How AT&T Got Kids to Make Some of the Year’s Best Ads

BBDO spins comic gold from their crazy brains

Headshot of Tim Nudd

IDEA: Bigger. Faster. More. You know you have strong product benefits when they can be boiled down to simple value propositions even kids can appreciate. Children, and simplicity, are at the core of BBDO's classic-in-the-making "It's not complicated" campaign for AT&T—touting the size and speed of the carrier's network and other benefits. Prompted, and in many ways wrangled, by actor and comedian Beck Bennett, children answer the simplest of (unbranded) questions in a dozen ads and counting. What's better: Bigger or smaller? Faster or slower? More or less? The kids answer oddly, sweetly, hilariously—turning out charming, comic spots from what was always something of a gamble. "We knew there was a bit of wild card in talking to kids," said BBDO Atlanta creative director Stephen McMennamy. "But that's what we loved about it—taking time to get inside their heads and hear them talk so wonderfully about these really simple notions."

TALENT: The agency prefers non-actor kids but has worked with actors, too. It looked beyond New York and Los Angeles, to places like Chicago and San Francisco, to widen the net. The children must have a certain dynamic and energy, but even that's not always reliable. "You can get a kid who does some great, random, wild stuff in casting, but on set the dynamic can be different," said McMennamy. "Is it the time of day? Did they get in a fight with their sibling? It's anybody's guess."

The agency films five groups of four kids per day, each group for two hours. Often they get nothing; occasionally they strike gold. In the middle of it all is Bennett, who first chatted with kids for AT&T in BBDO New York's more limited "Brackets by Six-Year-Olds" digital program a year ago. "It's amazing how good he is with them," said McMennamy. "I think of him as a traffic cop. Kids are just chaos. But he's very aware of what we need from a production standpoint. And by that I mean, 'You need to put your hands down, away from your mouth,' 'You need to stop fidgeting.' There's a lot of him helping us out."

COPYWRITING: Bennett's lead-in lines are scripted. From there, it's improvised, unless the kids are struggling, in which case Bennett will throw in another scripted idea the kids can riff off. An example is "Candy Island," in which a girl says saving money is better than not saving money because then you can buy an island made of candy. She was prompted to say that, "but then suddenly they're all sparking to this idea," said McMennamy. "What we ended up with was nothing like what we had on paper. And look at 'Werewolf' [a spot in which a girl acts possessed]. There's no way you could come up with anything that wonderful. That's Diana going nuts in her own head."

Once they have something solid, Bennett plays around with reaction lines the agency can use before the cut to the pitch. One thing that was crucial to the client: that the kids not be shills. "We don't want them talking about us or the wireless industry," said AT&T Mobility CMO David Christopher. "We just want them to express, in their own fun way, these simple, universal truths."

AT&T also rolled out two spots around March Madness this year featuring four bigger kids—NBA legends Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell.

FILMING/ART DIRECTION: Jorma Taccone directed all the spots in actual classrooms, many at John Muir Elementary School in Santa Monica, Calif. ("Werewolf" was shot in New York.) Taccone is part of sketch comedy troupe The Lonely Island and knows improv well. BBDO's art department makes use of the classroom environments but brings in extra props so it won't run into things like usage rights for children's art.

SOUND: Plucky stock music plays under the product pitch, meshing nicely with AT&T's four-note sonic branding outro, which follows. Sound design is minimal.

MEDIA: National broadcast and cable, and online.


See more spots from the series on AT&T's YouTube page.


Client: AT&T

Agency: BBDO Atlanta and BBDO New York

Spots: "Nicky Flash," "High Fives," "Pickle Roll," "Candy Island," "Werewolf"

Chief Creative Officer: David Lubars

Senior Creative Director: Grant Smith

Executive Creative Director: Erik Fahrenkopf

Executive Creative Director: LP Tremblay

Creative Director: Stephen McMennamy

Creative Director: Alex Russell

Art Director: Rory Odani

Art Director: Jesse Snyder

Copywriter: Jason Miller

Copywriter: Carl Jannerfeldt

Copywriter: Alex Taylor

Director of Integrated Production: Dave Rolfe

Producer: Angela Narloch

Music Producer: Melissa Chester

Business Affairs Manager: Cristina Blanco

Production Company: Caviar

Director: Jorma Taccone

Director of Photography: Brandon Trost

Executive Producer: Michael Sagol

Line Producer: Brian Cooper

Editing: Lost Planet ("Nicky Flash," "High Fives," "Pickle Roll," "Candy Island")

Editor: Charlie Johnston ("Nicky Flash," "High Fives," "Pickle Roll")

Editor: Paul Snyder ("Nicky Flash," "High Fives," "Pickle Roll")

Editor: Chris Huth ("Candy Island")

Executive Producer: Krystn Wagenberg

Producer: Lauren Hafner Addison

Editing: PS 260 ("Werewolf")

Editor: Maury Loeb ("Werewolf")

Visual Effects: Spontaneous NY

Producer: Bryce Edwards

@nudd Tim Nudd is a former creative editor of Adweek.