Larry Volpi, a garrulous New Yorker, and Phil Halyard, a soft-spoken Australian, are two forty-ish co-creative directors at J. Walter Thompson. And, helped by thirtysomething copywriter Pat O'Donnell, they happen to be creating some of the most interesting advertising in the health and beauty category.
For Warner-Lambert's Lubridern Lotion, Halyard and O'Donnell, created a sophisticated TV campaign featuring an elegant model, a stark white background and a live alligator to capsulize the problem of ebt skin.
For Listerine mouthwash, Volpi and Halyard had Our Hero, the bottle, swing through the jungle Tarzan-style, K.O. gingivitis in a boxing ring and slay gum disease in a cave, all courtesy of some breakthrough animation and a technique called Pixar.
"The thing about health and beauty is that there's more pressure to talk about the product," says Volpi. "You have to be more copy- and beauty-specific. This isn't Coke, you can't just throw out image. It's much tougher in packaged goods generally. Everything gets tested. Clients have something to say and the advertising has to be smarter."
It was O'Donnell's smart idea two years ago to use an alligator as a metaphor to make Lubriderm stand out in a crowded category. "It was one of those unique times something came out the way I wanted it to," says O'Donnell, who has worked at JWT for eight years, primarily on Warner-Lambert and Kodak. "When we first started working on the account two years ago, it didn't come with a lot of preconceived ideas. The aim was just to make the product more visible, to give the brand more of an image and give people another way of thinking about a skin product. The idea of an alligator was so startling and different that it quickly established itself as an image for that product."
Says Halyard, who sports a dangling earring, a Bohemian scarf and a self-confessed nomadic attitude, "Warner-Lambert has a lot of classic, no-bull products. With Lubriderm there's no bells or whistles. The sincerity was already there; the product told its own story. Our task was to bring an image and elegance to it."
That image and elegance easily transferred to other products in the Lubriderm range, including facial cleanser and soap. "The thing about the alligator is that it differentiates," continues Halyard, who arrived at JWT following two years at Lowe & Partners, a spell at JWT/San Francisco, a round-the-world-trip and an apprenticeship at Young & Rubicam in Adelaide, Australia (in its day known as the Fallon McElligott of Australia). "If you look at ads for Revlon or L'Oreal in women's magazines, they all look the same. They have much more money and can take six-page spreads. We have zip for money, so the thing that stands out is the alligator."
With a second Lubriderm spot in production, the challenge now, says Halyard, is to come up with something equally as good. "The first spot was received so well, there's a lot of pressure to do well with the second spot," he says.
With Warner-Lambert's Listerine, a 114-year-old brand that's the top seller in its category, the aim was to ward off competitors. JWT has had Listerine since 1962, and it spent many years on soft-sell efforts designed to alert the public to the threat of gingivitis. "No one was really excited about the campaigns," says account director Adele Finaly. By the 1990s, the brand faced increasing competition from private label competitors and the aim became to stand out in a crowd as well as introduce Listerine's Cool Mint sibling.
"The category was filled with slice-of-life advertising," says Volpi, who first started working on the brand three years ago. "We had to break through the clutter as well as include copy points about fighting plaque and gum disease. We tried several approaches, but this was the one that worked and tested best. Slice of life it ain't. Listerine is such an icon, and we felt we had a real chance to portray the bottle as a hero, as someone fighting in your comer, on your side, and still be true to the tone and attitude. Scope couldn't do this.
"For years, clients were afraid of using entertaining spots," Volpi adds. "They thought they got in the way of the product message. But everything's changed now. It doesn't have to be just slice-of-life. (Creative director) Jim Patterson's philosophy is 'Hard sell you like to watch.'"
The campaign has won numerous awards, and has even been inducted into the Museum of Modem Art's permanent ad collection. Other joint efforts by Halyard and Volpi include Nestle's "Sweet Dreams" campaign of the late '80s, which featured a haunting musical refrain, and a campaign for Warner-Lambert's Bubbilicious bubble gum that was also snapped up by MOMA.
A long time Thompson veteran, Volpi quit JWT in 1989 for a 10-month spell at Rosenfeld & Sirowitz. "I wanted to see what a small shop was like," he says. "I returned because the business changed. Jim Patterson came back and wanted to change things around. He wanted to push packaged goods--and I realized that big places had pockets of great creativity."
It was in one such pocket that he met Halyard. "We searched each other out," says Volpi. "We liked each other's style. We're a good foil for each other. Sometimes I'll take the lead, other times he'll take it."
Like Volpi, Halyard espoused a more user-friendly approach to advertising. "I'd like advertising to have a conversation with me as a consumer," says Halyard. "I get really offended by ads talking at me. If you're going to arrive uninvited into someone's living room, then you'd better be entertaining."
For Volpi, the real challenge remains quite simple: "It's being able to be successful within the system and still put out a piece of advertising you're proud of."
It must be all the vitamins they take. Creative director Richard Kirshenbaum, in jaunty yellow and navy bow tie, can't stop fidgeting and shuffling his feet. And everyone else at Kirshenbaum & Bond, his bursting-at-the-seams, 96-person agency in downtown Manhattan, seems propelled by some form of high-octane jet fuel.
If, as Kirshenbaum would have us believe, wellness is the mantra for the '90s, then his agency is looking increasingly like the decade's picture of health. Not only has Kirshenbaum & Bond almost doubled its billings-- to $105 million in 1992 from $65 million in 1991 it has toned down its former bad boy status, emphasized strategic planning, improved its creative and picked up several new accounts, one of which is Solgar vitamins.
How did Kirshenbaum & Bond come to handle vitamins? Well, during the late '80s and early '90s, while most other agencies were fretting after automobile or an-line accounts, Kirshenbaum & Bond decided to pursue something more in tune with the times. The agency won Snapple, and then it picked up Solgat (the Mercedes of vitamins, as Kirshenbaum puts it).
"It used to be that people wanted an automobile or airline account," Kirshenbaum says in his cluttered office, which is crammed with examples of his passion for collecting kitsch memorabilia. "But look what happened-neither are faring as well today. Today new growth areas are emerging. They're not as big as automobiles or airlines, but people's habits change. Ten years ago no one drank bottled waters. Vitamins is in its infancy. It's an emerging industry, and there's an incredible potential."
It's a potential Kirshenbaum feels well-placed to exploit. "We're only interested in certain types of products we believe in and feel passionately about," he says, passionately. "One day Jon Bond and I were talking about how we'd love to have Solgat. I really believe in vitamins. So we called them up and they invited us out to meet them. The first time I met Rand Skolnick, the president of Solgar, we had a discussion about health and beauty. They liked our thinking--we usually win accounts on oar thinking, not our creative--and we had a strategy worked out for them."
That was a year ago. The budget was small. The medium was outdoor. Print ads aimed at "vitamin purists" broke in December and showed the Solgar bottle with the copy "Just how strong is your instinct for self-preservation? Solgar vitamins. Think. Then decide."
"The focus was the challenge of how healthy do you want to be?" says art director Pain Klinkard, a Brit who left Saatchi & Saatchi/London a year ago to join Kirshenbaum & Bond. "It's the first step of a long-term strategy educating people about vitamins."
"When we did the campaign, we didn't want to alienate other potential users," says copywriter Craig Simpson, who joined the agency two and a half years ago after he showed Kirshenbaum his book "on a whim." "More and more people are saying now is the perfect time to investigate vitamins. Time magazine did a cover on it. Medical groups are starting to advocate their use."
The second phase was introduced in February with the same bottle visual and the text "Forget your biceps, let's see your pancreas." Another ad asked, "What good is your face looking 25 if your body feels 80?"
"That phase was aimed at people interested in vitamins who were not heavy users or who used them only when they had a cold," says Simpson. "It was very important not to trivialize vitamins or portray them as a substitute for food."
Kirshenbaum says previous Solgat ads-award-winning work by follis DeVito Verdi weren't on target. "It wasn't the right message," he says. '"The trend with everything right now is internal. Health and fitness means something different for the '90s. You don't have to work out like Schwarzenegger and look like Christie Brinkley anymore. People are more conscious of the inside of their bodies. More and more, vitamins are being seen as important to your health."
While it's too early to measure the effect of the campaign (Solgar doesn't have market share figures available), Kirshenbaum says the next phase is to make Solgar the leader of the wellness movement. "One of the things that really impressed me about Rand," he says, "was that he was offered a lot of money to go into mass outlets like Duane Reade and he turned it down. He's only in health food stores--so he's not just in it for a buck. He believes in the health food concept and in supporting health food stores. Solgar makes its own vitamins. It's got its own research department, and everyone in the industry gets the benefit."
And the next phase for K&B? The agency that brought you such in-your-face ads as Donna Rice and No Excuses jeans and The New York Post's "3 Biggest Lies" campaign is making a case for maturity. "We're in the mid-level agency size. The bad boy image is no longer appropriate. We're a little older and wiser now. We still do outrageous campaigns for outrageous roducts, but Solgat is an example of a more sophisticated strategy and thinking."
Kirshenbaum is also looking down the line. "A lot of agencies we admired have gone under--Levine, Huntley and Geer DuBois," he says. "It puts us in an interesting position. We're a new breed of agency. We're going to inherit the mantle of a Levine in the next couple of years. We are the natural successors."
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)