After 15 years, Johnnie Walker takes hike from the very agency that took it from us! My unique perspective…
December 18, 2014
Above tweet says it all (plus love from Stu!)
After 15 years, Johnnie Walker (Diageo) is leaving its incumbent agency, the much-heralded BBH, for Anomaly. That’s a big deal for two reasons. First off, fifteen years is a long-ass time for any client to stay with an agency. The other reason is over those years, Johnnie Walker & BBH mined plenty of marketing gold together; its theme, “Keep Walking,” reached a zenith with The Man Who Walked Around the World, featured below…
Clearly, it’s a great piece of work, the resounding bag pipes indicative of the beautiful music these two companies made together.
But, you know, I have a special perspective.
Fifteen years ago, I was copywriter and fledgling creative director at Leo Burnett in Chicago, on the Johnnie Walker business. During that time I produced two campaigns for the portfolio: “Seeing Red” for Red Label and “Welcome to Civilization” for Black Label.
While we were proud of those efforts, Diageo ultimatel put the global account in review. In an epic cluster f-ck we lost the business to a most-worthy opponent, BBH. Sir John Hegarty (is he a Knight?) lead his agency’s efforts and, being a UK run pitch, it’s safe to say we had no chance.
Still, we fought like hell. And, without bitterness, I like to think we came up with a campaign as good as anything BBH did. Their idea, as I mentioned above, and everybody in advertising knows, was “Keep Walking.” Our line: “Walk the Walk.”
Obviously, we were working from essentially the same strategy. If you’re taking notes the tip of our strategic spear was “masculine progress.” The wordplay with Walker was impossible to resist.
Regrettably, I didn’t save our spec work. But like BBH, a key part of the launch campaign featured JW’s iconic walking man logo. Which line do you like better? My opinion, one could make a case for either. Alas, our case would not be heard.
And now Johnnie is walking… away…again
“What’s your wild rabbit?” is the enigmatic question posed in Hennessy’ ad campaign from revered agency Droga5. I’ve seen these ads for some time now on marquee billboards, in national magazines, even as films. And while I admire agency and client for going all-in with a high concept (clients typically insist on showing drinkers drinking) I don’t get it. Not really.
Yes, of course, on a poetic level I know what the copy is saying: that the “wild rabbit” is a metaphor for your passion. And, because liquor ads are never wrong about these things, we’re supposed to find ours. Masculine icons like filmmaker Martin Scorsese (Raging Bull, Taxi Driver) and fighter Manny Pacquiao reveal what their wild rabbits are. In some ads the body copy overtly describes what the “wild rabbit” is: “It’s the voice that keeps you up at night…lurking in the corner.”
Yikes! Given all that lurking who wouldn’t need a drink?
Joking aside, I cannot salute this creative flag. (I want to. For its chutzpa alone.) Yet for me this is a well-hit ball that just goes foul.
Chasing rabbits seems like pipe dreaming. It evokes the notion of big plans gone to seed. Of men sitting in dark corners getting hammered and talking about tomorrow. But tomorrow never comes, does it? Just despair. That’s what I get when I take in these melancholy photographs and the dark prose. Are we not taught to avoid going down rabbit holes?
In the famous movie Harvey, Jimmy Stewart plays an alcoholic with an imaginary rabbit for a friend. He’s found his wild rabbit and it leads to the booby hatch. Some years later Grace Slick warned us about chasing rabbits in her iconic song White Rabbit about a bad acid trip. In the context of booze advertising, don’t rabbits seem wildly inappropriate? In addition, every time I hear the phrase “wild rabbit” I think of Wild Turkey bourbon. That can’t be good for business.
Maybe I’m missing something. After all, Droga5 seldom botches. When I was researching this campaign I found a nifty piece on a blog called Breaking Copy.The author is gung-ho about the campaign but I don’t buy his analysis. He writes the campaign “feels familiar, tapping into a shared cultural memory of Alice In Wonderland and the woodlands of Old Europe. It’s also a little bit sexy — after all, what are rabbits known for?”
The blogger mentions two other well-known references –which are fair. The first being Alice in Wonderland. It’s been a long while since I read the fable but, to my memory, Alice gets into a world of trouble chasing her wild rabbit. I believe the negative phrase “going down a rabbit hole” stems from her massive tribulations down there. Still, Wonderland is ultimately a magical place where creativity, imagination and personal freedoms are celebrated –perhaps to a fault. In any event, I’m willing to concede getting stoned on cognac can be a wonderful experience. Was Droga5 trying to tap into that? As in Lewis Carroll’s story maybe the indirect homage to inebriation is intentional. After all, liquor ads cannot go there directly (that’s why they are so hard to do). But then why the prizefighters and movie directors, this idea of “bringing something into the world?” It’s muddy.
His second “a little bit sexy” reference relates to bunny rabbits’ affinity for reproduction. I suppose on one level getting drunk and chasing “tail” is akin to “breeding like rabbits” but I’m very certain this has nothing to do with Hennessy’s message, even on a subliminal level. What do you think?
The blogger ends his discussion by stating the campaign’s intent can be summed up in six words: “Getting white people to drink Hennessy.” He actually may be on to something, albeit possibly racist: that white folks will appreciate the brand’s enigmatic approach more than black people. However, this takes me back to my original concerns about the campaign. Namely that rabbit holes, imaginary drinking pals and the Jefferson Airplane paint pictures most Anglo Saxons would find upsetting. They may be reasons to drink Hennessy but they strike me as the wrong ones.
Hard liquor has found it’s way into the mainstream of commercial advertising. Granted, it’s been hauled up through the back door, via You Tube and social media, where they don’t check ID’s. But bourbon, whiskey and tequila have found their way onto film. Like these films or not (and I mostly don’t), they are becoming ubiquitous.
Fancier brands like Kettle One are already on TV. “Gentlemen, this is Vodka.” We also have this semi-famous dude making fun of commercials in a commercial for 1800 tequila.
Johnny Walker made a lovely opus out of their Keep Walking campaign, by far the best of the lot. And there are others with still more coming.
for better or worse, the prohibition is over.
Not so very long ago, this would have been unthinkable. Broadcast was the providence of light beer and mediocre wine and it was heavily regulated. Among other things, you could never, ever show a man actually drinking. You still can’t, which I find strangely ridiculous. Even the barrage of new films pimping rot-gut honor this antiquated code. A sexy babe pours Hornitos all over the place to seduce her neighbor but none of it in his or her mouth. It’s left to the imagination, like soft core pornography: everything but the “proof shot!” And yes, the pun is intended.
Though I haven’t had a sip of anything harder than Red Bull in nearly ten years, I’m no prude. I think it aces that hard spirits are making commercials. More work for us! I just wish the commercials weren’t so deushy. I would love to see a tequila commercial evoking its rich history and magical powers. Its voodoo if you will. Horny, tough guys get old. Fast.