It isn't hard to catch a hall-of-famer in action, of course. All you have to do is buy a ticket to a ballgame. Your odds increase if it's not a Tampa Bay Rays game. But any of us can watch Greg Maddux baffle hitters or Derek Jeter launch a dinger.
It's far more rare to catch sight of a hall-of-famer up close. Even more so to view one in a career-defining performance. Yet that was my privilege when Keith won the McDonald's account 10 years ago.
McDonald's grows up
In the 1970s, DDB -- then Needham, Harper & Steers -- had helped build McDonald's from a little shake joint into the most popular quick-serve restaurant in the country. Reinhard led the way, establishing "You deserve a break today" as one of the country's most recognizable campaigns. Then, in 1980, without warning, review or an appeals process, the account was given to Leo Burnett. The story goes that Keith was informed that Needham served the client well during its adolescence, but a larger shop was needed for its adulthood. Would you like cold, day-old fries with that?
Now, 17 years later, Reinhard had the opportunity to snatch the all-beef patties back. While exiled, he had dismissed overture after overture from other fast-food clients. Captain Keith wanted only the great white filet o' fish.
In the intervening period, of course, Reinhard created Omnicom. Hey, nobody ever claimed hall of famers lacked supersized profit motives. Omnicom made DDB one of the largest agencies in the world, obliterating McDonald's "agency size" issue.
By 1997, McDonald's was reeling, and DDB soaring. The pitch was run out of the Chicago office, where Keith had built his career before moving to New York. The plan was for him to fly in and review work gathered from throughout the network. Rather than scripts, he asked to see just a key idea and a tagline.
We had a week to come up with something. My partners John Hayes, Barry Burdiak and I set the lofty goal of not humiliating ourselves. After much paper crumbling and beer drinking, we had our idea: People of all ages feel an immediate, positive, childlike reaction as soon as the prospect of going to McDonald's comes up. This led to the tagline "Did Somebody Say McDonald's?"
Keith arrived, international flunkies in tow, on a Sunday. We were summoned into the boardroom (Keith, for the record, smells like fresh money and wears a suit on weekends). We thought that calling our idea a "key insight" sounded pretentious and dorky, so we presented it as "the nub of our gist."
Some angry burgher from the Berlin office hurled the first heckle at our effort. He attacked in such a loud, nasty and, yes, Teutonic manner that I thought we'd be free for the Cubs game that afternoon.
Keith let him punch himself out. Then, before the piling-on began, he rose from his chair and grabbed the cardboard bearing the line. Dramatically turning to the room, he announced, "Let me tell you why this will work." He proceeded to give our work a far more nuanced defense than any of its creators could have mustered.
A few days later, sitting in a meeting, I heard a rumor that Keith had decided to go into the pitch armed with only our idea. Unaccustomed to agency people with backbones, I dismissed this notion as ridiculous. But as our meeting broke up, Keith was waiting outside. He looked me straight in the eye and confirmed it: "So I guess if we don't win this, that means you fucked up." He was joking, of course. I think.
As we cranked out scripts and storyboards, Keith would stop by periodically to discuss our progress. "I'm stealing 'the nub of our gist!' for the presentation," he cackled, fully realizing that we'd be thrilled. Another time he visited me in my office -- which did not smell like money -- to tell of his reasons for adding a one-word qualifier to the idea. He insisted that we develop a visual representation of the line, something I had never considered before and have never failed to consider since.
I read a copy of Keith's presentation around 2 a.m. the night before the pitch. It couldn't have been more persuasive if it were chiseled on tablets. This was his moment -- and he had nailed it. The video of the actual speech, which exists somewhere, should be played in a loop next to his hall of fame exhibit. It was more than just a World Series-winning home run. Think Roy Hobbs, with more lights exploding.
Had Keith chosen to ride off into the sunset, no one would have blamed him. But he stuck around several more years, staying more current than most 25-year-olds.
I've not read the criteria for induction into the Advertising Hall of Fame, but during the McDonald's pitch we witnessed a blistering intellect, Obama-like speaking ability, bona fide leadership and a pair of testicles the size of Chicago softballs.
Congratulations, Keith. If the hall knows what they're doing, they'll let you write your own plaque.
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Bob Merlotti, a former DDB executive, is now president of Skeleton Crew, Chicago.