Mission 'Impossible'

By Published on .

Most Popular
Mission accomplished. At least that's what Chuck McBride might say about the winning streak he's enjoyed at TBWA/Chiat/Day/San Francisco this past year. His agency made a creative killing at the awards shows for its work on adidas, raking in the most film Gold Lions of any U.S. shop at Cannes and helping to put adidas at the top of the honored client list (see Creativity, August 2005). In the process, he has helped to rouse awareness of a brand giant that had achieved a considerable reputation overseas, but until now had remained relatively dormant on American turf. "My job coming to this agency, having lost Levi's and won adidas pretty much in the same week, was always to make adidas famous," the 42-year-old Kentucky native reflects. "That's all I had to do." Today, basking in a post-awards show haze, McBride admits that "all those titles they gave me and all the shit that they asked me to do from a national standpoint never meant as much as doing great work on adidas, because if I did that, everything else would follow. So my heart and soul has been with adidas for the last three years, and I'm just glad that it's paid off ."

McBride had joined the S.F. office as executive creative director in 1999, after a celebrated run at Wieden + Kennedy/Portland where he'd been a CD on the "What Are You Getting Ready For?" campaign for Nike. At Chiat, he was reunited with Levi's, a client through which McBride solidified his all-star status with the iconic "501 Reasons" campaign out of FCB, but which he then had to pull out of an extended downward sales slump following several management shifts. In late 2000, McBride, rumored to be restless, was given the additional title of North American creative director, a move that at the time led the industry to believe he was being groomed as heir apparent to Lee Clow's California throne. In 2002, however, the San Francisco shop neared dire straits. While it was struggling to keep afloat in the sea of casualties from the dotcom fallout, Levi's moved its U.S. account to BBH/N.Y. But the almost simultaneous arrival of adidas, which TBWA won in a partnership with Amsterdam's 180, cushioned the blow and gave the San Francisco office an opening to finally prove itself creatively. In Europe, adidas has long maintained iconic status through its gentlemanly soccer stunts, but until recently in the U.S. the brand struggled to claim an identity. The inaugural work out of TBWA-which included spots like "Legs" and "Slugs"- was entertaining, with product-driven turns, but it did little to deliver adidas the brand from mediocrity and put it in real competition with frontrunner Nike. McBride notes that initially, working with the client was like "jumping on a moving train" and in 2003 he told Creativity the agency would be taking its time on adidas, planning its moves carefully before it made any serious strategic branding leaps.

Impossible is Nothing

Thanks to adidas' now three-year-old, three-way partnership with San Francisco and 180, the client has raced confidently alongside its major competitors in building a unified global brand. Prior to this collaboration, adidas had worked with two independent agencies , Leagas Delaney in San Francisco and 180. "Both were creative hubs without network connections, but we decided we wanted to have a network relationship to make sure we could actually control and steer the brand around the globe in a harmonized way," explains adidas head of marketing Uli Becker. "Both those agencies were challenged to find a network partner that we could work with; 180 came to the pitch with TBWA and Chiat. They won and since then we've been working with both creative hubs and using the TBWA network all around the world. It's not that we work separately with Chiat and 180; it's one agency home for us."

Out of this tag-teaming came "Impossible is Nothing," the line conceived in the San Francisco shop that first appeared in TBWA and 180's combined Olympic effort that included spots uniting Muhammad Ali with modern-day Olympians. McBride pinpoints the origins of the words to a manifesto written by a young S.F. copywriter, Aimee Lehto. The three words resonated with the client and have since become its rallying cry, inspiring award-winning work from adidas' agencies around the globe. Prior to that "we were a little bit inconsistent in our own strategies," says Becker. "We were missing a clear thought that leads our work, and with the thought of 'Impossible is Nothing' we were able to reframe our own strategic direction and go along one path."

As for the U.S., specifically, San Francisco finally unleashed a team of powerful American athlete endorsers: Tracy McGrady as Gulliver, plowing past a natty troop of Lilliputian soldiers; Chauncey Billups jostling around an animated parquet floor opponent; a trio of hoops stars come to life like Pinocchios at the hands of a puppet master; Kevin Garnett giving a Herculean piggyback ride to a horde of passersby. And of course there's the Spike Jonze tour de force "Hello Tomorrow," for the One Shoe, which showed adidas had stamina outside the basketball court. "Our briefs are not based on, 'He can dunk,'" McBride says. "They're based on their characters, what do they bring to sports that's unique to their character." For example, "Carry," he says, tells the story not necessarily of Garnett's strength but of his dedication as the eight-year linchpin of the Minnesota Timberwolves, when he easily could have switched teams long ago for more fame or glory. In fact, Garnett never touches a ball in the entire spot.

And while U.S. adidas advertising now has heart, it has serious branding muscle as well. "Our business looks stronger, and that obviously can also be attributed to stronger marketing packages, communication and advertising around it," says Becker. "So we are in a very positive mood about how the business has developed. But I still say to really rejuvenate a brand is a longer process than only two years. We aren't at the end of that yet, obviously." Globally, the brand saw an 11 percent increase in regional sales, as well as an 18 percent jump in North America. And that's just the beginning. While the world's No. 2 athletic brand this year has trumped its top competitor, Nike, creatively, it recently made a bolder strike to tighten the gap when it acquired the No. 3 sneaker brand, Reebok, early last month, a move that will not only fatten the brand's bottom line but will also further extend its North American reach. (In the the States, Reebok is the No. 2 seller to adidas' No. 3.) Becker won't comment on what this mega shoe merger will mean for the company's future advertising and marketing strategies.

As for how this affects McBride, "It's so fresh on the books right now that we have no idea that thing's gonna go down. Obviously market share goes up, the combined number two and number three brands may give Nike a better run for their money, but at the same time, you can't make one brand out of them. I don't think the way to make it work is everything becomes adidas or Reebok. You're going to have to keep them fairly distinct because they have fairly segmented audiences. I don't know. I try not to get too ahead of myself on those things because every time you think it should go one way, it goes the other." Meanwhile, for now he says that more character-driven b-ball spots are in the works. "The real trick to building a great brand is consistency. We've set some pretty high bars and now you have every team in the shop saying, 'I want to do that again,' or every client saying, 'I want one of those.' " That drive has extended to print as well, including artful executions for adidas' Stella McCartney workout wear line.

Beyond adidas, San Francisco has continued to turn out consistently fresh campaigns for Fox Sports. Recent efforts includes high-energy spots showing chains of baseball fans sending signals to their team and putting home run balls back into play. The shop also just debuted a round for Fox NFL, featuring its four-man sportscaster team in hilarious displays of harmonious heroism. The agency additionally has started to make headway with spots for the Starz network. McBride admits initially it was difficult to remove the direct marketing blinders from the client, but the agency just released a brand-minded campaign featuring viewers mistaking real life for famous movie moments.

Extending the Game

The San Francisco outpost has proven itself a spots heavy-hitter, which comes as no surprise considering McBride is widely known to be a devotee of commercials and filmmaking and once in a while steps behind the camera himself (he recently shot spots for Starz). But in an age when marketers are pouring more dollars to multiplatform initiatives-and seeking out agencies hardwired to deliver them-McBride will have to demonstrate that his skills travel well beyond the tube. "I've been working on shit that would fit into that for a long fucking time," he groans. "I was doing internet films when I was working on Levi's. We just never turned them into PR stories." He'll get a chance to put his game where his mouth is as a key creative driver of TBWA/California, which Lee Clow recently established to pool the resources from San Francisco and L.A. offices into what he describes as "kind of a collaborative media arts machine," devoted to approaching the business now that it must grow beyond the 30-second spot.

The agency will get a new opportunity to prove itself on the recently acquired Panera bread account. McBride is also looking to explore new terrain. "I've never gotten to work on Anheuser-Busch, Pepsi, a chewing gum or a deodorant," he says. However, "I never want to be aggressive about new business for the sake of new business." Known for being relentless in fighting for good work, McBride says he's rejiggered his creative department, manning it with sharp and hungry young people who share his dedication. "What I've always tried to preach around the agency is, if you get on a roll you gotta stay on the roll. You could be the most valuable player one year, but if you're not in contention for the next five years it was a fluke."

The department recently lost two of its lead adidas creatives, Scott Duchon and Geoff Edwards, who became group creative directors on Xbox at McCann, but McBride is no stranger to departures from his starting lineup. "I've produced five agency all-stars over the course of seven years and I'm pretty proud of the fact that when people work with me they tend to become pretty famous." The current lineup includes John Patroulis, who moved from the N.Y. office; the former Goodby team of Matt Rivitz and Tyler Magnusson; Hill Holliday alum Joe Kayser; and Keith Cartwright, a young New York designer McBride says has already made a tremendous impact on the shop's print work.

Phoenix Rising

In the U.S. the 55-person San Francisco office has flourished amid the rubble of a one-time creative epicenter that the rest of the industry had "left for dead," McBride says. "It was so frustrating. Everybody I knew was always talking about how weird it felt to have such negative press for so long, and there was nothing we could do about it. The real test of a small market is whether it can attract business from the outside. So if we're capable of staying put and not giving into the relocation phenomenon, I think we can still attract business here. Obviously Manhattan's got the leg up because there are so many headquarters out there that it's a matter of convenience. It's got to be a matter of necessity or desire to do it out of San Francisco."

With the three-striped plume in its cap, Chiat/San Francisco helps to elevate the desirability of its immediate community while serving as a creative beacon for the rest of the TBWA network. "In leading a global network, I don't fly around to every office making speeches," says worldwide CCO Clow. "Twice a year we get together and remind ourselves the only way our network is going to grow and profit is through great people and great work, and then I look for offices to lead by example. London has had that role, L.A. has had that role. I think it's time for San Francisco to have that role."

"The last two years have been the hardest years of my life, but they've been very rewarding at the same time," McBride says. "I've had to do this by myself, to a large degree. I was down to 25 people in 2002 and we were all hanging onto our jobs by our fingernails. Being up at 55, having just won more film Gold Lions than any other agency in the country is a pretty fucking steep hill to climb. I feel like we had it coming. It was just long in getting there, that's all."

Some in the industry might wonder whether McBride plans to stick around now that he's reached a new milestone. "In a weird sort of way, I think I've got the perfect job," he says. "The real question for me in terms of my career is can I try to find a way to attract clients in the same way Lee has been able to attract clients. My job is to become visible enough within the TBWA network so that when people see our work, they call 415 and they ask for Chuck. That's something Lee enjoys right now, and it'd certainly be something I'd love to achieve because then not only am I able to take care of myself, I'm able to take care of a lot of people in the agency along with it."

In this article: