As in sports, nothing fires up Adland like a good rivalry!
January 24, 2011
Most people agree the rivalry between the Chicago Bears and Green Bay packers is the most storied one in the National Football League. Nearly one hundred years of playing almost 200 games. And so it was the two teams met at Chicago’s frigid Soldier Field, the first time since 1941 vying for an NFC title. Alas, other than some late-game heroics by 3rd string quarterback, Caleb Hanie the Bears got screwed on their home turf. Again.
It got me thinking about rivalries in general and how central they are to our way of life, maybe even to the human condition. Think about it. Competing for the same prize, rivals define who or what they are by determining what they’re not. First and foremost, they are not the other.
Outside of sports, nowhere are rivalries more evident than in Ad Land. And it starts on the client side, between brands. Apple and PC. Coke and Pepsi. McDonald’s and Burger King. Drilling deeper on the latter we get The Whopper and Big Mac. The King and Ronald…
No matter how modern our world becomes brands still have tunnel vision when it comes to their rivals. Consequently, everyone servicing these brands falls into one or the other rival camp. Mirroring their clients, ad agencies are no exception. Back in the day, there was the near mythic rivalry between Chicago agencies, DDB and Leo Burnett, primarily over the coveted prize known as McDonalds. Stories exist about a canon –a literal canon- pointing from one CEO’s office window to his rival’s across Michigan Avenue. Or about a limousine driver getting paid to spy on pitch teams going to and from McDonald’s HQ in Oak Brook. Neither agency spared any expense or, at times, scruple to outperform the other. By the time I got to Leo Burnett the rivalry had simmered some, mostly on account of both agencies possessing valuable pieces of the client’s business. Still, any and all meetings pertaining to McDonald’s took on a distinctive aura. Bigger big shots attended them. Everyone in the building wanted to be in them. I was no exception.
Rivals need not be enemies. Joker is Batman’s enemy. Superman is his rival. For a better example, consider your brother or sister. To the degree we position our rivals as enemies is probably based upon our mental health and/or spiritual condition. We don’t vilify our rivals because that would be wrong. Yet, I firmly believe healthy rivalries are good for the advertising business and, in turn, its creative product. Looking at McDonald’s, it’s pretty safe to say the golden age of advertising for them took place when the rivalry between Burnett and DDB was at its zenith.
In the big picture rivalries are silly but nothing fires us up like a good one. For a good essay on rivals, here’s one by Chicago Tribune reporters, Rex Huppke and Gerry Smith.