Inventing Desire

 
 

Inventing Desire

Dick Sittig took his girlfriend to Cannes in late June for the International Advertising Film Festival - a pleasant enough break from the Nissan Fantasy campaign, particularly since the Energizer Bunny campaign Sittig had devised was favored to win the Grand Prix over almost two thousand other entries. Sittig was ready to celebrate. He checked into a $700-a-night hotel room, ate his share of cracked lobster claws, and waited for the official good news.

He was having lunch with Kuperman at the Eden Roc, on the day of the awards show, when they heard: Not only was the Bunny not going to win the Grand Prix, but the campaign had been thrown out of the competition on the grounds that it wasn't original. European judges complained that the Bunny parodies were derivative of a British campaign for Bass's Carling Black Label beer that featured a cowboy riding through a series of fake commercials. No one accused Sittig of outright plagiarism, but the suggestion was there, along with the public humiliation.

Kuperman was furious. That night at the awards banquet, fueled by more Scotch than he was used to, he had to be physically restrained from jumping onstage and giving the audience a piece of his mind. Sittig, who had never seen the beer commercials, decided to take the high road and keep his mouth shut. He figured anything he said in his own defense would sound like sour grapes. He attended the awards ceremony, but he left his tuxedo at home in favor of his Chiat/Day Babes in Baja T-shirt, commemorating an annual women employees' retreat. Then he waited for the screening of the Grand Prix nominee. and the announcement of the winner. When the Bunny appeared on screen, the four thousand Cannes delegates applauded wildly. When a three-year-old British agency won the Grand Prix for a Maxell audio tape campaign, some people booed and howled.

The Century 21 Real Estate announcement, awarding the business to Campbell-Mithun-Esty, came just a week after the pitch, on June 13, but in that brief time everyone involved in the pitch had managed a rationale. The disgruntled creatives blamed Rabosky for promoting his own work over theirs, he blamed the agency for going after the wrong kind of account, and Kuperman, as usual, blamed the client for not recognizing quality. Clow thought the loss proved that there were certain accounts the agency shouldn't pursue. To Wolf, it proved that there were accounts the agency had to chase - but the creative department wasn't yet up to the task. Chiat realized, too late, that the new management structure had effectively demolished the successful Venice pitch team of Wolf, Kuperman, Clow and White. They all had theories, but no one expressed regrets publicly.

Unfortunately, there were few reviews on the horizon to distract them. The $22 million Carl's Jr. fast-food account was up for review, but it was not much of a temptation, since Carl's Jr. chairman and CEO Carl Karcher was a difficult client who had donated heavily to the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, and would want an agency to staff his account with like-minded conservatives.

The National Basketball Association, which had always produced its own commercials in the past, had $10 million to spend on commercials and promotional programming, thanks to a new $600 million contract with NBC Television. The NBA needed someone to make it an international sport - to make it famous, which was just what Clow liked to do for clients. The agency decided to participate in the pitch, but Wolf disdained it from the start. It was a "glamour account," a high-profile business that had too little money and too little opportunity for growth.

His rainmaker was hardly prepared to surrender to the exigencies of the moment. Don Peppers was in Los Angeles to rehearse a pre~ presentation that he and Rob White were going to make to Nintendo, the computer game giant. Nintendo had just hired Foote, Cone & Belding, but Peppers had prepared a door-opener on the fiber-optics revolution, and there was an executive at Nintendo who was willing to listen to it.

Peppers wanted to talk about a time, about fifteen years in the future, when there would be tens of thousands of television signals, when households would sign up with brokers who would protect them from commercials they didn't want to see and provide them with the ones they were interested in.

Meekly, Rob White wondered whether people would choose to pay for the privilege of not seeing any commercials at all. Peppers reassured him. People were addicted to advertising, despite their griping. They used brands to define themselves. They were members of what Peppers called "image tribes," concocting a public identity based on 1k the brands they acquired or wished to acquire brands whose value was, in part, their symbolic meaning to the rest of the community.

"People don't really want to be different," said Peppers. "They just want to be the same as certain kinds of people."

Neither man expected the effort to yield tangible results, but Peppers took the long view. If Nintendo went up for review in three years, the company would have to invite Chiat/Day. He had something~ interesting to share. Nintendo would be in his debt.

Lee Clow, back from a meeting at Nissan, was hurrying across Main Street when a woman saw him and shrieked. "Long pants - my God!"

He was on his way to the kind of meeting he might, under less unsteady circumstances, have chosen to forgo: a discussion, at Chiat's request, of why the agency wasn't being inundated with new business opportunities. The Advertising Age Agency of the Decade award had made everyone feel proud, but had yielded little. So far in 1990 Chiat/Day had participated in only one pitch, and had lost it. Southwest Airlines had just dismissed the agency from a pitch at the preliminary credentials stage, after hearing case studies intended to prove that Chiat/Day could handle the account. It was a slap in the face for an established agency with credits like Nissan and the Energizer Bunny, and a painful sign that something had gone terribly wrong. In the preceding eighteen months, the agency had five victories in six tries. The discrepancy was too stark to ignore.

The benign explanation, what everyone called "the prettiest girl in a school who doesn't have a date for the prom" theory, was that clients assumed Chiat/Day was too busy to bother with them. Wolf's less pleasant theory was that the agency still seemed a troublesome proposition to most clients. Whatever the cause, the agency had to do something to change the business community's mind - and if Clow had failed to participate in the defining the solution, he could hardly complain about what it would be.

Chiat, Clow, Wolf, Kuperman, Peppers and Coots crammed into Hardy and immediately began sparring. Peppers said he could have saved the Southwest presentation. Clow insisted that Southwestern was one of those inappropriate clients who was intimidated by a strong agency. "We can't wear a mask and pretend we're not," he said.

Kuperman believed that the agency had to convince prospective clients to go through an abbreviated version of the Chiat/Day process, including work sessions, so that they would understand and appreciate the agency's assets. Wolf cut him off: the issue, for new business, was first impressions. He wanted to talk to some of the consultants who orchestrated reviews for clients, to find out their opinions of the agency. He wanted to know specifically what he could do to improve the agency's reputation.

At that, they grew quiet. They were back to the fundamental issue: a Was there something wrong with Chiat/Day that needed to be corrected for the agency to grow, or would tampering undermine its considerable strength? Peppers had talked to a consultant in the Midwest who said that the agency's greatest asset was also its biggest weakness. "People believe they're playing with fire when they playing with Chiat/Day," Peppers reported. "If they're strong, they'll get brilliant advertising. If they aren't, they'll be run over."

They don't want to be beat up," said Chiat, reflectively.

Clow jumped. What people thought of as beating up clients was often just a case of the agency being smart.

"Some of the people at the agency do beat up clients," Chiat said.

"A roomful of smart people intimidates most companies," said Clow, resentfully.

Wolf thought that the agency suffered because of all the "baggage" it carried, after years of grandstanding.

"So what," snapped Chiat. "It's been out there for twenty-two years. We haven't done so bad." It was all right for Chiat himself to criticize his agency, but he was not about to let Wolf denigrate its past.

"You're being defensive," replied Wolf.

Peppers took that as an encouragement. "There's smart, and then there's arrogance," he said. "You're arrogant. You try not to be, but you are. The only thing worse is justified arrogance, and yours is justified."

"We probably don't even understand the arrogance in what we say," said Chiat.

"Self-confidence is arrogance to some people," Clow insisted.

"The baggage is not arrogance," said Wolf. "It's 'These guys are in it for themselves and not for you.' "

"That comes," Kuperman said, quietly, "with being a creative agency." He agreed with Wolf on the issue of small accounts, and he was eager for a big win, but there was an essential difference in their approach, born of Kuperman's history at Doyle Dane Bernbach and his enduring respect for Chiat and Clow. He wanted the wins, but not at the expense of the work. He was trying to make a place for himself, to string a tightrope between Wolf's ambition and Clow's dedication.

"The only answer," said Chiat, "is a handful of word-of-mouth clients saying it isn't true."

"But you've got clients saying it is," said Wolf. "Either they believe it, or they have to, because they fired the Agency of the Decade."

"How do you deal with it?" asked Chiat.

"You don't sit back and say, 'Fuck you,' " said Wolf. "It's public relations. We've got to tell the whole story; not just the creative awards, but how we improve business for our clients."

"We're the Donald Trump of advertising," said Peppers. "Everyone wants to take a shot at us."

Then Chiat delivered his diagnosis. What the agency needed; rather than another round of arguments about identity and goals, was simply a better pitch team. Wolf, Kuperman and Rob White had been "crackerjack," in his estimation, particularly with Clow along for the ride as the agency's mythic creative hero. The administrative shuffle had broken up that team: Wolf wasn't around enough, and Rabosky and the planner who often subbed for White were both rather reserved, straightforward men. It didn't matter if they said the same things Clow, Kuperman or White said. They lacked verve.

"How we used to win it," he said, "was, we liked each other at the pitch. "

"They saw our enthusiasms," agreed Clow.

"And now I think people don't like each other," said Chiat, his voice growing louder. "They're all adversaries. Our pitch teams haw gotten older. We're not enthusiastic. We're jaded. We're pitching. We don't seem hungry."

"Yeah," said Clow. "I was listening to Jay at Century 21 saying, 'We want the business,' thinking, 'That's the worst way to do this.'

"Pitch is theater," said Chiat. "You don't have a humble quiet guy unless you think the client will respond to that."

Histrionics were Chiat's way of reminding the others that he was still around, that this was still his agency. What was unnerving was the quiet complaint, the urgent instruction, issued without melodrama.

While he was in Venice, he met with chief financial officer Pete de Vaux and let him know the extent of his unhappiness. Corporate overhead was out of hand, and de Vaux was not making cuts quickly enough to suit him. He wanted to see changes, and he wanted to see them before the next round of board meetings. There was no room for dialogue, no heated invitation to respond, only the expectation of swift obedience.

Chiat/Day's June birthday celebration, organized by the Nissan account staff with its typically militaristic zeal, was the perfect escape valve for the agency's collective tensions a Tricycle Grand Prix that transformed the warehouse into a raceway and made it virtually impossible for anyone to avoid participating. A three-lane track ran down Main Street, out the front of the building, and back up to loop through the account services department and over toward Kuperman's office. The Fish became the Birthday Hospitality Tent, with VIP seating in front of it for June birthday celebrants and a bag of souvenir gifts on each seat: a "Nissan: Built for the Human Race" button, a sample of STP Sun of a Gun Protector, a VIP plastic badge, a program of the day's events and a racing flag. There was a grandstand directly across Main, complete with speakers pumping loud rock-'n'-roll, and a screaming master of ceremonies in a leather Harley-Davidson jumpsuit.

The relay teams lined up for the qualifying heats - the Radical Regional Racers from Nissan regional, High Heels on Wheels from the print production department, the Bean Counters from finance. Weinstein, in a wheelchair because of a skiing accident, was the pace car. The pit was in front of the grandstand. Refueling was essential to win the qualifying heat: each rider had to stop long enough to take a bite of a hot dog from a pit mechanic.

The senior executives rarely participated in the physical foolery of birthday parties, but they encouraged the others to play. Chiat, Kuperman, Wolf and Clow stood at the sidelines and cheered on the helmeted racers, who clambered onto their tricycles and set off, some pedaling with the outsides of their feet because their legs were too long to jackknife into the proper position, some falling off as they headed around a curve. The ones who survived received their hot dog snacks and pedaled off again, either carrying the food in their cheeks like chipmunks or spitting it onto the floor. As soon as a chunk landed, a big yellow dog, smuggled in for the afternoon and delirious at his good fortune, darted onto the raceway and ate up every bite.

There were certificates for the fastest driver, the best crash, the most pathetic driver, the most dangerous driver, and the best use of fashion footwear, which went to the High Heels on Wheels team, for having raced in spike heels. The grand prize was a small trophy, to a man from the MIS (management of information systems) department ] whose knee was bleeding from a spill.

It was as much an initiation into the culture as a birthday party. 1: Each month, another department tried to come up with a more outrageous idea for a party, to remind the employees that selfconsciousness had no place at Chiat/Day. The true hero was the one who surrendered to experience, who refused to let image stand in the way of a good time.

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