April 13, 2010

Searching For The Big Idea


By Kurt Brokaw, Culture Editor

There are advertising men and women on Madison Avenue who fly to exotic locales with A-line production houses, hugely expensive talent and spare-no-expense budgets. They travel big, live big, cast big, build big, furnish big, light big, record big, edit big and score big. They enter their biggest work in the Association of Independent Commercial Producers (AICP) annual competitions. They win big and come to nibble caviar and sip champagne at places like the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and equivalent top-of-the-mark venues in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other major cities nationally and internationally. And then they sit down and plan how to go out and do it even bigger next year.


Do such people still exist? Of course they do. You don't hear them fretting about online advertising taking over the advertising universe. They'll tell you people making a living in interactive and new media are more or less stuck in front of computers day and night, living on take-out and grinding out a living pushing five-figure and four-figure budgets around the ether. They'll say, these geeks are corridor people who sit in client corridors outside the conference room until the AOR is done making its sweeping presentation and recommendations. These old pros aren't losing sleep over the possibility of an awards competition being built around the Best Banner or Best Email or Best Instant Message or Best Ringtone or Best One-Inch Digital Phone Commercial. Their take is, who would seriously be interested in this new piss-ant viral media when that old medium television looks and sounds so rich and delicious?


I know this because I've come from two separate screenings of the 70-minute 2006 awards show of the Association of Independent Commercial Producers at the Museum of Modern Art. The comments above are representative of remarks and conversations I observed in and out of the Museum theaters. AICP and MOMA have jointly sponsored this annual fest since 1991, in which three or four honorees in each of 24 categories are chosen by panels of curators and then judges who represent top management in production houses, editing suites, music services and major advertising agencies. Started in 1972, AICP has become the leading trade association and information clearing house in the production end of the industry.


And, to be sure, not all of its two dozen categories are built around the luxuries of first-ticket production. There are awards for Low Budget, for Tabletop, for Spec, even for Student Commercials. Some of the winning work looks put together on a wing and a prayer.


But most of it doesn't. The vast majority of commercials--the ones that win year after year--are state-of-the-art executions of Madison Avenue's biggest ideas of that year. My advertising students at The New School--many of whom start the course cynical and jaded about the mountains of indifferent imagery, claims and promises that greet them every day on the subways and streets of Manhattan--sit in awe watching AICP winners.


Like students everywhere, they spend inordinate amounts of time online, emailing and instant-messaging each other, and then going out to shoot the sights on their digital cameras and cells. About the only place they're exposed to big-name commercials that try hard not to look like no-name commercials is in the multiplex before the movie. The AICP work opens their eyes and their minds because all of it has been crafted and honed and burnished and edited to within an inch of its life, usually with pride and care and--in a significant number of cases-- a cooperative and trusting client. One can't overestimate the importance of this, particularly when a young person studies commercial after commercial in category after category, as we do over a 15-week semester. The AICP reels have literally reshaped the potential career paths of young men and women toward the leading edges of the advertising industry.


And so we come to this year's champs, the 2006 winners. What's apparent as you watch dozens and dozens of this year's honorees is how many are execution-driven rather than concept-driven. The AICP choices traditionally tend to lean this way, because first and foremost they're saluting the work of production houses, directors, cinematographers, editors, writers, art directors, sound people, animators, music directors, and actors. They're not awards based on success in the marketplace or any tangible ROI basis. They have the freedom to be little movies, mostly without the hangups of focus groups, sticky client fingers or the Fear Factor that bedevils so many prime-time campaigns we stare at with our eyes glazing over. No wonder they have so much appeal to a 20-year-old mentality. They say No Fear, and Fear is that's been creeping into the fabric of Madison Avenue ever since the computer took hold in the late 90s.


One could make the argument that Madison Avenue advertising in general is starting to look and sound and feel more like the execution-dominated advertising of Europe and Asia. Messages with a high entertainment quotient really got going in French and Italian cinemas in the mid 50s when advertisers found they had greater reach through commercials in movie houses than through the small number of television sets in individual homes. Sixty-second spots prevailed, and the expectation was that the commercial would consist of 55 seconds of humor or dramatic entertainment, with a quick sponsor ID at the close. This idea migrated to Japan and China, and has held through much of the world ever since.


American advertising clung to concept-based campaigns for the first 60, maybe 70 years of the last century, at which point categories became so cluttered that perceived product differences--specific, unique features and benefits--began to disappear. As imagery and the whole branding process has slowly and steadily taken over the language function, execution has begun to preempt the conceptual framework of ads. In a parity marketplace, execution is everything. AICP is the ultimate execution platform and increasingly the hot awards platform for agencies and a fair number of advertisers.


How else to explain the Hummer win as one of the three best 2006 campaigns? The lead commercial through Modernista is the one that's probably appeared most frequently through sports telecasts, and that's "Monster." You've seen it. The rubber-suited Godzilla gal and the metal Rodan guy are slugging it out in the middle of a crumbling city, when suddenly they decide they're in love. So they lie down together by the river and the camera discreetly pans up to the sky like in old Hitchcock movies. The big Godzilla monster grows a belly and gives birth to a little Hummer monster. The Hummer drives off through a devastated city.


Hummer flirts with disaster imagery. It's one of the reasons Hummer owners here in Manhattan tell me they own and drive one--that it's the safest place to be if a terrorist attack or other catastrophe mandates a fast evacuation. "You'll be ready if the asteroid hits" headlines a Hummer print ad, which even my students picked up as a sly metaphor for a dirty bomb or some other sneak attack. Hummer's theme is "Like Nothing Else," but that tells us what it's not, not what it is--a portable bomb shelter. The other two commercials are executions of a product shift to a smaller Hummer, or at least something that doesn't quite look as big as a Sherman tank. Three bears act out the three bears children's tale--one size is just right. And the miniature-size office guy among normal-size workers who appear to be giants shows us he drives a smaller-size Hummer. Monsters and bears and miniatures--execution, execution, execution.


Fox Sports Net's commercials through TBWA/Chiat/Day make up the second overall campaign winner for 2006. They're tight :30s with one communications goal--you've got less than 30 seconds to get to the TV for the game and you'll do anything to make it. Like stripping down in the bedroom to make love. Or throwing an entire household of furniture off the moving truck into the new residence. Or being shaved so fast in a barber chair that your face ends up looking like something out of "Sweeney Todd." They're simple, smart, surprising and funny executions. As a category, tune-in advertising rarely gets (or needs) a concept--just a memorable execution. Kudos.


The third campaign win is American Legacy Foundation's 'truth' work through Crispin, Porter and Bogusky. With his longish hair and linebacker shoulders, Alex Bogusky rules the south today, and he shares marquee space with David Lubars and Linda Kaplan Thayer and Lee Clow and Shelley Lazarus. This is an anti-smoking campaign, advertising's toughest nut to crack. The spots start with a simple notion--tobacco companies lie. And so this campaign uses metaphors, too: people speak lies through megaphones, bodies pile up outside hospital entrances, big red signs pointing at people in outdoor settings reveal terrible truths. It's a subtle, thoughtful campaign and subtlety isn't this agency's strong suit. But the cumulative effect of viewing all three as a package is undeniable. The problem is that only awards judges view all three (or four, or however many form the campaign) as a package. Separately, each spot of the campaign has to stand or fall on the effectiveness of its stylized execution, and in real life that's more problematic.


Of the three Best Single Commercials, let's start with the simplest. "Disturbance" through Publicis asks a timeworn question--what happens when the bartender drops a whole tray of Heineken bottles? The execution tells us the whole world stops. Boxing matches pause, hospital surgery halts--you get the idea. The one shrewd vignette is a young nude couple who look up from their lovemaking. "What's wrong, honey?" asks the sweet young thing. "I just feel--so sad," anguishes her young man. This got the biggest laugh of anything on the whole reel from the audience at the Museum of Modern Art.


The second Best Single is for Xbox 360. It's titled "Jump Rope" and two agencies, McCann Erickson and a shop calling itself 72 and Sunny, are credited. This is a double-dutch setup in a schoolyard in which a lot of kids and adults do a series of tricky, near-impossible stunts, one after another, in what appears to be real-time. The fascination of the spot is not the individual feats jumping through, around and over the turning ropes, but that all these amazing acrobatics are happening in (apparently) unedited progression. You have to trust your eyes, and if you accept there's not a cheat cut embedded somewhere, you say "what an amazing sequence." No, actually what you say is "what an amazing execution."


The final Best Single Commercial is the showpiece of the reel. "Hello Tomorrow" is for Adidas through TBWA/Chiat/Day. The director is Spike Jonze, the director of "Being John Malkovich." This is a movie pro who knows how to get inside somebody's head, and it's certainly possible Lee Clow's staff created it with Spike Jonze in mind. The cinematographer is Ellen Kuras, the DP on "Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind." She brings another mind-bending sensibility to what is essentially an exploration by a young guy in his Adidas through a dream world. It's a commercial with almost as much sophistication as the French director Jacques Rivette's mesmerizing fantasy "Celine and Julie Go Boating." My pal Tim McHale will love this 90-second romp, because it's a darker 2006 version of "Alice in Wonderland." The sets are turned every which way, the characters are almost always shrouded in shadow afnd antasy, it's a trip, baby. That's trip as in executional trip, not conceptual trip. And there, perhaps, is our conclusion to a viewing of 70 minutes of the year's best advertising, according to all those AICP curators and judges. The Big Idea has become The Big Execution. This isn't necessarily bad, but it's necessarily different and still something Madison Avenue is adjusting to after almost a century of doing it the other way. AICP showcases the best of it. The trick for Madison Avenue is going to be figuring out how to do it for less than those Big Budgets. Spike Jonze and Ellen Kuras may have started out working for chump change, but together they command more for a couple days' work than the entire budget for New Media in plenty of companies.


Will Madison Avenue learn how to search for The Big Execution just as it once learned to search for The Big Idea? We'll see. Remember what that frantic rabbit running through Wonderland waving the pocket watch kept babbling--I'm late I'm late I'm late I'm late.


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