Take some reformulated potato chips, add a bunch of famous jocks, stir in enough dough to ensure a key Super Bowl time slot and the directorial input of Joe Pytka, leave to stew in the locker room-like atmosphere of BBDO/New York and you have yet another success from the agency's seemingly unstoppable production line.
The potato chips in question belong to Frito-Lay, whose Lay's brand had been languishing without advertising for some 10 years before landing at the account group of BBDO vice chairman and co-creative director Charlie Miesmer.
During Lay's advertising hiatus, new regional and national competitors had emerged and price wars had escalated because of high potato costs and plunging profits. But a reformulated product (the first in Lay's history) involving better equipment and higher grade potatoes cooked in cottonseed oil instead of soy bean oil not only created a crunchier, tastier chip, but also gave Lay's something to say.
'Frito-Lay makes products that are consumed for amusement and enjoyment,' says Miesmer, who is casually dressed in baggy pants and a dark green shirt. 'Chips are fun to eat, they're not a serious product. Lay's makes the world's most classical potato chip - not too thick, not too oily, made from a real slice of a real potato. But with chips there's not very often a serious commitment to brand loyalty, although they're not parity products. And people at Frito-Lay are looking to us to differentiate them from the category.'
And differentiating products is something the 50-year-old Miesmer, who joined BBDO 24 years ago, has become expert at. Currently in charge of some $400 million in billings and some 50 creatives (Ted Sann heads up the other half of BBDO's creative department), Miesmer and his group are known for serving up slices of glitzy, highly produced Americana for such clients as Polaroid, Visa, Federal Express, HBO and Lever Brothers. Miesmer commands his advertising empire from a spacious, cluttered seventh-floor office (one chair is piled with phone messages, a table is strewn with vitamin bottles, videotapes, more phone messages and notepads). 'I'm an eccentric man,' he says, then changes his mind, settling instead for being 'chronically late and annoyingly disorganized.'
'Lay's had improved the chip, which is rare,' he explains. 'They made a commitment to it by buying better potatoes and equipment, so they looked and tasted better. But no one cares about this. No one wakes up in the morning and says, 'Hey, I hope they licked those faulty chips today.' So in view of the fact no one cares, we have to inform people we've improved it totally.'
Research showed people remembered 'Betcha can't eat just one,' the Lay's theme since 1963. To reinstate the challenge last year, Miesmer roped in Celtics star Larry Bird and former Lakers star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and modified the Lay's wager to 'Too good to eat just one.' In the spot, Abdul-Jabbar bets Bird he can't eat just one potato chip. Needless to say, Bird loses and ends up with a bald dome to match Kareem's (courtesy of skull caps created by a Saturday Night Live make-up artist).
This initial effort, written by Doug Kagan and Eliot Riskin, art directed by Ron Palumbo and Phil Triolo and directed by Tom Coyne of Propaganda Films, ran last spring during the National Basketball Association championships.
'With Bird and Jabbar we had an interesting personal confrontation,' says Miesmer. 'Bird's got a little bit of country in him, Abdul-Jabbar's a more worldly and urbane guy.'
The spot had an immediate effect. 'Lay's potato chips saw double-digit growth,' says Frito-Lay spokesman Todd MacKenzie. It also won an Andy.
The second spot was part of a Super Bowl half-time sponsorship deal that aired during Michael Jackson's performance. The Super Bowl, says Miesmer, was the obvious place for the two-part ad. 'Sports has to do with friendly wagering anyway, plus people know who all these stars are.'
The lineup of stars consisted of New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms and linebacker Lawrence Taylor, Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway, Los Angeles Raiders defensive end Howie Long and running back Eric Dickerson, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason, former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka and former Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry.
'Frito-Lay decided out of the blue to do a Super Bowl spot, to get NFL players and to own the half-time,' says copywriter Jimmy Siegel. 'But things kept changing at the last minute. It was a complicated thing to get through. We had to present not just to Frito-Lay and the people here, but to the NFL, the players and the people who represent the players. We'd say, 'Let's have this guy,' and they'd say 'No, not available.' We really needed Tom Landry because he was bald, and we wanted Mike Ditka who happened to have just been fired from Chicago Bears and people were interested in seeing him. But we didn't know if he'd be up for it - he's a macho guy and we wanted him to hide in the background.'
Pytka, says Siegel, was an integral element. 'We needed his expertise,' he says. 'There's a certain confidence in dealing with people at that level. If we have to change things at the last minute, he can take it on.'
A teaser campaign, which ran for a week before the Super Bowl, had Ditka inviting the players to a party. 'Part of the reason you use sports celebrities is to get people interested,' says Hanson. 'The pr was terrific.' In the actual spot, the first part set up the wager, with Landry betting the assorted ballplayers they couldn't eat just one Lay's chip. Part two showed the results of the lost wager: a bunch of bald NFL stars.
Key to the campaign's success was the Super Bowl exposure. 'Frito-Lay decided not to go for a sustained campaign but to do an atomic bomb of an spot,' says Miesmer. 'When a client decides to depart from traditional marketing by running it around something instead of throughout the year, it takes courage.'
Once again the spot generated acres of press coverage before it even ran. The best part for Siegel and Hanson was meeting the players themselves. 'It was like a dream come true,' says Hanson. 'They didn't hide away in vans, they were all very friendly and loved talking about the game. They give you a much better account of it than what you normally hear.' Adds Siegel, 'Phil Simms even tutored Rick in passing the ball.'
Currently in the works is the Lay's Challenge Mark 2, another event-driven scenario. 'That works best for us,' says Miesmer. 'It's not gonna be the kind of advertising you see on TV every night. We learned a lot from this. We learned that you can really sell a lot of product if you can tie it in just right. Now, I wish we'd made more of the opportunity.'
With its closed-shop boys' club mentality, outsiders traditionally have had a difficult time fitting into the BBDO culture. Creative talent tends to be homegrown and male (although there are 16 women in Miesmer's group). They also tend to be there for the duration. Why do they stay so long? 'We get to work on great accounts,' says Riskin, who's put in 12 years. 'It offers great opportunities. A 21-year-old kid can come in here and immediately present to Phil (Dusenberry, BBDO's chairman).'
'For a big agency it's very creatively driven,' says Palumbo, another 12-year man. 'Charlie's management style is to get everyone to open up.'
'Charlie's a great person,' says Hanson, who's notched 17 years. 'He runs a relaxed ship. He's a very easy person to talk to and present.'
Adds Siegel, there for 12 years, 'He'll spend more time talking about the game on Monday mornings than about work.'
Does Miesmer still write himself? He spends a long time thinking about the question 'Sometimes I'm sole author, sometimes I'm part author. Sometimes I'm not the author at all. It works best in the latter case. I don't concern myself with where ideas come from,' he says.
Miesmer, who was hired by the same BBDO creative director who hired Sann in the late '60s, says the reason he's stayed so long is because 'BBDO places talent above all. Personally, I think we're the best big agency in the business. The thing is to let people do their thing. You put our reel next to the reel of any other large agency and I think you would see a big difference. It's not just to do with the client list, but also the smarts of the people doing advertising. Although if I came here now, as a young person, I'm not sure I would be as successful.'
'The one overriding word about the cookie category is 'fun,' ' says Bob Neuman, senior creative director at FCB/Leber Katz.
'Cookies are fun to eat,' adds his partner, Bob Phillips, also a senior creative director. 'Even as people have become more health-conscious, they'll give up hot fudge sundaes and cake, but they're not willing to give up cookies.'
Which is probably just as well for Neuman and Phillips. Based in FCB's unfunlike headquarters, which is imbued with all the joie de vivre of an insurance office, they head up the bulk of Nabisco's cookie business, including such all-American icons as Oreos, Chips Ahoy!, Honeymaid and NutterButter. But the most distinctive and successful TV campaign by the pair (known around the agency as 'The Two Bobs') has been 'The Brits' for Fig Newton, a 70-year-old product which actually originated in Newton, Mass.
Launched in July 1989, 'The Brits' consists of a series of spots designed to emphasize the dry British sense of humor by placing British actors in exaggerated British situations (a courtroom, Buckingham Palace, a safari). Accompanied by quirky music the spots play up the line 'A cookie is just a cookie, but Fig Newtons are fruit and cake.'
Why British? 'No logical reason,' laughs Phillips, a cheerful down-home sort in his 40s. 'The name sounds slightly British to American ears and Nabisco wanted a personality for the brand. When I arrived here back in 1988, sales were flat. We picked British people because whenever anyone thinks of the British, they think they're so polite and it was a fun way to advertise. We tried doing it with Americans, but it wasn't as much fun.'
The first two campaigns were directed by American Bob Giraldi, but subsequent spots were directed by Brits Gale Tattersall and David Ashwell, who both work out of BFCS, Los Angeles. 'They understood the British attitude,' says Phillips, 'and were able to add nuances we didn't think of.'
While most of Nabisco's other cookie brands are aimed at parents via the medium of daytime TV, Fig Newtons' appeal is to a more adult audience, hence its more sophisticated approach. 'Nabisco is fairly conservative,' says Phillips. 'But its strong suit is that it has all these brand names. We don't do hard sell - we never advertise price. When the client wanted to emphasize taste on the new fat-free Fig Newtons, it wasn't allowed to overwhelm the execution.'
With Fig Newtons' sales and market share up - it's now No. 3 behind Chips Ahoy! and Oreos at Nabisco - the company is equally keen to distinguish its other brands. 'Nabisco wants to separate one brand from the other,' says Neuman, 'so each has to have its own personality.'
Adjectives such as 'Oreo-ness' are used to describe the Oreo brand's equity and its ability to evoke child-like memories of warmth and sharing. Nabisco, says Phillips, wants each ad to be as 'cookie-like' as possible.
While Oreos goes for schmaltz-laced emotion via a father issuing instructions to junior on how to eat an Oreo, NutterButter - which hadn't advertised for 10 years - gets what might be described as a more avant garde approach involving shots of Africa's Serengeti Plain and a bunch of elephants with pink wings flying about in peanut heaven.
'With all these brands there's a renewed commitment to reinforce equity,' says Phillips, who started his career at Levine Huntley Schmidt & Beaver (working on Subaru and People Express), moved to Ammirati & Puris (BMW) and then on to Angotti, Thomas, Hedge (Wild Turkey and KLM), where he became co-creative director. Why did he move to the comparatively amorphous FCB? 'I wanted to do more TV,' he says. 'And I liked the idea of working on cookies. These products are American icons. I grew up eating Oreos and Fig Newtons. They were a part of my childhood. They're like Coke, part of the American culture. There's very few products like that.'
'Cookies are lighthearted,' adds Neuman, who joined FCB in 1991 after 21 years at Ogilvy & Mather, where he worked on American Express and Smith Barney. 'And we try to be honest to each brand. When I first came here Nabisco asked me, 'Do you like cookies?' It was important to them that I liked the product.'
What appealed to him about FCB? 'Although FCB is a big agency,' Neuman says, 'the way the groups are broken down, it actually feels like a small agency. Under Stan Katz it was very account-driven. Now the word here is 'creative intensity.' The agency's going through a transition. There's been a terrific change in the reel over the last year or so, and now the aim is to produce work comparable to the San Francisco office.'
It is a tale of blood and guts, of ritual slaughter, of intestines and salt. No, it's not the latest dispatch from some war-torn land, just a missive from the front lines of the New York chicken wars.
In these politically correct and health-conscious times, the search for a perfect chicken has become a sensitive issue. Or so Empire Kosher Poultry and its New York-based agency, Follis DeVito Verdi, would have us believe. When the 55-year-old Pennsylvania-based company, which claims 55% of the kosher poultry market, decided to reach beyond its core audience last year, it awarded two-year-old FDV its $4-million account after being impressed with the agency's tongue-in-cheek work for Solgar vitamins.
Empire, having just been taken over by an investment group, was keen to target an estimated 4.5 million Jews who do not buy kosher products - many of whom live in New York - as well as non-Jewish consumers with a campaign touting the health and quality benefits of kosher versus non-kosher.
FDV's first effort was created by Sal DeVito, the scrappy bantamweight of copywriters, and aided and abetted by Abi Arom and Rob Carducci, two former students from DeVito's School of Visual Arts copywriting course. The ad, which broke in early March in New York subways, bus sides, bus stops, newspapers and Long Island Rail Road platforms, featured Moses wielding a tablet of stone above the words, 'It takes an even tougher man to make a kosher chicken.' While the campaign was designed to get noticed, it unintentionally attracted the notice of Frank Perdue, the heavyweight of chicken marketers, who promptly took Empire to court claiming Perdue's trademark had been violated.
'It was outrage with substance,' says the balding, long-haired, 5-foot-3 DeVito, who is seated in Jerry's Cafe in SoHo, just around the corner from the FDV offices. 'The aim was to get a wider audience. We give people what they want, not what they expect.'
'We wanted to put Empire on people's minds,' says copywriter Arom. 'A lot of people don't know what kosher means. We didn't do it for the sake of upstaging Perdue. We did it to show that Empire goes through far more inspections than the government says it has to. Here's a written guarantee Perdue can't offer. Chickens have become such a sensitive subject. They're seen as a healthy food and there's lots of room for growth. People are very concerned about buying chickens now, so if you can prove they've been through more inspections you've got an advantage.'
Says principal Ellis Verdi, 'When we do something with an edge you always get someone complaining. When we first presented the campaign there were kosher Jews at Empire who were offended. You can't disregard the core business - kosher Jews. The key is to keep the balance, so that kosher Jews are not upset by Empire going out to get new people.'
While the first campaign has run its course and the lawsuit has been settled out of court, FDV's second assault broke just in time for Passover. 'The other chicken companies are going to hate this ad,' was the headline above a text-only ad stating, 'Many chickens on the market today are less than perfect. That's because the companies that sell them believe that if a chicken is good enough to be approved by the government, it's good enough to be sold to you.' The second part of the campaign appeared a few weeks later, with exactly the same text enhanced by the addition of a few raw eggs splattered across the poster. The third in the series was adorned with even more eggs.
'With us there are no rules, no limitations,' explains DeVito, who says future ads are likely to include more of the same attitude and could include TV.
Adds Verdi, 'Everything we do here, we do with a vengeance.'
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)