Sleepless in Shanghai

Team Detroit Creative Director Toby Barlow pens latest novel while dealing with global jet lag


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Photograph by Linda Hamlin

Toby Barlow has now authored two novels, but he's OK with most of the world knowing him as an "ad man." As the chief creative officer for Dearborn-based Team Detroit — an entity created in 2006 as a conglomerate of five international agencies to handle Ford Motor Co.'s $2 billion account — his day job is more than enough to keep most people busy.

Barlow's recently released second book, Babayaga, was written around the world while he attempted to deal with the insomnia of global jet lag. "Writing something just seemed more productive than lying there awake in Shanghai all night," he says.

It took him four years to create the magical account of post–World War II Paris, weaving a narrative around ancient Russian witches, the CIA, and a cop-turned-flea. Though the main character is an ad man from Detroit, Barlow says it isn't based on anyone he works with or knows locally.

Barlow, who moved to Detroit in 2006, says he's from "a little bit of everywhere," including Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.

After attending college in Santa Fe, Barlow first got into advertising because he needed a job with decent pay to provide his young family with health insurance (he was just 21 when the first of his two daughters was born).

He managed to get his foot in the door of an agency in San Francisco, largely because his uncle was an agency client. Of course, some new coworkers didn't particularly appreciate the nepotism, so Barlow found himself working extra hard to prove he belonged there. Some of his clients included the Saturn car brand and Stroh's beer.

Today, at 47, Barlow finds himself at the top of the game in his chosen profession, jetting around the world to handle global accounts.

Barlow wrote his first book, Sharp Teeth, while he was living in Chicago. But it was his time in Los Angeles that provided the backdrop for the highly acclaimed werewolf novel written in free verse. Sharp Teeth came out in 2008 and won the 2009 Alex Award, which recognizes superior writing with appeal for adolescents.

Barlow has also won notoriety with some of his nonfiction. The Huffington Post launched its Detroit site in November 2011, and its opener was an op-ed by Barlow called "Detroit," Meet Detroit. It stirred up a city versus suburbs debate by arguing that "you can't have a region without a center. If you're from Detroit, you've got to know it and be a part of it, embracing all of its opportunities, its troubles and its beauty."

The post was hotly debated, and Barlow was tagged by some HuffPo readers as "not really from Detroit" — and therefore not an appropriate or credible spokesman.

Nonetheless, Barlow has become a fairly well-known and vocal advocate for Detroit — writing op-eds for The New York Times and HuffPo that encourage more people to discover and move to Detroit. In the Times, he wrote: "Detroit right now is just this vast, enormous canvas where anything imaginable can be accomplished."

In a recent issue of Cultural Weekly devoted to Detroit, Barlow writes, "One day Detroit will come back and it'll be as generic, commercialized, and boring as every other place. Until then, everyone should come experience all the inspiration to be found here."

On the eve of his Detroit book launch for Babayaga at Eastern Market print shop Signal Return, Barlow chatted about the form his Detroit boosterism would take while on the road to New York, Austin, Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. — especially in light of Detroit's bankruptcy filing.

Naturally, the ad man put a positive spin on what sounds like an impossible sell these days: the city itself. Barlow feels the bankruptcy filing is an important moment in the narrative of Detroit.

"As bad as it is — and I hope that people get paid — this is a good thing," he says. "It answers the question ‘Is there a bottom?' Now there is, with a punctuation mark."

The well-read resident of Lafayette Park, the Mies Van Der Rohe–designed neighborhood on Detroit's near east side, refers to Don DeLillo's White Noise to explain. In the book, DeLillo posits a theory that the characters know things will be fine once a previously unnamed scary occurrence gets a name. Barlow feels that Detroit needed the right word to define its problems. That word, bankruptcy, has now given it something to point to; and Detroit can now begin to solve the riddle.

Barlow maintains that his daily work is just as much about storytelling as his novels. Having seen advertising move from print, TV, and radio into the digital age, he's excited by the new possibilities and making big bets on reinventing the profession.

"In this stage of the game, I have access to all the people in advertising that I've always wanted to work with," he says.

And that can go a long way toward making Barlow's day job just as creatively fulfilling as his late-night pursuits.

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