When Ammirati & Puris art director Todd Seisser heard back in July 1991 that he was going to be working on the Phillips Milk of Magnesia account, he gulped. Despite the award-winning work for Maidenform, McCall's and Citizen Watch he had under his belt, the associate creative director was worried.
After all, campaigns for laxatives had hardly been known for their subtlety or taste, not to mention their creative integrity or award-winning potential. Even with the likes of Levine, Huntley, Schmidt and Beaver, Della Femina Trevisano and keye/donna/pearlstein on his resume, Seisser couldn't squelch a nagging fear that he'd produce "something embarrassing."
Ditto associate creative director Tom Nelson, the copywriting partner Seisser was to be thrown together with for the campaign. "We were both terrified and excited," says Nelson, who left Ogilvy & Mather for A&P in 1988 and whose own impressive list of credits includes UPS, Sears, Stanley Tools and NutraSweet. "We'd both swaggered into a lot of rooms saying there's no categories that you can't do great work for. And God said, 'Oh yeah?'"
Compounding the sense of uneasiness Seisser, 36, and Nelson, 37, felt about their unproven working relationship were vastly different backgrounds. While Seisser describes himself as the quintessential New York Jew who went to the same Long Island high school as serial killer Joel Rifkin, and who had lived nine years with his long-term girlfriend, Nelson sees himself as the quintessential Midwesterner, an Irish kid from Detroit who had attended a Jesuit High School and had been married for nine years and had three children. While Seisser's background was the edgy Levine, Huntley and Della Femina experience, Nelson's was the classic Ogilvy & Mather training. Even the way they dressed was totally different. "We went to Barney's once to buy clothes," says Seisser, "and whereas I would head toward the Italian men's section, looking at the Armani or Ferrare, Tom would head toward the Oak Room and the more classical double-breasted suits. Neither of us would be caught dead in each other's clothing."
Not surprisingly, their creative styles were equally distinct. "I tell people my style is to do pretty films with smart scripts," says Nelson, who had helped create such beautifully filmed and crafted gems as the UPS spot that has a delivery man scouring a tiny Scottish fishing village for Ian Alistair McKenzie when the entire village is populated with McKenzies. "Tom tends to romance a script," agrees Seisser, "while I tend toward the shoot-'em-in-the-head approach."
What the team did have in common, though, was a natural cynicism and a mutual respect for each other's work. "We were forced to find some common ground," says Nelson. "We'd each tend to come in with six different ideas, and we'd have to find something we could live with." And Seisser, who had just recently split with Jay Taub, his partner of eight years, was eager to do something new and challenging. "When I came to Ammirati two years ago, I wanted the opportunity to produce work that was different, work that I might not have done at Levine's," he says. "With a situation like this three things can happen. Nothing, or you can end up compromising, or you can end up doing something that's so different, it stands out."
Fortunately for Sterling Health, it was the latter that applied to its product. A&P had won the $7-million Milk of Magnesia account in June of '91 from Ayer. Previous advertising was unfocused, says Seisser, and changed direction often. "Sterling had identified a strategy that they knew would work," adds Nelson. "They were losing market share to generic brands and they had to get across it soothes the stomach and relieves constipation overnight."
The directive, says Seisser, was to build trust while avoiding what he calls the "yuck" factor. "The whole Milk of Magnesia image had to be updated. They wanted watchable advertising but still keeping it warm and fuzzy," he says. "There was a bunch of new blood at Sterling and they had a new agency. From the creative standpoint it was terrifying and exciting at the same time."
"It's a very hard category," Nelson concurs. "People don't want to talk about it and most ads get too cutesy. There's nothing like sitting in front of the TV eating pizza with your family and some embarrassing spot for vaginal spray or foot powder comes on . . . "
It was that very embarrassment that finally led the creative team to the popular "Raymond and Maureen" campaign. "It came out of the notion of an uncomfortable angst amongst ourselves about the subject," says Seisser. "There's no point in being coy, and it seemed odd to ignore it, so we wanted to come tight out and talk about it."
The initial spot featured a black couple, neither of whom were exactly slim or healthy-looking, that turned the cliched testimonial ad on its head by poking fun at both the category and the product. In "Porch," a portly, motherly looking Maureen tells viewers how Phillips is the only product that works overnight to cure Raymond's constipation. "We don't even know these people," an embarrassed Raymond admonishes his oblivious wife, referring to a TV audience of millions.
The toughest part was the casting. After looking at over 300 women, Seisser and Nelson finally found the perfect "Maureen." Her husband, "Raymond," is actually an electrician, a civilian member of the U.S. Navy and only a part-time actor. Why did they choose a black couple? "It made sense," says Nelson. "There's a huge franchise with the black population, and we didn't think it mattered whether they were white or black. It just happened and it felt right." Directed by Rick Levine Productions' John Massey, known for his skill with people, the campaign's initial aim was to remind people exactly what Milk of Magnesia does.
Originally intended as a one-off, the first spot was so successful it not only stopped the product's slide but actually increased sales. So "Raymond and Maureen Go to a Party," designed to remind consumers of the product's exclusivity in the realms of soothing the stomach and providing relief, followed. A third spot, set in a restaurant--Raymond's choice of cherry pie for dessert causes Maureen to segue into a loud discussion of a new cherry flavor--introduced the first innovation in Milk of Magnesia's 120-year history. And a fourth spot, set at a theater, introduced Maureen's daughter--also apparently plagued with the family problem--and a second innovation: Phillips Gel Caps. In the silence before the show begins, Maureen holds forth about her favorite subject: "In my day we didn't have gel caps," she says conversationally. "Whatever did you talk about?" cringes her daughter.
Love 'em or hate 'em (and a poll round the ADWEEK office suggests there are those in both camps), no one can argue with the campaign's success. So far, "Maureen and Raymond" has won a Bronze Lion at Cannes and a Gold Effie. But the neatest thing, says Nelson, happened last summer when his newborn's nurse complained about the awful ads for certain products. Without knowing who did any of them, she said she hated all but one--Milk of Magnesia.
Having proved their worth on MoM, however, it's unlikely the odd team will work together again. Nelson has now departed New York to head up A&P's Toronto office, and Seisser is about to be reunited, after a three-year hiatus, with partner Jay Taub, who joined A&P this month after a stint at BBDO/N.Y. "At least we've proved to our own satisfaction we can do a good commercial for anything," says Nelson.
It held the nation on tenterhooks, created a ministorm of controversy and generated tons of spin-off editorial on TV news shows. Was she or wasn't she? Pregnant that is. J. Walter Thompson's cliff-hanging campaign last summer for Warner-Lambert's e.p.t. captured pregnancy angst like no other. A series of three couples revealed on-air the results of their pregnancy tests. One was and wanted to be. One wasn't and didn't want to be. And the third, the most popular pair, wasn't but wished they were (only to become so a few months later).
The reality-based campaign was the brainchild of art director/group creative director Frank Constantini and copywriter/associate creative director J.J. Jordan (neither of whom are fathers themselves, though Jordan did get married recently), aided and abetted by producer Linda Rafoss. The spots arose from the pair's previous e.p.t. spot, which focused on the reactions of proud fathers-to-be (actors) on hearing the good news. Quirky, humorous, well paced and eminently watchable, they set the tone for future campaigns. Hoping for a more immediate documentary-like feel for this emotional moment in people's lives, the creative team's next step was to use real people.
Even though e.p.t. was the oldest product in its category, it had undergone innovations making it easier to use and offering a quicker answer. "The category tends to be technical and product orientated," says Jordan, "and the competitions' campaigns tend to be dry and clinical."
At the center of the strategy was the whole idea of trust and truth in advertising, apparently not an oxymoron. "Initially," says Constantini, "we gave the client three or four ideas but recommended this one. It was a risk for them, and they had to make a big leap of faith." After all, huge packaged-goods manufacturers are not usually known for going out on a limb, and the intrusive nature of the campaign could easily have backfired on Warner-Lambert.
But it was a leap of faith that paid off. The spots ran, a nation was glued to its seats, sales (no word on pregnancies) soared. "We wanted to strike an emotional chord," says Constantini, "to create a brand personality of trust and give information as well. We had to spell it out at the beginning of the spot that these people aren't actors, they're people just like you and me."
"What people want is the truth," adds Jordan. "The information is there, but we went a step beyond to portray the subject emotionally. We wanted to document the truth of this process. We knew from the inception that we weren't going to come up with anything that would sell more products than this would."
It helped to have the campaign directed by British director Michael Apted, known for his intimate interviewing style and ability to get people to open up. Famous for movies such as Gorillas in the Mist and the 7 Up documentary series, Apted was a key part of the process from its inception, having been with the team since the original "Reactions" campaign. "We asked him right at the beginning," says Constantini, "if he thought we could do it, then we asked him if he would do it."
The casting process involved interviewing more than 70 couples for their suitability on-camera. And the production process included such bizarre moments as, at one point, a production assistant traveling around the countryside with 100 or so used e.p.t. sticks in the back of her car. "There were moral issues involved, such as whether we were interfering in people's lives and violating their privacy," says Constantini. "But we think we handled it tastefully. We're just reflecting the way the world is."
Constantini, 40, and Jordan, 34, have been attempting to reflect the way the world is for about four years. They first teamed up on Kodak in a triumvirate that included group creative director Brian Sitts. They went on to work on advertising truths for the likes of Lever 2000 soap, Lipton tea and a print campaign for New York restaurant Les Halles.
Jordan, a seven-year Thompson veteran and son of adman Jim Jordan, is keen to point out that nepotism played no part in his rise up the ad-world hierarchy. He does admit, however, to "probably being genetically predisposed" to the business, given that Jordan Senior is chairman of Jordan, McGrath, Case & Taylor. And while Junior's first words were not exactly "USP," he did grow up with an awareness of the genre. "Now I see where he's at in terms of big ideas," says Jordan, who started as an NBC page at Radio City, then quit to put his advertising book together on his own. His father, he says, "wasn't looking at beginners' books, nor was he aware of what kind of work kids were doing in the early '80s. I had to figure it out for myself."
Is Jordan pere aware of what his son does now? "He's aware of the campaign we did for Lever 2000 Soap," says the younger Jordan, "because he's a P&G agency himself."
While Jordan was still paging for NBC, Constantini was swashbuckling in the Far East as a Young & Rubicam creative director in Hong Kong. "I was pretty young and I wanted to do something wacky," he says. "It was an opportunity that arose in a bizarre environment." After four years, though, he'd had enough and fell right back down to earth, transferring to Y&R's New York office. There he teamed up with Mark Fenske, now of The Bomb Factory, who he worked with on everything from Lincoln-Mercury to Frito-Lay--and who was to become an enormous influence. "His quality standards are the highest," says Constantini. "I always test things by saying, 'What would Mark think of that?'"
The e.p.t spots brought tears to Fenske's eyes, says Constantini to the obvious question, but hastily adds, only in a macho-man sort of way. As to what Warner-Lambert thinks of the campaign, with sales up 30% in a category that grew only 13% last year, and the campaign itself garnering an Addy, a Best of Show, and an Andy along the way, the client couldn't be happier. "The problem in the next few months is how to proceed in a quiet time," says Constantini. "This is a small product; there isn't a big budget. All that publicity helped us enormously."
Remember the halcyon days when fitness advertising consisted of Raquel Welch or Cher pumping iron? You could stare passively at the television, secure in the knowledge that the actors had nothing to do with you. But Suissa-Miller's new campaign for Bally's Health and Tennis Corp. reaches out and grabs you off the couch, whether you like it or not.
David Suissa, the man responsible for the aggressive launch that forgoes glamor for sweat, is frighteningly enthusiastic about exercise. Aerobics, treadmills, bicycles, stair climbers, it doesn't matter what you do, as long as you do it at Bally's, he shouts to whomever will listen.
His enthusiasm is hardly surprising. Santa Monica-based Suissa-Miller, the 7-year-old, $47-million agency Suissa heads, just landed the $50-million account after Bally's split from its longtime agency, J. Walter Thompson, in 1991 amid financial chaos. Following a short turbulent relationship with Cohen and Johnson, Bally's briefly brought its advertising in-house before awarding it to Suissa a year ago.
Confidently, Suissa dumped the celebrity endorsements in favor of targeted and response-orientated advertising, dividing his market into those who have picked a club and need an incentive to join, those who have decided to work out and haven't picked a club, and those misguided souls who haven't yet decided to work out. The homeless, the aimless and the hopeless?
The latest national TV spots target those of us who fit snugly into the last category, cleverly combining its 800-number with an image campaign. Designed to inspire a lifestyle examination, the ads demand some sort of response, though a fist through the nagging screen is arguably one option. "The average cable TV bill is $28 a month. Now, you can join Bally's for just $18 a month, which means it costs you more to just sit there," screams a caption running across shots of lithe, sweating bodies pumping to the tune, "ten more . . . nine, eight . . ." If you manage to ignore the first, a second spot, "Why work out?" offers more reasons--strength, fitness, looking good, feeling good--to surgically remove yourself from the couch. Slamming, panting and hectic, these ads are difficult for even the most confirmed couch potato to sit through.
Suissa's principal aim is to generate a response from as large a segment with as little waste as possible, he says, insisting that "creativity and response don't have to be mutually exclusive." In 30 seconds, he says, "I want to convey a lot of information without losing the audience--but the more reasons I give people, the more response we get." Calls to the club's 800-line are up and membership numbers are rising steadily.
A national print campaign, meanwhile, takes a slightly tamer approach, claiming a little exercise offers "a $15 cure for the nation's $240-billion healthcare problem." The point being, offers Suissa, that "a dollar spent on prevention is worth a hundred on the other end. This is not about the perfect body, this is the '90s, and whereas the '80s were about hard bodies, maybe the '90s are about smart bodies. "
David Suissa, bless him, is trying to save us from ourselves, to guide us all to a smart level of fitness and health through what he terms "aspirational" advertising. "The girl in the ads is maybe a little too perfect," he says, "but she's a symbol of where America wants to be, lean and mean." The key, he adds, is to link these aspirations with the image of Bally's. Confidently, Suissa says Bally's doesn't have a main competitor in the market. Then he laughs, "Our number one competitor is apathy." Oh.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)