At the time, Hall was an aspiring young copywriter fresh out of Milwaukee's Marquette University who decided to make his first job-hunting visit to an agency posing as a singing telegram. Because his brainstorm coincided with the holidays, Hall went one step further, donning a Santa costume and singing a little Christmas ditty that went something like this: Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way. I'm a college student who graduated in May. You get the idea. Unfortunately, so did Steve Laughlin, partner at Laughlin/Constable, who summoned the agency's 100 employees to the reception area to watch Hall sweat bullets in his red flannel suit. Worse yet, when Laughlin finally looked at Hall's book, he had only one suggestion: media.
Not only did Hall, 31, talk himself out of "the devastation that I had no future in advertising," but over the years he's shed his Santa stigma and gone on to create work that his peers typically praise as "poetic and honest." Of his soulful, often socially aware writing-particularly evident in campaigns for Reebok and his personal pro bono work-Hall explains that he wants "to evoke honesty and emotion, and reveal some truth about life that not only engages people, but maybe even causes them to react in some way."
Former boss Tracy Wong, whom Hall freelanced for back in '91, says "the lack of celebrities, devices and glitz" made Reebok's "Do You Have the Love?" TV campaign some of the best basketball shoe advertising seen in years. The thoughtful, documentary-style b&w spots, directed by Paula Greif when Hall was at Chiat/Day/New York, looks at a group of young black kids trying out for a high school basketball team. "The coach can put you on the team," says the VO at one point, "but only the love can make you the player." For Reebok's "Life is Short. Play Hard." campaign, Hall penned copy-intensive print ads that ask a series of personal questions: "Do you work out? Do you believe in the future? Do you believe in yourself? What about power? Do you have any?" A similarly copy-driven Reebok tennis shoe campaign includes an ad that reads, "I don't have a trust fund, a summer home, private courts, 20 rackets, a ball boy or a masseuse. But I can afford to kick your butt up and down the baseline till your daddy's Benz shows up."
If Hall's work seems a bit more socially restrained since he started working on Infiniti this year, blame it on the tone of the client's long-running campaign. Teaser ads for the I30, for example, show a tuxedoed Jonathan Pryce pontificating on a stylish couch, while newer TV spots shot by Greif are perhaps a bit more Hall: the best spot is a grainy b&w salute to New York street scenes that features both Pryce and the product against a gritty backdrop. Hall's work "has always been heroic and pure," says Jeff Weiss, his former boss at Margeotes Fertitta & Weiss. Now creative director at McCann Amster Yard, Weiss adds, "I remember when he first started; he didn't want to be a great adman and make a lot of money. He was just passionate about his art and he wanted to change the world." Weiss recalls one evening when Hall insisted on hand-delivering radio copy about an upcoming visit by Nelson Mandela to New York Newsday publisher Steve Isenberg. Hall found Isenberg so fascinating that he pounded the publisher with questions for hours.
Hall "has a more worldly perspective on advertising," adds Wong, now creative director at Wong/Doody, Seattle, who hired him to freelance on a weird low-budget spot for an installation at Seattle's Henry Art Gallery that featured a flock of white doves and hundreds of burning candles. "He's not the kind of person who'll recite every award-winning Fallon ad of the last few years." In fact, Hall believes the Fallon "formula" has been imitated to such an extreme that, with the exception of Nike, most advertising is nothing more than "generically clever." Yet, while Hall readily acknowledges Nike's success in "commenting on the human spirit," he hopes that his work also "shows America's ups and downs, and gets people out of denial. It's not so much a desire to make anyone feel uncomfortable, but to make them feel alive."
Consider this stark bit of realism from a Reebok spot on Hall's reel: against closeup shots of mostly black ballplayers, a brooding voiceover talks about Len Bias, the Maryland star who died of a cocaine overdose shortly after being drafted by the Celtics: "That's one of the low parts of basketball too; you get with these people that are so-called for you. And all they see is you as an investment, but you don't know that. They can take you down, they'll eat you up out there."
Since the real world seems rarely to intrude on the slam-dunk fantasyland of sneaker ads, this spot comes off more like a Partnership PSA than anything else. And while some might find it preachy, Hall says he "cares more about finding a truth than winning awards." He considers most American advertising overproduced; "We want to believe we live in Mayberry and everything is great and wonderful. The fact is, it's easy to walk by a homeless person, then turn and look the other way. I want to create things you can't look away from."
If anything fits this description, it was Hall's much publicized rape campaign, a project that became his personal crusade after a friend of his was a victim of date rape. The campaign, which generated considerable coverage in consumer magazines, consists of tiny black and red stickers with provocative messages. Other posters show grainy, b&w shots of women wearing sexy clothes with a small block of text hidden in the ad that reads, "This is not an invitation to rape me."
Hall collaborated on the campaign with Chiat/Day art director Eric McClellan, his friend and former BBDO creative partner. Together the two have put thousands of the stickers around New York-in the back seats of cabs, on lampposts and even on Calvin Klein bus ads-with plans to eventually do the same in Los Angeles.
Hall wasn't always such an uncloseted activist; the son of a teacher and government employee, he was born in Philadelphia and grew up in Washington D.C., where as a kid his ambition was to play football at either Notre Dame or Penn State and then go on to "maybe be a line- backer for the Pittsburgh Steelers." When he didn't get a scholarship at either school, Hall went to Marquette and got a journalism degree in 1986.
The following year he moved to New York, where he waited tables and attended the School of Visual Arts, hoping to beef up his book and land work at a large agency. In 1988, he was accepted into Saatchi & Saatchi/New York's training program by Stan Becker, then CD. Becker, now chief creative officer at Saatchi's New York office, remembers not liking much of his work, but admiring what he called "the passion" in a spec print campaign Hall did honoring Black History Month. For a year Hall rotated among creative groups and worked on accounts like Burger King and Northwest Airlines, but it wasn't until he was put on the Tylenol account that he started looking for a new job. In 1990 he was hired as a senior copywriter by Weiss at Margeotes, and although much of his work for New York Newsday and the March of Dimes didn't get produced, Hall remembers that, unlike Saatchi, the shop "was a place where everyone was into being themselves."
But after being laid off from Margeotes during agency cutbacks in 1991, Hall briefly considered going into the film business. In fact, he took some time off to work as a camera assistant on a low-budget feature shooting in Chicago. Then he recalls spotting a Nike ad with Jerry Rice in Sports Illustrated. "I wasn't really jealous, but it pissed me off because it was inspirational and such a great ad," Hall recalls. "I couldn't help thinking, I can do this, too, and I needed to prove to myself that I could." So he returned to New York in late '91 and started freelancing for Tracy Wong, then at Livingston & Co., and Nick Cohen, who'd just opened Mad Dogs & Englishmen. He briefly considered full-time posts at both shops, but he ended up at Chiat/Day in New York, and he was eventually promoted to associate creative director. Though work like the Shaq "Don't Fake the Funk" special effects spot got him noticed, Hall wanted something bigger, which turned out to be Pepsi at BBDO, where Hall was ultimately creative director on work like the David Carson-illustrated print campaign and several international TV spots; a beauty pageant clip featuring men in drag is particularly funny. He left BBDO in mid-'94 to freelance under the name Dynamic Young Hustlers, but after several months of hustling he accepted Jay Chiat's offer to move to Los Angeles.
Hall says he "hopes to bring a little emotion" to Infiniti, a campaign that's been criticized by some, including other car companies, for the pretentiousness of its black-clad spokesman. "The previous work was smart and sophisticated, and served its purpose, but we're gonna put a twist on that." That may already be happening; lately the campaign has started to loosen up, as evidenced not only by the b&w cityscape spot but also another spot that borrows the theme music from TV's "Get Smart." And while Wong doesn't believe that an account like Infiniti is suited to Hall's style, Weiss believes that "the work has always been intelligent and well-manicured, yet the one thing it lacked was soul. He brings that."
As a black man in what is still the largely lily white world of advertising, Hall says he believes that "advertising helps keep certain racist beliefs intact. If you look at the casting, black men are still in mostly stereotypical roles; 'We need a basketball player, let's get a black guy.'" Regarding his own career, he adds, "If I let race get in the way, I wouldn't be where I am today."
As for tomorrow, he speaks of one day trading commerce for art. "Until now, I've hidden behind my clients' strategies and focus groups; at some point I'll just put an idea out there and have it be my own," says Hall. He discusses his future in terms of writing articles and poetry, and also talks about directing films about blacks "that have nothing to do with guns and drugs," shot in a style that's "passionate, honest and sexy"-a cross, he says, between Spike Lee and Pedro Almodovar. "If I'm lucky, people might pay to see my work," he says, "but