Profile: David Muhlenfeld

NEW YORK Look at the work of David Muhlenfeld, a 36-year-old senior copywriter at The Martin Agency, and you might find some personal history among the product pitches for FreeCreditReport.com and Walmart.
 
After graduating from Amherst College in 1994 with an English degree, the Tallahassee, Fla. native moved to Boston and began pursuing his dream of writing the next great American novel — while waiting tables at a Legal Sea Foods restaurant.

“It was steadily humiliating,” says Muhlenfeld, explaining the inspiration behind one of the early FreeCredit spots, “New Job,” where the band sings about waiting tables in pirate attire. “A lot of it is based on my own personal life history, but I didn’t get there because of bad credit situations, more like general poverty.”
 
Luckily for him, his starving artist phase didn’t last long before he “was finally hired to do something that I was good at,” he says. Without a portfolio, he landed a writing post at Bronner Slosberg Humphrey, the DM agency that later became Digitas, on the basis of a spec solicitation letter for a book club geared towards twentysomethings. “It was fantastic,” says Muhlenfeld of his first introduction to the ad world. “It was nice to be around other creative people and do it in a relatively cushy environment.”
 
In 1998, he moved to San Francisco for about six years when the agency opened an office there to handle Charles Schwab. “I did a lot of the driest of the dry,” he recalls. “It was the early days of banner ads on the Web.”
 
Still, that experience helped him land a direct copywriting job at Martin in 2004, and he soon crafted radio spots for UPS, AOL and Sirius. His first TV spot was a Nascar tie-in with FreeCredit. The well-known, music-driven campaign of today, aptly named “The Band,” actually began with a radio series about the unexpected truths of bad credit.
 
Muhlenfeld’s art director partner at the time, acd Randall Hooker, suggested they try taking the idea into TV and soon enough they were pitching the concept during a conference call. “I picked up a guitar and sang it over the phone,” he recounts. And surprisingly, the client loved it. “We thought it was a long shot,” he says. The first round of spots broke in October 2007. (Visit Adweek.com’s video page for a sampling of his best spots.)

 
With director Danny Leiner — who helmed feature films Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle and Dude Where’s My Car? — the agency has produced six spots in the campaign so far.

Muhlenfeld, recording vocals in Toronto for the next six, promises an “epic Country Western,” an “Erasure-type club song” and a “Rick Springfield ‘Jessie’s Girl'” remake among the spoofs in the next mix. “It’s gone beyond absurd,” laughs Muhlenfeld. “I was surprised we ever did more than one.”

It shouldn’t be all that surprising that Muhlenfeld has found a musical niche at Martin. He’s been writing music since he was about 13. “What I wanted to be was Howard Jones,” he recalls, “surrounded by synthesizers and playing techno-pop to the masses.” (And he produces non-musical ads for clients such as Discover Card and Walmart as well.)
 
While he’s best known for his work on FreeCreditReport.com, Muhlenfeld has also written a memorable music-driven spot for Walmart, last year’s holiday commercial that starred a male party host who welcomes his “extended family,” also the name of the spot, with song, including his “surprisingly cool stepmother.” Here too, Muhlenfeld’s background has seeped into his spots. “It’s based on my family,” he says, noting he has stepparents and six step-siblings.
 
The initial reference for the commercial, however, was the Coca-Cola classic “Hilltop,” an iconic ad from the early ’70s.

“Those are some of the ads that I remember as a kid, they kinda make you smile. I wrote from a heartwarming place,” he explains, crediting senior art director Brian Williams for bringing the spot to life. “I wanted to communicate that feeling.”
 
While it’s taken him more than a decade working as a copywriter to produce a bona fide advertising hit, Muhlenfeld, who now works with associate creative director Steve Sage as art director on the FreeCredit ads, has comfortably settled into a career that now utilizes the skills of his earliest creative passions.
 
“I’ve never had more fun at work,” he sums up. “It’s amazing to go into the office spend the morning writing music and the afternoon working on something a little different and be able to bill all of it.”