Let’s do the naughty ones first!

This time of year everyone is making lists: Who’s in and out? What’s hot and not? Winning and losing streaks. Brett Favre. Pop culture is a Petri dish of lists. Given that it’s December, let’s start with the penultimate list: who’s naughty or nice? Forget Santa, it is we who gush over this list. That most of us want to be on the nice list is a given. But yet we are obsessed by the naughty list, aren’t we? For without the naughty there is no line for which to measure the nice.

Judging from all the visitors and comments on my last post I should be making lists 24/7. There I chose my top advertising campaign for 2010: Leo Burnett’s “Mayhem” campaign for Allstate. Many of you liked the choice. Some of you didn’t. It’s terrific work and I stand by it. The point I’d like to make here is that by making a choice I was being provocative. And provocation is part of a writer’s job, is it not?

I’m pretty sure some aspect of list-mania is thriving in most ad copy. If it isn’t the ad probably sucks. I’m damn sure the dynamic is driving social media. Brands covet “followers” and “fans.” They want “likes” and as many as they can get. What is crowd sourcing if it’s not a compilation of choices? And is not Groupon the quintessential aggregator? Mom’s shopping list has been conceptualized and monetized. What about dad’s to-do list? Or junior’s wish list? Herein lies the opportunity.

Entities like Twitter and Groupon do it with aplomb. Advertisers are getting there. Crispin’s “Whopper Sacrifice” for Burger King is a great example: List ten friends you would ding from your Facebook and get a sandwich. There’s no coupon. Nor were they trying to build the brand. “Whopper Sacrifice” provoked people by allowing them to make a naughty list. That’s it.

Bubbling beneath the surface of their infamous Dominoes “Oh yes we did” campaign is a provocation to consumers to list what they hated about bad pizza. That drama is what fires the campaign. Without it the company would just be defending its crappy pizza.

Maybe that’s the big truth about SO-ME. Lists, for lack of a better word, fire us up. Therefore, the big question for all of us in marketing communications is how do we harness this human desire to ‘list’ in order to provoke consumers on behalf of our clients?

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“I’m your favorite campaign.”

My opinion, the best advertising of 2010 is the “Mayhem” campaign for Allstate. Yes, I once worked at Leo Burnett but that just makes me happier and prouder making this choice. Besides, I like to think of myself as an early adapter to this campaign. Back in June I applauded the introduction of “Mayhem” even when others didn’t.

The others were wrong. Actor Dean Winters and his “Mayhem” character have already ensconced themselves into popular culture. And unlike other popular advertising characters (Can you say ‘Flo’ from Progressive?), Mayhem is smartly written and deftly produced. Some eight or ten spots later, not only does the campaign have legs but the work is getting better and better. Have you seen the holiday commercial? It’s hysterical.

I know there have been more famous marketing creations in 2010. Early on, Old Spice and Nike knocked campaigns out of the park. But those brands moved on. Mayhem, on the other hand, keeps on wreaking havoc, making it a big, enduring idea. The others, however brilliant, were one-offs. A solo homerun, no matter how far it’s hit, is still a one-point affair. (Granted, advertisers like Nike and Old Spice have demonstrated they are very capable of hitting numerous solo homeruns! As of this writing AOR for both brands, Wieden & Kennedy was deservedly selected agency of the year by Adweek.)

My one quibble: no Mayhem on Allstate’s website. Nor could I find any digital work highlighting Mayhem. But maybe that’s not such a bad thing. After all, Mayhem is what prompts us to buy insurance not where we go to buy it. Still, if the campaign wants to become the penultimate case study they’re going to want/need some digital credentials.

This from the blog, These Are Their Stories:

Dean Winters, who appeared on Law & Order SVU as Detective Brian Cassidy during the first half of the first season, is now the star of some new offbeat commercials for Allstate. He is portraying a character called “Mayhem” who represents all the different kinds of damage that can affect drivers.

Last year, in this blog I praised Allstate’s long-running ad campaign featuring actor, Dennis Haybert. His patriarchal and steadying demeanor was just right for the huge insurance agency, particularly during times of economic turmoil.

While the world is far from economically recovered, Allstate and its agency, Leo Burnett created a new and very different ad campaign. First impression: It’s fantastic. From the exquisitely biting acting chops of its protagonist to the bodacious music track, these deft executions are handled with gritty style and panache. Trust me folks, this is not your father’s Allstate. Mayhem is personified by Winters as a mischievous devil, quite willing to do harm. He is a “deer in your headlights.” A teen-aged driver. A fallen tree in a windstorm. When the character wreaks havoc on your car, home or person he laughs gleefully, sinfully. Like I said, not your father’s Allstate. Wisely, Haybert’s steadying voice-over is retained at the end, taking the edge off the campaign.

Unlike previous work, the campaign no longer speaks prosaically about safety, security and protection. Instead “Mayhem” is taking on Geico and other discount insurers. If you worry about saving “up to 15% on auto insurance” you’re likely not covered for certain kinds of mayhem. It’s a radical departure for the brand. But instead of fighting value with value (thank God), Allstate and Leo Burnett created this.

In some respects, “Mayhem” is also the debut creative of Leo Burnett’s new Chief Creative Officer, Susan Credle. As many of you know, after a lengthy search, Leo Burnett plucked Credle from BBDO in New York. There she’d created the mischievous M & M’s campaign for Mars, among many others.

In Cannes, I spoke with Credle at length about Allstate’s new campaign. At the time I had not seen a single piece of communication. But Susan was very excited about it. Having seen the spots I can see why.

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Given the grim climate in Chicago (the weather, the economy, the government), it’s high time we celebrate the unheralded, quality work coming out of our city’s many agencies. We hear a lot about what’s wrong with the people, places and things in the Chicago advertising community. I want to go another way. Hold to the good, as our pastor likes to say.

In this spirit, for the next few days, I’m going to feature campaigns from local shops that deserve praise… not punishment.

They may not be famous or ground breaking. But they are good. Join me as we give a warming hug to the City of Big Shoulders!

Let’s start with Chicago’s landmark agency, Leo Burnett. Having worked there 16 years, it’s also my “alma mater.” LBCO has been in the news for the same kind of struggles besetting most agencies and their clients: shrinking advertising budgets, layoffs, and turbulent change in business practices.

Still, the work they have done on Allstate deserves kudos for its great sureness during these worst of economic times. Actor Dennis Haybert calms and guides we jittery consumers, looking us right in the eye. He is a patriarch in the best sense of the word. Indeed, when he asks if we “are in good hands,” I know I/we could be with Allstate.

I’ve secretly admired this iteration of Burnett’s long running “Good Hands” campaign for some time now. Secretly, because I know it’s not a creative showcase. But I’m being childish. This advertising deserves a medal of honor for it’s steady hand, especially in this climate. Take a look at the attached commercial about surviving a recession. The voice over says it all: “It’s back to basics and the basics are good.” So is this campaign.

“When it’s people doing the right thing, they call it responsibility. When it’s an insurance company, they call it Liberty Mutual. Responsibility. What’s your policy?”

And so goes the copy in this feel-good campaign for Liberty Mutual done by Hill Holiday in Boston. The films show real people stopping what they’re doing in order to help others, one after another. Contributing to the good karma in our universe. Paying it forward, as it were. While this is hardly a new idea in our culture (the Judea-Christian belief system is based on it), it is striking sentiment for communications from a large multi-national. Let me rephrase that: Lot’s of companies talk about what nice companies they are but few endorse human kindness as an operating principle. Either way, the key to this thing working is whether consumers buy into it. If Joe America believes insurance companies are a soul-crushing matrix of liars and paperwork, he is not apt to appreciate the “do unto others” approach. Or, and this is what the marketing team at Liberty Mutual undoubtedly hopes, upon receiving these heartwarming messages, Joe America will soften to the company like cold butter on a hot muffin.

Either way, I admire this creative. By going back to biblical pretext (do unto others, etc), LM has actually modernized the rhetoric. “Like a good neighbor,” is an overt claim about State Farm’s personnel, as is the “Good Hands People” for Allstate. The LM films depict a succession of civilians doing good deeds without selfish motives. Which leads to more good karma and, well, the world gets better. By calling this behavior “responsibility” Liberty Mutual suffuses their strategy with a moral imperative. I’m curious what others think about this move. Are you impressed by it…or depressed?

Interestingly enough, in my new novel, The Happy Soul Industry God solicits an advertising agency to come up with concepts for marketing Heaven or, as the angelic brand manager in the story puts it: “goodness in all of its forms.” Kind of like the LM brief, isn’t it? In my book, “How are you?” becomes the organizing principle in a new campaign for Heaven. If people are honest in their answers, they realize something is missing in their lives and that something is God.

Examine the “How Are You?” blog at Happy Soul’s website. People are willing to unburden themselves online. To be rigorously honest. Maybe people are just as open to helping others as well, and not just friends and family. But “Everyone!” as Bono often exhorts in his famously uplifting concerts. Taken further, maybe we are all looking for a higher power (of our understanding) to help us on a daily basis. Could we, as a society, be dusting off our moral compasses? The Liberty Mutual campaign suggests as much. The Hill Holiday planner clearly saw something happening in the culture, to the consumer, which could alter the category. Paying it forward became a creative strategy.

There’s a great saying in recovery houses: If you want to improve your self-esteem, do estimable things. That’s what Liberty Mutual is telling to “do” in their commercials. Is that an appropriate strategy? A bigger question: If the quest for spirituality is becoming a strategic platform for advertisers is that exploitation or an example of doing the next right thing?