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Two peas in a pod?

“Much of the Simpsons’ success can be traced to two main sources: an independence from network interference and a complete dedication to the writing…”

-John Ortved, The Unauthorized History of the Simpsons


The Simpsons TV show is the creative standard by which all comedy writing (perhaps all script writing) is measured. Few ever meet those standards. Many duck them all together. The Simpsons is also one of the most successful things ever created. Period. No part of popular culture (ours or anyone’s) is unaffected by this quirky cartoon. How and why can be summed up in the above quote.

As you might imagine, the above quote is sweet music to any creative person’s ears, especially if you’re a copywriter. Unfortunately, it is a song we seldom get to play or hear in the creative department. We get “network interference” all the time, so much so it is considered part of the “process.” And while we may have a complete dedication to the writing, few others in a typical agency do. And why should they? Writing is not their skill set. They are executives, strategists and managers. Their skill set, if you get right down to it, is to affect the writing, generally via “comments.” Comments can be good. Comments can be bad. My point is we don’t work in a vacuum.

The “curiously strong mints” campaign is my Simpsons. In my own unauthorized untold true story of Altoids, I make a similar statement to Ortved’s. A great campaign for many reasons but, in the early going, its meteoric success comes down to the same two things: autonomy and an obsession for writing. I obsessed over those headlines as my partner, Mark Faulkner obsessed over images, color scheme and typography.

In that first year we answered to no one, save for our creative director, who was only appreciative and supportive. Obviously, the client had to sign off (they were a joy by the way) but “network interference” was negligible. Why? No one in the agency cared. The budget was tiny and TV never an option. (Remember this was 1995 and this was Leo Burnett. TV was king.) Anyway, the rest is history: Wrigley bought Altoids and Lifesavers for $1.5 billion dollars.

Ultimately, many would contribute in the case study of Altoids (I’ve named them in previous posts as well as in an Adweek story) but year one it was just a creative team and an assignment.

So, what do we make of “network interference” aka the age-old battle between suit and creative? We are both on the same team, working for the same “network.” But the partnership is strained. Necessarily perhaps. And maybe that’s healthy. But for those once-in-a-lifetime campaigns –“Think Different” “Just do it.” “Curiously Strong Mints”- I’m guessing it’s the creative lonely man who called the tune.

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Ah, the moment of creation…

Adweek.com has a 3-minute video featuring Dan Wieden discussing the creation of one of the world’s most famous tag lines: Just Do It. I don’t even have to name the agency or client. We know this, and so much more, from only those three words. My personal favorite tag line: “Nothing runs like a Deere.” However, I fully recognize the transformative, culture-changing power of Nike’s call to action versus the quieter declaration of performance by John Deere.

Unlike a lot of creative directors, I adore taglines. Like to think of them. Like seeing them on the page. The two most famous examples associated with me are polar opposites. They are the “Curiously Strong” mints for Altoids and “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.”

What’s interesting about Dan’s story is how isolated the moment of creation really was. The night before his agency’s first big creative presentation to Nike, Wieden feared none of the commercials they’d prepared hung together. He wanted a thought that spoke to novice and pro athletes alike. In 20 minutes, he crafted a tagline to unify the campaigns. Unbelievably, Wieden credits convicted killer, Gary Gilmore’s infamous last words to his executioner as inspiration: “Let’s do it,” he’d said before being shot by the firing squad.

I’m willing to bet there’s a robust case study supporting “Just do It” crediting planning, research, insights and a raft of other people, places and things behind that famous mantra. Altoids had a doozy even though it was for the most part retrofitted.

Fact is some of the most inspired creations are made in a vacuum. This holds true for all arts, including persuasive communication. Dan doesn’t mention cohorts or proprietary tools during his moment of creation. We gather it was a birth based on necessity (tie up a campaign), fear (big meeting) and intuition (speak to novice and pro).

One could argue the latter point was based on a collaboratively gleaned insight, perhaps from the agency’s planners. Only problem back then planning was not part of American advertising.

Just like Nike’s rogue founder, Phil Knight, who sold prototype running shoes from the back of his car, Dan Wieden acted alone. For that matter, so did Gilmore but I digress.

I’m not against teamwork. Far from it. I’m proud of the camaraderie at our agency. But I do have to call bullshit on agencies that take credit for one person’s intuition. It happens all the time and it has always bugged me. When the creative muse comes to us in the shower, we are likely alone.

Leo Burnett rhapsodized about the “lonely man,” working late, pen to paper, inhaling one Marlborough after another, until he’d gotten something. That figure still exists, though he or she is probably smoke-free!

Adweek videos -Dan Weiden

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