Making office supplies fun isn't easy. But DDB in Chicago has a hit with "Rubberband Man," its happy-go-lucky office-supplies-clerk character for OfficeMax who has danced his way to a back-to-school sequel spot and an Emmy nomination.
The original spot, which broke in December, shows the friendly worker, played by 30-year-old actor Eddie Steeples, his hair a giant Afro with a big wedge in it, strutting and dancing through an office. The Spinners' 1976 hit "Rubberband Man" plays as he hands out supplies before people even know they need them. In a back-to-school spot that broke in July, the character takes his groovy dance outside and to the beach, chasing kids to give them supplies for the school year.
The inspiration for Rubberband Man came from inside the halls of DDB itself. "We work in a fairly large company, and there are guys like Rubberband Man making the rounds with mail," says Don Pogany, group creative director on the campaign.
Looking to portray office products outside the store environment, Pogany and his team thought it would be "cool to focus on the conduit to literally the whole company. … It would be fun to build a story around that person."
The song, not the actor, was selected first. It was chosen because of the "popiness, the fun aspect" of it, Pogany says.
To find the actor, director David Kellogg and the creative team—which also includes creative director Vinny Warren, associate creative directors Tim Nichols, Bruce Ritter and Scott Smith, copywriter Shane Cotton and art director Pete Taylor—held a casting call in Los Angeles late last year. Without a specific type in mind, they saw about 100 people—a mix of black and white actors, and nerdy and hip types. Steeples, a St. Louis native who had gone to the audition on the advice of a friend, clearly stood out as he danced with office supplies in a shopping cart.
"He had the right combination of looks and maneuvers, and the key thing for us was he grasped how varied the character could be," Pogany says. "The random items in the cart, he was thinking about each and every one. The other guys were a bit more superficial with it."
Steeples, who had done no commercial work before but did appear in the film Torque and in a sketch on HBO's The Chris Rock Show, came to the audition "thinking about other things," he says. "I didn't take it that seriously, actually." He was surprised and elated when he got the part. He describes the character as "kind of a happy guy going along, doing his thing," he says. "In my eyes, he's sharper than most people, especially more than most people give him credit for being. At the same time, he makes everybody happy."
While the character fell quickly into place, the hair took longer to sort out. Steeples auditioned in Afro puffs—two puffy balls on the side of his head—but the client nixed that as too "oddball," Kellogg says. They tried dreadlocks and other things, but nothing seemed right. Finally they tried an Afro with a triangular wedge chopped out of it, and it worked. "In the end, the hair is actually one of the strong elements of the spot," Kellogg says.
DDB won the OfficeMax account last October. The ongoing "What's your thing?" campaign is its first TV work for the client. Other ads in the series showed a man coloring his face with a yellow highlighter in an attempt to go home sick from work and two men fighting on a mountain—an image that freezes and becomes a motivational poster touting teamwork, which OfficeMax also sells.
"We just felt the lines were kind of blurred between the three main competitors [Staples, Office Depot and OfficeMax]," Pogany says. "They were interchangeable. We felt like we needed to create some sort of personality or something outside the norm throughout the category, to have OfficeMax stand apart."
They found plenty of personality in Steeples, but Pogany says they thought an Afro-donning clerk dancing to a '70s soul song might raise objections of racial stereotyping. To combat that, they posted a making-of short film on the OfficeMax Web site to show that the agency had auditioned a number of different types. "We went into it pretty open, and he just happened to be best," Pogany says.
There has been the odd complaint or two, but Pogany says the response has been overwhelmingly positive. "[OfficeMax] gets tons of positive letters and e-mails from customers, people saying, 'It's my favorite advertisement. I love that guy,' " Pogany says.
To boot, the spot is competing in the Outstanding Commercial category at this year's Emmy Awards, joining spots from Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco ("Born a Donkey" for Budweiser and "Door Music" for Saturn), Fallon in Minneapolis ("Interview" for United Airlines and "Outfit" for Citibank) and Young & Rubicam in Chicago ("Dominoes" for Miller). The winner was named after press time, at a ceremony at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles last night. (See the Creative section on Adweek.com for the winner.)
Emmy or no, will Steeples appear in future ads? "I think so," Pogany says. "We don't want to overexpose him, but it seems people have a real desire to see more of him."
And while Steeples prefers working in the movie business, he is not opposed to reprising the role. "The residuals are nice," he says.