A Character Evolves

NEW YORK Three years ago, the creative team at The Martin Agency was tasked with driving traffic to Geico’s Web site, where consumers could get free rate quotes. They settled on promoting how easy the site was to use. But how to communicate that?

The question became who was “historically” perceived as dumb, said Steve Bassett, The Martin Agency’s cd for the account—so dumb, that Geico could tell people its site was “so easy to use, even a … can do it.” And tell them without offending a group of allegedly dim people.

Thus did Martin copywriter Joe Lawson and his team give birth to the Geico caveman. What really sold Bassett on the idea was an alternate reality where cavemen still exist and could take offense to the campaign. “The fact that they were still around and [we’d comment] on the whole sort of PC culture that we’re in … was just such a fun idea,” he said.

The spots, focused as they were on generating Internet business, also generated Web chatter, according to Bassett. That, in turn, generated more ads, and a story arc was formed. In one ad, for example, the set-up is a cable news talk show where participants, including the caveman, debate whether Geico’s tagline is offensive or not. “It took you guys some time to adapt,” argues one character who doesn’t think so.

By last summer, Martin had built a library of about a dozen different caveman spots. And cyberspace was full of chit-chat that wondered, among other things, where the cavemen lived, what they liked to eat, what their hobbies were and so forth, said Bassett. It was around this time that Lawson came up with the idea of a sitcom that would explore the character and the themes of prejudice and political correctness further.

Martin, which does not own the caveman concept, took the pilot idea to Geico and the client authorized the agency to see what kind of interest there might be in the project in Hollywood. Martin then hired Beverly Hills, Calif.-based entertainment company Management 360 to shop a pilot proposal to the major networks.

Meanwhile, last fall, Geico’s media agency, Horizon Media, and CBS were kicking around concepts for Super Bowl tie-ins, when the idea of getting the caveman on the air, outside of an ad, surfaced. That resulted in having NFL legend Phil Simms play a “very competitive round of golf” with the caveman during his annual pre-game “All Iron Team” special that highlights NFL players who have positively impacted the sport. By design, the branding in the Simms segment was not overt—no Geico logos or pitches, just Simms and the caveman on the links. The CBS segment was designed as seamless brand integration that relied on the viewer’s ability to recognize the character as the Geico spokesman. But just in case there were doubts, every Geico ad that appeared on the airwaves Super Bowl Sunday was a caveman spot.

In mid-February, Geico unveiled www.cavemanscrib.com, a site for the curious to go and have a look-see at the caveman’s digs and to also find out a little more about his lifestyle.

With the caveman’s semi-celebrity status solidified after the pre-Super Bowl appearance, Geico marketing vp Ted Ward came to Martin with the idea of an Oscars tie-in, where a caveman took on the role of red carpet interviewer.

Soon after, a deal was struck with ABC to produce a pilot for the upcoming season. According to one source, at least one other network indicated some interest, but only ABC was prepared to commit to a development deal.

As they are for any given pilot, the odds are stacked against the caveman show from making it to air, as it will compete with a couple dozen other ABC pilots for just a handful of slots. And even if it does get picked up, there are risks. Geico has licensed the rights to ABC and has no creative control, although Bassett notes that Lawson is involved in the pilot development. And if the show goes to air but flops, said Brent Poer, svp, connectivetissue, MediaVest USA, consumers might ask, “Is the concept a flop—or the brand?”

David Lang, director of programming, MindShare Entertainment, sees the pilot as a “great opportunity to further their connection within popular culture.”

While there is risk in taking the cavemen to a platform where Geico doesn’t have complete control, “there’s tremendous upside if it’s done right. But it’s a long way from hitting the air,” he said.