Creative Best Spots: Campaign of the Year – Citibank

Dissonance between picture and sound is at the core of Fallon’s campaign for Citibank’s Identity Theft Solutions. But it was only five days before the shoot that the creative team realized it’s the sound—the creepy boasts of identity thieves—that makes the spots, deciding to record the voiceovers before casting their radical opposites to lip-sync the tracks.

“We had to flop the whole thing,” recalls art director Steve Sage. The agency considered more than 250 voices for each character before settling on the Valley Girl who’s channeled by the Archie Bunker type, the nasally teen male who’s paired with the hip African American and the gruff trucker who inhabits the body of a sweet retiree. During the two-day shoot, “we were laughing the whole time,” recalls copywriter Ryan Peck.

Those wickedly funny juxtapositions, Fallon’s seamless production and its simple but entertaining way of conveying a difficult message have earned the effort Adweek’s Campaign of the Year honor for 2003. (See sidebar for more on our 50 Best Spots.)

“[Identity theft] was a broad-scale problem for millions of people,” says Brad Jakeman, director of global advertising for Citigroup’s consumer businesses, on the difficulty of the assignment. “It was, ‘How can we create a piece of advertising that could communicate it could happen to you, but not just scare people?’ ” Ideally, the effort would also mesh with the lighthearted tone of the “Live richly” campaign, launched shortly after Fallon won the account in 2000.

Steve Driggs, art director and group creative director on the estimated $100 million Citibank account, says the concept for the campaign was the easy part—that after hearing the true stories of identity-theft victims, the idea fell out “naturally.” The real “fun” was in the scripts and the production, recalls Driggs, whose Minneapolis-based team had just six weeks until on-air date after receiving the brief.

“Even though there are three characters, there are really six, and I think you can identify with all of them,” says Driggs. Voiceover actors were given leeway to ad-lib their characters’ lines. It was director Kevin Thomas of Thomas Thomas Films in London who pushed for recording the voiceovers first, figuring that the difficulty of lip-syncing to them would convey a quiet struggle. “He wanted a little more of that subtle quirkiness that comes from trying to repeat something the actors weren’t really familiar with,” says agency executive producer Robert van de Weteringe Buys.

The team, armed with an estimated production budget of $750,000, turned to New York’s Beth Melsky Casting to find the actors, adding a few extras on the fly during production in the New Jersey suburbs. When a neighborhood busybody kept intruding into the “Flaps” shoot, the elderly man was brought on board—he’s the one sitting in the lawn chair behind the retiree who’s “wanted in four states.”

On set, Thomas took a restrained approach, which ensured the stories were “as still as possible,” says Peck. “He brought a real artistic feel to the composition.” The original intent was to film each spot in one take, but lip-syncing precisely to the voiceover proved too difficult. “You would have had to nail it at 23 seconds exactly with one cut,” explains Sage.

In the end, the point of view was limited to a wide shot and a close-up. “It’s less trickery. If you cut and cut, you can see the lizard behind the curtain,” says Sage. Editor Andre Betz of Bug Editorial in New York “nipped and tucked” the voices so they fit precisely with the footage, says Sage. “Every syllable was worked on.”

While the client had planned for three commercials, the production schedule had some flexibility, and with Jakeman on set, the team got late approval for a fourth. In that spot, set to break later this month, a young Asian man wearing a “neo-cowboy” getup, as Peck puts it, tells of spending thousands on plastic surgery in the gravelly voice of a female smoker.

“[The production] was very fluid,” says Driggs. “People would ad-lib, and it would change. I think that’s why it worked.”

Yes, taking creative risks is much harder in tough times, but agencies daring enough to push the limits and lucky enough to have simpatico clients crafted a range of respectable—not to mention funny, groovy, sentimental and eerie—commercials last year.

Wieden + Kennedy in Portland, Ore., kicked off the year with what would prove to be one of its most attention-getting spots, the Frank Budgen-directed “Streaker” for Nike Shox, which looks more like a snippet from a soccer game gone awry than a commercial. “Streaker” set off a sneaker spat: Reebok retaliated with its own version, sending Terrible Terry Tate, the “office linebacker” who made his debut on the Super Bowl, to tackle the naked wonder in a spoof from New York agency Arnell Group.

While Napster made a notable effort to reclaim its place in the online music world with a Flash-driven spot from San Francisco’s Venables, Bell & Partners, TBWA\Chiat\Day in Playa del Rey, Calif., drowned it out with the stunning iPod campaign. The commercials bring to life the black silhouettes of Apple’s print ads with choice music from the Black Eyed Peas and Jet. Apple and its agency turned in another visually striking spot last year, wittily juxtaposing sky-high basketball star Yao Ming with Verne “Mini-Me” Troyer in “Big and Small” to highlight the two sizes of its Notebook laptop.

In his first year in the U.S., Yao managed to appear in two standout ads, with a funny star turn in the Visa spot from BBDO New York in which he thinks a shop clerk saying, “Yo!” is mispronouncing his name.

Goodby, Silverstein & Partners landed six of our 50 Best Spots of the Year, edging out Wieden, whose Portland and New York offices won five top spots for Nike work and ESPN’s “Without Sports” ads. Goodby’s standouts included its Saturn work, the second year of top-notch ads for the brand; the showy song-and-dance numbers Sam Mendes directed for eBay; and its first-time effort for AT&T Wireless, which revived the “Reach out” line, notably in a poignant spot about a weary businessman whose travels are brightened by chatting with his daughter.

The agency’s “Got milk?” campaign made a blockbuster comeback with one of its best executions yet, the magnificently eerie “Birthday” spot, directed by Noam Murro. More impressive still was the San Francisco shop’s “+ HP” campaign, which parlayed the tech firm’s corporate partnerships into a multi-spot effort that incorporates everything from sophisticated animation to low-tech toy stories. That work, along with Wieden’s inspired “Without Sports” effort, was a runner-up for our Campaign of the Year. But the purity of the message and the well-executed production of Fallon’s Citibank ID Theft spots edged out the rest.