Whether Houston is worth it—worth putting up with the mosquitos and the humidity and the Gallery Furniture commercials—is a question Houstonians don’t often ask themselves these days (and never in the offices of this magazine, where the issue is presumed settled once and for all, and all employees are contractually required to answer in the affirmative). Of course it’s worth it. In fact, “worth it” is too weak a phrase for the seamless dream that is life in Houston.
But things were quite different in olden times, i.e., 2004, when David Thompson and Randy Twaddle found themselves, one Friday afternoon, in a conversation about the city’s image. “We were brainstorming, saying, ‘Houston’s really misunderstood,’” Thompson tells us. “And the campaigns are stupid, and the slogans are stupid.’” This was the era, let’s remember, of “Houston’s Hot” and “Houston: Expect the Unexpected.”
Thompson still rolls his eyes a decade later at the goofiness of such efforts, while sitting across a picnic table from us at the West Alabama Ice House, which happens to be completely encased in plastic on a frigid January afternoon neither hot nor unexpected.
At the time, Thompson remembers, he and Twaddle ran a marketing firm called ttweak (Thompson still does, Twaddle has moved on), and as such knew a thing or two about branding. Houstonians, awash in shame-based thinking, having internalized the country’s skewed image of their home, walked around with chips on their shoulders, feeling not proud but insecure about their city. And so, Thompson and Twaddle being marketers, thought, well, why not tap into that?
“We both said, ‘We should immediately acknowledge other people’s perceptions of us so we can get that out of the way and move on to a meaningful discussion,’” remembers Thompson. “‘Hey, we get it. We know. We need to say it’s hot, and Houston’s humid, and the traffic is shitty, but it’s worth it.’ And I went, ‘Houston, it’s worth it.’” Thompson and Twaddle looked at each other. Eureka!
Over the next few years, “Houston. It’s Worth It.” would become a labor of love, a conceptual art project, a book, and the city’s unofficial marketing campaign. The pair’s starting point was a short video listing the city’s “20 afflictions”—the roaches, the sprawl, the no-mountains, etc.—which they posted online, inviting Houstonians to respond and explain why, despite such things, the city is indeed worth it. “We got beautiful responses back,” Thompson says, “that were so much better than any ad or marketing person could write”—and, eventually, photos too, both of which formed the basis of the HIWI book, first published in 2007 and now in its third printing.
“I believe that we’ve made great progress on embracing what’s great about this city,” says Thompson, taking a sip of his Guinness. “We’ve become more confident, and perhaps because of that, we’ve gotten a little more respect from the rest of the country.” As for that chip on the shoulder, “I think it’s melting away. I really do,” so much so that even he and Twaddle wonder if their brainchild has become obsolete.
As for those 20 afflictions—yeah, they’re still here, and Thompson wouldn’t have it any other way. You can’t instill pride unless “you have to have something to push back against,” he says. After HIWI’s success brought him and his partner national attention, Thompson says the duo were solicited by other cities seeking the rights to their trademarked verbiage, but they weren’t interested. “Your city doesn’t have a reputation for being a shithole,” Thompson remembers thinking. “Of course it’s worth it. It’s Santa-fucking-Barbara.”
Nevertheless, Thompson and Twaddle did see fit to license their creation on occasion. “We did do something with Detroit,” he says. “They did a calendar.”