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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.

Author’s Notes: This article first ran last week in Reel Chicago – If you would like a creative lonely man as cipher hit me up Portfolio

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To: Agency Re: Gang Bangs

Much cheering has gone out for a resurfaced 1994 memo written by the legendary UK adman, David Abbot (Abbot, Meade, Vickers) proclaiming contempt that his agency could take part in the practice of “gang bangs.” Lest ye shudder at the onerous term, in Adland gang-banging means throwing numerous creative teams at a single project, thereby pitting colleagues against one another, in hopes of winning a pitch or retaining a client. The idea is based on a simple truth: Shoot many arrows at a target and you are more likely to hit it. All agencies do it, some more so than others, particularly if the stakes are high.

Abbot’s piece is, of course, a fine piece of writing – witty, philosophical, and even brilliant. He writes:

“We have always believed that one creative team should own a project until they have either completed it or have been taken off it by the Creative Director… We do not believe in internal creative shoot outs or ‘gang-bangs.’ They are inefficient and more often than not de-motivating.”

The entire type written memo can be found here. I urge you to read it. It’s good stuff.

However, I did not come here to praise Caesar. I’m going to take the other view, primarily for the reason stated in my opening paragraph. More arrows mean more chances. Philosophically, I agree with the old man but realistically I cannot.

Though Abbot builds a failsafe into his argument (the bit about a Creative Director being able to make a switch), in many cases that would be too late for most clients, especially now, where so many of our engagements are projects rather than based on long-term relationships.

Rightly or wrongly, the vast majority of clients don’t have the patience. If a creative team owns an account and is struggling (and struggling happens) we must be in front of that at all times. Seldom do we get a second chance to get it right. And I do mean seldom. For even if we are blessed with a reprieve, the cliff’s edge haunts us from then on. Therefore, we hedge our bets when we put other teams on a project. It also makes our clients feel better. Again, I use the phrase rightly or wrongly.

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More arrows, more chances…

Most clients want options. To count on one team for several different but equally exceptional campaigns is not just naïve; it’s absurd.

In terms of pure capitalism, it also makes sense for multiple teams to work on a single project. They bill their hours accordingly and the agency gets paid more. I don’t like it but there it is.

Finally, and this is the reason I appreciate the most, some accounts are just too good to only allow one team a crack. From a creative perspective, not all clients are equal. An agency is lucky if they have several accounts that typically ask for and approve excellent work. The fact is many clients have rigid marketing formulas they adhere to or are run by people with (and I’m being kind) a very specific vision. If there are but one or two gems, as a Creative Director I feel it is imperative I give as many of my troops as possible an opportunity to mine those gems. To not would be “de-motivating.”

For seven years, I was Creative Director on the award-winning juggernaut of Altoids (Leo Burnett 1995-2002). I built a creative group around it. Not only did I have to curtail writing copy for my beloved account so that others might, I also had to allow everyone in my large group to work on it. Actually, I didn’t have to do anything. I wanted to. For me, it just seemed fair –the right thing to do. To only let myself and/or a select few create copy for Altoids, while others toiled on less sexy accounts, seemed bogus to me then and still would now.

If my partner and I refused to open things up resentments could form, eroding the personal and professional integrity of the entire group. In addition, I wanted everyone to have something golden to put in their portfolios. Altoids was by far our most lucrative mine, if not in the entire agency. I don’t think gang-banging Altoids made anyone miserable. Frankly, I recall many awesome Fridays, when the entire group would paper the walls of my office with Altoids’ posters. We all talked about which ones we liked the most. The work speak for the results.

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“You’s gonna let us work on dat -or else!”

In my view, what my partner and I did is a crucial part of the Creative Director’s job. I’ve worked for CD’s who cherry pick assignments and people to work on them. That sucks and they suck.

In his memo, Abbot makes all kinds of good arguments against the practice of gang-bangs but none, in my view, override those above-mentioned.

I won’t pretend to be the Creative Director David abbot was but I am disputing him. Yes, gang-bangs are imperfect. Yes, they can be ugly. But I believe in a meritocracy (best idea wins), which usually starts with some form of democracy. Sometimes gang-bang means just giving everyone a chance.

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The “ad” scientist…

One of the things I’ve come to disdain about our business is how damn serious we take it. Not the craft itself, which I think is beautiful and even pure, but rather the extemporaneous crap we built around it over the years. Stuff like process and proprietary tools; the things we fill our slides with that come before we actually do what we do, which, for those who’ve forgotten, is create work that gets people to think and/or behave in a favorable way to our clients. I was going to say: we make ads; but I realize that “advertising” has become an outmoded term. Still, we are always selling something, even if it’s just a philosophy or an idea. Yet, because of this variable I accept, begrudgingly, that advertising isn’t all we do.

Whatever your take on the matter, you must agree we have complicated what we do beyond what is necessary to doing it well. This is why briefs are no longer brief. This is why Cannes has become a cluster fuck. This is why I am writing this post.

By definition, planning and strategy are the progenitors of creativity. The agency gets an assignment and we formulate a team. The left brains give us facts and insights. The right brains turn them into ideas. In a healthy agency the two sides work together. Part of this is collaboration. Part of it isn’t. Each assignment predicates a different balance of both. Inviolate in all this are the people. The better the people the better the outcomes.

Yet, as obvious and true as all this seems (to me anyway), agencies (not just mine, not just yours, all of them) have endeavored to codify every step we take in getting to our outcome. We call it our process. Basically, process is how agencies mitigate the fear involved with taking a risk. We create the illusion of proof to support an idea. This insight divided by that challenge equals a solution. Ta da!

Another bit of reverse alchemy occurs when we justify an idea after the fact. True story. My one-time creative partner at Leo Burnett, Mark Faulkner devised the brilliant green color that to this day represents the iconic Altoids’ campaign he and I created so many years ago. Taken for granted now, in the campaign’s infancy it was questioned. After all, the client reasoned, the product was white not green. As was the packaging Altoids came in, with red piping.

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I recall vividly my longwinded reply to this client. I stated that Mark’s color scheme evoked the “industrial strength” of a bygone era, like battleships and tough guy locker rooms. I talked about the “steam punk” phenomenon, likening the color to a powerful nostalgia “locked up” in every tin’s DNA. I said a lot of shit that day. And I’m pretty sure everyone in the room bought it. Everyone, that is, accept my partner. Mark rolled his eyes at me (not the first time) and stated where the color really came from: “I chose it because it looked cool.”

It looked cool.

In the end Altoids became a billion-dollar brand and the campaign a perennial award’s show favorite because he made it “look cool.” All that came afterwards –a textbook full of complicated nonsense- had less to do with Altoids’ success than Mark’s divine intuition. Food for thought next time we pray at the altar of agency process. For though we have made our agencies into churches of organized religions, divine inspiration often has nothing to do with it.

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Altoids, circa 1997

I wrote the above copy for Altoids in 1997. A year or so before, Mark Faulkner (art director) and I created the “Curiously Strong Mints” campaign for Altoids. The two of us would run this creatively driven account for about 7 years, producing myriad posters, print, ambient and digital pieces.

The campaign exploded into popular culture. Sales boomed. Within a couple years, Altoids became the number one selling mint in North America. Later, in a parlay with Life Savers candy, Kraft sold the brand to Wrigley for over 1.5 billion dollars. Pretty sweet, especially for a confection that wallowed in obscurity for over a century.

Those ads were game changers: for the client, for the agency, and thankfully for yours truly. Mark and I (plus a growing and talented team) would go on to win tons of creative awards for our work, including, in 1997, the $100,000 Grand Kelly Award for best print campaign in North America. Which, fortuitously, brings us back to the above execution: “Makes Other Mints Feel Inadequate.”

Imagine my surprise discovering it in the latest issue of People magazine! Holy crap. After all these years and all that history, they’re rerunning our ad. The headline. The typography. The color scheme. Save for a different (and in my opinion) crappier looking tin, it’s the same exact ad.

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I’m baaaaaack… as seen in People, May 2013

Big deal? Well, sort of. For whatever reasons, rerunning old advertising is unprecedented. Creative has a super short lifespan. Like cicadas, campaigns appear, create buzz, and then die. Precious few last longer than their first flight. Once gone, even the most successful ad campaigns stay that way. Yes, taglines or other assets get resurrected all the time. But never the ad itself.

Until this one.

What can I say? Of course I’m flattered. But seeing my ad after all these years is also discombobulating. Like running into your ex and her new beau. Altoids was and is so personal to me. I still remember pitching the above headline to my client. In fact, I recall telling them Altoids’ smart and cynical audience would appreciate a quirky word like “inadequate.” The subtle innuendo was highly intended. (As the brand grew, its widening audience would appreciate much sillier copy. But my favorite pieces always remained true to that “smart and cynical” core.)

So, having perhaps lost its way, is Altoids’ advertising returning to its base? Literally. Look, I don’t blame agency and client for rerunning our copy. There’s a whole new generation of “smart and cynical” out there. It’ll be new to them.

Special note: I discovered a website devoted entirely to Altoids advertising. In it, you’ll find “Inadequate” along with all the others, far as I can tell, pretty much in the order we produced them. I have no idea who hosts this site or why. Pretty cool, though.


“If you had my life you’d be tired too.”

Driving my daughters home the other day, I had on a sports radio channel (much to their chagrin) and it featured a Dos Equis commercial for The Most Interesting Man in the World. Everyone knows the advertising campaign, done by Euro RSCG in New York. When it first came out, this witty, unexpected idea took the world by storm, garnering much deserved praise from Adland as well as from everyone else with ears and eyes. Among its many virtues, The Most Interesting Man in the World was so unlike anything else in its category. While Miller Lite and Bud Light kept trying to make three dudes on a couch funny, Dos Equis eschewed all that in favor of an urbane, older rogue living a robust life of magnanimous proportions. A man of action, he spoke little but when he did it was fantastic: “I don’t always drink beer but when I do, I drink Dos Equis.” And the kicker: “Stay thirsty my friends!” Brilliant.

But… half way through the 60-second spot, my 12-year-old daughter makes a comment from the back seat: “The most interesting man doesn’t seem so interesting anymore.”

Excluding the much-deserved praise, I won’t criticize advertising done by my previous agency. Yet my kid’s observation made me curious: When does something get old? We are all familiar with the term, “jumping the shark” pointing to an exact time and place something heretofore wonderful becomes suddenly not. The term was coined over an episode of Happy Days. In it, a water-skiing Fonzie jumps a shark too prove his cool. Game over. Happy Days were no longer here again.

But many great things don’t implode so obviously. Rather they fade away like a summer romance. Something changes and we move on. More important things replace the cute lifeguard.

There’s a great episode of the Simpson’s where Bart becomes famous for one of his catch phrases: “I didn’t do it.” The whole world, Springfield anyway, seizes upon its boyish exuberance. Everyone in town begins using the line to get out of blame and then just for a laugh. “I didn’t do it” gets plastered on tee-shirts. Bart goes on Conan. Soon, however, everyone gets sick of the line, including Bart. His fame dies and he learns how transient such things are.

Despite its ever-growing legions of critics, we must note, ironically, that even after 20 years the Simpson’s franchise keeps chugging along.

Everything else has an expiration date, a point where the content isn’t good and/or appreciated anymore. Unfortunately, most people, places and things don’t realize this until it’s too late. Just ask Michael Jordan or Brett Farve. Look at certain long running TV shows. When Desperate Housewives first aired we were captivated. Now its stars are more famous for their real botched romances and, indeed, real housewives have become more popular. Ad campaigns are no different. After more than ten years my beloved “curiously strong” Altoids campaign is anything but. It may be sad but it is inevitable. One day something is “curiously strong” or “the most interesting” and then it isn’t.

Back in the day, when creatives presented ideas the question was always asked: Does it have legs? We’d answer in the affirmative, showing dozens of executions based on the core idea. But maybe all that that proved was we could beat a dead horse. Popular culture doesn’t like repetition. Familiarity breeds contempt. The moral: Try something else, my friends!