Creative Focus: Sharpen Your Pencils

Rival spots from Staples and Office Depot face off in the back-to-school blitz
The biggest kids in the class–Office Depot and Staples–are squaring off this month, battling to dominate the back-to-school shopping season with spots from two of advertising’s funniest class clowns: DeVito/Verdi and Cliff Freeman and Partners.
Staples is a 5-year-old campaign from Cliff Freeman, an established comedic powerhouse, while Office Depot’s spots are a debut effort from DeVito/Verdi, a shop known for its use of brash humor. Both New York shops rely on clever twists of real-life situations to tout everything from pencils to printers in a shopping season that is second only to Christmas in sales.
Cliff Freeman’s new spots for Staples are admittedly “more of the same” in a successful, long-running campaign, says Arthur Bijur, agency president and executive creative director. But in his opinion, so are Office Depot’s ads. “They are trying to imitate us,” he says. “It’s obvious they’re riding on our coattails.”
DeVito/Verdi’s first back-to-school spot for Office Depot, running nationally on cable and network TV, broke earlier this month. It shows the stages of a boy’s life–from infancy to freshman year in college–as a weepy voiceover implores someone to buy him a computer.
Another spot shows an athletically disinclined basketball lover who is advised to fall back on school in case a sports scholarship doesn’t pan out. The campaign’s tagline: “Low prices every day.”
Indeed, the emphasis on low prices helps define Office Depot as a smart place to shop. “[All the ads] have a surprise in them,” says Ellis Verdi, president of DeVito/Verdi. “They have the same execution, which makes you think it’s another kind of campaign.”
The element of surprise helped the new work get a higher recall in test groups than the Delray Beach, Fla.-based retailer’s former advertising, Verdi adds.
Office Depot’s previous campaign, created by Wyse Advertising, Cleveland, featured the cartoon character Dilbert and the tagline: “Business is crazy, but Office Depot makes cents.”
The spots, however, didn’t. Tom Cross, senior vice president of marketing at Office Depot, says Dilbert failed to solicit customer support. Verdi admits that consumer research showed the yearlong Dilbert campaign wasn’t effective–the comic-strip character was so memorable, consumers noticed him, not the brand.
In late 1998, following a review, Office Depot moved the $45 million account to DeVito/Verdi.
Yet Bijur finds the new angle taken by Office Depot derivative.
Citing similarities in the tone of the executions and the choice of storylines, he says the similar comedic approach to Staples creates “noise, clutter and confusion” in a category where “Staples is associated with a certain warm, funny human element as applied to real-life situations.”
Judge for yourself: The first Staples spot of the back-to-school season broke Aug. 16 and continues the tagline: “Yeah, we’ve got that.” The ad shows a red-haired kid feigning illness on the first day of school. Refusing to fall for it, his mother quickly points him out the door.
A second ad, breaking this week, shows a scholarly junior high school student who has shopped at Staples to prepare for the new school year. When the pert blonde beside him asks to borrow a pen, he obliges with an array of choices, including one with a “comfort grip.” Whisking off his glasses with newfound confidence, he happily supplies paper to a brunette in the opposite row.
“Bobby!” the attractive teacher barks, before asking for chalk. “Regular or dust free?” he coyly responds.
Bijur says Freeman’s Staples campaign continues to resonate with consumers. Two years ago, USA Today ranked the Staples campaign among the five most popular across all categories in a consumer poll. Who can forget 1994’s “Most Wonderful Time of the Year” spot in which two glum children watch their gleeful dad dance down the aisles filling the shopping cart with school supplies? Capitalizing on past success, the ad has been airing this summer.
“[People] really relate to it,” Bijur says. “We expect [this campaign] to continue to connect with people. We want [the consumer] to think, ‘Staples gets it–they really understand what I need.'”
Staples may be simpatico with buyers, but with nearly 800 stores in North America, Office Depot still leads the category in retail sales with $2.3 billion in the second quarter ending June 26, 1999, while Staples trails in second place. With more than 1,000 stores worldwide, the Framingham, Mass.-based company, which spent $80 million in media last year, reported retail sales of $1.84 billion for the second quarter ending July 31, 1999.
Cliff Freeman is also preparing to launch two new Staples spots in mid-September, targeting the office and home-office consumer to counter previous Office Depot ads, which broke in February. One Office Depot ad portrays a woman on a beach placing an order with her cellular phone. The other shows a retired couple living it up on a sailboat–not because they invested wisely but because they stole a credit-card receipt someone failed to destroy with an Office Depot paper shredder.
Cross counters that the spots focus on “real-world problems” involving confidential documents.
Jeanne Lewis, Staples’ executive vice president of marketing, agrees that Office Depot may be mirroring Staples’ strategy. “Humor is a broad umbrella,” she says. “For the past five years, we have effectively used humor. [Office Depot’s] use of it this time seems as if they’re trying to come closer to our approach than they did using Dilbert.”
Bijur isn’t amused. “Imitation may be the most sincere form of flattery. But in advertising, I think it’s shameless for an agency to do that. Plus, the commercials aren’t very good.”
Verdi’s response: “Your mother.” Detention, anyone?