Active Duty

By his second day of basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C., Craig Markus had had enough. A day earlier, Markus—lead creative on McCann Worldgroup’s U.S. Army account— and 55 of his colleagues had been greeted at the airport by drill sergeants who barked commands and demanded prompt compliance. Now, he was on his second day of 4:30 a.m. wake-ups, followed by push-ups, sit-ups, marching and drills. The Army wanted to make sure that the New York ad executives fully grasped the line they had presented to win the account last December: “Army strong.”

But all he could think, Markus says, was “how do I get out of this?”

As one of five executive creative directors at McCann and co-founder of its youth marketing division, Tag, Markus has plenty of experience targeting young adults. He has worked on accounts including Bass Ale, Verizon Wireless and Levi’s, and contributed to campaigns for MasterCard and Microsoft’s Xbox. But marketing the Army presented a unique challenge to the graduate of the L.A. Art Center of Design. For one, growing up in Encinco, Calif., Markus, 41, says he heard constantly about his father’s military service in the late 1950s and how it made him tougher, more confident and responsible. His father was a “stern disciplinarian,” Markus explains, and he chafed under his authority.

During his three days at Fort Jackson, Markus contemplated how he was going to make the very place he wanted to escape from compelling to potential recruits—and at a time when public opinion was turning against the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

The soldiers, as it turned out, provided the inspiration he needed. On their third and final night, the team listened to the reasons why the soldiers enlisted. One young father wanted his children to be proud of him. Another said his hometown was worse than nine weeks of basic training and he wanted a future. Others simply wanted to serve.

“It was incredibly humbling,” says Markus. “Every person I meet in the Army is truly amazing—what they’re offering to this country, the sacrifices they’re willing to make. These are the people you want fighting for you whether you agree or disagree with the fight.”

The self-described patriotic liberal says some peers have reacted negatively to his working on the account. They equate selling the Army with selling cigarettes. Or worse. As leader of the free world, he answers, the U.S. needs a strong Army, even in peace time.

McCann’s first Army work, which includes broadcast, print and online ads, broke last month with a TV spot showing soldiers in action as a male voiceover intones, “There’s strong and then there’s Army strong. It’s not just the strength to obey, but to command. It’s not just the strength to lift, but to raise. It’s more than physical strength, it’s emotional strength.” Another was shot on the Iowa farm of a couple who express a mixture of concern and pride about their son’s chosen path.

“[Markus] was always reminding us to make sure that the humanity of the soldier comes through,” says David Waraksa, senior art director at McCann. “He didn’t want them to be seen as superheroes, even though what they do is superhuman.”

Army rep Paul Boyce says the ads have generated positive feedback. The goal is to add 80,000 new troops by next October.

Some of the soldierly attributes highlighted in the campaign are similar to those colleagues ascribe to Markus. Some say he’s “demanding” and “driven,” while others say he possesses the reserved good manners indicative of true self-confidence. “He’s very comfortable in his own skin,” says McCann New York CCO Joyce King Thomas, who hired Markus six years ago from Deutsch in New York, where he worked on Snapple and Foot Locker, among other accounts. “We’re no bullshit and that’s the way he is.”

Waraksa compares Markus’ management style to that of a coach who doesn’t let players retreat to their comfort zones, and who often has the creatives switch partners as a means to refresh their thinking.

Markus, whose first big agency job was at Ogilvy & Mather, New York, is separated and has two sons, ages 8 and 10. He took up painting last year and lives a five-minute walk from an art studio in Brooklyn Heights that he rents with other artists.

As for “Army strong,” he says that as a bonus, he and his father bonded over the campaign. In addition, he loved working with the soldiers. “They’re the best group of actors I’ve ever worked with,” he says. “They do exactly what you tell them to do. Nobody asks what their motivation is.”