Ad Libs

In an industry where a creative idea must survive one approval process after another and every piece of the puzzle is hashed out in meeting upon meeting, there would seem to be little room for spontaneity. But unscripted moments do find their way into ads—sometimes they transform an idea entirely, sometimes they add a small but notable detail. For example, one comedic touch in a new Subway spot is the shot of a neighbor videotaping the man washing his car in a cheerleading outfit. During the shoot, Dave Damman, group creative head/art director at Fallon in Minneapolis, noticed a stoic onlooker with videocamera in hand—he turned out to be the home owner’s dad—and realized that including him in the scene would add a layer of humor. Dad was quickly cast. Actor Vaughn Lowery managed to put a whole new spin on TBWA\Chiat\Day’s plan for a 2002 commercial promoting Kmart’s Joe Boxer T-shirts. Auditioning, he was asked only to read one line—”They’re tight and they’re white, but they’re not tighty whities”—but spiced it up by adding some quirky dance moves. It was just the goofy charm the spot needed, creatives decided. “If something happens that wasn’t planned but it fits with the whole tone and mood or the marketing objective, you go with it,” says Patrick O’Neill, group creative director at the New York shop. Here are the stories behind five spots that deviated from the script, and were the better for it.

Spot “Hacky Sack”
Client Nike Golf
Agency Wieden + Kennedy, Portland, Ore.

In 1999, Wieden + Kennedy creative directors Hal Curtis and Chuck McBride flew down to a Florida golf club to shoot a Nike Golf spot, “Driving Range,” in which lousy golfers hit the ball perfectly when Tiger Woods shows up. During downtime on set, Woods kept busy by bouncing a ball off his golf club. “We were watching him and said we should put that on film somehow,” says Curtis. “I remember thinking it might be a really neat, fun little piece to open a sales meeting.” The clients on set, sports marketing director Kel Devlin and Eric Markgraf, now svp of marketing at Fox Sports Net, liked the idea of filming Woods’ form of hacky sack and made sure Woods was OK with it. Director Doug Liman (Swingers, Go), who was shooting B-roll for director Lasse Hallström, offered to shoot it over the lunch break. With a camera on a sandbag, the team needed just four 30-second takes and 10 minutes to get what they wanted. Initially, Liman signaled Woods at 25 seconds, and each time he missed the ball. On the last take, with no signal, Woods nailed it. The result upstaged the original spot. “As great a spot as ‘Driving Range’ was, with wonderful direction from Lasse and beautifully edited, it paled in comparison to ‘Hacky Sack,’ ” says Curtis. The spot spawned a 2001 sequel in which Woods juggles a ball with two clubs instead of one, and Curtis says the athletic whimsy influenced another well-known Nike ad, “Freestyle.” “It was an evolution,” he says, “but it also had the power of putting people in front of the camera and allowing them to do amazing things.”

Spot “ESPY Awards 1998”
Client ESPN
Agency In-house

ESPN is all about unscripted moments, says marketing svp Lee Ann Daly. “Writing on the fly is part of the DNA of ESPN marketing and advertising work,” she says, noting that an off-the-cuff style works especially well for athletes, who tend to fumble their lines. “We’ve benefited massively from that attitude. We get gems that come out of spontaneity.” But improvisation wasn’t in the plans for a 1998 ad touting the network’s ESPY Awards, to be hosted by Norm Macdonald. Macdonald was to lip-sync the straightforward promo copy as the NBA’s Dikembe Mutombo read the script. But there was one problem: Mutombo was AWOL.

There were just a few hours to shoot the promo with production company Hungry Man, so then-novice director David Shane formulated what turned into a very funny plan B. Unwilling to abandon Mutombo altogether, he quickly wrote a script in which one of Macdonald’s writers sat in for the basketball player. The reluctant understudy, who “was short and squat with long black hair, a beard and glasses,” recalls Shane, wore Mutombo’s oversized uniform. A photo of the athlete was crudely superimposed on the writer’s face. Macdonald fired questions at “Mutombo,” who, per the script, got increasingly angry about the ridiculous setup and stormed off the set. “It was the second thing I had ever done,” Shane says, “so I was like, ‘I hope it’s not the last thing.’ ” But Daly says she loved the jerry-built result: “What they did was something completely unexpected, but it totally worked.”

Spot “Champagne of Beer”
Client Miller High Life
Agency Wieden + Kennedy, Portland, Ore.

“I try to put an element of spontaneity into everything I do, whether it be advertising or my own work,” says director Errol Morris. “I often say that’s the difference between taxidermy and something that’s really alive.” Morris’ approach has helped keep the spark in his five-year collaboration with Wieden + Kennedy on 100-plus commercials for its Miller High Life campaign. “We shoot so many [spots], there have been loads done over time that weren’t necessarily storyboarded or planned,” says Jon Kamen, co-proprietor of New York-based One particularly successful case was “Champagne of Beer,” a 2000 spot in which High Life is poured into a stack of champagne glasses as a voiceover asks, “If François knows so much about champagne, how come he never figured out how to put it in cans?”

“I had always been obsessed with doing a pyramid of champagne with Miller High Life [instead],” as a spoof of the brew’s nearly 100-year-old “Champagne of Beer” motto, Morris says. The perfect opportunity came on the set of a five-spot shoot when creative team Jeff Williams and Jeff Kling, goofing around, dashed off an impromptu script to “tweak the nose of the French.” They didn’t have visuals in mind. The client approved the script, and the next day, after the scheduled shoot wrapped up, Morris shot the new ad two different ways. In one, a man drank beer out of a champagne glass; in the other, High Life was poured into the “beer-amid” as Morris panned slowly up the champagne glasses until the beer can was revealed. The second approach was picked, and it went on to win a silver Pencil at The One Show.

Morris, meanwhile, is still inserting the unexpected into his work. A Citibank campaign he’s currently shooting for Fallon in Minneapolis includes several crew members he pulled in as extras. “It’s one of my favorite things—I love to riff with the agency and create things on the spot,” he says.

Spot “Focus Group”
Client Little Caesars
Agency Cliff Freeman and Partners, New York

Cliff Freeman’s penchant for casting real people can lead to some hairy moments on set. In 1994, shooting a focus-group-themed Little Caesars ad, Freeman cast a nerdy focus group facilitator—”these mindless focus group guys who ask the same question over and over and over,” Freeman says—on the spot at a Los Angeles strip mall. “We found this guy, a sweet, guileless character who was working in a store on Beverly Boulevard,” Freeman recalls. But what at first seemed like a mild eccentricity turned out to be “some kind of malady we didn’t realize at the time,” Freeman says.

He was “a bit like Rain Man,” says director Bruce Hurwit of Crossroads Films in New York. The guy was very sensitive to criticism and a little hard to predict. “We never could cut the camera, because we never knew when he was going to say the line,” Hurwit says. “Every time he did it, he did it differently.” The script called for a random variety of focus groups—from Trekkies to war veterans—to be quizzed on their pizza preferences, until researchers discover that every “man, woman and child” wants more cheese and toppings. As the cameras rolled, the first-time actor kept talking to Hurwit and saying “OK.” The repetitive OKs, Hurwit realized, could work by bringing out a “teacherly” quality in the character. Chuck Willis of Crew Cuts in New York later inserted the “OKs” after each shot of a focus group. “It turned out to be the most charming part of the whole spot,” Hurwit says. Adds Freeman: “It seemed to work in a way we never could have scripted or ever imagined. It was just one of those combinations of instinct and accident.”

Spot “Dancing Josh”
Client Cingular Wireless
Agency BBDO, New York

Josh Bayer started out as a grip and ended up a Super Bowl star. Charged with introducing Cingular Wireless to consumers in 2001, BBDO developed a campaign focused on self-expression: a shy preteen girl eventually smiles to reveal her braces, branded with the Cingular logo; a disabled man paints with a brush attached to his forehead.

The shoot hit a bump when the girl with braces had trouble loosening up. RSA Productions director Sam Bayer, then out of HSI, ran out and bought a Backstreet Boys CD, which he played at full blast to make her feel more comfortable. To foster the fun vibe, he grabbed his brother Josh—”a young punk rock kid,” Bayer says—who was working as a grip on set and got him to start dancing.

“We’re going, ‘This is hysterical,’ ” recalls creative director Susan Credle of Josh’s moves, which were “cool and awkward at the same time.” The effect, she realized, was exactly what they were trying to achieve in the spot. “We’re talking about self expression,” she says, “and this couldn’t be any truer [self-expression]: a guy getting up and not going through wardrobe or makeup and dancing on the set.” Credle figures Josh’s plain white T-shirt and black pants, for starters, would likely have been upgraded were he officially cast.

At Credle’s urging, Bayer began filming his brother dancing. Then they had Josh spread his arms in imitation of Cingular’s icon, which was morphed into the real logo in editing. Credle took the footage to her boss, senior ecd Charlie Miesmer, who replaced the Backstreet Boys with Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” to heighten the humor, and then secured approval from the client. “You’ve got to give the agency credit,” Sam Bayer says. “They saw it, and their attitude wasn’t like, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ ” Along with the shy kid, Josh Bayer’s ad debuted on the Super Bowl (“I think he was flattered and a little bit embarrassed,” says Sam). Looking back, Credle says, “we were not overanalyzing, so it had a fresh feel.”