Not too easy, huh? OK, try naming the 100 best television commercials of all time, worldwide. Well, OK, let's see. Uh, Apple's "1984" and the Federal Express fast-talking man and "Where's the beef?" and, um, Alka Seltzer's "Spicy Meatballs" and, uh, gimme a minute here and I'll come up with a few more....
Forget it. Time's up. The task has been accomplished already, thank you very much, by a guy who arguably has the best job in advertising. Donald Gunn, Leo Burnett's roving global guru of good ads, has stepped to the plate and produced a reel modestly dubbed The 100 Best Commercials of All Time. And while you may not necessarily agree with what's on it, you've got to give the guy credit for doing this in the first place.
Gunn runs Burnett's Creative Exchange Department, a happy band of four full-timers whose job is to not only catalog and archive work from the far-flung Burnett network (see sidebar, page 10) but also to collect and promulgate award-winning work from other agencies around the world. Gunn and his staff are perhaps best known in the business for cranking out their annual Cannes prediction reels, but their talents and resources are used chiefly in service to internal Burnett needs, which is where the quest for the 100 Best began.
But before we get into the background of this story, let's cut to the chase: the list itself, which appears in its entirety on page 15. Yeah, all those spots mentioned above are on it. So are such classics as Volkswagen's "Snowplow" and "Funeral" commercials, that great American Tourister spot with the gorilla and one of those hilarious Bartles & Jaymes ads (from the early days in the campaign, when they were still funny). There's also Joe Sedelmaier's famous Southern Airlines "Orgy" spot, and those kids singing on the mountaintop for Coke, along with Mean Joe Greene, one of the early Ally & Gargano MCI parodies of AT&T ads and the original Energizer Bunny spot, in which the bunny walks off the set only to invade three faux spots that immediately follow it.
For those of you keeping score, American work tends to dominate. Of the 100 ads on the list (the total is actually 102, since two of the entries, one for Maxell from Britain and another for Nissin Cup Noodles from Japan, actually are two spots listed as one) 42 are from the U.S., 28 are from the U.K., four are from Japan and two are from Brazil. And, not all that surprising when you consider that it was a group of Leo Burnett execs who voted spots either on or off the reel, seven are from Burnett.
Now, Gunn is nothing if not objective, and he's aware that some of the choices on this list might be met with a degree of skepticism; that's one of the reasons he was eager to publicize it-so he could generate some industry reaction. Certainly a few of the American selections will be met by some with perplexed looks. For example, would you consider BBDO/West's recent Pioneer stereo commercial, that stock footage goof with the car being shaken on the suspension bridge, one of the 100 best spots of all time? How about the McDonald's "Perfect Season" commercial of 1992, the one with the little tykes playing pee-wee football? Or "Snow Covered," the Jeep 1994 Grand Prix winner? Or Tony Kaye's controversial Dunlop spot? Or, in a bit of irony, the aforementioned Maxell campaign (the one that looks like that old Dylan video) that won in Cannes the same year the judges disqualified Energizer for resembling too closely a Brit campaign for Carling Black Label?
Of course, just as interesting is what didn't make the list. After doing a somewhat exhaustive search for nominations (more on this later), Gunn and his staff assembled a list of 193 spots that they felt could qualify for the list of the 100 Best. Last August they showed this collection to a meeting of Burnett's Global Product Committee, a rotating group of senior Burnett creative and management executives who meet four times a year to review every piece of advertising produced by every office in the agency's network. Among the commercials that didn't make it past the GPC were Levi's "Drugstore" spot from BBH in London, a candidate for the Grand Prix this year in Cannes; Nike's "Revolution" spot of 1986; Ridley Scott's "Share the Fantasy" Chanel spot from '83; Jean-Paul Goude's Grand Prix-winning Perrier "Lion" spot from '91; "Pablo," one of those silly clay-animated talking animals spots for Britain's Electricity Association from '91; Wendy's "Russian Fashion Show" from '84 (a true injustice!); the Coalition for the Homeless' "New York, New York" PSA from '93; a Henry Weinhard spot from '79 dubbed "Elk Creek Cutoff"; the New York Lotto "Tollbooth" spot from last year; and Little Caesars' "Cheeser! Cheeser!" with the little girl in the high chair.
The 100 Best reel was put to- gether at the request of Phil Fiebig, a New Zealander who is the managing director of the Leo Burnett office in Malaysia. Fiebig is VP at the local chapter of the IAA, which early this year began planning an industry event that took place in Kuala Lumpur last month. Someone asked if there was a collection of the best commercials of all time, and Fiebig said that if such a reel existed, he knew where to look.
Gunn says that he and Lisa Buckner, one of his Creative Exchange staffers, were tempted by Fiebig's query, which came in last March, so they volunteered to put such a tape together. After all, they had at their disposal the department's Great Commercials Library, a collection of 4,200 spots dating back to the '60s that the agency has been compiling for almost a decade. It's cataloged and cross-indexed up the wazoo, and a custom-designed computer program can call up just about any of the commercials with the flick of a few keystrokes. The GCL (they use a lot of initials at Burnett) is culled from the larger Product Category Library, also maintained by Creative Exchange, that numbers a whopping 10,000 spots.
Gunn felt the 100 Best reel, once finished, would have ancillary uses within the Burnett network. He notes that Burnett has many offices around the world and some are in developing countries where there is no long history of broadcast advertising. "These people are craving anything good we can send them," he says. The reel would also fit in nicely with the other regular compilations Creative Exchange produces, such as the World Beaters reel, a global compendium of award-winners assembled each year right after Cannes, or their regular series titled Creative Directors World TV Update, another collection of hot stuff from all points.
Working with the Great Commercials Library, Gunn and Buckner put together a preliminary reel of 100 spots back in July. They also combed through old awards show reels, plumbed trade publications and racked their memories, looking for classics overlooked or forgotten. The preliminary reel was really meant to stimulate people, Gunn says, to elicit reaction. He sent it to about 15 or so Burnett CDs in the major advertising markets and to a select group of outsiders for review. This group included Washington Olivetto at W/Brazil in Sao Paulo; John Webster at BMP DDB Needham in London; Jeremy Bullmore, now with WPP and formerly CD at JWT in London; Lionel Hunt in Australia, one of the founders of The Campaign Palace; Barry Day, the ex-Lintas global guru now working at Interpublic; Louis Casadevall at Casadevall Pedreno & Partners in Spain; and Ted Bell, a former Burnetter who's now chief creative officer at Y&R in New York. In addition, he sought input from Michael Demetriades of the Clio Awards, Peter Bigg, who runs the British TV Advertising Awards in London, and Andrew Rawlins, head of the Epica Awards, a pan-European ad competition. He also sent the list to Walter Lurzer of Lurzer's Archive. When he compiled all their responses, he had the 193 ads he submitted to the Global Product Committee last August.
As for how the work is categorized, with such seemingly whimsical designations as Simply Brilliant and Imagery, Art & Fantasy, Gunn says he gave that a lot of thought. He considered starting from the earliest date and working toward the present, but was afraid that would give the reel a slow start. "I thought it would be more interesting to look at different techniques and see how they've developed over the years," he says, and indeed each category on the reel starts with the oldest spot and ends with the most recent. In the demonstration section, for example, we start with the famous Timex Acapulco cliff diver spot of 1962 and end with the Sony Hi-Fi "Crane Bird," circa 1992.
As for the category headings themselves, again, they're Gunn's doing. Most are pretty straightforward, with a few exceptions: the section called Simply Brilliant is meant to illustrate simple ideas executed on relatively low budgets. "This category shows that, with a few simple things you can have as much impact as the blockbusters," Gunn says, referring to the extravaganza portion of the reel. (It's worth noting that only one of the so-called Blockbusters on this tape are American, and none of the Simply Brilliant spots are.)
Gunn stands ready to defend or explain just about anything on the reel, and he's confident that there will be few changes to Edition 2, which he intends to produce after he gets some feedback on Edition 1. In fact, he's offering a bottle of champagne to anyone who can come up with a brilliant addition to the original list of 193. (You can fax him at 011/44/171-591-9596.)
They've gotten so many weird requests over the years at Burnett's
Creative Exchange Department, you get the impression that at this point nothing fazes them. Like the time someone asked for hippies at weddings. Lisa Buckner says she found hundreds, believe it or not, but still, it wasn't the one specific hippie that a creative director was looking for.
Or the time someone asked Jil Zawada if they had a reel of award-winning yeast infection remedy spots. "We couldn't help them," she says apologetically.
Nevertheless, the four women who work the exchange-along with Buckner and Zawada are Maryann Fabia and Rosalie Geier-still manage to crank out an astonishing number of custom-built reels for the many Burnett offices around the globe. Need a collection of great car spots with kids and dogs? They can do it. How about 50 ways to say "Gee, thanks Mom!" No problemo. In total they do at least one of these tapes a day, year in and year out.
"Donald calls this department our secret weapon," says Buckner, who's been working in Creative Exchange for five years. Besides using the reels to brainstorm, pitch ideas to clients and help win new business, she adds, "we help keep the agency globally connected."
The department has two basic functions: to organize all the Burnett work from around the world and bring in the best work from other agencies. Much of the latter comes in from awards show tapes, which they buy. In existence since 1984, the department arose out of the efforts of Burnett's Norm Muse and John Kinsella to try to refocus the shop on the creative product back in the early '80s.
To build the library, which they started in late '85, they bought dubs of old showreels and also acquired the collection of the late Harry Wayne McMahan, a self-appointed TV commercials critic and Ad Age columnist who took it upon himself to combine a list of what he called the best spots of the year. "A lot of it was from the '70s, and not much of it ended up in the Great Commercials Library," Gunn admits.
Buckner says that anyone who thinks the job is a piece of cake-after all, they work with some of the world's best spots-are in for a surprise. "We do more than just look at commercials, give them a number and put them in a computer."
Instead, there's quite a bit of qualitative analysis that goes on, especially when the department is asked to assemble a custom reel. They usually have to do lots of strategizing to make sure the reel does the job intended. "It's an editorial process," she says.