Everything was in place to shoot something special.
Geico CMO Ted Ward liked the idea so much, he had approved it immediately. ("We didn't pass this one by anybody," he would later tell Adweek.) The directing duo Terri Timely had loved the scripts and signed on. And The Martin Agency creatives couldn't wait to get on set and film a campaign they'd dreamed up that would make fun, innovative use of that most moribund of marketing channels—YouTube preroll, where ads go to die.
There was just one small problem. The dog.
"I expressed serious concerns about getting the idea filmed in one take with two adults, two kids, a dog and a setting out of a Norman Rockwell painting," Steve Bassett, group creative director at Martin, admits of the now-famous "Unskippable" ad with the dog loudly devouring his family's spaghetti as they sit, frozen, through an increasingly hilarious dinner-table disaster.
Ward, for the record, had been more optimistic. "We've had better luck with dogs than cats," he says of Geico's beast-friendly oeuvre. "Of course, we've decided to animate lizards and pigs."
In the end, the canine—a Saint Bernard mix named Bolt—was the perfect slapstick actor, knocking over a salad bowl and a glass of milk while slurp-slurp-slurping his way to Internet fame. (The spot has more than 8 million views, of which full plays were "way higher" than the norm, Ward says.)
"All I have to say is, it's a good thing creative teams don't listen to their creative directors," Bassett jokes now.
It's a good thing Martin's particular writer/art director team of Neel Williams and Mauricio Mazzariol didn't blindly accept preroll's limitations. YouTube viewers hate preroll, they knew, not just because it's an interruption but because it's a mindless one, with so many unaltered TV spots not even offering the courtesy of adapting to the space in a relevant, entertaining way.
With "Unskippable," Adweek's choice for the best ad campaign of 2015, Martin and Geico thus did viewers a favor by purposely hooking them with something fun before the skip button appeared. Inverting the typical ad, they ran the end at the beginning, finishing the pitch in a few seconds—"You can't skip this ad, because it's already over," says the voiceover—and then letting the cameras roll, capturing hilariously awkward bonus footage in which the actors pretend to be frozen as the world continues around them.
The resulting spots, which are still running, are simple, clever, funny and innovative. They're disarming at just the right moment, self-aware enough to be loved by ad people (for whom being skippable is the ultimate fear) and pure entertainment for everyone else—as viewers happily submit to the sales pitch (Geico's logo is front and center on screen the entire time) before watching their next cat video.
"We had the research. We knew the skip rate after five seconds was 96 percent, so we collectively challenged ourselves to find a workaround," says Martin group account director Brad Higdon. "If we're going to interrupt someone on their way to watch something they actually sought out, and want to watch, we better make it worth their while."
The "Unskippable" idea was simple—perhaps too simple, the agency thought at first.
"When we first reviewed the idea, naturally we all got a good laugh, but then we all kind of looked at each other and said, 'Has no one done this before?' " Higdon says. "That's really the beauty of the idea: its simplicity. The fact that preroll is universally loathed and yet no one ever did anything about it. So we cycled through several scripts, all with the same construct, and picked our favorites. We then did a little bit of fine tuning to make sure the scenarios and humor were all on brand for Geico—beyond the 'You can't skip this ad' joke alone."
The idea was brilliant, but the execution is what really brought the ads home. Park Pictures directors Terri Timely—aka, Ian Kibbey and Corey Creasey—shot four ads over two days, changing only a few things in the scripts. They moved one spot from a living room to a poolside barbecue, and conjured up the crazy vacuum cleaner in the office spot.
"Everything freezes a few seconds in, so they art directed each scene like a still life, from tiny little props to the symmetry to overall color tone," says Williams, Martin's creative director. "It would have been easy to just do the Wes Anderson thing here and go a little overboard on the crafty side. But they embraced the campiness of the scripts and went more 'stock photo chic,' which gave everything just the right personality."
"We just let the camera roll," says Bassett. "The actors were encouraged to stay frozen but use subtle eye movements and other cues to let the viewers know that the actors knew what was going on but they weren't allowed to break character."
Creasey and Kibbey say they contributed mostly to the art direction and casting. "We felt the spots were best told in one shot, so we really had to create scenes that read quickly but had enough depth and detail that could hold up to repeat viewings," Creasey says.
"That actually required a bit of restraint," Kibbey adds. "Whenever we had the impulse to push one element or another, we had to ask ourselves if it would enhance the bizarre suspended moment we are seeing unfold or detract from it."
The dog spot is the most famous, and no wonder. It's where everything came together—the great idea, the inspired direction and some wonderfully comic animal acting.
"We had an extensive conversation about what food was the funniest, from sausages and corn dogs to chicken casserole," says Mazzariol, Martin's associate creative director. "We finally decided the messy nature of the squiggly spaghetti would make it a great choice. And who would've thought—apparently dogs love spaghetti."
"We got a lot of good takes where Bolt just ate off the dad's plate," adds Creasey. "The trainer told us he thought Bolt was probably getting full and wouldn't do much more, so we probably only had one take left. We just told him to see if Bolt would jump on the table and see what happened. Apparently Bolt has two stomachs because he went to town. I think he would have kept eating if we let him."
"During that last take with Bolt, I couldn't believe that he was able to keep eating," says Kibbey. "I was so excited that I took out my phone and snapped a couple pictures off the monitor. I didn't realize that anyone witnessed my less than professional behavior until I saw this video that Mauricio posted online."
Check out Mazzariol's video here:
Both agency and client are reluctant to call the work groundbreaking. (It wasn't like we came up with 'Unskippable' and were like, 'Pencils down, we just invented electricity!' " Williams jokes.) But it did use creativity and humor to sidestep a seemingly intractable problem in a heavily used medium—picking up lots of industry awards along the way, including a Film Grand Prix at Cannes and two gold Clio Awards in the Digital and Innovative categories.
"You always need to reinvent," says Martin group creative director Wade Alger. "That is how you stay current and top of mind. That is key. If you don't, you become irrelevant, simple as that."
"We had a blast making these, and it's so wonderful that they were so well received," adds broadcast producer Liza Miller.
Not coincidentally, it also drove sales. Ward said Geico's digital business is booming, with mobile volumes running at record levels. "This was a big piece of that," he says, adding that Martin is now working on a follow-up "that's maybe almost as innovative."
"They've earned the right to throw some really crazy stuff at us," Ward says with a chuckle. "And we've earned the right to approve it, evidently."
See the rest of Adweek's 2015 Ads of the Year package here:
Top photo (l. to r.): The Martin Agency associate creative director Mauricio Mazzariol, creative director Neel Williams, Geico senior director of marketing Amy Furman, executive producer Brett Alexander, broadcast producer Liza Miller, account executive Allison Hensley, group creative director Steve Bassett and Bolt the dog.
Cover photo (clockwise from top): Williams, Mazzariol, Bassett and Miller (plus Bolt).
Elevator photo (l. to r.): The Martin Agency chief creative officer Joe Alexander, project manager Karen McEwen and group creative director Wade Alger.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 14 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.
Vice President, Marketing: Ted Ward
Manager, Broadcast Production and Agency Relations: Amy Hooks
Marketing Buyers: Katherine Kalec, Brighid Griffin
Marketing Coordinator: Thomas Perlozzo
Agency: The Martin Agency, Richmond, Va.
Chief Creative Officer: Joe Alexander
Senior Vice Presidents, Group Creative Directors: Steve Bassett, Wade Alger
Vice President, Associate Creative Director: Neel Williams
Associate Creative Director: Mauricio Mazzariol
Vice President, Executive Producer: Brett Alexander
Broadcast Producer: Liza Miller
Junior Broadcast Producer: Coleman Sweeney
Business Affairs Supervisor: Suzanne Wieringo
Senior Integrated Production Business Manager: Amy Trenz
Financial Manager: Monica Cox
Senior Vice President, Group Account Director: Brad Higdon
Account Supervisor: Josh Lybarger
Account Executive: Allison Hensley
Senior Project Manager: Karen McEwan
Production Company: Park Pictures
Director: Terri Timely
Executive Producers: Justin Pollock, Jackie Kelman Bisbee
Line Producer: David Lambert
Editorial Company: Whitehouse Post
Editor: Caleb Hepler
Executive Producer: Kristin Branstetter
Producer: Jojo Scheerer
Colorist: Tim Mascik
Post Facility: Running With Scissors
Flame Artist: Chris Hagen
Executive Producer: Scott Friske
Senior Producer: Cheryl Lage
Audio Post Company: Rainmaker Studios
Engineer, Mixer: Jeff McManus