At first glance, many Cannes Lion-winning ads from Mars— the festival's Advertiser of the Year for 2012—appear to be off-the-wall, absurdist and just plain random.
Take "Sheep Boys," a Skittles ad from TBWA\Chiat\Day, part of a campaign that won bronze in 2005. Sheep with human faces nibble pieces of Smoothie Mix Skittles sprinkled atop a tree stump like animal feed. They marvel at the dual flavors (orange-mango, peach-pear) until a farmer barks at them: "You two sheep boys, stop that jibber-jabbin'!" Sharks feed on Snickers-fed humans in BBDO's "Focus Group" spot for Snickers Peanut Butter Squared, which won silver in 2011. A male actor in drag portrays a mother in a Combos campaign from TBWA\C\D that won silver in 2006.
Weird? Sure. But in each case, the oddity is grounded in reasoning.
The human-sheep hybrids mirror the candy's unexpected flavor pairings. Combos, a not-so-healthy pretzel-and-cheese snack, is "What your mom would feed you if your mom were a man." And who better to rate a new Snickers bar than a big eater like a shark?
There's method to the Mars madness, say creative leaders who've become famous through their work on brands like Snickers, M&M's and Skittles. In separate interviews, four such leaders— Wieden + Kennedy's Scott Vitrone and Ian Reichenthal, who were group creative directors on Mars at TBWA\C\D; Leo Burnett's Susan Credle, who worked on M&M's for 14 years at BBDO; and Barton F. Graf 9000's Gerry Graf, who crafted ads for Mars at both BBDO and TBWA— describe the candy giant as an innovator and risk taker, but one that is moved primarily by reasoning and consumer insights.
The creative renaissance at Mars that began in the late '90s has led to a haul of Cannes Lions: 46 bronzes, 20 silvers, 11 golds and a radio Grand Prix, for Snickers, in 2007. Honored were a dozen agencies on 19 brands in nine categories: TV, print, radio, outdoor, media, direct, cyber, design and promotions. (The tally includes work for Wrigley, though Mars didn't acquire it until 2008.)
Not coincidentally, Mars' creative run coincided with the arrival and ascent of Paul Michaels, who joined as vp, marketing in 1993 and became president in 2004. Before Michaels, advertising for brands like Snickers and M&M's was predictable and somewhat mundane. Snickers was "packed with peanuts," while M&M's would "melt in your mouth, not in your hand." Michaels challenged a new wave of roster shops—including BBDO and TBWA, which arrived in 1995 and 2002, respectively—to contemporize brands without sacrificing their core equity.
"He perks up every time we start to talk about brands, advertising and what to do with those. And that's infectious within the organization," says Bruce McColl, Mars' current global CMO. "So, other senior leaders obviously take a lead from him in terms of how critical it is to make sure we're pushing ourselves to do great work."
With iconic, brand-building campaigns like "Not going anywhere for a while?" for Snickers (a silver winner in 1997 that included the "Chefs" spot, which Graf helped create), Michaels elevated the role of marketing within a global corporation that today generates annual net sales of more than $30 billion.
CREDLE: [As marketing chief], Paul was independent, he was cocky, and he wanted to have fun. He was a little bit fearless. I think he realized that it takes a lot to really mess up. He wasn't afraid to just do things and try things. He wasn't afraid to be wrong. He told me again and again and again that the best time in his life was when he was CMO. He said it was just so much fun.
GRAF: He knew exactly how BBDO worked. Back then [in 1995, BBDO's creative department was split] between Charlie Miesmer's side and Ted Sann's side. And Ted Sann had Pepsi, right? … Charlie Miesmer's group won Snickers. … And [Michaels] said, "I know everybody at BBDO is dying to work on Pepsi. I want to change that. I want everybody here to be dying to work on Snickers and M&M's."
CREDLE: The best way to get the best work is to want the best people to work on your brand. Paul said that from the beginning, and I think that he gave BBDO the business—a lot of the business early on—because he felt that they would get him to the next place.
The reinvention took years of experimenting. Also, before Mars would change the look or tone of its ads, it needed assurances the changes would resonate with its core consumers. Indeed, behind every successful campaign were key insights borne of research.