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Great campaigns are hard to come by, but outstanding follow-up ads are an even rarer breed. How do you top your best work? Creativity looks at six venerable campaigns that are still going strong after round one.

A few months ago, as WongDoody began to work on its current batch of ads for the Seattle SuperSonics, the agency felt almost like a victim of its own success. WongDoody's previous wave of Sonics ads, which showed the team's players visiting the homes of ordinary folks, had been so popular and successful that it raised the question: How could the agency top it? "We asked ourselves whether maybe we should let that campaign be, and just walk away from it," says copywriter Dean Saling. To continue the campaign might mean diminishing it through redundancy; how many times can you trot out the same basic idea -- ballplayers in grandma's kitchen -- and still hope to surprise people? On the other hand, the alternative was to walk away from a campaign that was still red-hot and relatively fresh.

It's a choice that agencies and clients continually face as they try to decide how far to extend a successful campaign. The issue "raises the question of what is most interesting to people -- the repetition of a familiar, popular idea, or the introduction of something new," says Jeff Goodby, co-founder of Goodby Silverstein & Partners.

Goodby believes that agencies and clients, who are immersed in their own work and therefore tend to tire of it quickly, often abandon successful campaigns prematurely. In doing so, he believes, they fail to fully leverage a strong concept. "It just seems to be a fact that often the original execution is going to be the freshest incarnation of the concept," adds Saling.

On the other hand, there is also the danger of becoming over-enamored with a successful campaign, and being resistant to evolving or changing it. According to Arthur Bijur, a creative director at Cliff Freeman & Partners, "Clients sometimes tightly embrace certain elements of a successful campaign -- and then the agency gets hamstrung by having limitations built into the campaign." When that happens, Bijur and others say, a campaign sometimes just goes on repeating itself until everyone starts looking for the barf bags.

But it is possible, producers of long-running efforts insist, to keep a successful campaign moving forward. Observes Goodby's client, Jeff Manning of the California Fluid Milk Processor Advisory Board: "When people first see a campaign like 'Just Do It,' the Budweiser Frogs, or 'Got Milk,' it's very exciting, like dating. But if you don't keep some lust in the relationship, it can eventually become like a stale marriage. So you have to inject some lust, some surprises, every so often."

The following six campaigns are among the most admired in current advertising. In each case, the client and creatives have done some tinkering (if not major overhauling) to try to keep the romance alive.

Seattle SuperSonics / WongDoody

As mentioned, WongDoody was coming off a major hit after its first year of the Sonics campaign. And the client had no interest in making changes. "The campaign had done a great job of achieving its main focus of creating player likability, so we wanted to build on that," says Rob Martin, VP-marketing for the Sonics. Why mess with a good thing? Martin, like the agency, was aware of the challenge: "Given that the advertising had received a lot of notoriety, how do you extend a campaign that's based partly on a surprise element?"

Copywriter Dean Saling says the agency toyed with taking the spots in a completely different direction. But agency chief Tracy Wong argued that the success of the campaign presented a rare opportunity to build on something that was an unqualified success. So the issue became, "How do we put a new spin on it and keep it surprising, without changing it too much," says Saling.

The solution was to alter the scenarios by changing the setting. Instead of bringing players into people's homes, the new ads show them in everyday locations: Gary Payton goes grocery shopping, Vin Baker goes bowling, Olden Polynice goes to the laundromat. The new situations "made the new spots different enough that people wouldn't know what's coming," says Saling. But to maintain consistency with last year's ads, the agency used the same director, Tony Ober, and the same raw, videotape/guerrilla footage approach.

Both Saling and Martin believe the new work succeeds in building on the momentum of the first wave. But Saling won't commit to whether the campaign will have a life beyond this latest round. "It's hard to say," he says. "I do feel there are only so many ways to skin a cat."

GOT MILK? / goodby silverstein & partners

At six years of age, Goodby's "Got Milk" campaign for the California Fluid Milk Processor Advisory Board is practically ancient by advertising standards. And the campaign has had its ups and downs along the way.

As is often the case, some of the best work in this campaign came right at the outset -- including the unforgettable "Aaron Burr," part of the first wave of "Got Milk" commercials, and the subsequent "Heaven." The campaign has not ascended to that lofty level in the past few years. But it has evolved in some interesting ways. "What we've tried to do is search around the box, without leaving it," says Goodby.

A little over a year ago, with the campaign in need of freshening, Goodby came out with a tangent black and white campaign, "Town Without Milk" -- a series of vignettes that introduced a new theme. But that was simply designed to give the overall campaign a break; "we didn't want to get trapped in the town, and we went back to the classic style of 'Got Milk' spots," says Manning.

But this time, the agency added some new elements to the scenarios. "We couldn't just keep doing brownie-in-the-mouth and no milk," says Manning. One of the more recent ads was "Paws," in which an elderly woman faces an insurrection by her cats after she tries to serve them a milk substitute. And two of the newest spots are expanding the appeal of the campaign beyond milk and cookies. "Cooking with Chad," a takeoff on a TV cooking show, shows that milk works with spicy foods (the chef/host blows up when he can't get his hands on a glass of milk after swallowing a hot pepper). And "Bones" -- in which kids learn what happens to someone who doesn't drink milk (a man's arms fall off) -- is the campaign's first attempt to put forth any kind of a health message, even if it's an irreverent one. Neither spot is vintage "Milk," but from a strategic standpoint, the campaign seems to have regained forward momentum. Has "Got Milk?" run its course? Jeff Goodby contends it still has legs. "You know a campaign starts to get weak when you feel like you're running down the same path over and over," he says. "But in this case, it's a big woods, with lots of paths to follow."

JACK IN THE BOX / kowloon wholesale seafood company

For the past four years, a chief executive with a head like a large ping-pong ball has been the star of Jack in the Box commercials. And there's no indication that this odd character, Jack -- created by Kowloon's Dick Sittig -- is ready to step down anytime soon.

The staying power of the campaign can probably be attributed to the complexity of the character: Jack has a back-story (the company tried to kill him off years ago, but he made a triumphant, and explosive, comeback), a family, an unpredictable nature (usually nice, but he's been known to physically attack people who say bad things about his burgers) and even political aspirations.

"We've tried to build a whole world for Jack to roam around in," says Sittig. "You see all aspects of his life. The larger the world you can build for a character, and the more places he has to go, then the less chance there is that you'll end up repeating yourself."

Sittig believes a campaign that is defined by a character generally has more staying power than one defined by a technique or a look because "ideas are stronger than techniques," he says.

Still, it's incumbent upon Sittig to come up with endless scenarios for Jack; he has created some 70 spots for the campaign. "For one creative guy to do that many executions and maintain this caliber is amazing," says Brad Haley, the recently departed VP-marketing for Jack in the Box. "Dick constantly strives to reveal new facets of the character."

But Sittig knew the campaign needed a fresh extension recently, and he started focusing on secondary characters: a group of talking 'antenna balls,' who serve as Jack's army. Haley says the antenna ball characters served to create "a campaign within a campaign, and it gives Jack a rest -- which probably helps delay the burnout factor."

Haley says research has shown that consumers "can't wait to see what Jack's going to do next." And unlike more human founders of other burger chains, Sittig believes this character can go on indefinitely as spokesman -- because "this is one company founder who doesn't age," he says.

MasterCard /McCann-erickson/new york

The MasterCard "Priceless" campaign is not even two years old, but it's already seen some 20 executions. They're all variations on the theme of a price list -- but the emphasis here is on 'variations.' "The way we've kept it fresh so far is to have a wide range of tones, subjects, styles, and emotions," says McCann-Erickson's Joyce King Thomas, who has been creative director on the campaign since it started. "Some of the ads are sentimental, others are cute, some are wacky, some are topical. You can't predict where the campaign is going."

The best example of that may have been the surprising animated spot that ran during this year's Super Bowl. Citing the price of contact lenses for Mr. Magoo and a Wonderbra for Olive Oyl, the spot seemed to bring the campaign to a new level of stylistic diversity. Peter Jones, copywriter on the ad, says: "On the Super Bowl, we wanted to really surprise people, to do something that would grab them in the first five seconds. So we used the cartoon as a visual departure -- but it was still in keeping with the theme of the campaign."

Two of the more recent spots have kept things moving in unexpected directions. A youth-oriented spot undercuts the price list by listing only things that cannot be priced -- such as friends, good times, etc. The idea sprung from consumer research that revealed youthful cynicism about putting a price on things. "We're always looking for those kinds of insights to bring to the campaign," says Thomas.

The latest ad in the series, "Seafoam," tells of a bridesmaid forced to buy and wear an unattractive dress and shoes for a friend's wedding. Shot in a more offbeat style than some of the previous spots, it also features "much more of a personal story than a situation," says writer Eric Goldstein, and it veers quickly from humorous to emotional at the end.

One of the ways Thomas brings so much diversity to the campaign is by throwing fresh talent at it -- eight creative teams have worked on it so far, along with about a dozen different directors, including Tony Kaye, Tarsem, Frank Budgen, and Melody McDaniel, who directed "Seafoam." The inclusion of the price list in every ad creates a tight format that the commercials must adhere to, and that makes it all the more important to strive for as much variety as possible in the tone and style of each execution, Thomas says. All of which provides the creative teams working on the campaign with a lot of creative latitude, though, as Goldstein says, there's a good deal of pressure as well. "On this campaign, you feel you have to always try to top the last one that was done," he says.

ESPN SportsCenter / Wieden & Kennedy

ESPN SportsCenter is one of the more influential campaigns of the '90s, widely credited -- for better or worse -- with triggering the recent wave of 'mockumentary'-style commercials. So does that mean it's time for Wieden & Kennedy to ditch the campaign that touched off a wave of copycat spots? Neither client nor agency thinks so. Kim Schoen, art director of the latest SportsCenter ads, acknowledges the proliferation of imitators, but points out that "this campaign is the original, so that gives us license to keep doing it." Moreover, Schoen adds, "this is definitely a case of, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.' "

But Wieden & Kennedy has updated the campaign a bit, by introducing more topicality. Consider two of the most recent installments: In one, Mark McGwire brings his 62nd home run ball to the ESPN office and gives it to his pal Dan Patrick (who gushes with gratitude, then turns around and sells it for a sportscar). Another spot deals with the Y2K hysteria theme by showing all hell breaking loose at the station's offices during a Y2K emergency preparation drill.

The new spots represent an evolution of the original concept -- which tended to rely more on the surprise element of having the athletes show up at ESPN's offices. "At first, just having the athletes in the office was startling and that was the joke," says Joe Ventura, a Wieden & Kennedy copywriter on the campaign. "Now, that's kind of accepted, so it's not enough by itself."

Judy Fearing, the marketing director for ESPN, agrees, saying: "We wouldn't have done something like the McGwire ad three years ago," she says. "But by now, we've already shown how the makeup is applied -- now we have to add something more." Addressing current events is a way to do that -- though, Fearing acknowledges, it may require producing spots more frequently. Still, she adds, "as long as we touch on what's topical in the world of sports and do it in unexpected ways, then I think this campaign can evolve for years."

What won't change, creatives say, is the starring role of the ESPN sportscasters or the mockumentary film style, which are at the center of the campaign's appeal. Says Fearing: "Our fans look at this as mini-programming. And they're enjoying watching it, which means it's not time to walk away."

Staples / Cliff Freeman & Partners

Since it began running in 1994, the Staples campaign has mined almost as many deep truths about office relationships as Dilbert. The campaign is so engaging that viewers probably don't even notice that it's centered on a somewhat mundane sales message about saving money on office supplies. That message is always present, but, as creative director Arthur Bijur points out, it is the campaign's relationship-based humor that takes center stage.

The Staples campaign hasn't evolved much -- but that may be because it hasn't had to, so far. "In dealing with the subject of office relationships, there's a very deep pool that you can tap into," says Bijur. Still, he sighs, "it's hard to keep freshening the pool, and coming up with executions that surprise people." Bijur believes one way to keep the campaign fresh is to put new teams on it with each wave. "New people bring fresh insights and help you find new relationships and situations to talk about," he says. The campaign has already introduced an impressive gallery of characters, from the stock clerk who loves his job a little too much, to mid-level-management bullies, to the big bosses who are helpless without their savvy secretaries. Almost all the spots are set in either an office or a store, with one recent exception -- "Wingtip," which took the campaign outdoors (and which seems more like an anomaly than a breath of fresh air). The most recent spots are back in the office, as in "Rumor Mill" -- which shows how misinformation in the workplace spreads like wildfire.

Though Bijur likes to mix up the teams, he keeps his hand in the campaign at all times. "You need a constant through the life of a campaign if it's going to maintain its personality," he says. He also tries to keep a consistency in the look and rapid-fire pacing of the spots, using the same pool of directors, with Jeff Gorman the mainstay.

Has Bijur thought about changing tracks after five years? Not so far. "When you feel the execution getting stale, that's when you know it's time to change," he says. "That hasn't happened, and we still feel like we have plenty of material

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