"Hal," he blurted out. That's Hal Riney, of course.
In the following interview, Goodby gets a chance to talk with Riney about everything from admiration of David Ogilvy to how the idea for the Bartles & Jaymes wine cooler campaign originated.
Goodby: Looking back, what work did you most admire?
Riney: When we hit the creative revolution in the late '60s, all the stuff done by Doyle Dane Bernbach. They absolutely changed the business. What they did then, especially in print, is far better than anything we're doing now.
Goodby:: What do you think was the biggest change? Some of it was a tone thing to me, especially in the writing.
Riney: They got a lot more intelligent, more lighthearted, less bombastic. Prior to that time, advertising was mostly heavy-handed information. Advertising was not a form of entertainment as it has become.
What's interesting, which really dates me, is that when I got into this business, TV wasn't a major medium. In fact, when I started in 1956, I don't think there was anybody in our agency doing TV -- everybody was doing print and radio.
And nobody knew anything about TV. What we did, as most agencies did at that time, was hire a bunch of out-of-work Hollywood producers and make them into TV experts. And so it was a whole learning process.
Goodby: This interview is about mentors and influences on people and their work. That's why I'm talking to you. Who was your mentor?
Riney: If there was any one person who influenced me, it would be Dick Snyder. He taught me what TV was.
Goodby: How did you meet?
Riney: Dick and I both worked in the Equitable building, and he was with Y&R and I was with BBDO. We knew each other casually. And later he went off to New York and became what was known then as a TV art director. He revolutionized the TV product at BBDO. And mostly, I learned from him. I became the writer, and he the art director for a long time.
Goodby: Any other influences?
Riney: In terms of people who are more prominent, I would have to say what a lot of people say -- David Ogilvy. I've never totally agreed with David, but I agree with a lot of the things that he has done.
Goodby: Except, of course, the humor thing -- David's belief that humor was something that advertising people should stay away from for the most part. I think he revised that in the last decade or so.
Riney: Yeah, he did. He pulled back from a lot of that stuff.
Goodby: It's ironic because he's such a humorous guy himself.
Riney: Well, in a very understated way. But I think David often said a lot of things that he knew potential clients would agree with then, and it was part of his salesmanship.
What I always admired about him is that he had strong views about everything, and they were quite strict and quite narrow. I don't have any views of that kind at all.
And David's rules got him in trouble. He was a print guy. He had wonderful, intelligent print. He loved long copy, and was persuaded that it worked, and it does sometimes. But you can't take those rules and apply them to everything.
Goodby: One of the things that happened when I started working [at Riney], that didn't happen when I worked at big agencies, was that when I had a good script idea it actually would turn into a good commercial. Can you explain the concentration you have for the whole craft of the business?
Riney: It was part of the process of my learning the whole system of what TV was. And I think watching how fragile a TV commercial is -- in the early days, as I said, we would put together a script and a storyboard, and get it approved by the client, and then fundamentally turn it over to a production company to execute. And they would do the whole commercial.
Goodby: That still goes on in a lot of places.
Riney: Well, it goes on in an entirely different way, and it goes on to an even greater fault. But the agency sort of lost control because the production company did the whole thing. They did the casting, and they did the shooting, they did the editing, they delivered you a finished commercial. And you'd end up looking, and you'd say, "Well, gee, that's not quite what I had in mind." You began to lose control.
We also had things called agency producers at that time, who thought themselves to be superior to the creative people; so they would make a lot of decisions that no one else had in mind.
Then, in the mid-70s, the production business changed. They stopped editing and delivering finished commercials; they would just hand you the film they shot, and then it was your problem.
I would end up not only with not what I had envisioned exactly, but it was film that actually wouldn't fit within the framework it was supposed to. I mean the cuts didn't work.
So the only way I could begin to control the process is just take total control of the thing, and know exactly everything I wanted -- the look on everyone's face, what they were wearing and all of these other details.
It's one of the reasons that I find it personally very difficult to be involved in developing TV today. Because it's a hugely time-consuming thing. I just don't have time to be out of the office to do a commercial.
Few people in our business recognize how fragile a commercial is. I mean just one little nuance can destroy the subtlety and the sophistication. A little wrong note in there somewhere, it destroys it.
Goodby: It's also so much about timing. I always tell people that -- and this is something else learned [at your agency] -- charting every second of the commercial and realizing that if the commercial works in 34 seconds, it's no good; it has to work in 30.
I remember bringing in a California First script for you at one point, and you saying, is this a :60? "Well, it's pretty close," I said. And you read it and it was about 17 seconds over. And you said, "You can't present stuff like this to clients and tell them they're gonna get this. And then when the thing actually comes out the other end, you know, they're gonna notice that this sentence is gone. Especially the one about the interest rate."
Riney: The other problem is that there's too much reliance on production companies and directors. A director is there to add value, not to provide an idea.
There are some things they do that I'm not likely to think about, particularly in special effects. But the idea of taking what is a mediocre idea and handing it to one of the most expensive directors in the country and expect to have a marvelous commercial as a result is just absolute nonsense.
And the other thing some directors don't understand is that we're doing advertising. It isn't some piece of beautiful photography -- it is a selling proposition, and no matter how humorous it might be, it's still that.
Goodby: How do you keep the balance between spontaneity and structure when you're shooting a commercial?
Riney: The idea has to allow for spontaneity. We did some neat Saturn regional stuff a few years ago where we'd get some unusual people and have them talk about their car. We'd listen to them and structure it for them, but just because they were unusual people they would do their little thing.
Goodby: Well, you'd go back and use what they did.
Riney: Yes, and it's mostly because they were real people, and they were unlikely to do anything that was terribly programmed or practiced in any way. I love working with real people when I can.
The Bartles & Jaymes campaign was the most interesting because the reason Frank Bartles was so good was that he didn't have a clue about what he was saying.
Goodby: He was great. Where did he come from?
Riney: We looked at 900 different people; we had people all over the West looking for some farmer. And, my God, I've never been so scared in my life. I looked at the selects out of the first 750, and I thought, man, this is the worst idea I've ever had in my life. This is not funny.
Until he did it -- and he was the only one out of all these people that did it right. He had a perfectly straight face because that's the way he always talked, and he hadn't a clue that anything he was saying was ever going to be funny at all.
But I had to craft every script so that he could read it easily on a teleprompter. It didn't have anything with any more than two short syllables in a single word. No dramatic action. And holding the bottle up next to his ear was the only thing I ever had him do so that he didn't get distracted.
But it was fun. I mean, if you keep people within their limits, real people can be just fabulous.
Goodby: That was one of those campaigns -- and I've seen very few others like this -- where if you watched 10 of those spots on a reel they just got funnier.
Riney: Well, it was a strain, because you'd do one that was funnier than the rest, and then you'd say, well, I've got to do another one that's funnier than that one.
Goodby: I wonder about how much fun advertising is going to be after the whole idea of doing mass TV commercials gets devalued and as more advertising gets turned into little, tiny, targeted interactive messages. Will there be advertising that gets talked about at the water cooler anymore?
Riney: Those [targeted ads] are certainly a major side of the business now. It's caused by the computer primarily. When you can get results so quickly, it puts pressure on management to perform.
And I've got a number of clients here who aren't talking about what's going to happen through the year but at the end of the quarter. And then the whole idea of establishing a brand personality is set aside in favor of the sales results. It's frightening.
And I'm sure at a logical level a lot of our clients are frightened because they're setting aside their brand personality in favor of retail results. And you can understand it.
On the other hand, there seems to be a growing interest in trying to get back to building a brand, rather than selling details. And to me, that's the most important thing you can do these days, because all the details are the same. And if they're not this week, they're all going to be next week.
Look at the phone companies. The minute one comes out with one offer, another one comes out with one offer, another one matches it next week. And then how do you separate yourself? The only way you can do it is with personality.
Goodby: I'm wondering how many people understand that? We run up against that with clients who say "We want to remake our whole brand, and here are the tools with which we want to do it. We have X amount in Internet advertising; we have Y amount in interactive advertising; and we've allocated a couple of million dollars to do a national campaign." They underestimate how much time, and money and thinking, goes into branding. Do you run up against that?
Riney: Yes. Clients don't know how much it really costs to field a national campaign and address all the other things that they have to do with their money -- it's a huge project. A million doesn't mean too much anymore.
Goodby: Is there a place for people like you and me to do big splashy images that people take away and kind of boil around in their heads, so that it means something when they go out to buy a product?
Riney: No, I think everything you do for a product reflects on the brand personality, even a retail message, or sale, or a discount.
You should try to find ways to say these things in a more imaginative and perhaps a little more attention-getting and fun way, and to some degree maybe help build a slightly better brand personality. But everything you do has a brand personality. Whether you like it or not, you can't control it.
Saturn is a brand that has sold on brand personality, as opposed to the factual components. It's more how you feel about it than it is what you know about it.
We spend very little time trying to promote the car, its image, and its performance -- its suspension and all the rest of the stuff that every commercial talks about. TV advertising is not a very good forum for facts, unless you've got something really extraordinary.
It's not like you're selling Viagra. You don't have to worry about brand personality there. But those type of products are relatively rare. And I always believe that brand personality is significant whatever you do.
Goodby: It sounds like you're still having fun.
Riney: I don't know what else I'd do. We're doing more interesting things all