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Creative: Girl Talk

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C&W Team Gives Barbie a New Attitude
Nicole Michels remembers ripping cool ads out of magazines and plastering them in her bedroom and school locker as a kid. Now the Cole & Weber copywriter and her art director partner, Heather Niedergerke, both 27, hope their new "Be anything" brand campaign for Mattel's Barbie will inspire girls everywhere to do the same.
The $5 million-plus effort, courtesy of the Seattle-based shop and its sister Ogilvy & Mather offices in New York and Los Angeles, is the first image work for the plastic icon in more than 10 years. While it breaks nationally next month, it made its splash in February at Toy Fair in New York.
Indeed, the campaign, which coincides with Barbie's 40th anniversary, inspired Michels and Niedergerke. The pair took responsibility for Barbie after the agency's creative team of Kevin Jones and Bill Karow, veterans of previous O&M projects, begged off due to prior commitments. The inside story: They just didn't get it.
"Their only connection to Barbie was, 'Why doesn't she have nipples?'" recalls Michels, who volunteered with Nieder-gerke to take the job at the 11th hour.
The duo had only three days to develop concepts to present to O&M co-president Rick Boyko, who spearheaded the effort. Undaunted, they drew on personal experience and research to compensate for their lack of toy branding expertise.
Both had played with Barbie, yet Michels recalls shaving off the hair and stripping off the clothes, while Niedergerke took great care of her collection. As adults, Michels is the outgoing, talkative one of the team, while Niedergerke is subdued and thoughtful.
In fact, when they landed the project in '98, Niedergerke was still a newcomer to the agency world--having arrived fresh out of the Atlanta-based Portfolio Center several months earlier. Michels was slightly more seasoned. She'd been with Cole & Weber for nearly two years, having worked on campaigns for Boeing and Pyramid Ale.
Prior to that, she had worked at Bozell/Seattle for two years and was a Clio finalist for work on a PSA campaign to save the endangered spotted snow leopard.
But the pairing proved prescient. What Michels and Niedergerke brought to the fore, says Boyko, was having girls speak about their dreams. A revamping of an earlier "We girls can be anything" Barbie campaign, the current work "restated in a new way a message of empowerment," he adds.
The initial plan was to develop a TV ad to reposition the brand, but Michels and Niedergerke thought, "Why not print, too?" Research showed that an overwhelming number of girls loved being girls: They could do "girl" things, like dress up, as well as "boy" activities, like play sports. The day before ideas were due, the pair came up with "Be anything" and tacked up slogans on their office wall. "True girl," "Girls rule" and other empowering phrases emerged as the team devised ways to enhance Barbie's image among moms and girls 7-11.
Although their ideas were geared to print rather than TV, Boyko loved them; he figured the TV campaign would evolve over time. Weeks later, Michels and Niedergerke presented their ideas to Mattel chairman and CEO Jill Barad, who agreed the campaign should represent girls in their entirety:
playful, sporty, intelligent. "Let's show girls how they are," declared Barad. Most telling, as the print work was developed and tested, focus groups proved that girls and their mothers were receptive to the message.
The campaign was shot by veteran director Bob Giraldi. It launched with a 60-second TV spot wrapped in a collage of girls reveling in the benefits of girlhood. "I am wise," says one. "I am unstoppable," declares another, as the camera shows her running. "We are going to rule the world," say giggling friends. Although Barbie is visible in most scenes, the girls are the focus of the spot, which will air nationally during prime-time family shows. Eight print ads will begin rotation in the May issue of various women's magazines.
Michels and Niedergerke say the campaign was a three-office push, what Boyko dubs the "long-hallways strategy." Creative was handled out of Seattle, account management from Los Angeles and overall direction courtesy of New York. For instance, Cindy Rivet, partner and manager of art buying at O&M, New York, hired the photographers who shot the arresting print ads.
Of course, you can't please everyone. Since it broke in New York, the campaign has taken heat for resembling Nike brand ads. To Niedergerke, the criticism is unwarranted. "Other brands have been doing this for decades. If you can do an image campaign for a shoe, why not for a toy, especially when it's such a valid message?" she asks. "What other brand celebrates girlhood? There's nothing like it in the world." Michels concurs, saying she's pleased to been part of an effort to help create a positive message for girls.
"Barbie's gotten a pretty bad rap," muses Niedergerke. "I see her as one of the tools that facilitates dreams."