How to Sell a Strange Idea

The stories behind four award-winning—but offbeat—concepts

This season’s prize-winning campaigns run the gamut from sex to violence to just plain weirdness: a man telling his young daughter all about the birds and the bees, people surviving serious injury because they watch lots of hockey, a chain reaction that builds a car and people with ping-pong paddles for ears. Behind each of these campaigns is a strong creative vision, but behind that, there’s a receptive client willing to veer from the tried and true. For example, the shop that won this year’s Grand Prix at Cannes and the Grand Clio, Crispin Porter + Bogusky in Miami, first had to sell Ikea executives on rethinking their entire marketing strategy to portray furniture as fun and replaceable [Adweek, June 30]. Once that was done, pitching the concept for “Lamp” was a snap. Selling these four concepts—for Honda, John Smith’s Courage, Microsoft’s Xbox and Fox Sports Net—proved relatively easy for the agencies involved: a testament to the strength of their novel ideas and to their relationship with the client.

“Cog” Wieden + Kennedy UK, London

The creatives behind Grand Prix runner-up “Cog” had more difficulty selling Honda on the spot’s two-minute length than on the chain-reaction concept itself, according to co-creative director Tony Davidson.

The brief for launching the new Honda Accord asked Wieden + Kennedy’s London office to address the perception of the car maker in the U.K. as a less-than-premium brand for “blue rinses,” people 55-65, says Davidson. The agency settled on the guiding principle of “warm engineering,” showcasing Honda’s engineering prowess in a humanistic way. “It had to be elegant—we didn’t just want to show winding roads,” Davidson says.

The creative team, which also included co-creative director Kim Papworth, copywriter Ben Walker and art director Matt Gooden, came up with the chain reaction to demonstrate how different parts of the engine work, Davidson recalls. Two months after they got the brief, Davidson, Papworth and the account director presented the idea at a two-hour meeting with Matt Coombe, Honda marketing communications manager, and another marketing executive. The creatives discussed the idea of a chain reaction, from dominoes to the game Mousetrap, and showed clips from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the Swiss short film Der Lauf der Dinge (The Way Things Go). Then they presented illustrations of a chain reaction made of car parts, drawn by Gooden.

While Honda was receptive to the idea, “they said, ‘You’re going to have to prove to us that you can do it,’ ” Davidson says.

The client’s other issue was the spot’s length. “If you present a two-minute commercial within any corporate organization in the world, they’d all say the same thing: ‘That’s going to be expensive,’ ” reasons Coombe.

To show why two minutes was necessary, “we made it clear we were trying to explain the power of dreams,” Davidson says. More practically, the team emphasized that an online version would be designed to encourage the spot to spread virally. And shorter versions would be made for airing as well.

Coombe acquiesced after he saw a 20-second test chain reaction that the agency shot. “We knew two minutes would capture hearts and minds, so we agreed,” says Coombe. “We thought it was a great idea. … No other car manufacturer had done this before.”

Print was cut in favor of the media buy, which included just 10 two-minute slots.

The streamlined marketing department at the client helped Wieden’s case, Davidson says. “The big thing about Honda in our country is they don’t have a lot of layers,” he notes. “It’s hard to sell global ideas when there’s a structure of 73 layers. We had basically two layers to get through.”

Coombe and the account director sold the spot to Honda’s upper management. In the process, the client fine-tuned the idea to ensure the ad showcased specific features of the Accord.

The result is history: The spot took off around the world, generating about 15,000 hits a day online—and a gold Lion.

“No Nonsense” campaign TBWA London

When TBWA creatives met with John Smith’s three-person brand team in February 2002, a few of their 10-12 scripts didn’t go over too well. One had the campaign’s main character, played by British comedian Peter Kay, as a doctor who tells his patient it will be painful when he “puts his arm up his backside,” says deputy creative director Paul Silburn. “That raised a few eyebrows in the room.”

Silburn had joined the shop a month before from Leith London and was asked to bring John Smith’s Courage advertising, tagged “No nonsense,” back to its roots as a down-to-earth brand. For four years, ads had featured a cardboard-cutout man for a spokescharacter, with the idea that the beer was so good, it could sell itself. But by late 2001, the campaign was “in danger of straying into nonsensical areas,” says John Botia, John Smith’s brands director.

The client had already rejected several ideas from the London shop—including one that was eventually worked into the spot “Babies,” in which a man tells his friends how he graphically described sex to his young daughter. (The spot was approved as a viral ad and has also run on Playboy TV.)

When Silburn came on board, “we really started to make progress on cracking the brief,” Botia says. He liked Silburn’s suggestion to take a no-nonsense but humorous approach to everyday situations (proctologist visits aside—that script was axed).

One script that made the cut showed Kay’s character trying to ship his mom off to an old folks’ home to make room for a pool table. The spot originally featured an old lady in a wheelchair, but the client asked for a younger mom who was no-nonsense herself. “No one would really put a 55-year-old woman in an old folks’ home,” Silburn says. “It improved the joke in the end.”

Silburn and his team, including co-creative director Trevor Beattie, went on to pick up a gold Lion and two silver D&AD awards, among other honors.

“Ear Tennis” BBH, London

If “ear tennis,” the pseudo sport for people who have ping-pong paddles for ears, sounds bizarre, what about mullet throwing? How about porn billiards or mushroom chess? All were games invented by Bartle Bogle Hegarty copywriters/art directors Adam Chiappe and Matthew Saunby, and pitched to their client, Microsoft’s Xbox.

Ear Tennis won out over mullet-throwing (which involves grabbing a mullet wearer by the hair and throwing the person as far as possible), because, “I wanted something more than just slapstick, and I felt mullet-throwing was more a cheap gag,” says Harvey Eagle, European advertising manager for Xbox.

BBH had a sympathetic (if not paddle-sized) ear in Eagle, who had approved the surrealistic Xbox spots “Champagne” and Mosquito,” which won gold Lions in 2002. But while he loved the London shop’s newest idea, he had to convince the rest of the marketing department it would work. “Honestly, people were a little bit nervous,” Eagle admits. “I think people found it conceptually quite hard to grasp and were wondering how it would turn out.”

Eagle’s previous successes won over his team. “They just decided to trust my judgment,” he says.

The extra-large ears of the ear tennis protagonists were partly inspired by the circular plates some African tribesmen insert in their lips, according to the creatives. “We wanted the game to be something that would stand out and make people think, ‘Is this for real?’ ” explains Chiappe.

The surreal concept sprung from a very straightforward brief: “to create a [30-second] portfolio spot that showed off the range of Xbox titles,” says Eagle. “I imagined the only way to [meet the brief] was to show games footage. … But they came back with a clever way of explaining that Xbox has every kind of game you want.” Except, of course, games such as ear tennis. “That was really a clever way of setting it up,” Eagle says.

About three weeks after receiving the brief, the creative team pitched half a dozen concepts in an hour-long meeting at the agency. Chiappe and Saunby laid out sketches and talked through each one.

A 30-second ad was commissioned, showing ear tennis players as well as footage from Xbox videogames. But before heading off to China, where the commercial was shot, Chiappe and Saunby asked Eagle if they could create a one-minute spot that would provide a setup for the 30-second version.

“The backstory was always something we had in mind,” Chiappe says. “We believed that by creating characters and a history behind the sport, we would give the commercial more depth and make it more compelling.” The ad would have no actual videogame footage, only the story of the ear tennis players.

Eagle signed off on the idea—and the resulting 60-second spot, which was in close contention for the Grand Prix at Cannes, won a gold Lion, and a silver and a bronze at the British Television awards.

“Iron,” “Dumpster,” “Anti-Freeze,” “Log” TBWA\Chiat\Day, San Francisco

If you think Fox Sports Net’s National Hockey League campaign—which shows people surviving increasingly brutal mishaps the more hockey they watch—is too violent, you’re probably not a hockey fan. “There was very little pause” when the client saw the work, says Chuck McBride, executive creative director of TBWA\Chiat\Day in San Francisco.

The selling process was quick and easy—and done over the phone, due to scheduling conflicts. McBride and his team presented two concepts to Fox Sports Net svp of marketing Eric Markgraf and Neal Tiles, evp of marketing, in a one-hour conversation about two weeks after the agency received the brief. Client execs made a snap decision.

“We really felt when we saw the campaign initially that it was going to … resonate with fans,” Markgraf recalls. He says the close agency-client relationship was also a factor in the quick pick: “We know each other well, and things work really smoothly. We don’t tend to overthink things.”

The pain and violence—ranging from a man plucking out his nose hairs to another getting slammed on the head with a Dumpster lid—was not a client concern. As McBride says, “Fox work has a tendency to be a little more rambunctious.” Markgraf explains the reasoning as, “the ads show people getting tougher—it was never self-imposed stuff, it was really stuff that can happen to people.” He says the Fox team asked the agency to avoid any scenarios that were too “over-the-top cartoonish in nature.”

McBride admits the agency initially had preferred the idea the client didn’t pick, a concept that also involved toughness. “[Fox] said, ‘This one does it more simply for us,’ and we thought, ‘Yeah, that’s probably right,’ ” he says.

The brief, explains Markgraf, had asked TBWA to “convey that hockey fans are different from other fans.” McBride and the rest of his team—creative director Todd Grant, art director/copywriter Eric King, art director Ben Nott and copywriter Susan Treacy—came up with the idea and the line “The more you watch, the tougher you get” by delving into the hockey-fan psyche. “Hockey fans are very strange characters,” McBride says. “We wanted to build this affinity for being a dedicated hockey fan.”

Awards show judges understood the hockey mentality: The campaign picked up a silver Lion, a silver D&AD pencil, an Andy award, two gold Pencils at the One Show and two bronze Clios.