Some of the most interesting advertising in the retail business today comes from three very different companies. One is a huge discount titan. One is a pile-it-hi" data-categories = "" data-popup = "" data-ads = "Yes" data-company = "[]" data-outstream = "yes" data-auth = "" >

For Big or Small, Image is Everything By ANN COOPE

Some of the most interesting advertising in the retail business today comes from three very different companies. One is a huge discount titan. One is a pile-it-hi

CLIENT: K mart
AGENCY: Calet, Hirsch & Ferrell
CREATIVE DIRECTOR: Peter Hirsch
ASSOCIATE CREATIVE DIRECTORS: Pat Bilger, Gordon Bennett
COPYWRITER: Ray Johnson
PRODUCER: Frank DiSalvo
CREATIVE AWARD: The K Mart Doesn’t Suck Transformation Award
BIGGEST HEADACHE: Rival Wal-Mart doesn’t suck, either Peter Hirsch, creative director and president of Calet, Hirsch & Ferrell, is a dapper man with a twinkle in his eye who looks younger than his 57 years and who clearly enjoys being interviewed.
Ask him about the three grandstand chairs propped against a wall in his Park Avenue South office, and he launches into an enthusiastic explanation of how he inherited them from the old Polo Grounds.
Ask him about his past at ’60s shop Delehanty, Kurnit and Geller, and he whisks out Larry Dobrow’s When Advertising Tried Harder and begins leafing through pages of ads he helped create for Talon zippers, Pretty Feet, Bombay gin and Art Carved.
And ask him about the present, and he talks non-stop for three hours about current client K mart. ‘It was a huge company looking for change,’ he says. ‘K mart was the butt of jokes. When Joe Antonini took over in 1987 he didn’t want to be ceo of a tarnished company. He wanted to turn it around. Our first assignment was to change the image of K mart. It was the biggest creative challenge.’
Creative challenges are something Hirsch thrives on. In the mid-’60s he helped launch WINS at a time when people said an all-news radio station wouldn’t work. In the late ’60s he helped launch New York magazine as a survival kit for New Yorkers. Then there were the sales and public relations disasters of the ’70s and ’80s – like when a division of client Toshiba was accused of selling military secrets to the Soviet Union; or when client Stolichnaya vodka took hits after the USSR shot down an airliner or invaded another country; or when terrorists planted bombs in Rome’s airport while Alitalia Airlines was a client.
Born in Brooklyn, Hirsch graduated from Lafayette High School in Brooklyn, the same school that produced Jerry Della Femina and Larry King. He studied graphic design at the Pratt Institute and in the mid-’50s was hired by Gene Federico at Douglas Simon, a tiny shop with strong fashion credentials.
In 1964, Shep Kurnit approached Hirsch to join his three-year-old creative hot house, Delehanty, Kurnit & Geller. ‘Every creative name in the business worked for us,’ he says, rattling off a pantheon including Della Femina, Larry Plapler, Allan Beaver and Peter Lubalin.
It was the beginning of the creative revolution. And Hirsch, aided and abetted by Della Femina and Ron Travisano, helped subvert it further by creating an irreverent print campaign for Talon zippers. ‘In those days one didn’t use the human experience,’ says Hirsch. ‘We used real people with clever headlines, and that hadn’t been done before.’ One of the ads featured the headline ‘Last night Mrs. Mary Powers opened on Broadway’ above a photograph of a large woman bursting out of a tight dress in a theater foyer.
While the creative revolution and DKG are both icons of the past, Hirsch remains an icon of the present, having chaperoned what remained of Delehanty through numerous incarnations to the current Calet, Hirsch & Ferrell. ‘I stayed in one place and everyone revolved around me,’ he says, tongue planted firmly in cheek. ‘I’m a first-born Jewish child, I like people to revolve around me.’
CHF has never been the kind of place to sweep the boards at awards ceremonies or be mentioned in the same breathy tones as a Chiat/Day or a Fallon McElligott – which isn’t to say it doesn’t aspire to such heights. ‘Calet has a reputation for being a good, solid place that turns out high quality work at times,’ says associate creative director Gordon Bennett.
CHF’s relationship with K mart began when the agency was taken over by Michigan-based Ross Roy Group six years ago. The merger gave Ross Roy a New York presence to service longstanding client K mart’s New Jersey-based apparel side, then run by Antonini. It also provided CHF with a financial cushion in uncertain times and gave the agency access to the No. 2 retailer in the U.S.
Antonini and Hirsch formed an immediate bond, and when the former took over as ceo of K mart in 1987, change was put at the front of the agenda. ‘It’s like running a country,’ says Hirsch. ‘When a new ceo takes over they want to change everything, which isn’t easy because you’re dealing with layers and layers of people who are steeped in the corporate culture of the past.’
Previous K mart advertising had been initiated by individual retail departments and owed much to the pile-it-high, sell-it-cheap philosophy. ‘We did research to find out why people shopped there,’ says Hirsch, ‘what their inner feelings were about the K mart image and the shopping experience.’
Research revealed that when it came to inner feelings, people didn’t have too many about K mart. ‘What they wanted was a better shopping experience,’ says Hirsch. ‘People wanted understanding and respect. And that kind of imagery is the key to retailing.’
While people may have wanted understanding and respect, they also wanted better stores, service and product lines. Antonini set aside $3 billion for store refurbishment and initiated a five-year plan. ‘We had to effect change on every level,’ says Hirsch. ‘From the advertising point of view, we had to improve the look and quality.’ One move was to retain TV star Jaclyn Smith, who was already on board with ads promoting her highly successful K mart fashion line.
Hirsch, associate creative directors Pat Bilger and Gordon Bennett and copywriter Ray Johnson came up with a three-tiered advertising approach: corporate, vendor and backup print.
For the corporate campaign, Hirsch had the less-than-original idea of roping in Antonini (whom Hirsch refers to as Mr. Antonini) to flog the store’s kinder and gentler image. ‘It’s not a creative breakthrough by any means,’ says Hirsch. ‘But research showed that K mart had no personality. And Mr. Antonini is a warm, infectious, gracious person. Women like him, and that’s what comes across on TV.’
For Hirsch, the creative breakthrough came with the vendor campaign, which focused on a wide cast of characters shopping and joking with each other in a K mart store. One of the first efforts was a pair of spots which included a wimpy-looking man searching for his female companion. ‘Valleerriieeee,’ he calls diffidently. Meanwhile, another woman searches for ‘Booob.’ It is not until the second spot that the identities of both are revealed.
‘We wanted to evoke a response in people,’ says Hirsch. ‘We wanted them to say, ‘That’s me, I could say that.’ It was very different from any other retailer’s ads because there was a bit of a story. It became a cult hit. People would call out, ‘Valerie’ in movie theaters. Creatively, we wanted both to capitalize on what the store looked like and entertain people so they feel it’s a fun place to shop.’
A further breakthrough came last year with K mart’s soft-sell moves to promote fashion. In one spot, four executive-type women are having lunch in a restaurant. As one leaves for a 2:15 meeting with ‘our biggest client,’ she’s asked where she got ‘that cute outfit.’ When her response is ‘K mart,’ the women are suitably surprised.
‘We had to eliminate the polyester image,’ says Hirsch. ‘It was the last remaining negative. We had to get women to think that at least our foot’s in the door in the fashion area. As the recession hit and we improved the imagery, we felt K mart had to become more stylish out of necessity.’
A new print campaign, which breaks this month, is a further attempt at stylish elevation. One ad, for a planter, shows a mother in the kitchen potting plants with her daughter. ‘What if one month you could change the color of the moon,’ reads the understated, reflective copy running down the side. ‘The ads reinforce the fact that K mart understands how you think and feel,’ says Hirsch.
‘We’re able to do a few things that push the envelope,’ says copywriter Johnson. ‘The biggest problem is trying to do work that doesn’t look like retail work. But you have to remember the basic personality is still middle-America. We have to keep in mind a consumer who’s mainly concerned with prices.’
Hirsch still writes and directs many of the spots himself. ‘I like comic writing. My secret ambition was to be a stand-up comic. I come from a show biz family.’ (His brother is a screenwriter and a nephew worked on The Simpsons.)
‘You have to keep involved,’ he says. ‘If you don’t, you lose the passion. When I was younger I was told, ‘You’re too damm emotional. You’re too damn passionate about the business.’ Well, I believe in what I do. That’s why I do what I do.’
‘A few years ago no one would have believed we’d have won awards for K mart,’ says Pat Bilger, who joined CHF eight years ago. What attracted her? ‘They understood good creativity,’ she says. ‘We have to work hard but it’s fun. Peter’s a great boss because he understands great concepts. A lot of people out there don’t. But Peter has a way of bringing out the best in people.’
Three years into K mart’s five-year plan, the retailer has just had its most profitable year ever. Awareness and imagery is up and research indicates the customers love the advertising. Ultimately the aim is to capture Wal-Mart’s No. 1 retailing spot. ‘We’re like two Goliaths fighting it out,’ says Hirsch. ‘But that’s what advertising is, trying to beat out your competitors. But I like the challenge. I’m very competitive.’
As for the K mart image itself, ‘It’s like trying to turn an aircraft carrier around in a stormy sea. We’ve done research where we asked people, ‘If K mart was a person, who would it be?’ Three years ago it was Minnie Pearl. Now it’s Barbara Bush. Which means we’ve gone from cheap image to a likeable personality. But that could change again. Things change quickly in retailing.’
When Dweck & Campbell ran a recent print ad for Long Island’s Oak Tree Farm Dairy showing a cow grazing alongside the New Jersey Turnpike in front of a petrochemical plant with the copy, ‘Ever wonder why milk from New Jersey doesn’t taste as fresh as ours?’ it irked New Jersey state officials.
When the agency ran a Giant Carpet Labor Day spot simulating the sounds of a woman giving birth, it caused groups of pregnant women to picket the company’s store in Valley Stream, Long Island.
And after the latest Giant Carpet spot, showing what looked like two ink spots with a voiceover saying, ‘If you see two witches dancing, you suffer from acute paranoia,’ the director of the American Psychiatric Association called the agency claiming the ad caused irreparable damage to the future integrity of Rorschach tests.
When it comes to making waves, agency proprietors and creative directors Michael Dweck and Lori Campbell prefer those of the tidal variety. In fact, it’s rare when they create a campaign that doesn’t produce typhoon-like reverberations on someone’s sea of tranquility. Which is exactly how the year-old agency wants it. Especially when it comes to retailer Giant Carpet.
At the lower end of the highly competitive, price-driven world of retailing, the sleaze and ruthlessness factors tend to obfuscate the nobler aspects of salesmanship. Giant Carpet president Sam Rosenberg wanted to change that.
‘Rosenberg is offering good merchandise at a fair price with good service,’ explains Dweck, who sports a head of untamed hair he refers to as ‘dwecklocks.’ ‘Most people don’t pay any attention to carpet store ads until they need a carpet. We’re just trying to get the name out there so people will remember it. There’s no product differences – it all comes down to image. We’re trying to put the fun back into retailing.’
Rosenberg is a retailing enthusiast who clocks into his office every morning at 5 and checks in with his agency every couple of hours (‘Sowhaddyagotforme?’ he screams into a car phone between visits to the New Jersey outposts of his retail empire).
On the day Dweck & Campbell pitched the account last year in Rosenberg’s Moonachie, N.J., office – which nestles alongside the Teterboro airport runway – the 36-year-old Rosenberg had already seen presentations from 14 agencies, including Kirshenbaum & Bond and Mad Dogs and Englishmen. Piles of storyboards lay stacked against the walls. Every two minutes, vibrations from Learjets shook the office. A tieless, open-shirted Rosenberg lay exhausted on a couch, arms sprawled, bags under his eyes. ‘Whaddyagot?’ he greeted them. ‘I’m pitched out.’
What Dweck & Campbell had were lots of ideas. ‘I’ll give you a shot,’ said Rosenberg. But for a probationary period only, the proviso being that if they didn’t move the broadloom they were off the account. Luckily for Dweck & Campbell (especially considering the $8 million Giant Carpet account became the agency’s biggest), they did move the broadloom, via a series of outrageous and provocative TV and print campaigns.
For GC’s Election Day sale, Dweck & Campbell produced a TV spot in which George Bush and Bill Clinton impersonators trade obnoxious insults accompanied by reverse type on a black screen that spells out insult highlights. ‘You are a weenie,’ Bush tells Clinton. ‘You puked all over Japan,’ Clinton fires back. ‘Giant Carpet has just what you need to get through this year’s political mudslinging,’ says the voiceover.
Another TV spot shows an exterior shot of the White House. There’s the sound of a crash, and the Bush impersonator says, ‘Let’s see Hillary clean that up, Barbara.’ Childish, clever and funny, the spots were also highly effective, cost around $6,000 to produce and were directed by Dweck and Campbell themselves.
‘The thing about retailing is that you know immediately if a spot works or not,’ says Campbell. ‘You can literally measure the success two days after the ads have run.’
Topicality is also key. ‘Mr. President, now that you’ve chosen a cabinet, how about a nice rug?’ asks the voiceover on one of the agency’s latest efforts. ‘Initially the work has to scream,’ says Dweck. ‘We work on the edge, and it’s designed to get people talking.’
Getting people talking would appear to be a cinch for Michael Dweck, who first set up his own shop in 1979. His previous experience consisted of a stint as an intern at Young & Rubicam, following a job in a button factory in Garden City, N.Y., that involved crawling around on his knees to retrieve lost buttons. He chose advertising, he says, because he wanted to entertain people. Soon he was producing a series of humorous campaigns for the Dairy Barn and Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs.
But growth was not exactly meteoric. When Dweck met freelance copywriter Campbell in the late ’80s, it seemed like a good idea to set up shop together. Campbell had started out at the now defunct Lowe Tucker Metcalf, where she learned, ‘Ideas are God and substance is everything.’
‘For both of us,’ Campbell admits, ‘opening an agency was the way to beat the system. We wanted clients where there was no bureaucracy.’
While Dweck talks like a Metroliner, relentless and high speed, Campbell is restrained and intuitive. ‘We decided from the beginning that we were only going to accept a certain kind of client,’ says Dweck.
‘We don’t have a traditional training,’ adds Campbell. ‘That’s why the work is good and fresh-looking. We have to make a name for ourselves through the work. That’s what makes us different from every other start-up agency. Neither of us has the ability to go out and market ourselves. Michael’s the kind of guy who could never work for anyone else.’
D&C’s next goal is bigger accounts. ‘Because of the work we’ve done, potential clients are beginning to call us,’ says Dweck. ‘Now we’re doing smarter advertising and it’s toned down a bit,’ says Campbell. ‘If we can do great stuff on retail imagery, just think what we can do on everything else.’
Art director Bill Berenter and copywriter Marty Greenhouse, principals of Berenter, Greenhouse & Webster, have what they describe as a magical relationship. Its power started working the first day they met at Altschiller Reitzfeld in 1981. One year later they opened their own agency.
Twelve years on, the magic lingers. ‘We love each other, we’re like brothers,’ says Greenhouse. ‘Our families socialize together.’ Adds Berenter: ‘I don’t know of any other teams like us that have lasted.’
BG&W does stylish, humorous, often tongue-in-cheek campaigns for Annie sez, Bed Bath & Beyond and Galeries Lafayette. In one Annie sez spot, a poised, elegant woman in a poised, elegant setting, discusses ‘The way they lie to women. From, ‘This burnt chestnut rinse will take 10 years off, trust me,’ to these discount stores popping up like cookie stores in the ’70s promising you’ll find something fantastic at a great price every day. Don’t believe a word of it unless it’s Annie sez.’ ‘It’s not just a store, it’s an obsession,’ is the retailer’s long-running tagline. Another recent mantra urged women to ‘Dress like a lady, shop like a shark.’
Berenter says that since the campaign began six years ago, consumer awareness of the chain among women in the New York area has risen from 6% to 88%. And the agency intends to do the same kind of job for the 43-store Bed, Bath & Beyond chain. In a recent New York campaign, BG&W conscripted a bunch of La Guardia taxi drivers to discuss the store in their native tongues. Subtitles on the spots translate the comments into ‘I get many fares at this store which is good,’ or, ‘One lady had so many bags.’
Retailing, says Berenter, is a lot of work. It’s fast, it’s immediate and sales results are obvious within days. ‘Strategy always comes first,’ says Greenhouse. ‘Our aim is to create great work. We’re not so intent on watching the bottom line.’
Not, the duo hasten to add, that they want to be known as a retail shop. They do advertising for a variety of clients, including Domecq Importers, Sparkomatic car stereos and Matchbox toys. ‘We’re not a rubber-stamp agency,’ says Berenter. ‘One of the things we pride ourselves on is that we do very different work for each client.’
Now billing around $70 million, BG&W attributes its growth to a philosophy based on something Norman Geller, principal of now-defunct Lord Geller Federico Einstein, said some time back when he interviewed Berenter for a job: Try to do the best work in the city, try to have a great time doing it, and the agency will grow accordingly. ‘When it comes down to it, we’re just who we are,’ says Berenter. ‘We don’t put on shows. We talk from the heart.’
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)