Book Excerpt: Bang! By Linda Kaplan Thaler

The ad won us the account. It was unlike anything that Heineken, or any other beer company for that matter, had ever done. It was a hugely risky move, because we were only allowed to show one idea to the client. If we failed, we failed. Moroever, it didn't address a single goal laid out by the company at our briefing meeting, yet it hit upon the one authentic thing about Heineken behind the president's spiel. It spoke directly to his belief that their product did more than quench thirst or take the edge off a tough day. It was an icon of purity and honesty in a dishonest, impure world. And it all came about because we had a hunch that overrode the avalanche of marketing materials given to us by the client. Many agencies, in fact, would never have let someone with no experience drinking or marketing beer into the room with Foley. But the fact that I didn't know a whole a lot about the business enabled me to move away from the traditional and expected. I had no emotional baggage. Naturally we tested the concept with beer aficionados after the fact, but the original concept stemmed from a gut response to Foley's behavioral clues. Stop Trying to Be Smart Plenty of creative advertising and marketing folks like to display their intelligence in their work. Look how clever I am, their work seems to shout out. This is rarely a smart move. Maurice Lévy remembers a campaign from the early 1980s, when a drink called Green Sands was debuted in France. "We did one of those cutting-edge commercials, directed by Tony Scott, the very latest in trendiness at the time. And the success lasted what a fashion season lasts: one summer." We actively shy away from trendiness. The work isn't about us, it's about embracing the consumer. In fact, we get a fair amount of grief for being an agency that relies on broad humor and sentimentality. But as Stuart Elliott, advertising columnist for the New York Times pointed out about me in a recent column, I "unapologetically embrace [my] image as a throwback to when ads tugged at heartstrings and poked at funny bones rather than taking postmodern, hipper-than-thou postures." Doria Steedman, an executive vice president with Partnership for a Drug-Free America, argues that by relying on straightforward yet compelling stories, her organization has greatly increased its visibility. In 1995 the partnership came out with an ad that tried to explain a simple fact about sniffing inhalants-albeit in a graphic way. A little girl is sitting in a sweet little-girl bedroom and all of a sudden water starts to pour into the room. As the room fills up with water, she floats to the window and struggles to get out, but drowns. The voiceover talks about the inhalants, and says, "So when you think you're sniffing, your brain thinks it's drowning. And your brain is pretty much right." It wasn't a commercial that tried to flaunt gimmicks or cleverness; rather, it just focused on getting across the simple idea that this drug hurts your body. While it is difficult to track the effectiveness of such ads, Steedman points to research that indicates that it was at least partly responsible for a downturn in use. Years ago, when I was working on Kodak at J. Walter Thompson, my desire to zero in on age-old instincts helped lead me to one of my first Big Bangs. A number of us were asked to develop a campaign for the Kodak disc camera, a new camera that eliminated the need for cartridge film. The disc camera had taken years for the Eastman Kodak chemical engineers to develop. Instead of having to feed the film to the camera and advance it every time you took a picture, you just plopped a wafer-thin disc in, took pictures, and popped it out when it was done. It was kind of like a toaster oven for negatives. But much of the advertising the agency proposed using was technical and graphic, full of flashing laser lights, a somber homage to all those engineers hunched over processing baths. This advertising made the camera seem as formidable as IBM's Deep Blue super computer at a chess match. My colleagues spent a lot of time talking to the Kodak people, and they were up to their eyeballs in facts and figures about the science that went into the camera. I, fortunately, had not delved into all the research. The minute I saw the Kodak disc camera, my gut reaction was that this was the perfect PhD camera (Push Here, Dummy); it should be marketed to moms, kids, grandparents, just about anybody who knew nothing about taking pictures. The disc camera, with all its complexity, was an incredibly simple camera to use. So I decided to write a simple jingle that highlighted the fact that the camera was easy to operate. The song was entitled "I'm Gonna Getcha with the Kodak Disc," and featured kids and parents snapping each other with a mere flick of the wrist. Kodak loved it, and decided to go with it. Although some of the Kodak marketing folks were absolutely incensed over this nonsensical little ditty-how dare we use it to peddle their scientific masterpiece-the advertising certainly helped develop a pretty picture for the camera's sales results.

Stop Acting Your Age A radio talk show host once commented that inside every middle-aged person sipping coffee or tea, there's an eight-year-old child slurping ice cream. Our inner child is where many of our most imaginative and uncensored selves lie. As such, it is an embryonic breeding ground for Big Bang ideas. It's the romper room where our minds roam unfettered and free, where feelings rule the landscape. In Riding the Tiger: Doing Business in a Transforming World Harrison Owen says, "In play, we are enabled to do in pretend time (a time/space continuum of our own making) what is either impossible, unthinkable, or dangerous to do in real time. Then, it sometimes occurs that the line between 'pretend' and 'real' is removed, and somehow the impossible, unthinkable, and dangerous become common practice. This is called innovation and creativity." Unfortunately, the pretensions of adult habits, conventions, and behavior tend to stifle creativity. Roger von Oech, who runs workshops on creativity and is the author of the million-copy best-seller A Whack on the Side of the Head, claims that we are trained to toe the line the minute we enter school, where the system insists there's just one right answer, when often there are many. "If you think there is only one right answer, then you'll stop looking as soon as you find one." But tuning in to your playful side can yield great results. Let me give you an example. When Vanity Fair magazine was brought back to life in 1983, it was relaunched as a high-minded literary magazine, filled with lengthy, highbrow articles and serious literature. It was also anything but popular. Then owner Condé Nast decided to hire British editor Tina Brown, who changed the approach of the magazine by appealing to the teenager in all of us. She filled it with tabloid crime tales, starlets du jour, and gossipy stories about the "popular" kids. In doing so, she turned the magazine into one of the industry's biggest success stories. Big Bangs like this happen more easily when you nurture your childlike side. Roy J. Bostock, retired chairman of the McManus Group and now chairman of Partnership for a Drug-Free America, was in charge of the agency that created the original Budweiser frog commercials. Bostock remembers chatting with the two guys who came up with the idea and asking them what their inspiration was. "They told me that they knew they needed to come up with an idea that would really resonate with twenty-one to twenty-eight-year-old guys," Bostock recalls. "For some reason, they started talking about their youth and the things that they liked when they were kids." Soon they were both reliving the days when they would spend hours catching and playing with frogs. "Suddenly they realized that they had to use a frog in the Bud ads." This connection to childhood resulted in one of the best pieces of advertising ever to resonate with young men, one of the most coveted demographic targets for television ads. Adults require this loosening up to unleash the creative ideas that lurk in our imaginations. I discovered this in 1981, when I was a junior copywriter at J. Walter Thompson, with a cubicle office about the size of a dollar bill, and a salary to match. I was chomping at the bit to work on the Toys "R" Us pitch that our agency was invited to participate in. Perhaps because I had not let go of the child within me, I created one of the Biggest Bangs of my career. I Won't Grow Up At the time, Toys "R" Us was looking for a new agency. Toys "R" Us stores, like those of its competitors Child World (doomed eventually to extinction in the wake of Charles Lazarus's brilliant business acumen) and K-B Toys, were really just big warehouses for toys. It became painfully obvious to us that a Barbie was a Barbie was a Barbie, no matter where you bought it. We knew we had to create an image for the store that did everything but actually show the store, which was vast, intimidating, and had the warmth of Howe Caverns. Somehow we had to let consumers feel that when you bought your toy at Toys "R" Us, you were bringing something much more valuable home. Our team went out and bought a bunch of toys for, ah, research purposes, brought them back to our offices, and starting looking them over. Soon we were playing with them, and unable to put them down. And that's when the Big Bang idea hit us like a hockey puck in the head: Toys make you feel like a kid again. And that feels good. So good, we thought, that why would anyone want to grow up? James Patterson, the executive creative director, and Deyna Vesey, my art director, came up with the line "I Don't Wanna Grow Up, I'm a Toys 'R' Us Kid." But we needed something besides a theme line to truly make the strategy sing. What it needed, I realized, was a song. This was right up my Tin Pan Alley. I have a master's degree in musicology (which, for those of you unfamiliar with the titillating excitement of academia, is the history of music from the pan flute on), and had composed several children's songs as well as some off-off-(boy-were-they-off)-Broadway shows. Nonetheless, the odds of authoring the jingle that would win the account and eventually air on national television were slimmer than my paycheck. In fact, we went to a number of music houses, and each eagerly submitted songs in the hopes of winning the hefty residual payments that come with a widely advertised campaign. Even Tony-award-winning composer Charles Strouse (Annie and Bye Bye Birdie) did a tune on spec for us. Of course, the obvious answer was the hit song "I Won't Grow Up" from the musical Peter Pan (for which the copyright holders wanted $100,000). But none of the fifteen or so demos we received got our toes tapping. So I just started fooling around on my keyboard one day, and came up with a childlike little ditty that I thought might appeal to kids. My boss didn't really like it, but he agreed to air it for the client. As it turned out, the Toys "R" Us folks loved it (not least because it didn't cost them anything to own). Moreover, when the song was tested on little kids, it got a resounding thumbs-up (from those who could get their thumbs out of their mouths, that is). One week after the song officially aired on national television, my boss confessed that he had made a mistake about the song. "What made you change your mind?" I asked. "Well," he said, "I was getting my coffee at Logan airport yesterday, and the waiter was humming your tune." Two weeks later I heard a kid singing it on the street. His mother yelled at him that if he didn't stop singing that silly song, they were going to miss the bus! I wanted to kiss him! Twenty-two years later, "I Don't Wanna Grow Up, I'm a Toys 'R' Us Kid" continues to be the store's theme song in their television and radio ads. Virtually every kid across the country (and their parents as well) can sing the jingle. If you visit the flagship store in Manhattan's Times Square, you'll hear over a dozen different arrangements broadcast in different departments. The tune has become one of the longest airing jingles in advertising history. Why did it work? Well, it's a good jingle, I think. But it's also about a state of mind, about reminding you what it's like to be a kid again. By bringing out the child in all of us during those creative meetings, we unleashed an idea that tapped into the six-year-old who lives on in all of us.

Stop Being Cool Being hip in marketing is often the kiss of death. Trends come and go. That means they can become outdated in a nanosecond. And being cool is frankly alienating: Everyone who feels they aren't in the know will turn their back on your message. As a result, a trendy ad limits the number of people it will connect with. Let me give you a case in point. Several years ago Norwegian Cruise Line ran a campaign called "It's Different Out Here." The ads were very simple and ethereal, with avant-garde black-and-white close-ups of lush island scenery, undulating water, and glamorous couples lounging about. Everyone in advertising raved about the ads, and they won many accolades. The problem? They didn't sell cruises. Consumers could make neither heads nor tails of them. "Every frame of those ads was frameable," then-marketing VP Nina Cohen said, "but we're not in the framing business." She hired a new agency and soon the company went back to more traditional ads that talked about big cabins, out-of-the-way locales, good food-things that cruise vacationers could relate to. When Continental Airlines relaunched its business in the mid-1990s, the company didn't run glitzy advertising. Most of the airline companies at the time were still running ads with planes flying through clouds, recalls Bonnie Reitz, former senior vice president of marketing, sales, and distribution at Continental. "Some of the ads were even more abstract, with shots of balloons flying through the air with messages on them," she says. Continental, however, decided "to be very simple and truthful and talk to customers about what is important to them," says Reitz. They understood that frequent fliers want consistency, comfort, and convenience. That's it-over and out. No surprises. Not even bargain basement value. With their "Work Hard, Fly Right" campaign, they sent the message that they serve the real-life needs of their bread-and-butter customers, the business traveler. As a result, they have become one of the biggest turnaround stories of our time. They are now the number-one airline out of New York and regularly beat every one of their competitors on customer satisfaction surveys. Some marketing executives are so focused on being arch that they ignore the reason for the ad in the first place: to enhance the brand. "Some people who create TV advertising feel like the brand name gets in the way of what they're trying to do," says Gerry Lukeman, chairman emeritus of Ipsos-ASI, a Connecticut-based advertising research firm, "so they stick it on, rather reluctantly, just at the end of the commercial. They're doing the ad less for the brand and more for the art. When you look at a lot of this stuff, it seems to me quite a few people on the creative side are in the business of creating 30-second foreign films. Anything that gets in the way of that is considered an obstacle." Instead of concentrating on being cutting edge, we feel it's much more important to stick to the basics that never go out of style. Get in tune with people's souls. In fact, we think you have to make a conscious effort to try not to be hip, or get distracted by fads. As Maurice Lévy, CEO of Publicis Groupe, said in a recent New York Times interview, "There are people who do advertising for what I call the advertising village and people who are doing advertising for the consumer." We've been successful because we focus exclusively on creating marketing for the consumer. That is why we exist-to help companies sell themselves, and sell their products. The key is to find the truth you are trying to convey to your audience-and finding a way to express that truth through emotion. This is a philosophy I relied on when I was asked to help out with the advertising for Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign in 1992. This was in the wake of the Gennifer Flowers story, and Mandy Grunwald, one of Clinton's political strategists, realized Clinton needed some good old-fashioned emotional appeal. Friend of Bill By September 1992, there were enough seedy stories swirling about Bill Clinton that Grunwald wanted to remind the voters of Clinton's Horatio Alger struggle from poor boy in Hope, Arkansas, to presidential candidate. I was asked to create a sixty-second biographical spot that would run a few weeks before the election. Up until then, the usual bio fare in political ads was cluttered with flashy fanfare, empty platitudes, and endless lists of bills the candidate backed or supported. But for an already suspicious public, we needed a film that would connect people emotionally to Clinton, a message that convinced voters he would "Put People First." The tabloids' innuendos made Clinton look unelectable; but after meeting him, my gut told me something quite different. I became convinced that Clinton was a man who cared about the ordinary guy, and passionately believed in the causes he espoused. My challenge was to find a way to let Americans see that side as well. I filled the spot with scrapbook memories, including footage of Bill at seventeen shaking President Kennedy's hand, faded shots of his grandparents' store in Hope, Arkansas, innocent black-and-white photos of his humble small-town beginnings. And then I edited it in slooooow moooootion, because nothing moves people like people moving slowly. Watch an old video of your grandfather prancing around on your first birthday and he looks like a character actor in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. But play the film back in slo-mo and suddenly he's a cinematic lion in winter, and you find your eyes welling up with tears. It's a hackneyed gimmick, but it works. The spot I created accomplished two things: It helped us all believe once again in the American dream, that anything is possible. After all, look where this guy had come from, the spot seemed to say, and look where he's going! The spot also made Clinton more human, which made his rumored transgressions more forgivable. It was the perfect antidote to all the cynicism in the press at the time. After I completed the spot and sent it over, one of the producers called me. "I hope you're sitting down," he said. He went on to tell me that the governor had been playing the videotape over and over again. He was actually crying. He had never seen his life portrayed in such an emotional way before. Most of the ads up to that point had been a somewhat clinical list of his accomplishments. As Mandy Grunwald later told USA Today, this ad was different. "We viewed the ad for the first time and realized it was perfect-touching, moving. It's rare when that happens."

Stop Denying Your Feelings Emotion is universal. Instead of trying to think about what's funny to soccer moms in Peoria, think about what's funny to you. Instead of guessing what will get a blue-collar father of two choked up, think about what puts a lump in your throat. You may think you are of a higher order than Anna Nicole Smith, but here's the unvarnished truth: We all share 99.9 percent of the same genes. We are all startlingly alike. So get over it. The fact is that old-fashioned emotions spring from basic truths. They don't change with the seasons. Say hello to someone in Botswana and you'll be met with a blank stare. But share pictures of your children, and you'll make a friend for life. So chances are good that if an idea makes you laugh, it'll make others laugh. If it makes me cry, it'll make you cry too. Big Bangs happen when you connect with a primary emotion. Why is the Volkswagon Beetle such a hit? Margaret Mark and Carol S. Pearson, authors of The Hero and the Outlaw: Building Extraordinary Brands Through the Power of Archetypes, argue that it appeals to one of our most universal feelings: "Looking at the design through the archetypal lens, we see that the 'face' of the new Beetle is virtually identical to the face of an infant-with big eyes and a high, smooth forehead. Research has shown that throughout both the animal and the human kingdom, those same baby-faced characteristics, the characteristics of the Innocent, signal that there is no threat and that the creature is in need of care. . . . They are faces that win hearts the world over." Dye Laughing I have always counted on basic emotions to connect with my audience. In the early 1990s, when I was at J. Walter Thompson, we landed the Clairol account. I was asked to come up with some commercials for Nice 'n Easy, billed as an entry-level hair color for people who were a bit hesitant to color their hair. Nice 'n Easy was doing terribly at the time, not least because of the current campaign, which was very apologetic. Basically the ads said, Don't worry, people won't notice, not much will change. I knew that this was the wrong approach. "Look," I said to the folks at Clairol, "You're making this so damn serious! It's not brain surgery, it's hair color, for God's sake. Women have children, we have breast cancer, we have deadbeat husbands! Coloring our hair is the least of our problems!" I argued instead that we should make the whole hair-color concept a piece of funny business, and we proposed using Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the spokesperson. At the time, Louis-Dreyfus was in a funny but relatively unknown show called Seinfeld. "Her character, Elaine, is the girl next door, she's cute, a little sarcastic, attractive but not too pretty. She's someone women would like to talk to, not some ice-queen supermodel," I explained to the Clairol folks. The executive I was working with responded, "Over my dead body will I have a comedienne who's a brunette, and not a model, pitching and selling our hair color." But I had that familiar feeling in my gut that this was a Big Bang. So I refused to let it go. I took the idea to other people at Clairol. Finally I found Peter Spengler, a top executive at Bristol-Myers Squibb, who knew of Seinfeld; after much wheedling and begging, and the support of Steve Sadove, the former president of Clairol, they convinced the marketing director to take a risk. We didn't even bother doing a test, we just went ahead and shot the commercials. And they were very funny. In one of them Louis-Dreyfus blathers on about how lucky she is to have been born with such naturally beautiful hair, then whispers confidentially to the viewers, "It's Natural Deep Brown 121." Within a week after the commercial aired, sales skyrocketed and Natural Deep Brown 121 couldn't be found on the shelves. We followed up with an ad where Louis-Dreyfus is riding a city bus; she transforms a mousy brown-haired woman into a fabulous blond right there on the M2. At the end of the commercial, our new blond bombshell is sent off the bus by Louis-Dreyfus with the line, "You're gonna stop traffic," at which point the viewer hears a resounding crash. The commercials were instant hits, catapulting Nice 'n Easy sales to an all-time high and helping to regain its position as the category leader at the time. This experience brought home how effective a tool humor is in connecting with people. It was the first campaign in the category of women's beauty that used humor, and it worked like gangbusters. Through humor, the commercial said to all the women out there, "You know what, it's OK to color your hair. It's OK if everyone knows, and it's OK if it's obvious. It's fun!" The flip side of humor, poignance, is another effective way to create a Big Bang. In 1997 AT&T ran a series of ads for its wireless phones. Instead of talking about the technology involved, however, or trying to explain some complicated minutes-per-week formula, the ads focused on the simple bonds of family and friends. In one memorable spot geared to guilt-ridden working moms, and set to Cyndi Lauper's hit Girls Just Want to Have Fun, a harried career mom is trying to get everyone out the door on a busy weekday morning. She's explaining to her daughter that she can't stop to talk because she's got a meeting with an important client. Her daughter looks at her and says, "When can I be a client?" Mom suddenly halts what she's doing, looks at her kids, and announces that today is a vacation day. The family heads to the beach, with Mom's trusty cell phone in tow just in case business comes up. The ads were the first telecom spots to make it into the top twenty most popular ads of USA Today's Ad Track consumer index. Tugging at heartstrings-as clichéd as it may seem-was the simple formula that Eastman Kodak rode all the way to the bank in the seventies and eighties. Back then, when I was the creative director working on the Kodak account, I knew that every ad I made had to do one thing when I showed it to the clients: bring tears to their eyes. It was that simple. Kodak was already an icon, and its marketing people completely grasped the importance of connecting with people's emotions. After all, Kodak was America's storyteller, the preserver of our memories, the product that was able to make time stand still. So our team created ads that captured poignant moments everyone could relate to: "Daddy's Little Girl," by creative partners Mimi Emilita and Michael Hart, showed a dad dancing at his daughter's wedding, while nostalgically remembering images of her childhood. I created a spot with my art director, Greg Weinschenker, called "America," a motorcycle journey by a Vietnam vet rediscovering his country. The folksy song I wrote to go with it went on to win a Clio that year for Best Original Music with Lyrics. The commercials were incredibly powerful, so much so that they were often more talked about than the TV shows they sponsored. Soon people began to call the touching instants in their lives "Kodak moments." Believe it or not, up to that time we had never used that phrase in our advertising. But it has since become part of the American vernacular, creating word-of-mouth advertising for the brand every time it's uttered. My Own Kodak Moment As basic and simple as these emotions are, coming up with Kodak moments wasn't always easy. In 1985 we were under the gun and desperately needed a new spot. But nothing was working. At the same time, my father's sixty-fifth birthday was looming, and I was having trouble thinking of a worthy present. Another necktie or gift certificate at RadioShack hardly seemed fitting to celebrate such a milestone. As the Kodak meeting and Dad's birthday drew closer, the dual dilemmas suddenly converged in me to create a Big Bang. I gathered up all the old footage of my dad and family, and edited it into a movie, for which I wrote a song, "Dear Old Dad." On my dad's birthday, I asked him to turn on Channel 5 to watch one of our favorite old movies, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, starring Gregory Peck. My real reason for wanting him to watch became apparent when, in the middle of the show, a Kodak commercial came on. It began with a handwritten note that read, "To Dad, on his 65th birthday. Love, Linda." A two-minute video tribute followed, ending with a shot of a Kodak roll of film and the tagline: "When was the last time you took a picture of your dad?" Yes, I made my dad cry. But even more important, the ad made dads cry all over the country. For years, Kodak ran a Father's Day spot with the same theme. That one connection of a daughter to her father sparked the memories of millions who saw it. It didn't seem obvious at the time, but what could be simpler than drawing from your own experience, from your own emotions? When looking for a Big Bang, it sometimes helps to reach inside yourself, to tap into those emotions that supercede the inadequacies of language and thought, touching that place where our emotional DNA remains identical. We've talked about the tools we've discovered that help to create Big Bang ideas: counterintuitive common sense, compression, chaos, intuition, becoming fluent in the language of emotions. And we've discussed how we go about creating an environment that fosters Big Bang ideas. Once you've come up with an in-box full of ideas, however, you still need to figure out which idea is the one with explosive power, the one that will go bang.

Excerpted from Bang! by Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval with Delia Marshall Copyright© 2003 by Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval with Delia Marshall. Excerpted by permission of Currency, a division of Random House of Canada Limited. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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