In 1584, Queen Elizabeth I granted Sir Walter Raleigh a charter for the colonization of North America. The following year, as part of Raleigh's efforts (Raleigh himself never visited North America), Ralph Lane and 107 men established a colony at the north end of Roanoke Island which is off the coast of what is now North Carolina.
After a year, they ran out of provisions. So, in June of 1586, they left the colony and went back to England.
Right after they left, supplies and more colonists finally arrived. However, because the colony had been abandoned, only a small detachment was left to maintain an English presence and protect Raleigh's claim to Roanoke.
A year after that, in 1587, Raleigh dispatched a new company of 150 colonists led by John White. Unfortunately, soon after they landed, the situation at Roanoke became desperate due to hostile tribes. White returned to England for help, leaving behind about 115 colonists.
Unable to return until almost three years later, White found the Roanoke settlement completely deserted. There was no trace of the colonists he left there, nor any sign of a struggle or battle. The only clue was the word "Croatoan" carved into a fence post and the word "Cro" carved into a nearby tree.
It became remembered as The Lost Colony and is still a great American historical mystery.
(Go here for the complete Roanoke Colony timeline.)
The success and the fun we had during the National Sam Ervin Fan Club summer inspired David Oke and I to start a company and do more things like that. We wanted to use our media talents to promote solutions to social problems.
David suggested that we call the company the “Rob and Oke Idea Mill.” I said I thought that sounded a little cute but that Rob and Oke reminded me of Roanoke. We decided that because of the history and mystery and the combination of our names, we would 're-establish' a Roanoke company in California.
We rented a one-room office in the Peninsula Conservation Center. My wife, Diana, designed us a logo, we got a ream of stationary and a phone number, and were in business together for 30 years. We never made a huge amount of money. But we had the maximum amount of fun, kissed the minimal amount of asses, had a few fights with each other, and did some good deeds.
Marcel Hernandez also joined us as a founding partner.
Our first client was the City of Menlo Park. We promoted their new bus system. Our slogan was “Ride On!” and we outfitted the drivers with stylish vests and Churchill Derby hats.
Another day, we got a call from my friend Tony Governali, who was the Mayor of San Bruno. Caldwell Banker had developed a new little shopping center and was looking for a good local PR company to announce the opening.
I’m amazed at how obnoxious and cocky we were. We said, “We don’t do shopping centers. We don’t even like shopping centers.” But Tony said they would pay us for the proposal and convinced. We kicked around some thoughts and eventually came up with a good idea.
We asked Tony if the town was trying to raise any money for any good causes. He informed us that there was going to be a pancake breakfast to raise money to build a new park. A little girl had been killed on Grundy Avenue and her parents had donated her college money into a fund to buy an empty lot for a new little park in her memory.
So we did two mailings in a teaser campaign. The first mailing contained a button that had a nice piece of art of a flower printed on it. There was no return address, no description of who sent it, or what it meant.
Two days later in the second mailing – the answer arrived. On the envelope was the same flower. Inside, there was a coupon and a letter which told about the little girl and her memorial park. For everyone who brought the coupon to the new shopping center during the opening month, a dollar would be put into the park fund. Marcel did all the organizational work and the response was wonderful.
10,000 people brought in coupons! The manager of the shopping center got his picture in the paper giving our friend Tony an oversized check for $10,000 for the City of San Bruno. It was by far the single biggest contribution this memorial park fund received.
Asking a lot of people to do a little was our approach. It was the just the kind of thing we wanted to do.
The Roanoke Company was always looking for new and better ways to communicate. Scratch and sniff is a good example of this. By the 1980's, people were generally familiar with stickers, postcards, and magazine inserts that had been treated with a microfragrance coating. They would scratch the surface and smell something that usually had a profit motive (buy my perfume!) or educational aspect (don't forget to turn your gas stove off!) behind it.
However, in 1986, we used it in the form of a postcard for a political purpose:
Our campaign was to pass Measure A.
This particular Measure A was The Coastal Protection Initiative and it amended the San Mateo County Local Coastal Program (LCP) that had been originally adopted in 1980 under the authority of the California Coastal Act of 1976 (aka Coastal Act).
This amendment was sponsored by various environmental groups. It essentially required that any major development project on the coast of San Mateo County had to be put up for a vote and approved by the people of the county. The county board of supervisors and potential developers didn't like the idea, so they put a competing measure on the county ballot, Measure B.
It was a great campaign because we tricked the opposition by having a secret fund raising angel. We played poor about being able to raise money and do media buys like radio ads and any mass mailings to push our position. Then, right before the vote, using funds from our angel we flooded the area with all the reasons why everyone should vote for Measure A – and it passed!
There are a lot more stories. You'll be able to read about them soon in the book I'm writing.
In the meantime, here's the Roanoke Colony Timeline:
March 25, 1584
Queen Elizabeth I grants Sir Walter Raleigh a charter for the colonization of North America. (Raleigh himself never visits North America.)
April 27, 1584
Raleigh dispatches an expedition led by Phillip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe to explore the Eastern coast of North America.
July 4, 1584
They arrive on Roanoke Island. They return to England with two Croatans named Manteo and Wanchese, who describe the politics and geography of the area to Raleigh.
Raleigh organizes a second expedition, to be led by Sir Richard Grenville.
England and Spain start fighting each other (with lots of it at sea) and keep fighting until 1604.
April 9, 1585
Grenville's fleet departs England and soon runs into a severe storm off the coast of Portugal.
May 11, 1585
Grenville's ship (Tiger) ends up in Guayanilla Bay on Puerto Rico.
June 7, 1585
Grenville leaves Puerto Rico.
June 26, 1585
Grenville's ship (Tiger) strikes a shoal whilst sailing through Ocracoke Inlet which is located in the Outer Banks, North Carolina and separates Ocracoke Island and Portsmouth Island.
August 17, 1585
Grenville decides to leave behind Ralph Lane and 107 men to establish a colony at the north end of Roanoke Island. Grenville promises to return in April 1586 with more men and fresh supplies.
Sir Francis Drake pauses at Roanoke Island on his way home from the Caribbean. Because Grenville's relief fleet has not arrived, he offers to take the colonists back to England. They accept.
Grenville's relief fleet finally arrives with more colonists. Finding the colony abandoned, Grenville returns to England leaving behind only a small detachment to maintain an English presence and to protect Raleigh's claim to Roanoke.
Raleigh sends a new group of 150 colonists to establish a colony on Chesapeake Bay led by John White.
July 22, 1587
They stop at Roanoke and find nothing except a skeleton of what may have been the remains of one of the English garrisons. The fleet's commander, Simon Fernandez, refuses to let White and the colonists return to the ships and insists they stay and establish a new colony on Roanoke. The situation soon becomes desperate due to hostile tribes.
White returns to England, leaving behind about 115 colonists.
August 18, 1590
White finally returns to the Roanoke Colony and finds the settlement deserted. His men find no trace of the colonists, nor is there any sign of a struggle or battle. The only clue is the word "Croatoan" carved into a fence post and the word "Cro" carved into a nearby tree.