DDB’s John Staffen Takes The Lead On Mcdonald’s
If John Staffen ever forgets the size of his task, his 3-year-old son, Jack, won’t take long to remind him. “Jack’s always running around the house, singing, ‘Did somebody say McDonald’s?'” says the proud father.
It seems a likely story. Of course, the new head of the McDonald’s creative team at DDB Needham Chicago would love the world to believe that the agency’s tagline is implanted deep in the cerebrum of his tot and, by extension, the heads of children everywhere. Challenged, Staffen holds his ground, asserting that young Jack has jumped on board without parental prodding. As much as anything else, the story shows the burden he assumed when DDB named him McDonald’s creative chief in August. “I can’t disappoint the kid,” he says, only half in jest.
Staffen knows there’s a lot riding on DDB’s ability to prove McDonald’s made the right choice, picking the shop over Leo Burnett to handle the bulk of the $600 million account in July 1997. He knows DDB chairman Keith Reinhard’s passion for the client makes it special even beyond the dollars. “It’s daunting,” Staffen admits. “I’m only 5′ 6”.”
But then, “I like being the little guy,” he says. A lifelong rink rat from Buffalo, Staffen, 38, plays the center position in hockey leagues. Given his size, he gets knocked around a bit in front of the goal, fighting and scrapping to hold his ground. It’s part of a stubbornness that has contributed to at least one off-ice quirk: Staffen has never bothered to get a driver’s license, which hasn’t prevented him from driving. “It’s become a real thing with me,” he admits. “I just refuse to deal with the DMV.”
Staffen’s license to steer the McDonald’s account is more in order. His major credential: work for the New York Lottery, which, like McDonald’s, combines branding with daily retail promotion. He cites the humorous “Hey, you never know” theme among his best work–funny, populist spots about unlikely but possible everyday occurrences.
Since winning the fast-food account, DDB had been looking for a full-time McDonald’s creative boss to replace Jim Ferguson, who split his time between McDonald’s work in Chicago and heading creative at DDB in Dallas. After comparing candidates’ reels, Bob Scarpelli, chief creative officer at DDB Chicago, stayed in-house, explaining that the New York-based Staffen was the logical choice. “Not many clients are building brands and selling tickets day to day; [the lottery] might have a new game every week, just like McDonald’s has a movie tie-in one week, a toy giveaway the next,” he says.
While searching for a Chicago home to live in and hockey league to play in, Staffen is putting in long days getting to know the client and the more than 30 creative team members he supervises. He also inherits the McDonald’s tagline, “Did somebody say McDonald’s?” written by DDB creative director Bob Merlotti. Staffen says there are no plans to change it.
“I’m not sure we’ve found the perfect voice [for the campaign], but its heart is in the right place,” he explains. Some of the concepts–when a city bus detours to a McDonald’s or when everyone in an office building puts in an order–have worked well, he notes. Others have not. “[Critics] are not sure what that statement means,” Staffen says. “It has to be like the whiff of McDonald’s fries, something that sets you off. We need to set that [line] up the same way.”
Staffen’s imprint on McDonald’s advertising won’t be seen until 1999, as the company is expected to finish its year with promotional work. Staffen did provide a push for spots featuring home-run heroes Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa after seeing the storyboards laying around the office. McDonald’s agreed, and the ads were produced in three weeks, a lesson on how fast the giant company can move.
Industry associates expect Staffen to prosper in Chicago. Tracy Wong, principal at WongDoody in Seattle, was Staffen’s roommate at the Art Center in Pasadena, Calif., in the early 1980s. Both men were recruited by large New York agencies, Staffen going to Doyle Dane Bernbach, Wong to Ogilvy & Mather. Staffen’s still there, Wong couldn’t wait to get out. “He has been able to not only survive but thrive at a big agency,” Wong says. “There’s so much political shucking and jiving, you have to have the stomach for it. He enjoys the competition.”
An art director, Staffen rose quickly at DDB, becoming a vice president at 25 and winning a 1986 gold Lion at Cannes for a GTE Yellow Pages spot. Stints at Chiat/Day, New York, and Ogilvy & Mather, Toronto, have broken his tenure at DDB on two occasions, when, Staffen says, “I ran away from home.” And home is where the heart is.
“DDB has given me a wide palette,” he says. “My work has been so schizo over the years.” His reel covers clients from Michelin Tires to Cigna Insurance, Frito-Lay to Anheuser-Busch. He claims no particular style, pointing to the humor of the lottery work, the intimacy of the Michelin baby, “beautiful and warm” renderings for Cigna and the obnoxiousness of Bud Light spots featuring the Jerky Boys. “I tried to round out my portfolio,” he says of the Jerky Boys ads. “That was as wild as I’ll ever get.”
Staffen’s challenge now is to get to the core of the McDonald’s brand and bring America’s warm feelings toward it into the advertising, he says. “If a McDonald’s ad hits you here,” notes Staffen, pointing to his head, “something’s wrong. It’s got to go to the heart.”