Element 79...Unleashed

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The Element 79 Contingent (L-R): Jennifer Burak, Clay Purdy, Alan Spindle, Joshua Koenig and Kelly Johnson
The Element 79 Contingent (L-R): Jennifer Burak, Clay Purdy, Alan Spindle, Joshua Koenig and Kelly Johnson
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Recently, I bicycled through Scotland with four friends. Our guide asked us why we—three American twentysomething kids and two just-about-old-enough-to-be-their-parents-guys––were in Edinburgh together. No doubt he suspected some attempt at swinging gone horribly wholesome. We explained that we had won a trip to the Fringe Festival from our employer, a Chicago advertising agency.

He didn't believe us. We could hardly believe it ourselves. It certainly seemed more like something a Scandinavian company would do––along with paternity leave, group saunas and pensions. But no, it was real enough. The agency in question, Element 79, fosters creativity and interdepartmental love with an annual group trip. During its first four years, the agency sent teams to the Cannes Advertising Festival. To win the "Cannes test," writers, art directors, planners, producers and account people collaborate on presentations extolling the virtues of their work. The entire agency votes, and the winning group jets off to Cannes. But after his French sojourn in 2006, Element 79 ECD Dennis Ryan had had enough of France. He found that a festival by, for and about advertising was too much of a busman's holiday. So he hit upon the idea of Edinburgh's Fringe Festival. The Fringe was formed in the 1940s by acts not invited to the Edinburgh International Festival. The Fringe attracted a brash, daring crowd over the years, and now dwarfs the "official" festival that spawned it.

Alan Spindle
Alan Spindle
The Fringe is, in many ways, the anti-Cannes; anyone who can find a venue (be it a pub, a shop, a houseboat or a classroom) can put on a show. The Royal Mile seethes with singers, actors and comedians luring tourists to their airless church basement gigs. Our group attended standup, bicycle tours, musicals, one-woman shows, wine tastings and film shorts during our week in Edinburgh. Like most people, we saw a few things we loved, a bunch of "Well, that was, uh, interesting" things, and one or two uncomfortably awful things––which provide fodder for conversations like, "Was that Nazi stripper dude a real transsexual or just artfully tucked in?" But why exactly would an ad agency send its people on such an odyssey? To search out lessons that can be applied to life, work and maybe even a radio spot about potato chips. And here are a few.

1. Team play matters. The Scottish hate the Irish. Glaswegians think folks from Edinburgh are snobs. Folks from Edinburgh think the Glaswegians are lowlife hooligans. Everyone hates the English (including the English). Nobody hates Wales because nobody remembers it's there. In other words, Britain contains the same factions as a typical advertising agency.

2. Take a stand. You'll never be all things to all people, whether you're a multinational company or a struggling comic. Acts that aren't afraid to shock, offend or challenge are inevitably the most popular.

3. Love the brand. The U.K. is the most brilliant branding exercise ever. It has stayed on message for centuries. It's got a great logo in the Union Jack. It's got great sub-brands in Scotland, Ireland and Wales. It plays well overseas. It's been able to collect taxes, wage wars and spread its language all over the world using the flimsy selling proposition that the Royal Family (which is not even British) is inherently superior to its subjects. All comedy, drama and, yes, advertising comes down to communicating. Should you sing, dance, use a megaphone or whisper? Should you be pretentious, confrontational, flamboyant or apologetic? Should you use TV, radio, internet, music or spray paint? The Fringe answer: any and all of the above.

Alan Spindle is a creative director at Element 79, Chicago.
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