The Secret of Bob Scarpelli's Success: Keeping Humanity in the Mix

Former DDB Chairman Has Been Accused of Personifying the Values of Creativity, and Humanity, and He Pleads Guilty

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Here's a simple formula for good advertising, courtesy of Bob Scarpelli, the former chairman and chief creative officer extraordinaire at DDB Worldwide: "A simple idea based on a simple insight into human nature brought to life in a simple, surprising way."

The fundamentals, Bob told me in a video interview the day he was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame, have always been the same, "and the best work, the most successful work, have those qualities."

What gets advertising off the mark is when "you start surrounding your ideas with other things, and try to make it too cool or too complicated -- that's when you get in trouble."

And these days, Bob said, "the financial pressures seem to be worse than they've ever been. ... There's less patience to let ideas develop."

His "Wassup" campaign for Budweiser beer didn't take much time to catch on, however, and one time when he went to Nairobi, Kenya, to give a speech he was greeted with a chorus of "Wassup" -- even though Anheuser-Busch didn't sell beer in Nairobi at the time.

Sometimes the ads suffer because, as Bob put it, "You can see the strategy showing. ... Sometimes now we see sort of a recitation of facts, and some of the work doesn't connect on an emotional level. You have to give people a reward for paying attention to your message, whatever it is, but then you have to provoke some kind of emotional reaction. It could be a laugh, it could be a smile. It could be kind of a tear, choking up. It could even be, gee, I never thought of it that way, or I've never seen anything like that. I think we try to do that with all our work, but too often you don't see that."

Bob believes that digital advertising enhances the involvement of ads. "Reactions are instantaneous today. You put something out there and you know in minutes how people are feeling about it one way or the other." When DDB did "Wassup," they counted 85 or 90 parodies. Now it would be in the hundreds, Bob said.

The former chairman has been accused of personifying the values of creativity and humanity, and he pleads guilty. Bob said the humanity part of the equation "helped us earn trust from our clients because we were honest and good people. ... And we always try to create an environment where people feel they could do their best, and be their best, and I think that was part of the humanity of it, too."

Bob first learned about humanity at the feet of Keith Reinhard, the creative director of the old Needham, Harper & Steers (which merged with DDB in 1986 as part of the Big Bang). The copywriters would line up outside Keith's offices at midnight to get their work reviewed.

Bob Scarpelli
Bob Scarpelli

"Keith was the hardest working man in advertising and he had a busy schedule, so we'd line up outside his office, clutching our storyboards, back when we had storyboards, at midnight just hoping for his approval ...

"You'd show your work to Keith and he could kill it. But he'd find something to say -- 'That's really your idea in there' -- and he inspired us to go back, try to do it better and we did. For me, that was a great lesson in how to inspire and motivate people."

Bob noted that the auto-insurance category has become like the beer category "in terms of the fun ideas like we're doing in State Farm -- 'Get to a better state'" -- as well as the gecko for Geico and Flo for Progressive and Mayhem for Allstate. "There's really a lot of good work on the insurance category these days."

Bob is a very fit and young-looking 60, but he retired after he contracted a serious staph infection in Sao Paulo that almost killed him -- he came within a few hours of losing his life. "It's a long, long, crazy, crazy, crazy, story."

He was in the hospital for quite a while and then he took a leave of absence.

When he went back to work he found he couldn't physically or emotionally do the things that the job required. So he gave up some responsibilities and moved back to Chicago to focus on a couple of clients, particularly State Farm, "and then you know, it was time.

"The business has changed drastically ... I'm trying to enjoy the rest of my life, all the things we miss when we're so focused on our career. So that was really my reason.

"Now I'm keeping busy with several projects I'm involved in and enjoying the time with my family and friends. Plus, I am enjoying the ability to say "no' when somebody asks me to do something!"

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