Bill Oakley On The Spot

As group cd for TM Advertising, Bill Oakley says he brings both sides of his brain to an assignment: the side that studied engineering looks at the client’s business needs, while the artistic side develops the emotional pitch. His most recent work is the new American Airlines’ “We know why you fly” spots, which broke in September. Oakley, 45, who worked on Anheuser-Busch at D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles in St. Louis before joining TM in 1990, is an avid soccer fan who has been known to take overnight trips to Liverpool to see a match. He’s not sure which side of the brain that involves.

Q. How did you get into advertising?

A. I earned a BS in engineering and a bachelor’s in fine arts from Youngstown State University in Ohio. At my first job at an agency in Youngstown, I was really just a guy who was good with a T-square and a knife. Then, I moved to Hesselbart & Mitten in Cleveland, which had clients like Owens Corning. The first ad I did there won a national Addy. It was a help-wanted ad for the agency that read, “We need writers and art directors.” “Writers” was misspelled and “Art directors” ran off the page. It was the first ad I had done that won an award. So I thought, maybe I really can do this.

When you launched the American Airlines campaign last year, the industry seemed to be making a comeback from Sept. 11. Now, Northwest and Delta are in bankruptcy. Does it make sense to try to build a brand in such a crisis atmosphere?

The volatility of the airline industry has led to paralysis at times, when thinking about long-term marketing. Economically, the airlines have been bleeding for years. Emotionally, they’ve been bleeding for years. We always thought our first goal was to find ways to stop that bleeding. I think the decision a year ago when we launched the campaign was, “It’s time to move on and act like a significant brand again.”

The tagline for American Airlines is “We know why you fly.” Why do you fly— particularly to London?

No one will ever understand the immense weirdness of a European soccer fan who lives in Dallas. If you were targeting me in an ad, there would be a target of, like, two of us. Why do I fly? To be at a professional soccer match in Liverpool and the very next day be at my son’s youth soccer game here in Dallas.

Aside from your current work, what spots are you most proud of?

I don’t want to go back to Genie garage door opener or a little spermazoid running around on a screen. We all have those skeletons in our closets. There was an American ad in 1992 that is still recalled in focus groups, which is one of the best things anyone can say about your work. It was a commercial called “Important,” about a mechanic who talks about why he comes to work every day. At the end, he sees the people going on the plane that he’s been working on all night. And I think the reason it worked is that we didn’t make any of it up. It was immensely true.

Now that you’re a seasoned veteran, what do you like most about your profession?

I can’t imagine another business that allows you to work with so many different industries. You get to work within those industries at the highest levels. I’ve worked in 20 industries in my life. That’s pretty cool.

Name the last ad that made you think, “I wish I had done that.”

There are two. The first is the Toyota Tacoma truck home-video ads. This one shows the truck surviving a meteor. So wonderfully done. Not just the effects, which are flawless, better than anything from Hollywood. But no over-think of cabin space, towing-capacity crap. Just simple, macho, truck-buying genius. (And my teenage daughter loves it … how “Texas” is that?) The other is a new high-school football ad from (who else) Nike that is a celebration of a colorful old coach. It’s a documentary style that tracks the week after a loss. Wonderful celebration of what it means to play team sports … along with the real benefit of youth participation in them. Honorable, humbling stuff from Nike … again. But, I am the target.

What do you think is the most overrated campaign?

IPod. I know it’s entertaining. And successful. And cool. And works wonders internationally. But it’s just more art direction than message to me. But then, I’ve bought five in two years, and I bought the black Nano the day it was announced, so, what do I know?

What’s the smartest business decision you’ve ever made?

Quickly leaving my dumbest.

And what was the dumbest?

After a decade, finally deciding to leave the really big agency thing to go do the really small agency in Atlanta [Hutcheson Shutze]. Four months later, it was bought by Omnicom and merged into BBDO.

What is your dream assignment?

Marketing for The English Premier League or Liverpool Football Club in the U.K. Don’t ask … it’s pretty sick.

What’s on your nightstand?

Stacks of soccer magazines from Europe. I told you I was sick.

Name one person you’re dying to work with.

I don’t like to work that much.

What do you consider the greatest accomplishment of your life so far?

After 25 years, an amazing nurse is still married to me. And our two teenagers (kind of) like me.