Agencies Mute Their Creative Staffs

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NEW YORK ( -- For advertising's creative community, the destruction of the Twin Towers did more than give them reason to put what they do into a gloomy sense of perspective.

The tragedy may give the industry's imagemakers short-term cause to rethink their widespread reliance on lighthearted humor and slapstick comedy as the motif of choice to craft what they hope will be breakthrough branding messages for clients.

The collapse of the towers also means the loss of an instantly recognized symbol of wealth, power and the city itself -- an icon appropriated by everyone from filmmakers to ad makers seeking association with all this might.

In interviews last week, the often flippant and irreverent tone of the creative community was definitely muted. The scope of the tragedy and the dramatic power of the images seen worldwide are going to take their toll, according to a number of top creative executives.

Risk-averse clients
Chuck McBride, executive creative director of Omnicom Group's TBWA/Chiat/Day, San Francisco, said he believes the attack will make marketers more risk-averse in their approach to communications, and he expects them to adopt a more serious tone.

"The things they're going to want to talk about, like security and stability, don't lend themselves to humor," he noted.

Indeed, the creative community seems at odds about what to do next. "Nobody wants to do humor," said a Midwestern agency executive who didn't want to be identified and who expressed discomfort at discussing the topic.

'I'm not feeling funny'
Added a somber Eric Silver, creative director of New York's Cliff Freeman & Partners: "I'm certainly not feeling very funny right now. I just don't know what else to say."

The work produced by Mr. Silver's agency includes some of the most audacious and talked-about comedy being done in advertising right now, such as campaigns for Mike's Hard Lemonade and Budget Rent A Car Corp. that feature exaggeratedly physical mishaps befalling people.

Mr. McBride believes advertising will have to be very careful about its use of humor going forward. Since advertising creative tends to take its lead from the tastes and attitudes reflected in pop culture, he added, "we'll have to wait and see how this affects the kinds of movies, books and television programs we see in the future."

Jeff Goodby, co-creative director and partner at Omnicom's Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, was more blunt. "I'm positive this was affected by images we see in Hollywood movies," he said, adding that the imagery of the terrorist attack was "not anything that hasn't been manufactured at special effects houses in the past."

As for creative, Mr. Goodby said, "I'm sure that jokes about anything even related to this kind of thing are taboo for a long time to come."

Mr. McBride seemed to share his sentiment. "I think a lot depends on what companies want to say at a time like this. Given the appropriateness of what we're going to have to say, I don't think we're going to be cracking any jokes."

But Tracy Wong, chairman and creative director of WongDoody, a Seattle shop that has frequently relied on comedy concepts to drive its TV work, doesn't believe the attack and its aftermath will have a lasting effect on the kinds of ads most consumers see.

"Where it will affect things most is in terms of extreme comedy," he said, referring to the more aggressive, violent work increasingly seen in youth-oriented product categories.

"There are very few things that can touch the core of a cynical lot of people like advertising creatives," said Mr. Wong, "but something like this touches everyone. I'm sure many of them will now think twice [about some concepts] when they never would have before."

Immediate impact
The attack has had an immediate impact not only on the making of ads, according to sources in the production industry, but on their conceptual approaches as well. With the travel restrictions imposed last week, producers and agencies found crew and staff trapped in different cities, and many productions were postponed.

According to a producer at H.S.I. Productions in Los Angeles, at least one job the company was working on was postponed while the client and agency reworked the concept. She declined to name the advertiser.

In addition, a spot scheduled to be produced featuring a celebrity endorser was also shelved after the star's managers reconsidered the appearance in light of the tragedy, and a TV shoot scheduled for last weekend in Times Square was among many put on hold when the New York City Mayor's Office of Film & Television suspended shooting permits until sometime this week.

Frank Scherma, president of the production company Radical Media, put the impact in perspective: "What we're going through is nothing." Mr. Scherma, who is based in Los Angeles, has a brother who is a New York City firefighter. "He's pulling bodies out of there, and I'm worried about a permit?"

City's 'deliciously dangerous' image
How the tragedy will affect New York's image to the world remains to be seen. Increasingly, the city has been portrayed as the epicenter of cool and sophistication, or in-your-face attitude and energy. Will the city now bear a legacy of tragedy, like that associated with Dallas and Oklahoma City?

"It will be part of it," said Mr. Goodby. "Something like this never goes away. But New York has so many indelible images. It has always been a place that has been deliciously dangerous to go to for a lot of reasons. Now we have another."

The Towers themselves have provided art directors and cinematographers with an often-stunning backdrop for their shoots, and there is really no clear visual substitute that telegraphs the same sense of modernism and scale anywhere else in the city.

Eric Darton, author of Divided We Stand, a history of the World Trade Center (Basic Books, 2000), believes the loss of the landmark will cause significant problems for numerous advertisers large and small. "There are lots of logo treatments and other branding devices where the image of the Trade Center crops up," he said.

One startling example he considered including in his book was an older ad for Maker's Mark whiskey in which the tops of both towers were covered in the trademark red wax that the distiller uses to seal its bottles.

"It looked as through the Towers were dripping blood," Mr. Darton said. "In light of current events, it's a very chilling image."

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