The Advertising Age Best of Show commercial for 1999 was neither the one the agency tried to sell nor the one the client originally bought. The spot, "When I grow up. . ." from Mullen Advertising for online job-search site Monster.com, somehow materialized from a chaotic pre-Super Bowl production frenzy to touch not so much a chord but more like the frayed nerve endings of a nation of dissatisfied employees.
Some campaigns emerge from more preliminary planning than D-Day. This one was more like April Fools Day. It began eight weeks before the big game.
"We got a call directly from [founder] Jeff Taylor at Monster," recalls Edward Boches, chief creative officer of the Wenham, Mass. agency. "He basically said, `Look: Super Bowl spot. Here's who we are.' I'd never even heard of them."
But the prospective client had already bought the Super Bowl ad slots, and, out of the blue, Mullen was one of three agencies invited to pitch the business.
A few days later, "I went to some hotel out in the boondocks. . ." Mr. Boches says. "I wasn't even sure who I was presenting to. Got a phone call the next day and, guess what, we got chosen to do the Super Bowl spot."
This was now about seven weeks before the game, leaving virtually no time for serious planning, strategy-formulation or research. What there was time for, basically, was to conceive and produce a commercial. The strategy, such that it was, was to not talk about jobs, per se, but to forge an emotional connection with people who work -- to try, as Mr. Boches puts it, "to own `career' the way Nike owns `the athlete in all of us.' "
The agency told its new client it would be back in a week with several options, but that Monster.com would have to then make an immediate decision. A week later, Mullen and Monster.com reconvened to look at six storyboards. The campaign recommended by the agency involved three low-budget, broadly comic spots from the point of view of a psychiatrist specializing in dissatisfied employees.
The No. 2 suggestion was a parody of Nike-esque aspirational montages featuring a series of children talking about what they want to be when they grow up -- except that they iterate a litany of employment humiliations.
The agency asked not only for a decision, but a vow that there was no turning back. The client agreed: The shrink series would be the Super Bowl campaign. Mullen immediately engaged comedy specialist Bryan Buckley to shoot the series and set the production in motion. Now there was no turning back.
One week later, the client turned back.
Fearful that the psychiatrist series would be seen as ridiculing its own target audience, Monster.com got cold feet and asked Mullen to bring in more options. Mullen refused; the agency said that the only option was the faux-aspirational montage; take it or leave it. For reasons no better than having painted itself into a corner, Monster.com gave the final, irrevocable go-ahead for "When I grow up. . ."
Lucky thing. The result, shot in black and white and underscored by uplifting choral music, was a tour de force. Buckley, who cast real-looking kids instead of big-eyed, towheaded, child-actor stereotypes, mined the text for irony instead of punchlines.
A dead-on parody of sports-shoe self-actualization on one-level, on another level the commercial spoke directly to the bruised and battered psyche of corporate America.
"When I grow up," says a young boy to begin the montage, "I want to be. . ."
Girl: "When I grow up, I wanna file...all day."
Boy: "I want to claw my way up to middle management."
Girl:". . .Be replaced on a whim."
Girl: "I want to be a brown nose."
Boy: "Yes man. . ."
Girl: "Yes woman. . ."
Boy: "Yes sir. . .coming sir."
Boy: "Anything for a raise, sir."
Boy: "When I grow up, I want to be under-appreciated."
Girl: ". . .be paid less for the same job."
Boy: "I want to be forced into early retirement."
Endframe: "What do you want to be?"
Catalyzed by two weeks of pregame publicity about the two competing dot.coms (Monster and Hotjobs.com) putting all their eggs in one Super Bowl basket, "When I grow up. . ." became an anthem, a mantra, a defiant manifesto of employee dissatisfaction. Monster.com couldn't necessarily promise better conditions in a new job situation (as a practical matter, the new gig is basically just as susceptible to the degradations of corporate life as the previous one), but it could announce what it stands for: humanity, respect and self-respect.
The very act of submitting a resume could be seen as a declaration of independence, of empowerment, of the simple refusal to take it anymore. Before the Super Bowl, Monster.com's traffic was running at about 1.5 unique visitors per month. For the remainder of 1999, it averaged 2.5 million visitors per month. And the number of resume searches, on the day after the Super Bowl, increased by a factor of 300. Since then, too, according to MediaMetrix data, Monster.com continues to dominate the category, at least in terms of site traffic. As of February, its number of unique visitors was roughly triple that of Hotjobs.com.
Monster.com owes a great debt, however, to both Hotjobs and cold feet. Without the convergence of the Super Bowl publicity and the eleventh-hour aversion to risk, the Ad Age Best ad of the year would have existed -- like so many others -- only as a discarded storyboard in the The Pile of Near Misses, along with the undiscovered gems, the deserved not-quites and, of course, the monstrosities.