Jeroen Bours

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Unceremoniously perched on the windowsill of Jeroen Bours' office, at Ogilvy & Mather/New York, is a dusty glass with a line imprinted along its half-way point. Above the mark, it reads "Optimist," and below it, "Pessimist." The senior partner and executive creative director clearly locates himself on the upper divide. "Finding the positive!" he pipes brightly when put on the spot about what gets him going creatively. "People come to you with an old product, and just by looking at it in a very optimistic way, you'll say, 'Wait a minute, this is great!' "

Optimism is something the 43-year-old Bours maintains as he plans to roll out more work for his most buzzed-about project these days, "mlife." The huge campaign echoes Bours' creative mantra in that it's essentially a warm and fuzzy repositioning of a familiar thing, the now independent entity known as AT&T Wireless. Broadcast started before and during the Super Bowl with a drawn-out teaser campaign that featured a slew of cryptic 15-second spots, in which various folks pontificated on the merits of mlife. In the third quarter of the game, a full-blown :60 featuring a cornucopia of bellybuttons and the severing of an umbilical cord finally linked everything to AT&T Wireless, vaguely explaining it with the lines, "We are meant to live a wireless life. Now we can. Welcome to mlife."

The campaign has garnered mixed reviews in the trade press, but the spots were intriguing enough to spark consumers' curiosity - according to Jupiter Media Metrix, they drew the greatest amount of same-day traffic to a website during the Super Bowl. The commercials themselves didn't win any popularity contests with viewers, though. A study by the Intermedia Advertising Group showed that consumers gave "mlife" the thumbs down, with three of the campaign's spots ranking in the top 20 most-disliked Super Bowl ads.

"Everybody's entitled to their opinion," Bours says. "But I think the advertising is very intelligent. It's not advertising that goes well with beer and pretzels, in a sense. It's not Bud Light's 'Satin Sheets.' It's much more thoughtful and contemplative, and it sits in the back of your mind longer. We're going to bring it to you piece by piece. To us, the 'mlife' campaign is like a gallery. You look at all the paintings, and by the time you end up at the last one, you're sold on it. It's a little bit of a slower process than some people would like." Bours says part of the goal is to allow AT&T Wireless to stake an emotional claim in ad territory that's long been preoccupied with minutes and payment plans. "We want to do this from the point of enthusiasm and show people that already had the taste of the good life, the mlife. In a category that's been all about minutes, we want to be more than just minutes. We want to be about the future of wireless and how we're going to bring it to people." So far, Bours' past work has succeeded in giving a sentimental punch to clients that could easily fall prey to corporate fuddy-duddiness. Along with partner Joyce King Thomas, he was one of the originators of McCann-Erickson's acclaimed MasterCard "Priceless" campaign, which effectively brought the touchy-feelies to plastic.

Now at Ogilvy, which he joined in 1999, Bours has dared to take American Express to new emotional ground, as in the inspiring mini-campaign the company sponsored after September 11, which showed lower Manhattan shop owners reopening their doors for business. Bours is also overseeing the new AmEx "Open" campaign, which zooms into the factories and workshops of small businesses all over the country. "Open" is a long way from when the Dutch-born Bours was at Ogilvy Direct, one of the first agencies he joined after he moved to New York in 1985 following a stint in Israel as a graphic designer. "They locked me up in a closet designing applications for the corporate card for American Express, which is why I'm extremely proud;15 years later we redesigned and renamed the whole client." Bours also made stops at Ammirati Puris Lintas, Grey and Italian shop Armando Testa. He eventually became an art director at McCann, where his winning collaboration with King Thomas also produced notable campaigns for Lucent and Marriott. After McCann, Bours moved to DDB/New York to lead the launch of Amtrak's Acela and help win the Sheraton Hotels account.

With his lofty title, Bours shudders at the distance that authority can put between a creative director and the rest of the staff. "I'm very hands-on," he explains. "I'm always trying to stay an art director rather than just become a figurehead who takes the credit. I really want to be in the trenches, and it's very hard because you have to have a balance and not take the nice work from other people."

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