John Merrifield On The Spot

Chances are, John Merrifield is lying to you. If he tells you he can’t make that meeting, or that he’s overseas the day of your daughter’s wedding, you might just check his Bali beach house, where the 48-year-old CCO at TBWA\Japan spends most—no, all—of his free time. “I’ll lie to my family, whatever it takes,” he quips. Still, Merrifield—the architect of Adidas’ stunning outdoor verticals—made time to chair the print/poster jury as well as judge integrated and innovative work at the Clio Awards, held this week in Miami Beach, Fla. He explains why the next creative wave may be coming from Thailand. Q: You’ve had athletes play soccer on billboards and race up the side of a skyscraper. What’s next for Adidas outdoor?

A: We did something in New Zealand through TBWA\Whybin that’s just fantastic. It’s called “Be the Ball.” You actually had a chance to be inside a football. It had the largest billboard ever in New Zealand behind it—a picture of Steve Gerrard, who plays for Liverpool—and he looks at you like he’s just about to kick a penalty kick in soccer. You’re sort of strapped into this [giant football slingshot]. This thing goes from sort of ground level to 25 stories in the air at 170 kilometers. Now, if you happen to be in an Adidas shop and you bought the new football, you would have free tickets to go to this slingshot. And if you went and did “Be the Ball,” you would have coupons to get a discount at these stores to buy the ball, so it was very integrated. We want to make news as much as we want to make advertising.

Who’s your biggest creative influence?

I’d say right now there are people like [Jacques] Herzog and [Pierre] de Meuron. These Swiss guys are my favorite architects in the world, and they’ve opened up the de Young museum in San Francisco. The finest building in Tokyo is the Prada building, and they’re doing the Olympic Stadium in Beijing. It’s a bird’s nest … so cool.

What was the last ad that made you think, “I wish I had done that”?

There’s a campaign out of Thailand [for] Smooth E Cream done by a small little agency called JEH [United]. It’s a series of four commercials that were launched last year every two weeks; it’s a sequence. It’s the kind of work that makes you stand up, want to take off all your clothes and just look to whatever, whether you are Islamic and you face mecca, whether you’re Buddhist and face whoever, whether you’re Bob Marley and you just want to face Jamaica, it doesn’t matter. It’s the kind of work that just makes you say, “For fuck’s sake, this is why we’re in the business. It’s just absolutely wonderful.”

I’ve been hearing more and more about Thai agencies. Why is that?

Japan is the world’s second-largest advertising market. We bat so far below our weight, it’s quite embarrassing. Thailand is just the opposite. The work coming out of Thailand … it’s just got this wonderful Thainess. That joy of living is reflected in their advertising because advertising is, if nothing else, a reflection of a culture. Thailand is a wonderful place to live, it’s a wonderful place to work, the people enjoy life, it’s a great place … even if you don’t have a lot of money. As I said, JEH is a wonderful agency and [so are] BBDO and Creative Juice\G1. Even the big dinosaur agencies like Ogilvy & Mather and JWT are doing fabulous world-class work, so you know there’s something going on there.

What is the smartest business decision you’ve ever made?

I could have bought the third house ever built in Palm Beach, Australia. I didn’t. … It just sold last year for about four times what I could have got it for, so I’m not sure if I’m very good at a standard business decision.

OK, what’s the dumbest decision?

I’m a complete hack. Thinking that I could make it in this business as a writer. … Everything I’ve ever written in my entire life I just want to tear up and throw away.

One person with whom you’re dying to work?

Gabriel García Márquez. He is an amazing author, and he has been asked to be in politics in Colombia. I just think that if I can work with him, I would maybe be able to learn how to write really, really well.

How do you get past a creative block?

Unfortunately, everybody I’ve ever worked with knows that there is nothing I will not do to try to come down to Bali and surf. It’s the kind of thing [where] I will lie to absolutely everybody I work with. I’ll lie to family. Whatever it takes to get me to Bali, so long as I can paddle out and get a bit of water. That’s the best sort of drainage blockage I’ve ever come across. … The great thing about surfing is, it really gets the blood flowing, and if you get that blood circulating around your head very early in the morning, hopefully you’re going to have not so bad of a day.

What’s your biggest pet peeve?

Lee Clow described it really well. … Our biggest frustration in this business is getting things through the nincompoop forest. Both internally in agencies and certainly externally with clients, you have a lot of people who have never built things in their life, and they’re in the position to tear things down.

What is the most important thing you learned from your parents?

My father was in the Marine Corps. He sat us down and said two things: “If you fuck up, remember two things—don’t come home, and you don’t have a last name.” I think what he was trying to say is be responsible, and if you do fuck up, I don’t want to know about you because that’s not the way I raised you.