Marshall Ross On The Spot

Marshall Ross, ecd of Cramer-Krasselt in Chicago, introduced Super Bowl viewers to the monkey business going on at fictitious Yekmon Inc. for, and found working with chimps “humbling.” Ross, 44, now in his 10th year at the agency, started his career at Foote Cone & Belding and had his own agency, Mitchener Ross & Kahn, for seven years. His cluttered office gives away his political beliefs (a skewered George Bush doll) and his passion for Corona (a large neon beer light), a brand he first worked on at Campbell Mithun in the early 1990s and now shepherds at C-K. Q. What was it like working with a bunch of monkeys?

A. The cool thing is, it was really just six chimpanzees, some of whom were digitally cloned. It was humbling, I have to say. They are kind of beautiful. They are amazingly innocent and in love with life, and they had such a good time. It was so clear that they enjoyed their work.

More so than some of the human talent you’ve had to work with?

I think so. First of all, they got to eat candy corn all the time. Whenever they did something well, they got love and candy corn, which is more than many people get on the job. It was a great time. I think of one of the babies, a 2-year-old—it was just freaky how different a 2-year-old chimp is from a 2-year-old person. You could throw this animal in the air, they couldn’t hurt themselves if they tried, and there was so much strength and power you could feel. It was fascinating how different they are.

How do you bring a fresh perspective to the old idea of chimps?

We fought about that. The first time we all looked at the idea, we just said, “Wait a minute. C’mon, we’re going to put chimpanzees on the air? How many times has that happened?” Then somebody said, “Well, you know what Rich Silverstein says—’That’s not funny enough, put a chimp in it.’ ” I don’t know if he meant it symbolically or truthfully. But we really sweated that. We knew there’s instant appeal, they are our innocent and playful selves. We really fretted over finding a fresh way, and that’s where the notion of reversing leadership, who was really in charge of that company [came in]—and taking a BBC sensibility to it, which is to completely play it straight. Let’s just let the stupidity fall into place.

What was your biggest fear, watching the Super Bowl?

That we’d run out of the [top] places [in USA Today’s poll]. This meant a lot to the client. There’s a lot riding on this year. The client took a big gamble to be in the Super Bowl, especially at the level at which they were involved. I kept waiting for the undeniable killer spot. I was really worried that what we thought was a fresh execution might not be perceived as such.

What’s the last work that made you say, “I wish I had done that.”

I thought that Ameriquest campaign [on the Super Bowl] was brilliant. I really felt like it was a huge insight into the brand, the execution was flawless, and it sucker-punched me both times. I’m always envious. Almost anything that’s decent makes me envious. I think the way Crispin is doling out the Burger King message is really interesting, really novel, and yet right on the screws of fast food. There’s a sensibility around that work that feels like theater in the bun, as opposed to, “Here’s an ad.”

How did you get into advertising?

I had a high-school teacher whose husband was an art director at Leo Burnett. And she said, “You should be in advertising.” I thought I was going to go to art school. The one art school I got into, my parents wouldn’t let me go to. It was Parsons School of Design in Manhattan. It was a commuter school. I think my parents probably smartly recognized that I was probably too stupid and young to live in Manhattan. So they said no to that, and I went to U of I [University of Illinois], which actually had an ad program. The starving artist thing never held much romance for me. I don’t really like roaches at all. There’s only so many Kraft Singles you can eat.

What work are you most proud of?

Helping Corona find its personality. I think that would probably be the most impactful thing I’ve done.

What’s the last book you read?

The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri. She’s an Indian writer. It’s really a neat book. I stick pretty much to fiction. I watch what I perceive to be interesting people reading on airplanes. I spend a lot of time on airplanes, so I sort of take note. I’m really influenced by book cover design. I’m a big believer in supporting good design.

The last CD you listened to?

I have now played Jet, Get Born, for the last week, over and over again. I have a rule about music: I have to buy something new if I buy something old.

How do you get past a creative block?

I go to the movies. They blow me away, even the bad ones. Sometimes there are moments of genius, even in something bad.

What advice do you have for someone just starting out in the business.

Be the person that never says no, and take on everything. The key to this whole business is practice. The other thing is do not believe for a minute that you know what you’re doing. I think self-doubt is an incredible motivator. I think you start getting bad when you start thinking you’re good.