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art & commerce: Man About Town

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Ever want to unleash your inner (800-pound) guerrilla?
Advertising has a lot of buzzwords--most of which go out of fashion as fast as last year's pony-skin Gucci jacket. Seemingly fresh at first, they quickly become mundane by over- or misuse.
Think about it: "Breaking through the clutter?" No kidding. "Rejuvenating a dying brand?" Yawn. "Branding?" Enough already.
None, however, compare with "guerrilla" marketing when it comes to setting off my cringe-o-meter. You see, there is a fine line between getting away with a genuinely guerrilla tactic and pulling off a hopelessly nauseating public-relations stunt.
Some clients can get away with this sort of thing. Others can't. And some agencies are adept at such maneuvers while others are decidedly not. You either have it or you don't. And if you don't? Trying to do so is just so completely uncool.
I was recently asked to tackle such an assignment and jumped at the chance to do so. The idea was intoxicating. It didn't take long, however, for me to sober up. Things didn't go well. The account and creative teams were enthusiastic and excited at first. But nothing happened. Why? Because fear entered the picture and, as any good soldier will tell you, there's no room for fear in a guerrilla movement.
I was finally compelled to send the agency an e-mail pointing out the very definition of my assignment. "Guerrilla: n. A member of an irregular military force operating usually in small, independent groups capable of great speed and mobility." Well, that ended that.
I didn't blame the agency, because it occurred to me that this must happen a lot. To pull off a guerrilla tactic, it has to be in the shop's DNA. I've since developed a way to test agencies. If I ask someone about an example of this and he or she is able to provide information, images, results, etc., almost instantaneously they're "guerrilla."
Organic recently had the grand opening of its new office in New York's Woolworth Building. While there, I heard of a number of intriguing client projects from people who were clearly excited about what they were doing. My favorite story was about a "wallet drop" they are currently running on www.gefn.com for the General Electric Financial Network. Take a peek and click on "Tossed and Found." You might win $100,000! (Beware, 'cause the clues are tough. The only one I got right was "Rodeo Drive." Figures, huh?) I wonder how creative director Stephen Tortorici got GE to go for that one. Could it be that he and his team believed in it with just the right amount of conviction and passion?
My old buddies at TBWA\Chiat\ Day certainly have it down. Their ABC campaign seems to have
been designed to personally drive me crazy. A competitor when it launched, I was taunted daily by their ridiculously fabulous bus signage and shelters, shuttle wraps, etc. I hated them, because I loved the campaign. It has been on every conceivable surface since. Hot-dog stands used to be my favorite, but wait. Their new campaign is on bananas!
The most ardent disciple I discovered, however, is Kevin Starace at Eisnor Interactive in New York. I hate him, too, because he did what I only talked about.
Their campaign for TheStreet.com was one of the best I encountered last year. You may remember seeing that damn ear all over the place, particularly in airports. It was designed to get the attention of the business traveler.
Well, they certainly got mine. They branded suitcases with TheStreet's URL and the ear and had them whirl around on luggage carousels. They hired fake chauffeurs to greet people at baggage claims with giant signs that read: "TheStreet.com for Bill Gates" or "Warren Buffet." That kind of thing. Now those carousels are an actual new form of media, so you can all join me in hating them for that, too.
As more companies try to jump on this bandwagon, however, my cringe-o-meter begins to buzz. If everyone's doing it, it won't be guerrilla.
Remember when "wild postings" first started cropping up on construction sites? It was cool! Exciting! The street would be pristine when you went to sleep. Then armies would come in the night and blanket your neighborhood with the most amazing posters about stuff you'd never heard of. Now it's boring. Just wallpaper.
So, if you are thinking about launching a guerrilla tactic of your own, think again. Maybe this sort
of thing is better left to real commandos.
Neilan Tyree has been a 185-pound guerrilla at such agencies as J. Walter Thompson, TBWA\Chiat\Day, Merkley Newman Harty, McKinney & Silver,
Long Haymes Carr and Goldberg Moser O'Neill. He can be reached at ntyree@adweek.com