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BARFLIERS

By Published on .

Out in Chicago, Dennis Ryan's creative group at DDB Needham lives a charmed life. Their main mission-coming up with funny ads for Budweiser and Rold Gold pretzels-might sound like paradise to some, but it's more than just a round of cheers.

The spot opens with a disembodied brain sitting in a jar, surrounded by tubes and burners in some evil scientist's laboratory. A forlorn version of the Louis Prima hit "Just a gigolo" plays in the background. Suddenly, the brain spies (I know, it doesn't have eyes, don't ask me how) a can of Bud nearby. Things start going haywire-electrodes light up, switches crackle, gauges spew steam, meters are pinned and the music track suddenly switches to an upbeat cover of the Beatles' "Help!"

This is a Bud spot? It almost was, believe it or not. Sadly, this little bit of weirdness didn't quite pass muster with the keepers of this revered American brand's image. The A-B guys shot it down; nonetheless, that this kind of concept can actually get produced as a spec spot with the agency's blessing (you'll find it on the reel of Chicago tabletop maven David Deahl) indicates just how far the Bud brand has come in its ongoing image transformation. Whereas Bud advertising was for years largely invisible-and, for a while there, almost insufferable in its efforts to be hip and edgy-these days it seems reborn, thanks in no small part to a bevy of mellifluous frogs, rollicking ants, football-kicking horses and now a lanky beer truck driver with a Silly Putty face who goes by the obviously in-joke name of Gus.

Two things are behind this wholesale renovation: foremost is the very apparent shift in taste and sensibility as expressed by the younger, hipper scion August Busch IV(or simply The Fourth, as he's ubiquitously referred to), who controls Bud's advertising. But to a large extent it's the impact of a salt-and-pepper haired, 33-year-old group CD at DDB Needham in Chicago who has worked on A-B brands for almost a decade and appears to have not only the ear but the trust of A-B's top execs. Dennis Ryan, a Notre Dame grad whose college dreams of industrial design somehow led him to a career as a copywriter, runs the group that has been handling the agency's work for Bud for the past year. While Needham inherited the frogs from former Bud shop DMB&B (and, while Needham folks don't like to publicly knock their predecessor, they don't hide their boredom with the frog franchise) and the Gus character was created by Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, Ryan's group is primarily responsible for the bulk of Budweiser's work. This includes everything the brewer does these days, from blockbusters like the Super Bowl Clydesdales to more workaday retail-driven promotions such as Bud Bowl.

Yet Ryan's group does not live on suds alone. They also create the Jason Alexander spots for Frito-Lay's Rold Gold pretzels, including the extremely funny Olympics campaign in which the Pretzel Boy character was banned from playing on the Dream Team due to his Jordanian feats of basketball prowess (hysterically depicted via great special effects), all of which are attributed to fat-free pretzels, of course. The group also does work on Cheetos, and while the inclusion of the animated Chester character is a requirement in its TV spots, at least they had the presence of mind to team him most recently with the always funny Phil Hartman.

To paraphrase Edmund Kean, schmaltz is easy, comedy is hard, so don't think these poor souls slave all day over funny scripts. The group also handles some international work for Frito-Lay and a credit card from Discover called Bravo, both of which employ more emotional vignette-style approaches. Nicely produced, this work, which goes largely unnoticed, serves mostly to give the group's reel a somewhat broader feel.

The group, one of six at the DDB Needham Chicago office, is structured around six creative directors, many of whom worked with Ryan during his days as group CD on the Bud Light business: Barry Burdiak and Julie DeVos handle Frito-Lay international and Bravo, Don Pogany and John Immesoete handle Bud and Craig Feigen and Adam Glickman (the creative team on both the Clydesdales spot and the Olympics campaign) supervise work on Rold Gold. When its time to pitch in on a Bud assignment, however, "everyone drops down to being writer/art director teams again," says Burdiak, whose days with the brewer, and with Ryan, go back to the heady times of "Why Ask Why?"

The group protocol is loose and informal, says Feigen. "Dennis likes to keep things in flux; that gives lots of people a chance to work on different assignments." To Immesoete, a recent addition who joined a few months ago from Burnett, "the group feels like a small, autonomous agency. It's a pretty easygoing place." (Not bad for a group that handles close to $250 million in billings.) It's also apparently full of yucks, with lots of efforts to one-up each other, as one might expect of any group of comedy writers. "It's competitive, but supportive," says Burdiak. "The bad news is that there's always a lot of people working on a project. The good news is, if you're not having a particularly funny week, someone else is."

Burdiak says the collective creative gestalt is kind of like "all of us feeding the same fire," using a term he picked up while taking improv classes at Second City. He's not alone in this pursuit; Immesoete and art director John Hayes have studied there as well. "It helps you stay focused but still come up with good ideas," Burdiak says of the program.

Currently there are two dozen creative and production people in the group, of which three are women. "No doubt it's a boys's world, and that may sound sexist," says Ryan apologetically. While he wishes there were more women, he at least takes pride in the fact that Bud doesn't do advertising with babes (unlike the work generated by some of his crosstown rivals, it's worth noting). "I'm pleased that this isn't frat-house stuff, but then it's not an Erich Rohmer film either, if you know what I mean," he explains, and chalks up the lopsided gender ratio to the fact that most of the group's business is aimed at men and, within the agency, men seemed more interested in working on it.

Ryan owes his current position to his lengthy experience with the agency's A-B accounts, starting years ago with a funny campaign for Michelob Dark that featured Martin Mull. He then moved on to Bud Dry, segued into Bud Ice (for which he oversaw an almost schizophrenic series of ads reflecting the brewer's inability to decide on what the brand image should be) and then really hit his stride with Bud Light. When the agency was awarded the Bud account in 1994, chief creative officer Bob Scarpelli assembled and led an ad hoc team to handle it, as Busch didn't want to trifle with the ongoing success Ryan's Bud Light group was having. After about year of this, Scarpelli promoted Ryan to head the Bud group and promoted Dave Merhar, one of Ryan's Bud Light CDs, to run that group.

All this was done, of course, with the blessings of The Fourthh (who took the fifth when it came time to be interviewed for this story). "You have to have someone that The Fourth trusts," says Scarpelli, and Ryan fit the bill. Earning this trust takes an ability to "come up with ideas quickly and on your feet, ideas that he sees as moving the brands forward," Scarpelli explains, "and Dennis is very fast on his feet. Also, he has to see that your only goal is to sell Bud and Bud Light, not that you've got another agenda."

That shouldn't be a problem with this gang. As Ryan points out, the last thing most of these guys need-at least the more senior ones-is another beer spot on their reels. Rather, they focus their efforts on the myriad demands the client puts on them (their hunger for ideas is said to be voracious) as well as dealing with the pressure of handling the company's flagship brand. Of particular concern is the expectations that have naturally followed the success of the frogs and the ants. "A lot of this is serendipitous," Ryan says. "You can't see it coming." The downside, of course, is that "the client and the account team start asking of anything new, 'Will it be as big as the ants?' It can be kind of limiting, in terms of taking away the free-wheeling atmosphere that you need to come up with this stuff in the first place." The solution, he adds, is simply to do lots of work, as it "increases your chances for a big hit," and to keep the process as open as possible to new ideas and unexpected twists. He notes, for example, that the now famous "Yes I am!" Bud Light line just sort of happened on the set, "it wasn't planned."

The key to turning things around image-wise for Bud, Ryan says, lies in the group's mantra of "changing attitudes about Budweiser by changing the attitude of Budweiser." No longer would it be seen as this "uber-brand," Ryan adds. Instead they wanted to make the the product seem accessible, "to let it get loose and tell a few jokes." The road to cool, the Needham gang believes, is paved with gags; if you're funny and entertaining, then you're cool by definition. The problem with the prior work done by DMB&B, they felt, was that it seemed forced; it tried too hard to be hip.

This process was started with the frogs and has continued since then. Examples of it can most clearly be seen in the work that the fellow Omnicomers at Goodby have been doing for A-B as well, from the Bud Ice penguin (Ryan's a fan, but it took him a while to warm up to the work) to the "It'd Be Weird Without Beer" image campaign. Where things get dicey is when the two agencies start working on the same brief: the current freshness campaign, promoting the new "Born on" dates on the beer labels, includes "Gus" spots from both GSP and Ryan's group. While Jeff Goodby describes the relationship between the shops as "competitive but never nasty," Ryan seems resigned to it. "We're the wife," he says, "they're the mistress." (For those keeping score, among the "Gus" spots now airing, the Chicago boys did the fashion show and the one in which Gus and friend man a Skunk Alert hotline.)

By most accounts, Greg Popp gets credit for much of the group's success. Described by various sources around town as the most influential executive producer working at just about any agency, Popp is seen as holding his own with the most senior creative directors in the group. At one point Ryan claims he even tried to make Popp a creative director, "he's that good in television." A cultivator of relationships with key production companies (the group enjoys a particular chumminess with Propaganda Films and Digital Domain), Popp won an Academy Award for a student film and practices a style of production management that encourages an open give-and-take with both directors and effects supervisors.

Given the dominant role of Bud, the group's fortunes are linked to its success. The agency's first-year goal on the account, described by Scarpelli as "raising the awareness of the advertising, which itself was designed to begin to change the awareness of the brand image," seems to have been accomplished. The question is where they go from here. Group members hint that they feel somewhat stalled in their mainstream image efforts, what with the emphasis on things like the freshness campaign. Two impressive spots that were produced earlier this year, "Evil Fridge" and "Electro-sucks," were eventually killed by the client, victim of the client's thorny dichotomy of trying to appear loose and hip but at the same time worried about stepping over some invisible boundary of what they perceive as "right" for Budweiser.

Not to worry-the spots live on on the Digital Domain and Kinka Usher reels. It's a shame they didn't run; the two are hysterical, and might easily have taken Bud into a new critterless direction with its key contemporary adult target.

Team members sound discouraged by the blow but not beaten. Given the scrutiny the client gives all their Bud work, and the pressure often attached to what's sold, they deal with things pretty well. "We still get to kick back and say, 'Hey, we're working on beer,' " says art director Geoff Edwards. "It's not brain surgery." He ought to know; he and writer Colin Campbell created that "Brain"

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