Creative Focus: D.C./Baltimore – Selling Stories

Football players from a not-so-great team push a blocking sled through the grit and charm of Baltimore; a peckish feline takes viewers around the Baltimore Aquarium before regaling its alley-cat friends with big-fish stories; bikers out of a Gus Van Sant movie leave a drug store in bewilderment when they find that it carries only drugs. All three spots reflect the distinctly narrative and cinematic voice of 12-year creative teammates Allan Charles and Steve Bleinberger. Partners at Baltimore’s Trahan, Burden & Charles, the two are known for their ability to tell stories in spots that are likable-without seeming smarmy or jaded.
“You never buy something from a salesman you don’t like,” says Charles, creative head of the agency he helped establish in 1974. “The spots are like having salespeople in your home. You have to like them.”
The two men share an artsy, filmic approach, but their advertising style is no-nonsense. “The hallmark of these three spots is they entertain and sell,” Charles says. “There’s no definable evidence that people turn on TV to watch commercials. This is still an intrusive medium; we have to remember that.”
Charles first worked in an ad agency as a pasteup artist at age 15, and he has been in the business ever since. Bleinberger joined in his quixotic quest to build a great creative shop 12 years ago. Previously, Bleinberger had been an art director at W.B. Doner in Baltimore.
The two meshed immediately.
They’ve worked together on hundreds of spots, including recent, award-winning Maryland Lottery ads. “There’s always keno,” a kitschy MTV-style campaign set in low-end bars, made its mark with the gambling public. The team has also done highly regarded work for the Baltimore Orioles.
“We both defy the traditional boundaries of our jobs,” says Charles, a 50-year-old creative director, copywriter and cameraman with a knowing charisma that can be both energetic and brooding. “For instance, few art directors can do shooting boards,” he says.
“There are few corporate creative directors who can get behind a camera [and direct],” Bleinberger says. “Allan doesn’t sit on the [set] and eat grapes. He is deeply involved in every shoot.”
This mutual respect brings to life spots like “Sled,” in which Baltimore Raven football players push a blocking sled while showing off the city’s panorama. The we-try-harder image spoke to Baltimore’s denizens; opening day for the Ravens was sold out.
“Bikers,” an ad for NeighborCare pharmacies, also displays the duo’s subtle but driving sense of humor. In the ad, Hell’s Angel types strut their stuff through a store, searching for soda and hair products usually found at a CVS-style pharmacy. The disappointed bikers leave after discovering that NeighborCare offers only medicines and pharmaceuticals.
“Some spots come to us intuitively,” says Bleinberger, 43. “Working with Allan is more like working with a film guy than an ad guy. We keep strategy top of mind, but we also see things visually. We see the flow and composition of the spots as we conceive them.”
One does not venture into the vast National Aquarium at night with a taciturn cat, for instance, unless everything has been thought out. “That shoot could’ve been a nightmare, but we knew exactly where we were going with it,” Charles says.
“It’s really simple,” Bleinberger concludes. “We just like to tell stories.” -Nora FitzGerald

MONEY PLAYERS After 12 years together, an unusual tenure in the migratory world of advertising, Allan Charles and Steve Bleinberger know how to use a small budget. “No shot is wasted,” Charles says. “There’s no loss in translation from the original concept.”