"He said, 'I've got two words for you: turkey, Pilgrim.' The next thing we knew, we were in Central Park with Billy Crystal in a turkey outfit and Robert De Niro dressed like a Pilgrim."
Sounds like a typical showbiz scheme: famous movie stars, big-time Hollywood directors with crazy ideas and the city serving as a backdrop for yet another tableau, the kind that makes jaded passersby shake their heads and say "Only in New York."
But this is one of the surprising sidebars to the collaboration that went into BBDO's production of a six-spot, pro bono campaign dubbed the New York Miracle.
Lift New Yorkers' spirits
Intended to buoy the spirits of New Yorkers in a way no other post-Sept. 11 campaign has, it also seeks to create a sense of vitality and exuberance that the city hopes will give a holiday boost to its beleaguered tourism, retail, restaurant and entertainment industries.
The TV portion of the integrated campaign
|Play all six videos.
Also: Read Bob Garfield's review of the 'Miracle' spots.
The story of how the campaign came together is also a miracle of sorts, considering the effort was pulled off by an all-star dream team of top creatives at BBDO, led by Phil Dusenberry and Ted Sann. Moreover, brand name directors such as Mr. Levinson and Joe Pytka signed on, as well as noted New York production and editing houses like Hungry Man.
"The most creative people in the business said, 'This is important, and we're going to do this.' And then they did it, they didn't just talk about it," said Sunny Mindel, communications director for the mayor's office.
Celebs do their part
So, too, did celebrities and famous New York faces seen in the spots. Barbara Walters takes to a Broadway stage to audition, warbling a fractured version of "42nd Street" that she clearly must sing to her interview subjects to get them to cry on camera. Henry Kissinger takes the field at a deserted Yankee Stadium and, hitting an imaginary baseball, races around the bases in a business suit and slides headfirst into home. And Woody Allen makes like Brian Boitano and glides across the ice at Rockefeller Center, only to admit breathlessly in the closing frames that it's the first time he's ever put on a pair of skates.
In Mr. Levinson's spot, Mr. Crystal and Mr. De Niro banter back and forth about why Mr. Crystal has to play the turkey. As the spot unfolds, they end up riding a giant turkey float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Each spot ends with the country's most visible icon of New York, Mayor Rudolph Guiliani, imploring viewers, "The New York miracle -- be a part of it!"
The campaign was put together at the request of the Office of the Mayor and was debuted by Mr. Guiliani at a City Hall press conference earlier this month. The event was attended by Mr. Allen, Ms. Walters, actor Kevin Bacon (who shares a spot with Ben Stiller) and BBDO North America Chairman Mr. Dusenberry, a member of the creative team that came up with the campaign.
According to Mr. Sann, vice chairman and chief creative officer of BBDO, New York, it all started when the Mayor's office put in a call to Omnicom CEO John Wren about a month after the Sept. 11 attack. He in turn called in Mr. Dusenberry.
Creating a 'miracle'
After conferring with the Mayor's team of Ms. Mindel and Chief of Staff Tony Carbonetti, Mr. Osborn met with Mr. Sann and Lynne Seid, BBDO's chief client officer, to map out an approach. Out of this meeting, Mr. Osborn recalled, came the notion of a miracle.
"We didn't want to re-live the tragedy," he said. "Rather, this campaign is about three things -- people, places, and the indomitable spirit of New York."
Mr. Sann and the creative team began looking for ways to showcase the unique nature of New York as a city of dreams, while the Mayor's office contacted a host of what Mr. Sann called "quintessential New York celebrities." It also secured access to such icons as the Stage Deli and Yankee Stadium.
The creative team included Executive Creative Directors Michael Patti and Gerry Graf, Senior Executive Creative Director Charlie Miesmer Sr., along with Senior Creative Director David Johnson and Associate Creative Director John Leu. The scripts came out of a lengthy meeting in which ideas were bounced all over the room, Mr. Sann said. Within 48 hours of the agency's first contact with city officials in late October, Mr. Guiliani was asking to see what they had come up with, so the campaign was quickly presented to the mayor and his top advisors, who gave fast approval.
Spirit of New York
"There was an immediate consensus that they had captured the spirit of New York and the message we wanted to see conveyed," said Ms. Mindel about the storyboards.
Next, BBDO's Director of Broadcast Production Regina Ebel and Executive Producer Bob Emerson got into the act, calling in favors from production and post-production companies and finding very willing collaborators. In addition to Mr. Pytka donating his services, Hungry Man produced two ads, including the one directed by Mr. Levinson. Other key contributors included the production companies Headquarters and Santiago Suarez, the editing houses Crew Cuts and MacKenzie Cutler, and the visual effects house Quiet Man.
"Everyone wanted to help on this," Mr. Emerson noted, including the talent and craft unions as well as the music licensing companies, which waived their fees for the use of music heard in the spots.
The agency launched into production on a madcap schedule. The shoots were designed to take up as little of the celebrities' time as possible, said Mr. Pytka. He shot four of the six ads, including the most technically demanding ones in which digital effects were used to seamlessly matte Mr. Allen's face onto the body of a figure-skating double and Yogi Berra's face onto the body of an orchestra conductor, who was in turn superimposed on footage of the New York Philharmonic.
The overwhelming media response to the campaign surprised Mr. Sann, who said he believed the agency hit on a tone that registered with everyone, not just New Yorkers.
"I think there was a collective sense here of what was right for the moment," he said, noting that all the members of the agency team live in Manhattan. "I think it reflects the mood of the city and how it's changed."
At press time, the agency was still seeking to place the spots on various broadcast and cable networks in time to have some impact in the marketplace.
But even before the commercials hit the air, they got recognition and international press attention. The "uniqueness of the campaign made it into a news event," said Ms. Mindel, who noted that the city received requests to run the ads from broadcast news organizations around the world. "The airwaves were blanketed with these spots."