letters from the author to his mom is beautiful and intimate. His storytelling is poetic and I was pulled in, wrestling with my own place between two cultures.

What is the book you’re looking forward to reading next year?

Where You Are Is Not Who You Are: A Memoir by Ursula Burns

Burns is the first Black female CEO of a Fortune 500 company. 

What is the book you wish someone would write because you would read it in a heartbeat?

It would be interesting (and possibly hilarious) to read a collection of short essays written by parents describing what their adult children do for a living. 

Kara Oakleaf:

Kara Oakleaf is an Assistant Professor of English at George Mason University and director of the Fall for the Book festival in Northern Virginia. Her writing appears in the anthologies Best Small Fictions 2020 and Short-Form Creative Writing, as well as journals including Necessary Fiction, Fiction Southeast, Wigleaf, and SmokeLong Quarterly

What was the book you loved this year?

I read María José Ferrada’s How to Order the Universe (translated by Elizabeth Breyer) toward the beginning of the year and the story has stuck with me. It’s set in Pinochet-era Chile and follows a traveling salesman and his young daughter, who goes from town to town with him selling hardware products. The daughter is the narrator, and she’s too young to understand what’s happening in her country even though it ultimately impacts her in significant ways, but her voice as she tries to make sense of her world makes the whole story.

What is the book you’re looking forward to reading next year?

Another novel, this one coming out in January: How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu. It’s set in the near future and involves a long-ago virus that begins a new plague – I know some people may not be excited to read a plague story after the last two years, but this novel has a centuries-long timeline and sometimes I think I need to get a glimpse of that very long perspective.

What is the book you wish someone would write because you would read it in a heartbeat?

I know almost nothing about visual art but have become interested in Gertrude Abercrombie lately – I just love her paintings and have been reading whatever I can about her but there doesn’t seem to be a full-length biography about her out there. She lived what seems like an interesting life, was friends with jazz musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker in Chicago – it’d make a great story.

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Header illustration by the exceptionally artful Jason Roeder. See more of his fine work here.

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