He called it the "Excite-O-Meter."
Technically a joke, the point M&M/Mars' VP-marketing was making about the candymaker's advertising was well taken:
"He's redefined risk," says Dave Gulick, regional account director for D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, St. Louis, which handles several candy products from M&M/Mars as well as food products for parent Mars Inc.
Indeed, cutting-edge creative is being pushed harder than ever by Mr. Michaels, whose worldwide purview includes an estimated $240 million U.S. media budget for M&M/Mars. He, along with a growing number of advertisers-among them his former employer, Procter & Gamble Co.-embodies a movement in package goods marketing toward standout creative that engages while it sells.
"We always had great products and a unique positioning," says Mr. Michaels, 45, of Mars' advertising before he arrived four years ago. "What we were lacking was the emotional topspin. The ads were wallpaperish and very safe."
Today, the campaigns are anything but. Over the last two years, the company has reaped ad and promotional awards including two Clios, an Addy and an Andy (Snickers), a 1996 Gold Effie (Kudos), a Silver Anvil (M&Ms), an Effie (Kudos) and the Edison Award (Milky Way Lite).
But more importantly, advertising has boosted sales. Mars' overall candy sales rose 6.6% for the 52 weeks ended Aug. 17 to $1.34 billion, according to Information Resources Inc., narrowing the gap with leader Hershey Chocolate USA's $1.85 billion in sales. Every one of its major brands, with the exception of Milky Way, showed substantial sales gains during the period, ranging from a 35.2% rise for Starburst to a 0.3% uptick for 3 Musketeers.
The difference in the creative, according to Mr. Michaels, came when Mars relaxed its attitude and encouraged its agencies to think creatively.
"We give them a lot more leeway," he says, adding, "Of course it has to be on strategy, not funny for the sake of funny."
"They've taken the handcuffs off," says Mr. Gulick, noting before Mr. Michaels arrived Mars had a cumbersome set of "strategy briefs" that had to be met.
"There were mandatories at the bottom, five or six things that had to happen in a spot, which left not much time for an idea," he says. "Mars also was very product-focused, presuming the consumer cared as much about how the product was made as we did."
"Paul wants and demands great advertising," says Grey Advertising Exec VP David Freilicher, noting Mr. Michaels intuitively grasps ideas and doesn't research them to death or insist on bringing ads in too cheaply. "He wants Grade A directors."
His arrival also was welcome after a changing cast of characters at the client, according to Mr. Freilicher.
"There were like eight people there in three or four years," he notes, "Paul brought stability and a vision."
He also brought the concept of a creative idea that has legs beyond simply advertising. Letting color define the characters of M&Ms starring in the ad campaign from BBDO Worldwide, New York, led to other promotional ideas from bathing the Empire State Building in blue to giving away $1 million to a consumer finding a colorless grey "Imposter" M&M.
"We've asked agencies to pitch in on the promotion side," says Mr. Michaels. "If you asked me a few years ago if BBDO would have done advertising for the Imposter promotion, I would've said 'no.' But it was some of the funniest advertising they've ever done."
BBDO, sought out by Mr. Michaels because of its creative reputation on accounts such as Visa and PepsiCo, also struck a nerve with its entertaining "Hungry? Why wait?" strategy for Snickers and the anthropomorphic approach for M&Ms.
"In the Q Ratings [the M&M characters] outrank Mickey Mouse among teens and kids," says Mr. Michaels, who adds he has to guard the temptation to take them too far from their brand identity. "In the end, we need to remember they are chocolate-covered candies."
Mr. Michaels admits in risk-taking you sometimes lose. That's what happened with DMB&B's TV campaign series last year for Milky Way that borrowed from "The X Files." The enigmatic spots showed befuddled but smiling folks in cornfields leaving only an empty Milky Way wrapper behind.
The problem, says Mr. Michaels, was that it had to run with great frequency to be effective.
"If we were Nissan, with a $350 million budget, it would have worked," he says, calling the effort "a misfire."