Creative: We Haven’t Come a Long Way, Baby

ADWEEK’S 25TH ANNIVERSARY

Creatively, we’re not any better – or any worse. Ads may come in new forms now, but there’s still only a few gems amid the clutter.

The year is 2003. A man is in his backyard, throwing a football at a tire swing. His intention is to get the football through the hole in the tire, but he can’t seem to, um, make contact.

When I first saw the spot, I thought I must have been somehow teleported back to 1962 and this was Ward Cleaver in his special weekend sweater. In an age when the Victoria’s Secret special—with models and their massive, elevated breasts sent pounding down the runway like so many Budweiser Clydesdales—is a proud network tradition; when oral sex is sprinkled matter-of-factly in conversation; when Skin, a show about the pornography trade, is canceled because the real thing is already everywhere, especially on the Internet, could this be what I think it is? The crudest, most pitiful metaphor for sex ever unleashed on television?

It’s a commercial for Levitra, the new competitor to Viagra, which itself was never in the vanguard in terms of advertising (“Whoa, new haircut, Jim?”). Backyard man takes another shot, and the ball sails right through. His wife appears to be so erotically charged by the feat that she heads straight back into the house with him. No wonder people say the 30-second commercial is doomed. (Still, no matter how corny the message, it still motivates guys who use Viagra to check it out.)

We’ve seen a bipolar swing since 1999, the height of the dot-com bubble, when the jubilation over revenue translated into an endless sense of possibility and an easing of bureaucracy and hierarchy. As one agency creative says, “Five years ago or so, people could afford to take enormous risks. You could always get another job.”

Now, with recession, a war we can’t seem to get out of, a spike in oil prices and looming shortages, we’re living through a sort of ’70s redux. And in terms of cycles, after the great creative revolution of the ’60s, advertising in the ’70s also got much duller and more formulaic. With today’s client operating on full “micro” on the management spectrum, ads look much like they did in the late ’70s: heavily tested, heavily repetitive hammers-to-the-head kind of stuff. (Ted Bates and the USP live!)

Despite the extreme change in environments, the top 2 or 3 percent of the work these days is every bit as good as, or better than, it was in Hal Riney’s or Bill Bernbach’s heyday. That’s about the same percentage of work that’s always been great. As The Ad Store’s Paul Capelli says, “Advertising is like the Catholic Church.” He quickly gets out of dangerous metaphor territory: “There are lots of priests and few saints. In any era, a very small amount of work rises to the top.” It’s just that there’s so much more of it now, and we’ve all grown so media-omniscient that the remaining chunk of stuff seems even more forgettable or regrettable by comparison. That’s true for music, TV, fashion, books and movies, too. The most obvious 21st-century improvement is that media has gotten much more creative—but it had to, for advertising to stay viable.

When designer and Gucci savior Tom Ford suddenly upped and quit the company, one fashionista remarked that it symbolized “the end of the 20th century.” With apologies to the fashion world, 9/11 was the end of the 20th century, and any other suggestion diminishes it. But let’s take the Gucci case to see what it says about creativity and our culture. Ford and the partner who exited with him, Domenico De Sole, certainly turned the company around, designing sexy, red-carpet-worthy goods. They revitalized the advertising as well.

This year’s entry: mystically androgynous black and white female models, holding adorable big-eyed, fat-thighed naked babies. Ten years ago in fashion, a woman with a baby was too throwback; in those days, a baby was the de rigueur accessory for a bare-chested man with overdeveloped pecs. Now we have the Guccinator: a superhuman mutant of the future who does not need a man—although perhaps she could use a sandwich.

A striking series of Louis Vuitton ads also reflected this lone female-superpower theme, using an austere-looking J. Lo gone Greta Garbo from the Bronx. If there are men in the picture, Lopez literally sits on them, holding a cranium-shaped bag aloft as if to say: “Why would I need Ben when I have this handsome carryall?” The Wonder Woman look went mainstream, too, with the ads for Diamond Trading Company’s “right-hand ring” showing models who looked like anime figures holding rings (sometimes between their legs) that glow like lasers. The problem with showing all these kick-ass women in ads is that we still can’t take them as regular humans. We seem to need to turn them into sexy cartoons from another galaxy.

Within the context of pop culture and fashion, the Gucci team indeed left an imprint. With the surprise announcement of their leave-taking, however, Francois Pinault, the tycoon who controls PPR, the holding company, noted, “Gucci is an entire organization. It’s not just two men.” Meaning, Who needs ’em? An analogy could certainly be made to the ad industry, a person-intensive business in a capital-intensive world. Can it be run like a P&G: designed for size and scale, and not dependent on any individual superstar creator?

Certainly, in this economy and with the bottom-line pressures of the massive holding companies, many creatives complain about the P&G-like need for testing and metrics (the irony is that P&G’s ads have gotten more creative). Then there are the agencies that have to deal with clients’ procurement officers, who pick creative teams based purely on return on the dollar, just as they decide whether Coke or Pepsi goes in the vending machines. Have those sorts of strictures forced agencies to do better or just put them in a straitjacket?

Evaluating the work these days is more complicated. “Now it’s not so much about one particular ad,” says Craig Markus of McCann-Erickson. “It’s about owning space and a point of view for the brands to live in.”

That’s the case with Apple: There is a recognizable voice and a visually sophisticated point of view, from TBWA\Chiat\Day’s print to TV to packaging. That goes for every detail: The iPod is small and sleek and pure-looking, and its packaging is equally well designed. Same for Nike’s technological mastery, both in the shoes and the production of innovative commercials, and Target’s bull’s-eye, which connects in every form of communication out there.

Goodby, Silverstein’s new work for Hewlett-Packard is another good example of this kind of brand coherence: It’s consistent and well-crafted, from the posters wrapped around museums to the 21-page magazine inserts to the TV work. Everything interacts and matches, and that’s just what you’d want the equipment to do.

For the agency to have the freedom to be the true brand custodian takes a new kind of client (especially hard to find in this era of pressures on the bottom line). That was certainly the case for one of the most ingenious spots in recent memory, Saturn’s “Sheet Metal,” which did not test well. Standard testing can’t really measure nuance and complexity, qualities that viewers (and most humans) appreciate. Apple’s “1984,” with its abstract messages (including, Kill the corporations!) and Big Brother’s scary opportunings about the glory of the proletarian revolution, was a scary prospect to the client, who tried to dump it at every step of the way, even without testing. (The only reason it did air was Chiat/ Day’s inability to sell off the Super Bowl time.)

With “Sheet Metal,” Goodby faced a similar sledgehammer. When a focus group saw some boards, the results were not encouraging, says Jill Lajdziak, vp of sales and service marketing at Saturn. One typical response: “I don’t think people walking like they are in cars will make sense to people.” Says Lajdziak: “If you agree on the brief and the strategy, then you have to give the agency rope.” To hang themselves? “No, to get the best creative! If you get so research laden and risk averse, you don’t get the best creative. And then you lose over time.”

The genius of the spot is in the ineffable qualities that can’t be seen on the boards: brilliant choreography and the gentle beauty of the piano etude. “Sheet Metal” is perhaps the best illustration of how mastering the nuances cannot be quantified. Yet recently, another car maker, Ford, shook up the production industry with new cost-cutting guidelines. There was an immediate backlash, and while the first few jobs got done in the end, was quality job 1?

Certainly, client micromanagement does not tend to result in ads that are visually innovative, that viewers want to see over and over (like Honda’s “Cog”). And then again, sometimes the simplest idea, the one that’s easiest to execute, rocks.

That’s the case with Ikea’s visually delightful “Lamp” spot from Crispin Porter + Bogusky. Director Spike Jonze makes the juxtaposition potent and the anthropomorphism throb: the discarded lamp hunched over in the rain on the dark, wet street like a neglected child; the tall, modern replacement burning smugly inside. The dripping Swede bluntly tells us that the new stuff is better. But there’s a flaw in this argument: The faded old gooseneck lamp has much more integrity and soul than its generic, upright replacement. Still, the spot is charming. Maybe it touches a chord because the gooseneck lamp is the logo for Pixar—we see it jumping around at the beginning and end of all those graphically inspired, feel-good kids movies like Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo. It’s sort of the ultimate product placement, branded into our heads to evoke delight and laughs. And perhaps the only piece of branded content ever to do that.

Pardon me for being reactionary, but I get annoyed when movies are full of obvious paid-for brand placement, and their unnatural cameos on “reality” shows are sometimes disastrous. Am I the only one who recoiled in horror when one of the reward-challenge prizes on Survivor, for the starving people, was a Mountain Dew? So far this year, the unsubtlety of the product placement has been trumped only by the unsubtlety of the producers’ desperation to shake up the format. (Poor Lil, who in her Boy Scout uniform looks more like a Diane Arbus portrait than a contestant.)

The Coke stuff in American Idol is so palpable that Saturday Night Live parodied it, but at least that show is all about the battle for shiny, cheesy, commercial success—so what’s a Ford “Focus Room” segment when each contestant is pitching something anyway?

The worst example, by far, was the “unscripted drama” known as The Restaurant, featuring chef Rocco DiSpirito. It was about as natural as Liza’s latest marriage; everything felt manipulated, from the kitchen fire to the employees’ little crushes. The product placement was just as deadly: Form followed function when Rocco brought a staff meeting to a halt to go out for a “Coors beer.” Yes, every ultra-chic eating establishment in New York breaks for Coors. Even more painfully obviously setups were the plugs for American Express. Trouble with payroll? Rocco is caught off-guard in his office when he has a light-bulb moment. “I know!” he says definitively. “I’ll get an American Express small-business loan!” Ironically, the actual advertisements that ran during the series, which paralleled the show’s plot points with Rocco speaking to the camera, were more entertaining. They were certainly better produced and seemed much more truthful.

By comparison with the various new forms of manufactured buzz—like sending ringers into bars or chat rooms—old-fashioned ads start looking positively honest and above reproach (with the notable exception of KFC’s new “eat better” strategy: If you’re looking for health, it actually makes more sense to eat the bucket). The latest theory is that people are fed up and cynical, and don’t want to be “marketed to.” That may be true, but with ambient advertising introducing a new sort of huckster, how is being lied to going to improve that sense of jadedness?

Whereas branded content for the Internet presents a whole different paradigm. As with the much-discussed BMW Films series, the consumer seeks the message out in his own time and space. (And, at least in this case, several million can be spent producing top-of-the-line work when there’s no TV buys to pay for.) For all its success, the excitement over BMW Films ending advertising as we know it was overblown. First, Joe Pytka reminded us in an Adweek interview that the film shorts are just like the two- to three-minute commercials on Ridley Scott’s reel in the ’70s. And Tobe Berkovitz, associate dean at Boston University’s College of Communication, points out, “OK, BMW had a huge hit. Name another brand that had a huge hit.”

At Ogilvy & Mather, co-director of production Texas East says, “I love BMW Films. But they did the greatest disservice to the prospect of branded content possible. You’re not going to get that kind of money for mayonnaise. There might be 30 ways to sell mayo, but setting it on fire and sending it down the road at 100 miles per hour is not one of them!”

Ford recently took the idea of a film that viewers want to watch and went back to TV, sponsoring a six-minute wraparound thriller that ran during 24. The story components—scary uniformed commandos invading an innocuous suburban house, a silver suitcase full of money and a good guy under orders to drive like a maniac—were almost generic BMW Film-script motifs (except that at one point in the film, a guy says, “Nice truck!”). But it gets points for the wraparound-media innovation.

Still, besides a cult hit like 24, who’s watching TV anymore? My 13-year-old son plays Madden on PlayStation, IMs on the computer and flips between ESPN and MTV. Strangely enough, he’s also hooked on Seinfeld reruns. I just saw the one where Jerry explains the appeal of a catfight to Elaine: “Because men think that when women are all over each other like that, they might, you know, kiss.”

There’s nothing like Madonna’s recent deflowering of young Britney’s mouth to de-eroticize that belief. The same goes for Miller Lite’s “Catfight” series, which, with its story within a story, was the last word in having it both ways. (So, men who claimed it wasn’t sexist because it was a parody didn’t also “get a special feeling” watching it?) At least the High Life stuff tried to dig deeper, tapping the touchstones of 1950s and early-’60s working-class suburbia and the hunger for real heroes—not the latter-day office-cubicle kind. It’s the ironic version of the proud, hopeful, solid stuff that commercials for High Life once sold us straight. Miller isn’t alone in needing to find resonance for men. There’s little joy in Sudsville these days—unless you like ass jokes.

As with all brands, part of the problem with beer ads—one that not even the Coors twins can conquer—is that consumers have to like the product first. Saturn’s message moved people, but did it necessarily move cars? Not enough, so far, but then the product isn’t as beautiful as the commercials. Jet Blue is the model: People love the experience, and the advertising just reinforces that.

Agencies can motivate and excite people, but no matter how sophisticated the delivery systems become, there’s no substitute for the quality of the product. Nor for simple stories and the human touch. By eleftheria parpis

In September, 120 students at Virginia Commonwealth University’s AdCenter listened intently as members of the new board of directors talked about the industry they’re studying and the challenges it soon will present them. After joining the Richmond, Va., school from Ogilvy & Mather this summer, managing director Rick Boyko brought in experts from the entertainment and production fields as part of his drive to diversify the curriculum and better reflect what students will be expected to know after graduation.

“We need to be broader-thinking. Communications have to be put around ideas rather than just ads,” says Boyko, who wants the new board to help make VCU “the Harvard of advertising.” “The intent is to stay two years in front of where we think things will be.”

The fact is, no one, not even the industry’s brightest minds, knows what the real world will look like. All that the forecasters agree on is the business is changing and agencies must figure out how to change with it. Will they rise to the challenge, or as Fallon’s David Lubars likes to say when discussing the need for creatives to evolve, will they get “flushed down the 21st-century toilet?”

To test their thinking, the AdCenter board put some of the students into small groups and handed out an assignment: Come up with a campaign to increase blood donations to the Red Cross or to argue either for or against a constitutional amendment legalizing same-sex marriages. After an overnight cram session, the groups brought back ideas for Web sites, T-shirts, promotional stunts—everything but the stuff of a traditional portfolio. “We had made such a big deal about not thinking in TV and print that none of the six teams came in with a single TV or print ad—it wasn’t that we meant to throw out the traditional media,” says board member Mike Hughes, president and creative director of The Martin Agency in Richmond. “TV is unquestionably still the most important ad medium, but because we were so fervent in telling them to reach out in new and different ways, the kids were afraid to come in with a TV idea.”

Years before their youthful enthusiasm gets worn thin by constant rejection, the next generation of advertising talent is already getting a taste of the uncertainty plaguing the industry. Almost daily they see new statistics charting trends that seem to make portfolios stuffed with print and TV commercials outdated: Consumers are watching less TV and spending more time playing videogames and surfing the Internet; digital video recorders and other new technologies will only make it more difficult to reach people with TV messaging.

“It’s becoming a more uncertain world,” says John Hegarty, chairman and worldwide creative director of Bartle Bogle Hegarty in London. “Consumers are becoming much more fickle. They want to be entertained; they want to be given new experiences. How do you give them something that’s fresh? How do you capture their imagination? How do you tie it back to the brand? It’s becoming harder and harder to do that. All of a sudden, people are looking and going, ‘I don’t understand this anymore.’ ”

What most creatives understand, depending on which half of the glass they see, is that their jobs are either getting more difficult with each passing day or more exciting.

Eric Hirshberg, managing partner and executive creative director at Deutsch/LA, says some of his industry colleagues are reacting like ostriches with their heads in the sand: “There is a little bit of a wait-and-see attitude, primarily because the skill set that stands to be eliminated is the one that everyone got into this business to do: the 30-second commercial.”

But most who work with creatives say a talented cd is capable of a lot more than crafting a standard spot. “I don’t think we’ll have to go outside of our industry at all,” says Dany Lennon, creative consultant at the Creative Register in Westport, Conn. She points to the screenplays, books and music projects that creatives share with her and says, “Advertising people become advertising people because they are creative people who have no idea how to channel themselves.”

Leaders of top-notch creative staffs say the ability to dream up alternative forms of marketing are inherent in their departments. “Half of the copywriters out there already have screenplays,” says Alex Bogusky, executive creative director at Crispin Porter + Bogusky in Miami. “The skill sets are more in production than in concepting.”

Dan Wieden, CEO of Wieden + Kennedy in Portland, Ore., says the shop launched an entertainment division six years ago not only to reach consumers in different ways but also “to give our creative people new opportunities that they weren’t able to realize in other places.”

Rather than just creating TV or print ads for Nike, for example, creatives are working on long-form projects for the client via Wieden + Kennedy Entertainment. Currently in development: a documentary about Marion Jones, set to air next year on NBC, and a documentary about boxer Roy Jones Jr,. to run on ESPN for the Brand Jordan label.

While the vehicle may look different, its purpose is the same as it’s always been. “Fundamentally, we still want people who can have great brand-changing ideas,” says Hegarty.

Still, not every staffer is eager to rethink his or her job description. Bill Davenport, executive producer at Wieden + Kennedy Entertainment, says he finds that “some gravitate to it; some people don’t.” The longer time frames and the fact that experimental projects often die on the vine can be discouraging for creatives. “Some frankly don’t see the value in it,” explains Davenport. “It can be frustrating for a creative who says, ‘I get paid and I make my bonus from doing a Super Bowl ad. I’m going to stick to my knitting.’ “

Another obstacle is that new ideas don’t fit easily into a portfolio. “You’re trying to build a book, so it’s really hard to put an event in a binder and tell people, ‘You should have been there. It was awesome.’ It’s hard to show people that,” says Wieden. “There’s a lot of value to creative people to having a knockout reel and knockout print work. It’s hard to give up. You naturally look for ways to accomplish that.” In recent years, award shows like Cannes have been expanding their competitions to include disciplines such as direct and media, as well as categories that reward innovation (the Titanium at Cannes, the new Content and Contact at the Clios), in a bid to overhaul the traditional reward system.

To encourage broader thinking, some agencies are trying to bring together disciplines that in recent years have been distanced from each other in the name of smarter spending or growth. In the hopes of fostering collaboration, Ogilvy is combining the creative departments from its consumer, direct and interactive units. “It’s both symbolic and practical. We’re forcing people to interact and solve problems together,” says David Apicella, co-creative head in New York. “It’s probably the best way to start.”

For smaller agencies like CP+B, that sort of collaboration has become second nature. The agency’s success with attention-getting communications for clients such as Mini Cooper comes in part from creatives’ close ties to the media department, says Bogusky. “We don’t believe in hands-off creative development,” he explains. “An idea goes back and forth from creative and media.”

The skills of individual creatives are perhaps less an issue than the environment in which they work. “It’s not about recruiting people,” argues Hughes. “It’s making [new ideas] part of the agency’s thinking. That’s the job for agency management and creative directors.”

After CP+B’s early successes with the Florida Department of Health “Truth” campaign—which included lines of “Truth” gear, guerrilla efforts, sticker bombing and all sorts of what used to be called “below-the-line” initiatives—creatives started to present a wider spectrum of ideas. “Now, I don’t have to ask for it anymore,” says Bogusky, who notes that the agency tends to hire junior creatives rather than those already set in their ways.

Boyko emphasizes that the idea is the thing—the ability to execute it is secondary. “We don’t have to know every medium and be experts in every medium—you hire people that are,” he says. “We don’t know how to create our own commercials—we go out and hire production companies to do that. [Creatives] don’t have to be experts in it, but they have to know that those forms are available and should be part of their thinking.”

Although it’s clear that creatives and their agencies will need to work in new ways to make themselves more valuable to clients, change will come from small pockets of adventurous clients and agency thinkers. And it will take time before most agencies really act like communications specialists rather than ad makers. “The industry is predicting radical change,” says Hughes, “but the truth is, despite the fact that we present ourselves as cutting-edge people, we are much more evolutionary than revolutionary.”