By Jim Hanas
A funny thing happened in the economic downturn. As agencies and clients everywhere flailed, a few brands had creative breakthroughs. Not comebacks, but breakthroughs -- and not the brands, or agencies, you might expect. "Five years ago who would have thought that a Chrysler spot would be pulled off the air or be written about for being too controversial?" asks Carol Joseph, a creative director at Chrysler agency Pentamark Worldwide. Pentamark has grabbed headlines in recent months with two more spots -- one each for Dodge and Jeep -- that were also deemed "too controversial." "You don't know where the edge is until you come right up to it," says DaimlerChrysler's Jeff Bell, VP-marketing communications for the U.S. "That's a risk we're willing to take."
Bell's is not the only staid company to discover the benefits of risk-taking. Sears, long an exponent of the product shot and sales pitch, launched a branding campaign in the fall, engineered by Young & Rubicam/Chicago, that manages to plug sales, place products and be wryly clever. Meanwhile, another dusty Chicago institution, Wrigley, has seen the light and broken away from its attribute-based approach to marketing, overlaying it with an attitude and style that earned BBDO/Chicago a spot on the Cannes shortlist. Asked if Wrigley advertising has been a factor in creative awards shows in the past, ECD Phil Gant does not hem or haw. His response is, simply, "No."
How did these formerly square brands make the turn? Gant might be speaking for the creative departments at all three agencies when he says, "Everybody has risen to the occasion."
Grab the Brand by the Horns
The story behind the renaissance of Dodge and Chrysler advertising begins with mergers -- first the merger of Daimler-Benz with Chrysler, then the merger of the Detroit offices of FCB and BBDO to form Pentamark Worldwide in January 2001. There were other changes on both the agency and client side. Dodge ECD Dick Johnson retired and all three DaimlerChrysler brands -- Jeep, Dodge and Chrysler -- were consolidated under ECD Bill Morden. On the client side, Dieter Zetsche ascended to CEO in late 2000, bringing with him a marketing team headed by Ford exec Jim Schroer. By last spring, the new regimes were examining the state of their brands.
"I was given an assignment to shake things up," says DaimlerChrysler's Bell. "The feeling was that Dodge is a great brand and one of the best kept secrets, but over the years its message had become dispersed, and Chrysler had to assure its relevance and connectivity not only today but tomorrow. For both those brands we decided we needed to make a clear break from where we were."
"It's almost a creative director's worst nightmare," admits Morden. "You can no longer say, 'I like it but the client won't buy it.' That really puts a lot of pressure on us to come up with something unique and breakthrough." The result, however, has been some very un-Detroit advertising. Chrysler reorganized its pitches around a new line -- "Drive = Love" -- and sought to connect to consumers' passions. "It allowed us to be very emotional about the cars and our advertising," says Carol Joseph, who, along with co-CD Andy Ozark oversees Chrysler creative. Ads have spun the "love" theme in various, sometimes shocking ways. In one spot, "Forbidden Love," an Amish man sneaks out to take his Chrysler for a drive. In another, "Share the Love," two men negotiate what seems dangerously close to a wife swap before we find out that they're just trading minivans. In the most talked about Chrysler spot so far, a woman explains to her daughter that her sister was conceived in the back seat of their Chrysler Concorde. A second, less risque version of the ad was created to run in markets where the original take had created controversy. "The Concorde spot generated so much news and publicity, it's really redefining the brand for us," Joseph says. "We needed to do something different. Fortunately for us, it wasn't a matter of taking a series of baby steps. We took one giant leap and got recognized, and people are talking about Chrysler like they've never talked about it before."
The change at Dodge has been even more radical. Headed up by co-CDs Rick Dennis and Sam Sefton -- who, like Morden, Ozark and Joseph, have experience working on Jeep, the Chrysler brand with the strongest creative legacy -- Dodge also got a new tagline, "Grab life by the horns," and a thumping audio tag to match. "The brief was how do you really jumpstart Dodge, make it connect with a wider range of people, but, more importantly, with a younger range of people," says Morden. "It was a whole new day," adds Sefton.
The latest round of Dodge work has featured comedy typical of ads for imports with agencies on the coasts -- the kind of work that's rarely seen out of Detroit. In a suggestive ad for the Neon, a couple checks out the roominess of the backseat, which turns out to be for their Saint Bernard. In another, a ventriloquist's dummy gives a cop a hard time. For their new looks, both Chrysler and Dodge have turned to A-list directors. Hungry Man's man-of-the-moment, Bryan Buckley, has shot for both Chrysler and Dodge, and uber-hip collective Traktor has lensed five spots for Dodge. "You're not going to get the directors unless you have good boards," Sefton says. "We've been fortunate to have sold some good creative to get those good directors."
Morden says the minor controversies the ads have created -- a Jeep spot was pulled because hunters took offense, and a Dodge spot in which a car passes a snowplow was likewise yanked -- are not a source of client-agency strife. In fact, one of the missions he's been given is to create ads that convert to water-cooler talk. "Our responsibility is to continue this," he says. "To find better ways to keep that momentum and get to the place where you have all the water-cooler talk you can handle and everybody's still happy with it. That's Utopia. I've been in the business a long time. It might be impossible."
Sears: Where Else?
"Let's be honest," says Dan Fietsam, creative director and principal writer on the Sears account at Y&R/Chicago. "Sears wasn't something creative people flocked to work on, but we were determined to do good creative on it. It's been the bane of Chicago advertising. We wanted to turn that around and make a point about how really good creative advertising can come not only for a tough client, but also out of Chicago."
Last year, sandwiched in a treacherous category that has already claimed Kmart as a casualty, Sears staged a shootout between roster shops Y&R and Ogilvy to develop a new branding campaign. As Fietsam explains, the Chicago-based retailer is shooting for "the middle of the middle"; between the urban chic of Target, on the one hand, and the rural utilitarianism of Wal-Mart, on the other. "Our approach was simply not to overreach," Fietsam says. "Not try too hard. We just let Sears be Sears." Y&R won the pitch, and the "Where Else?" campaign became the brand standard, executed by Y&R and Ogilvy on so-called "soft brands" and "hard brands," respectively.
"What would make the message compelling, in our minds, was smart, insightful humor," Fietsam says. "Not weird, cheeky sarcasm, but humor that resonates with the grind of everyday life." The campaign's debut spot marked the difference between "Where Else?" and previous campaigns, like "Come See the Softer Side of Sears." A stylish woman vogues for the camera, swirling her wind-blown hair as she strides through cascades of falling leaves. After a cut to a title card, we see her husband, providing the effects with a leaf-blower as he cleans off the lawn. One can almost feel the brand fall back to earth as the "fog of familiarity" that Sears wanted to break through falls away.
Unlike many comic campaigns, "Where Else?" doesn't focus on young hipsters, but on the comedy of the living room and the lawn. A woman who sees some jeans on a buff tow truck driver takes a pair home to her suburban husband. A man who buys his wife a diamond necklace but resents all the male attention it lands her when she wears a low-cut dress, buys her a turtleneck. A teen is humiliated into trading in his boombox for a portable CD player when his parents break into a full-tilt boogie in the kitchen. "This called for scripts and production that were disciplined enough to stay simple, restrained enough to find truly comical moments and, hopefully, ring true enough to make people take notice of Sears again," explains Fietsam. To find the comedy, Y&R, like Pentamark, turned to A-list comedy directors like Hungry Man's Hank Perlman and Biscuit Filmworks' Noam Murro to nail down the campaign's overall feel.
The most impressive thing about the work, however, might be the title cards, which Fietsam calls "deceptively simple." Designed by lead art director Corey Ciszek and chief creative officer Mark Figliulo, the minimalist cards deliver news of products and sales, while bridging the this-and-that flow of the spots. "They actually add to the comedic pace and give the campaign a consistent rhythm," Fietsam says. And, as Ciszek adds of the work's fortysomething suburbanite vibe, "People really like seeing themselves in the spots."
Great Creative -- No Matter What
BBDO/Chicago's ECD Phil Gant can barely contain his enthusiasm. "I don't think there's been a more dramatic shift in advertising excellence than the one the Wrigley company has allowed to happen on essentially all its brands," he says. "I've got to give them a ton of credit for being a brave client. It's been a total transformation of attitude of a company really wanting to become a marketing company and create brands with really strong personalities." The transformation dates to the ascension of the current Mr. Wrigley, William Wrigley Jr., who became the fourth generation to lead the company when he became president and CEO in 1999. "There wasn't an emphasis on likability and entertainment in the past like there is now," says co-group creative director Gail Pollack. "There was a point in time when the power of creativity wasn't really appreciated," adds Gant. "It was much more of a rational approach, a product-focused approach."
But as it has come time to create new campaigns, the personality of all Wrigley's brands has changed. Winterfresh now boasts a street-savvy animated campaign. Big Red's new spokesman is a Barry White-ish relationship advisor named Clyde. And last year, a Cliff Freeman-style spot for Juicy Fruit, in which clueless subjects can't help reaching into a bear trap to get gum, made the shortlist at Cannes.
The real breakthrough, however, came with last year's launch of Orbit gum, a global brand that demanded a global flavor. The result, featuring a modish and stilted spokeswoman named Vanessa, was one of the funniest and most stylized campaigns of the year. "Because the packaging is so out there, it gave us some freedom to do a hyperbolic treatment of the logo and the whole idea," says Pollack, who oversees creative on Orbit and other Wrigley brands with partner Jim Hyman.
For that, the agency enlisted Spanish director Pep Bosch -- who won two Lions at Cannes last year -- in his first-ever U.S. project. "We weren't sure how the client would react to the style," says Hyman. "But they liked it right from the start." Vanessa is, according to Pollack, a "scientific glamour-puss" who guides us through tests of Orbit's breath-freshening power with a pasted-on smile and a single buzzword: "Fabulous." She remains spotless as subjects become filthy, except for their breath, since Orbit delivers a "good clean feeling no matter what."
"We always felt like there's no reason gum shouldn't be like soda pop," says Gant, who would like to see Wrigley become for Chicago what Pepsi is for BBDO's New York office. "What we're working toward is making that account world-class advertising across the board." He may have already arrived, at least if you judge by how an account attracts talent. "I was having a heated argument with a creative director, and, among other things, he was pissed he didn't have enough Wrigley to work on," Gant relates. "I had to stop the conversation and bask in the moment for just a second."