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These can be hard times for hard booze, and no whiskey is more on the rocks than scotch. Consider Schieffelin & Somerset's J&B. Twenty years ago it was a 3.5 million cases-a-year brand; now it's down to a paltry 550,000 cases. Hence the brand's sophomorically swift print campaign, from JWT/New York, which looks like it was done by a couple of twentysomething liquor store salesmen from some small town in the Midwest.

Funny thing. It was.

The story in a shot glass: JWT group creative director Michael Hart, 49, happened to be in Madison, Wis., when he ran across a liquor store that had some unusual hand-scrawled posters in the window advertising weekly specials. "They fit in perfectly with our strategy for J&B," he says. "Talking to regular guys in an irreverent and unpretentious manner." He took photos of the posters, spoke to the guys in the store who made them -- Anders Carlson and Rick Streed -- but didn't give anything away. He showed the photos at the agency and suggested he hire the two as an experiment. He got the go-ahead, and gave the outsiders the strategy, along with the work developed to date. Then Hart asked them to run with it. They did. "A few weeks later, the package came in," recalls Hart excitedly. "I thought it was terrific. It's pretty much exactly what ran."

"With extremely minimal changes from the client," laughs Schieffelin & Somerset VP Michael Stoner, 36, during a conference call interview.

Stranger things have happened in advertising, although we can't think of any off-hand. The manager and the assistant manager of the Badger Liquor Shop are now freelance creatives with their work in magazines like Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stone. National celebs they're not, however; JWT has put the Wisconsin wunderkinder under wraps. "I've got two guys who are involved in a very heavy campaign who work in a liquor store," explains Hart. "We don't want everybody calling them." But the group CD probably speaks for his new-found proteges when he says, "This has been a pinch-me-and-wake-me-up kind of thing from the beginning." He believes that "This campaign, because of its attitude and its look, really does break through. It's not Madison Avenue, it's Madison, Wisconsin."

That's got a nice ring to it. But how did it sit with the creatives at the agency who got one-upped by a pair of retailers? Not a problem, Hart insists. "When the creatives here saw the work, they said, 'That's it. That's right. It solves the problem.' " However, Hart points out that the funny radio campaign, running currently in Midwest test markets, was done by JWT staffers.

Stoner is surprisingly outspoken about the problems his brand faces. "We're dealing with 20 years of declining volume in a category that's getting older, not younger. It's highly concentrated among heavy users. We desperately need to bring young adults into this category and into this brand or it's going to become extinct." The VP pronounces himself happy with the new work, and with the balls it took on the part of JWT to hire total outsiders. "We're very pleased that Michael and the agency would go out on a limb and hire a couple of freelancers who actually got it. Who can penetrate the market in a language the market understands. It's advertising in a beer context. That's what everybody drinks."

And the J&B campaign takes on the beer bugbear with a secret weapon: Cola! "Scotch has been in a downward spiral for so long, it has not remained a relevant drink," explains Stoner. "That's because there are so many rules associated with how you're supposed to consume it: Neat, on the rocks, a splash of water or with club soda. For anyone coming into the category, scotch is a real taste hurdle. It's an acquired taste." And no one's acquiring it.

Hart believes that "People have the feeling, Am I good enough to have scotch? Am I rich enough to have scotch? Since the Chivas days, which was the icon for scotch advertising, the category has walked away from everybody else."

"What this campaign says is, it's not scotch, it's J&B," Stoner continues. "It's a brand we're selling. And mixability is fundamental. We've got to make it palatable and fun. A lot of people drink Jack Daniels and Coke, and Capt. Morgan and Coke, and that's the way they drink scotch in Spain to the tune of two and a half million cases. It's very successful with cola in Spain and France."

What about the well-known Dewar's campaign from Leo Burnett? Didn't that make 'straight' scotch cool? "It took a lot of the negative aspects of the scotch category and spun them in a positive way," says Stoner, "but ultimately the brand did not grow. Our strategy is not based on scotch, it's based on J&B. Dewar's, as the category leader, has a lot more to risk. They can't do something as outrageous as mix their brand with Coke."

"What Dewar's was doing was telling me I was old enough to have scotch," adds Hart. "We're not asking drinkers to come up to J&B. We want to be part of their party."

Speaking of which, aren't these ads so frat-house freaky they have a distinct "underage" appeal? The only defense, of course, is the "responsible drinking" routine, and Hart and Stoner have it covered. "Every ad has something that deals with the problem of overconsumption or drinking and driving," says Stoner. "Twenty percent of our budget has been put aside to promote responsible drinking. It is cool advertising, but our target is clearly in the midtwentysomething regular guy territory."

Will Carlson and Streed do more ads? "I'm working with them all the time," Hart says. "They do this thing for fun, and I want to keep it that way, though they're being well-paid too."

"One of the things they wanted to know was, 'Can we keep doing this thing in the store?' " recalls Stoner. "And we said, 'You have to keep working in the store, because that's the source of your insight.' "

"I don't want them to become spoiled or start overthinking this thing," Hart declares. "We don't want to get too cute or too clever or have the hand of 'advertising' all over this campaign. They're staying in Wisconsin. They're not moving to New York and opening their own agency."

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