How Old Spice won the Super Bowl—without actually being in it
Ten years ago, Isaiah Mustafa made the most memorable “Super Bowl” ad never to appear in the game.
Old Spice’s “Man Your Man Could Smell Like” might have been intended to run during the Super Bowl, as some recall—or not, as others do. But there is agreement that it was spurred by Procter & Gamble Co.’s rival Unilever announcing its own ad for Dove Men + Care in the game.
Either way, an ad thrown together in crisis mode without pre-testing, and born from considerable serendipity, rejuvenated Old Spice and fueled many careers. The campaign, from a marketer known for meticulous planning and testing of almost everything, was a last-minute Hail Mary that flew in the face of convention and worked beyond anyone’s expectations. So much so, in fact, that P&G is reviving the campaign on its 10th anniversary—this time giving the “Man Your Man Can Smell Like” a son.
Much of its success was spawned by a struggling actor who invented an over-the-top persona to win a role he thought he’d already lost during an audition two days before Christmas in 2009. Mustafa says he heard a gregarious actor ahead of him hamming it up and seemingly getting on well with Wieden’s creatives and director Tom Kuntz. So he figured he had nothing to lose by trying an exaggerated basso profundo he was toying with on the way to the audition. He spent that Christmas disappointed that he’d probably lost. The next day, he was called to Malibu for the shoot.
The three-day production on the beach was completed before New Year’s Day. While the finished ad looks like it involved a lot of computer-generated post-production, it actually had almost none. It was shot, as Mustafa recalls, in one continuous take—the 53rd of 88—through which he donned his towel during everything from a makeshift shower scene to riding a horse.
The job almost killed him, literally, when a crane dropped the bathroom set on an apple crate he’d been sitting on moments earlier. Mustafa says he’d gotten up only because his leg was falling asleep. He recalls joking immediately to others on the set: “Don’t worry, I’ve got eight more,” referring to lives, but no one laughed, because they were horrified.
Mustafa’s Midas touch
The organized chaos stemmed from an unavoidably tight timetable prompted by P&G learning about the Dove Super Bowl ad. P&G needed something fast to help save a brand already reeling from years of inroads by Unilever sibling Axe.
The “Man Your Man Could Smell Like” turned out to have a Midas touch even without the commensurate media buy. Mustafa recalls being recognized as “The Old Spice Guy” in a grocery checkout line a few days after the game. Within a month, he was talking about the ad on the “Ellen Degeneres Show.”
Despite successes for Unilever’s Axe and Dove, Old Spice began growing and taking market share in body wash, and stands today as the No. 1 U.S. body wash and deodorant. P&G followed up with a second Mustafa ad a few months later, then ran a “Responses” social media campaign via YouTube and Twitter starring Mustafa, in his towel, answering queries from brands like Starbucks, the Huffington Post and ordinary folks.
“I think it was a real turning point in our ability to connect with a younger audience,” says current Old Spice Associate Brand Director Matt Krehbiel. “It was also a turning point in how we did things as a brand.”
“Responses,” which received more YouTube views than Barack Obama’s 2008 acceptance speech, “was one of the first times that brands had one-on-one conversations with people and got people involved to make it seem like a two-way conversation,” Krehbiel says.
The ad has also been a boon for careers, starting with Mustafa, then 34. He went from being an actor sweating out commercial auditions and getting bit parts as a cop on “Days of Our Lives” and the short-lived TV series “Chuck,” to making appearances on “Oprah” and almost immediately being offered a role by Tyler Perry for “Madea’s Big Happy Family.”
Mustafa has since received a growing number of TV and film roles, most recently in “IT Chapter Two.” That’s in addition to an enduring gig as the Old Spice Guy for P&G in the U.S., including alongside fellow spokesman Terry Crews for years, representing the brand in launches around the world, and starring in two new spots to celebrate the ad’s 10th anniversary.
Eric Kallman, the Wieden copywriter behind the work, now has his own agency, Erich & Kallman in San Francisco. Jessica Monsey, Wieden’s director of client services at the time, is now president of 72andSunny, New York.
On the client side, Old Spice’s brand manager at the time, James Moorhead, has gone on to stints as chief marketing officer for Dish Network, Metromile and most recently financial services startup Upstart. Kevin Hochman, marketing director on Old Spice at the time the ad broke, went on to engineer the turnaround of KFC, first as CMO, more recently as president and chief concept officer (bringing Wieden along with him). Alexandra Keith, the VP who greenlighted Wieden for its first P&G assignment four years earlier and stuck with the shop, went on to head P&G’s North America laundry business during the launch of Tide Pods and recently became CEO of P&G Beauty. She’s already had the most successful run atop the company’s beauty business of any executive since former Chairman-CEO A.G. Lafley headed it two decades ago.
An unlikely pairing
All of this stemmed from what began as an unlikely agency-client pairing a few years earlier. Perennial hotshop Wieden wasn’t clamoring to get onto P&G’s roster. It had to be wooed, a process former P&G chief marketer Jim Stengel says he began during P&G’s first foray to Cannes in 2003. Stengel ultimately got founder Dan Wieden to tour P&G and speak to executives a year later. And by 2006, Stengel helped match Wieden with a struggling Old Spice brand to replace Saatchi & Saatchi.
Stengel says results were still mixed by the time he left P&G in 2008. Wieden produced some interesting work that didn’t really move the business much, he says. He recalls Keith coming to him in 2007 with some of the early work featuring actor Bruce Campbell covering Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like a Wolf” and asking: “What do I do with this?”
P&G had a long history as a steadfast user of copy testing to qualify ads in storyboard stage. Wieden had a policy against testing ads before production. Something had to give, and it was P&G. The “Man Your Man Could Smell Like” became a classic example of where conventional copy testing wouldn’t have worked. Panelists would have been hard pressed to imagine the finished ad from storyboards. So much was done on the fly in production there wasn’t time for pre-testing, anyway.
The brief was based on an insight from Wieden and P&G executives that—unlike with deodorant—women played a much bigger role in deciding what body wash to buy for men, says Moorhead. That same insight fueled the Dove Men+Care launch. So Old Spice was looking for something that appealed to women and men alike.
“We only had three days to write this thing,” Kallman says, so he sat down with art director Craig Allen and started. He acknowledges the finished product sounded much like a radio script at first, with visuals developed later.
How Mustafa won
The first audition didn’t produce many likely candidates for the starring role. “We called Isaiah back” for a second audition, Kallman says, “because we were having trouble finding a guy who was handsome and muscular enough.”
Mustafa—who had been a practice-squad NFL wide receiver—had a normal speaking voice, nothing like what he adopted for Old Spice. Ironically, the actor Mustafa thought he was losing out to in the second audition “wasn’t really that handsome, and was kind of silly,” Kallman says, but the Wieden team was working with him for about a half hour “because we were desperate.” Mustafa assumed the extra time meant the decision was already made, bolstering his decision to try out his “superhero voice” to make his mark. Immediately, Kallman says, “I remember this huge feeling of relief” that they’d found the right actor.
Wieden originally had only two days to do the shoot on the Malibu beach, getting a third only because a rain shower started just in time to trigger a weather insurance policy to pay for a third day, when they got the winning take. (Below are outtakes from the shoot.)
A Super Bowl ad?
While the Wieden crew was happy with the result, Kallman says he recalls a conference call soon afterward with P&G executives watching the video link, then going on mute for 15 minutes.
“The people in that room definitely weren’t impressed,” Kallman says. But he says executives at Wieden convinced P&G to run the ad anyway, just not on the Super Bowl as originally planned.
Others remember things differently. Mustafa says he was told the ad was a possible Super Bowl spot during the shoot, but he assumed “possible” meant “not likely.”
Mark Fitzloff, then creative director transitioning to taking over Wieden’s Portland office as CEO, and now founder of his own shop, Opinionated Group, says the brief was as a “normal assignment” without a Super Bowl plan. Moorhead “got really excited about it” once he saw it and began to push for more exposure, Fitzloff says. But the team at Wieden “talked ourselves out of it,” he says. “I felt the combination of an all-direct-camera dialog and so much freneticism, you’d lose people in that sort of cliché Super Bowl party crowd. It wouldn’t allow people to keep up.” After that, he says, the Wieden media team “came up with the surround-the-Super-Bowl strategy.” It released the ad online before the game, ran it on TV during Super Bowl weekend and in post-game.
The Old Spice team was always striving for work that was “Super Bowl-worthy,” Moorhead says. But he was still gratified how the surround strategy worked, which led to Old Spice making some lists of top Super Bowl ads of the year, including top overall on “CBS Morning News,” on the network that broadcast the game. “That dulled the impact of anything Dove could do,” Moorhead says. “We didn’t pay $5 million for it, and we laughed about that.”
Old Spice has been laughing ever since.
Join Ad Age on Jan. 28 as we bring together some of the top brands, agencies and creatives, including Hyundai, BBDO, Sabra hummus, Madonna Badger, Pop-Tarts and WeatherTech, to discuss what it takes to pull off a Super Bowl commercial.