If you were searching for an adman with a feel for commoners, Bill Backer would seem an unlikely candidate. The Yale-educated president and executive creative director of Backer Spielvogel Bates was born into the money and power of Connecticut society. Yet during his three decades in advertising, Backer has time and again composed campaigns that connected across American society.
He is the man who created the legendary Coca-Cola hilltop singers commercial and penned the line "I'd like to buy the world a Coke." "He came up with the "Tastes great, less filling" spots that turned Miller Lite into one of the best-selling beers of all time. He developed the "Soup is good food" sentiment that helped revive a sagging Campbell's Soup. And, had Brian Epstein not met an untimely end, Backer might have been the man who brought the Beatles to Madison Avenue. (He had discussed using them in a Coke spot, a concept sweetened by the offer of a bottling company as payment.)
Of course, such consistent success does not come without some sort of quality control system in place. In his new book, The Care and Feeding of Ideas, Backer explains the Idea Families, Idea Channels and other guidelines he has used to notable effect over the years at Young & Rubicam, McCann-Erickson and Backer Spielvogel Bates. In the following excerpt, Backer illustrates just how these creative processes—designed to nurture and protect the elusive good idea—came together and transformed ailing Miller High Life from "the champagne of beers" to a best-selling brew for everyman at "Miller Time."
How long should a basic idea last? If you understand and agree with my definition of a basic idea, the answer is easy. It should last as long as the need or want exists. And if it is a big idea, obviously the number of people who continue to have the need or want that the basic idea originally illuminated is important. By not understanding how to separate basic ideas from executional ones, organizations all over America allow many basic ideas to die because the executions have become tired, dated or just plain obsolete.
The idea of a "People's Car" as pioneered (arguably) by Henry Ford and revisited by Volkswagen is one that was allowed to die because, in this case, the executions became obsolete (or in the case of the Bug, the cars were revealed as downright dangerous in some respects). Today we have many automobile models which the people can afford, but none are truly organic to the basic idea of The People's Car, a car that represents first and foremost basic transportation—functional, affordable and unconcerned with styling for style's sake. In other words, the Levi's jeans of cars. The basic idea died because it wasn't maintained as a separate entity. It sounds simple to do that, but it isn't.
I'm sure there is an entire book to be written—with each chapter authored by a separate insider—about good basic ideas that were well executed at the outset and yet have been allowed to die in this country. Notice I say "good" basic ideas that were "Well executed." And like everyone else in an idea business, I have a long list of ill-treated campaigns.
When Philip Morris bought the Miller Brewing Company in 1970, Miller High Life Beer was advertising "Miller Makes It Right" on top of its basic identification, "The Champagne of Bottled Beer." Although the executions, with Al Hirt blowing his trumpet, were aimed at the middle class, the overall effect of the line plus the claim was to make the beer decidedly snooty. Since snooties were light beer drinkers (at that time approximately 15% of the market; the heavies drank 75% of all beer), it did not take an MBA to figure out why Miller was selling some 5 million barrels of beer a year, while Anheuser-Busch was selling 22 million, Schlitz 15 million, Pabst 10 million, etc. High Life in its clear bottle had built a franchise by being special. But it was now "too special."
I am a great believer in having a moderator talk to groups of heavy users of the products in whatever category I must write about—beer, soft drinks, soup, television sets, hamburgers or inexpensive automobiles. At that time I had in my creative group a skilled moderator—Dr. Winston White, a former professor of psychology at Harvard—and I depended on him and his focus group sessions a great deal.
When he and I began to learn about beer, we had a convenient, ready source of heavy beer drinkers just across the street from the agency. A new high-rise building was going up in our front yard, and for a few bucks, a platter of burgers, and a six-pack of beer, the men who were setting the steel were happy to doff then' hard hats after work and step over to our place to discuss beer with Dr. White while my creative team monitored the session through a one-way glass window.
It was evident from the session that Miller High Life was a beer no self-respecting blue-collar worker would be seen with, not because the beer was bad (they felt it was as good as the competition), but because its advertising and the "look" of its clear glass bottle seemed to support a class system which left them out completely.
The standard communications approach employed by politicians, propagandists and marketers in situations like this is to say, "We're your kind of folks!" And the standard response is, "Oh yeah! Where have you been all my life?"
If you have the money, the time and little competition, you can sometimes get away with the outrageous reversals and retractions you have to go through to execute a sudden shift in position. Doing so always looks easier in a big boardroom than it does when you put yourself next to a steelworker and watch him react to your message on TV. But it became clear when we listened to our hard-hatted groups that they appreciated any communication that saw the world through their eyes. And very little of what was out there did that.
The hard hats seemed to see life as a continuous effort by the "haves" to minimize their contributions and therefore the wages of the have-nots. They didn't really expect to have their contributions acknowledged, nor to have their rights to time off and vacations delineated except in their union contracts. But they seemed to have a buried need or desire to have some of those things brought to light above and beyond what some lawyers put on a sheet of paper.
Obviously, I decided not to try to say, "We're your kind of beer." Instead, I fell back on a common-sense maxim we all know but seldom follow. Years later I would make it one of the seven points of our advertising philosophy at Backer & Spicl-vogel, and it would help us grow ourselves and our clients. It is simply, "People like people who like them."
I didn't want to "sell" the steelworker my beer. I wanted to say to him, '"We are running TV ads that applaud what you have done to build this country and recognize the fact that you have earned the right to the best bottle of beer you can find." I wanted our advertising to project him as a kind of folk hero. And when it came time for him to relax—that time was weekends when the campaign started—we saw those moments as "well earned" moments, moments when he, as I say, had earned the right to the best.
Every element of the executions was geared to that basic idea—pat him on the back and help him feel good about himself and keep recognizing that one reason he worked was to earn "time to relax."
I wrote a cross between a jingle and a song, using a rural chord progression I had heard many times in the Carolina back country. The song was later played and sung by a saloon piano player whom I had often heard playing in an Atlanta bar at night while I was visiting the Coca-Cola Co. by day. Johnny Mack had never done a commercial before, and he sounded like he hadn't, which was all to the good. He sounded like what he was—a singer/piano player who had sung in a hundred bars from coast to coast since as long as he could remember. He sounded like he represented a beer that frequented bars and saloons, not country clubs.
The song he would finally sing opened and closed with the words, "If you've got the time, we've got the beer."
The words were catchy, they came from the vernacular, but they were not a succinct outgrowth of the basic idea. I knew they didn't synthesize the idea. Nonetheless, we had a deadline to meet, and they were the best I could do in the time allotted, which was tight.
The Miller Brewing Co., having been recently sold, was in a quandary. No one at the brewery seemed to know who was going to go and who would stay. The coo and marketing director, "Cush" Cushenberry, liked the music a lot when he heard it in a hotel room. If I remember right, I played and sang on the tape as well. At that point we had neither the time nor the budget for Johnny Mack. Anyway, that was the only sale I can remember having to make, which was lucky, since my singing is bad and might have killed the idea.
The TV pictures I showed Cush were symbolic of "going with the flow" on weekends—they showed a leaf floating down a stream, for instance. They looked like many of the Infiniti commercials that would come years later—only we showed the product at the end.
In the months that followed, a fabulous Idea Family formed around the campaign. They came mostly from Philip Morris. I didn't choose them, the campaign did. Also, I expanded the executors at the agency and enlisted the help of Bob Lenz, a talented art director at the agency and later on a successful creative director at Backer & Spielvogel. Together we changed the symbolic pictures a lot for the better. We both saw them as heroic portraits and agreed to go for scenes so beautiful that you could blow up a frame from any one of them and hang it on your wall. And Bob Meury—one of the best all-around copywriters in the business-gave the copy a touch of poetry. The guys from Philip Morris—George Weissman, John Murphy, Jack Landry, Larry Williams and Cliff Wilmot—constituted a family of judges with a philosophy that's gone out of fashion today: "If it's got the right roots, let's help grow it."
They examined every element. We talked. They examined again. We talked again and again. It was a big, sprawling, brawling Idea Family at the end of an Idea Channel. It was too big to be formalized, but never separated by layers or walls. We wore no stripes. We, had a basic idea about how to talk to heavy beer drinkers. Nothing more, but nothing less.
Best of all, we had an Idea Family that could recognize a basic idea, conceptualize it, and see a future for it. And why not? These Philip Morris guys had helped grow a tattooed Marlboro Man into a Marlboro Country cowboy. If you knew their win/loss record as a team, you'd bet them pretty heavy in the office football pool.
What we all figured out was (a) We didn't need to narrow our appeal to weekends. Blue-collar workers see every night after work as "time to relax." (b) If you're going to create a new American hero, you have to show him in some way. (c) Lyrics like "If you've got the time, we've got the beer," and "When it's time to relax, one beer stands clear" are all very nice but they're not tight. We needed to tighten the executions so they live on billboards and point-of-sale material.
We all came to those conclusions together. Keep the roots—the basic idea and many of the elements of the executions, like the music—but prune off all the deadwood so the tree can grow straight from its roots. And let's all of us grow it when it's ready.
I have always found that writing long copy is the best way to get to short copy. So I began to write little essays about blue collar workers drinking beer after work, and I soon realized my essays were all about those golden hours between quitting time and bedtime. And one afternoon, in one such essay, I found I had named that time "Millertime." It was the most enjoyable basic idea plus execution I have ever marketed—it was so damn big.
I started out by marketing it as the next Marlboro Country. I told the client they had carved out a piece of territory—the Old West as idealized in countless movies and TV series—and used it to illustrate the rich, straightforward taste of their cigarette to the romantic, independent spirits among their customers. And like a smart cattle boss, they branded it with their brand—Marlboro Country. I wanted to do the same thing, not with a piece of idealized territory that hardly exists today, but with a piece of real time. "This idea can be better than Marlboro Country," I said, "because it exists. 'Quittin' time to bedtime' happens every evening to every folk hero who works to build this country. If we can brand it and give it meaning, it will give our beer a way to stay relevant every day of the week."
Millertime grew, and it grew Miller High Life from some 5 million barrels to 22 million in less than 10 years. Moreover, the spread between Miller High Life and Budweiser narrowed during those years from approximately 17 million barrels to 6 million.
In middle-class circles the cocktail hour was renamed Millertime, and in real beer circles quitting time became Millertime. I don't mean to imply that every time someone referred to Millertime it lead to his drinking High Life. But it helped. High Life today is back down to around 5 million brarels. It's convenient to say "Millertime" ran out of steam. Convenient, but not true. At least not in my obviously biased opinion.
As America's blue-collar labor force began to shrink, the number of our typical heroes shrank, but not the number of guys who said, "Thank God it's quittin' time."As the beer world turned, beer drinkers relaxed more actively than in the past. They partied instead of sitting around. But they were still people who liked people who parted them on the back and delineated their rights to "time to relax." The basic idea was still as valid as ever.
High Life sales were destined to fall, no matter what we said in our advertising. We were all practicing fratricide. Younger brother Miller Lite was eating High Life's lunch every day and growing stronger while older brother was becoming malnourished. Also, August Busch had held a three-day meeting of his top brass in Busch Gardens near Williamsburg, and they spent hour after hour studying Millertime.
They didn't have to prove that Budweiser was a working man's beer. It already was. So they could take a less heroic view of the beer drinker—make him a bit younger and more accessible. And they had the bucks to outspend Miller nearly two to one. What they did not have was Millertime.
However, what we did not have by then was the original Idea Family in their old jobs. Most of them had moved up and on. They would look in from time to time, but on a day-to-day basis we had become institutionalized, and the new family was more interested in maintaining the flow of Millertime executions than the basic idea. Backer's Laws were beginning to take effect. We had layers of maintainers who checked the films for "juiciness" and "consistency." All of which was important, but not when the execution itself has become boring and old-fashioned. Not the basic idea, but the execution.
Bob Lenz and I could see the end in sight long before the sales decline started. There had to be a slippage. But there didn't have to be stoppage.
You don't have to be a political poll taker to know when you're boring the public. Your public will tell you in a half-dozen focus groups. Millertime had become predictable. Our cowboys with their hard hats were wearing out their welcomes. But the basic idea of Millertime was as valid as ever.
We needed some executions that made new people feel gnod about themselves and in fresh ways. We secured some experimental money to show them a new breed of hero with a new beat and tune to the music his own beat, country rock. It was similar to what I had done on Coke years before, only the basic idea here was vastly different.
I had enlisted the aid of Jimmy Buffett, and we wrote some new music with a less serious attitude, but it still recognized the importance of quittin' time—that is, Millertime. I had figured if Jimmy could immortalize the margarita with his song "Margaritaville," he could also help revitalize Miller Beer with Millertime. And he did. The spots were not a major departure in my eyes, nor in Bob Lenz's. But in Milwaukee they were. I took them out to the brewery without Bob because he was on vacation, and I thought they would sail through.
The first filterer said, "The sunset shots don't match. There are clouds in the second scene and not in the first." "But there will be dissolves in between," I said. "Time has elapsed between those scenes. These were rough cuts." The second layers picked up where the first had left off. "The production values are sloppy." The fact that the weather had changed from one shooting day to the next was apparent to them. It had also been reported by the company representative on the shoot.
I saved what I thought was the basic question for the top layer. "Don't you find the new, livelier music and the more relaxed shooting style a fresh break from the past?" "Shoot it over," they said. "The sunsets don't match."
I called Bob the next day in Europe. "It's the end," I told him. "Millertime is going to become 'When it's time to be bored.' These guys think their job is to maintain the integrity of the executions by paying attention to tiny details of production, rather than to the executional ideas themselves. We are in the hands of maintenance men." Bureaucracy and Backer's Laws were killing us.
"I've been telling you that for six months now," Bob said. I had thought they couldn't conceptualize and would understand when they saw a new execution. I was both right and wrong. Two years later sales went flat and then started to slip. For us the roof caved in. Millertime was blamed, of course. "Too old fashioned"—true. "Run out of steam"—true. "Bud's stolen our idea!"—partly true.
But we had put our brand name on the hours when a beer means the most. We still had that. And we still knew that the need or desire addressed by our basic idea was still valid. The fact that Bud had learned that from us did not have to scare us off our basic idea. But it did.
The original Idea Family was gone. The original way of working was no more. A maintenance man's mentality had replaced a grower's outlook. The Idea Channel had disappeared, blocked by the boulders of bureaucracy. There was no one to talk to without going through three or four layers. They all wanted to take the standard way out: "Let's show young party animals. The drinkers we want are now young party animals." I don't mind being "uncreative," but I hate being unsound. And I was.
I took the obvious and easy way out, too. I turned Millertime into Party Time. What a lie that represented.
The new bureaucrats at the brewery loved the idea because it was appropriately greedy; it was aimed at everybody. It told the consumer "You don't have to work, or be hassled, or earn your beer in any way. All you have to do is like to party and boogie." The beer for party lovers may be a basic idea if you have earned some right to say it. But it wasn't the basic idea behind Millertime, and we had no validity in our new message.
I sat up on the stage of a huge auditorium in Texas that year in a big convention of our beer distributors. I was at an upright piano and I played and sang the new song. "Welcome to Millertime, it's all yours and it's all mine. Bring your thirsty self right here—you've got the time, we've got the beer for what you have in mind. Welcome to Millertime." No reward for the consumer—just 16 happy measures of come on and brag and boast and greed from us.
By the standards of the day, it was good advertising—certainly as good as, or better than, most of the advertising on the air then and now. Ironically, it represented a good execution of somebody else's tired basic idea. But Bob and I both felt really guilty.
For me the guilt came not so much from betraying the old Idea Family, because in my view the company had betrayed me and Bob and all the others who had grown the campaign. They had disbanded the Idea Channel and separated us with territories manned by flow monitors who had no track records of growing ideas or maintaining them—and as I have said, maintaining them is even trickier than growing them.
What I felt guilty about was that I had betrayed the original idea. And I knew it could have been the biggest and longest-lasting one I ever had. I couldn't have saved it, but I still feel guilty. I had sacrificed it in order to keep the account for a few more years.
'"Wise business decision," as they say. But a lousy creative one. Maintaining a basic idea takes a system of Idea Channels that lead to people who understand the value of the basic idea. Organizational changes, bureaucracy and Backer's Laws are all enemies to maintaining the basic idea.
Put them all together and you're destined to live from execution to execution, from fad to fad, and from style to style.
Excerpted from The Care and Feedbud of Ideas by Bill Backer. Copyright 1993 by Bill Backer. To be published this month by Times Books