JWT airs the first spots in its live Ford campaign
Minutes before the first live Ford commercial was broadcast, copywriter Ute Brantsch and the rest of the J. Walter Thompson creative team anxiously headed toward a production trailer to sit out the last few moments before show time.
After months of preparation and numerous rehearsals, there was nothing left to do on the drizzly night of the MTV Video Music Awards but to watch with bated breath. How would their first live TV campaign appear to the rest of the country?
The debut commercial introducing Ford's new car, the Focus, finally aired at 9:17 p.m. live, almost 15 minutes later than scheduled, due to the unpredictable world of a live awards show telecast.
Suddenly, a "Ford Focus Live" super flashes across the bottom of the TV screen and the action, being filmed down the street from the team's video trailer, comes up on the screen without a hitch. As the image finally shifts to the closing logo and music, a spontaneous cheer rises up in unison from dozens of people involved in the project who are sprawled across several blocks in New York City's financial district.
It was the first milepost in a journey that will end with JWT, Detroit, shooting more than 60 live commercials in six months. Ford is expected to support the campaign with close to $100 million during the first 12 months of the Focus' launch.
Various JWT creatives, including Brantsch, art director Tim Hansz and copywriter Curt Catallo, scurry around the quiet city block wearing nervous and anticipatory grins, exhausted from the intense preparation that began nearly a year earlier.
The first 30-second spot was shot outside the famous Delmonico's steak house, with a red carpet rolled out to resemble a hotel entrance and a rack of funky green alligator luggage parked outside. Minutes before filming began, comedienne Annabelle Gurwitch from TBS' Dinner and Movie practices hopping down the steps while putting on her heels en route to the MTV awards.
In fact, the three commercials that aired on MTV during the awards follow the comedienne as she tries to find her way to the event. In the first spot, she refuses offers from a number of limo drivers, including one with a red velour interior. Instead, she prefers to take her own car: a silver Focus.
Predictably, the comedienne gets lost in the second spot and well-meaning New Yorkers try to give her directions. Cueing the audience that the action is live, they advise her against taking one route because "some idiots are shooting a Ford commercial." The agency team, watching the awards show during the production, also added last-minute copy lines to the script that referenced material from the event.
In the third ad, Gurwitch and her companions, still lost, are sent to M's TV and Video shop, not exactly the MTV they had in mind.
JWT and Ford believe the live plug for the car is the first attempt at broadcasting live spots in the automotive category. In an ad segment traditionally stuck to conventional imagery--vehicles gliding down winding roads--this approach is radical. And for JWT, thought by other automotive agencies to be among the most conservative in the category, it's even more of a stretch.
The young and hip target demographic for the vehicle--echo boomers (children of baby boomers) and Generation Xers from late teens to early 30s--has a very strong "bull" detector, says Jan Klug, Ford division marketing communications manager.
"They can sniff out a fraud. We wanted someone who could be genuine and honest. This advertising is straightforward and lets them come to their own. There's no 'way cool' buzz talk," says Klug. "But we didn't want to be boring. This audience wants to be provoked and excited so the message has to be delivered in a creative and unexpected way."
Bruce Rooke, JWT executive creative director, says the idea to go with a live campaign grew out of conversations between the creative team and the client about how to best capture the attention of the young demographic Ford wants to reach with Focus.
Given this demo's short attention span and "seen-it-all" attitude, something highly out of the ordinary--such as live commercials--seemed in order, explains Rooke.
To pull off the effort, JWT used only two video cameras to film multiple shots; the primary camera was handheld. To capture action inside the vehicle, a "lipstick" camera (the size of a lipstick tube), used to film auto races, was mounted onto the interior.
A production trailer housed video technicians and audio mixers, who transmitted the video to the network and dropped graphics, music and a pre-filmed product shot into the spot.
"This was unlike any other commercial I've ever worked on," says Carl Spresser, JWT senior partner and director of broadcast production, who described the feat as a mix of live video production and commercial film production. "It was more exhilarating and definitely more intense. This was more like a live theater performance."
In between spots, camera crews captured behind-the-scenes maneuvers and conducted interviews with those involved. This information was quickly transferred to the car's Web site: www.focus247.com.
Live TV spots for any product are a rarity. There were a few for Coke several decades ago, as well as a spot in the early '90s for Prodigy and a Schlitz Brewing Co. spot in the early '80s (J. Walter Thompson, New York and Chicago, respectively), and the predictable Publishers Clearing House (Deutsch, New York) routine.
A Super Bowl spot several years ago by DDB Needham Chicago for Frito-Lay Rold Gold pretzels was one of the "nearly live" (shot in only one take and meant to appear as live). It was completed when the crew was given two minutes during an ABC Monday Night Football to parachute a stuntman into the stadium, doubling as actor Jason Alexander, during the Super Bowl.
The unknown ad territory prompted director Peter Kagen, of Hollywood, Calif.'s Stiefel + Co., and the JWT creative team, led by Rooke, to keep a tight rein on as many of the elements as they could.
That control may have been the downfall in the three spots.
Although the agency specifically chose live spots in order to do something different, the spots came off not looking live enough. Some critics say they seemed too scripted and polished. "The main feedback we've been getting [from the client and others at the agency] is we did our jobs a bit too well," Rooke says, a few days after the first spots aired.
"It didn't come off as being live. It wasn't Blair Witch enough. It was too well-rehearsed. We just ended up being too professional."
Ironic. It was Gurwitch's ability to combine an easy self-depreciation and goofiness that got her the job, says Klug.
So does Gurwitch ever make it to the video awards in the first three commercials? Nope. Instead, she eats hot dogs with the friendly locals who had tried to give her directions in the first place.
Gurwitch has been intimately involved with the creation of the spots, sitting in on conference calls between the client and the agency and giving her input about plot lines and dialogue. She also had an instant rapport with Kagen, who will be used in campaign ads shooting through November, Rooke says.
The second run at eight more live spots will be shot in Los Angeles this week and will air on Sept. 23, NBC's season premiere night, on shows such as Friends and ER. Four spots will air in each time zone.
Moreover, shakier camera work, more natural lighting, less on-the-fly editing and looser scripting will be implemented, says Rooke.
"You have to work on a cadaver before you work on a live patient," Rooke says. "We needed to cut our teeth. We look at it as a learning experience."
The creative director says he was just grateful the shoot was a technological success and "there was no blank screen" where their commercials should have been.
Still, chaos nearly ensued several times. A downpour threatened to complicate filming. Then, a few hours before the first commercial was scheduled, Rooke and the production team were busy negotiating with the heads of the American Heart Association Wall Street Run. The marathon meant that an estimated 3,000 runners would be traipsing through the Ford set because conflicting permits had been issued.
Luckily, the leg of the run through the locations was completed early enough to clear the space in time for the crew to return to shooting, says Frank Stiefel, executive producer of Stiefel + Co.
Since there will be a deliberate effort to achieve a less-polished look in the next round of commercials, the lighting, which came across as unnatural in the first round, won't be an issue. The next set of spots will be shot earlier in the evening, Rooke says. In fact, the majority of the remaining ads will be shot in Los Angeles to take advantage of favorable lighting, he says.
Of course, live ads can be appealing, but they are also costly. How you justify the expense depends on how you look at it, Rooke says. There is no editing or post-production costs, but the use of a celebrity pitcher and the sheer quantity of the spots hike the price.
No matter how they come off, the attempt to be different is a positive step for the automaker. Ford is serious about understanding the youth audience better and being more cutting edge in their advertising, says Klug.
"Ford has blended in for a long time," not going out of its way to differentiate its advertising, Klug adds. "We owe it to the products and the brands to find new ways of capturing the consumers' imagination. I see a lot more risk-taking in our future."