A major player in some of the biggest commercial campaigns in the last 25 years shares his experiences on one of the biggest: the Max Headroom campaign for Coca-Cola. They're lessons you can learn too.
The biggest challenge for creative people is rarely coming up with an idea. There are days when ideas seem to flow like water, as if there will be no end to them. The problem is keeping the idea pure in its voyage from cocktail napkin to completion.
If an agency account staff is good, they'll keep the client disciplined: simple goals, simple messages. Problems come when the client insists on multiple key messages in a single commercial.
In my experience, a 30-second spot can only make one point strongly. If the client wants to make more than one point, insist on multiple commercials.
With ideas on paper, it's time to show them to the creative director. If she's good, she'll suggest changes that make the project stronger. It she's not so good, she'll change it just to make her mark on it - if she doesn't just kill it outright.
Of course, the account staff will want to have a say as well. They typically end up in the more conservative camp. But some of them understand that a really new, breakthrough idea - while much harder to sell - is to the client's advantage.
The last time I worked with one of these account executives, I was so impressed with her work that I married her.
THE PERFECT "SPOKESHEAD"
Sometimes, the solutions to huge problems are serendipitous.
The mid-80s Pepsi Challenge was calling out Coke by name and it was having a big effect. Coke responded in 1985 by changing its original formula, to a huge backlash.
On the plus side, this proved the old adage that any publicity is good publicity: Coke got billions of dollars of exposure from real people defending the core value of the Coke brand with their protests. Coke now knew that they had a genuine foundation to build on.
It also afforded us an opportunity at the McCann- Erickson agency in New York. We could make New Coke the "predator" brand taking potshots at Pepsi, while Coke "Classic" floated above the fray. We could bring down the value of Pepsi's fight at the same time: we're not going to respond to you with our "real" brand. Duke it out with our accidental brand.
But Pepsi's additional challenge to Coke was their young and hip image. How could Coke possibly respond to that?
At about this time we received a tape from London. It was a one-hour made for TV movie that had aired in the U.K., featuring an odd character named Max Headroom, an animated-human hybrid who lived in a television set. This was cool with a capital "C." Max was the perfect "spokeshead" for New Coke. The only question was what to do with him.
THE STAGE OF INNOCENCE
At this stage ideas are at their best. They're re innocent and pure. The criticisms haven't started yet. Amazingly, Max sailed through the initial stages of development untouched. Even the client loved it.
This was an exception. What often happens, especially in larger agencies, is the dreaded "gang bang," where multiple teams generate reams of ideas from which 5 or 10 are selected for presentation to the client. These ideas are culled down to 3 or 4 to be submitted for...
Max Headroom: Not a computer to be found
Everyone thought that Max was computer generated, but computers couldn't do that in 1986. In reality our actor, Matt Frewer, had to spend hours every day having makeup and prosthetics applied to him, including plastic hair and shiny chest piece.
He was then shot on greenscreen, the video was squashed in the Ampex ADO effects box, and the moving graphics were composited into the background in the switcher.
Some video editing (linear, of course) introduced his unique "scratch" effect, complemented with audio effects. Finally, the whole thing was output to a monitor and reshot on set with live actors. Not a computer to be found.
The very word still sends chills down the spine. Your work is shown to a panel of people supposedly representative of your target audience: the infamous focus group.
I've actually had a finished campaign killed by testing. In the late 80s I worked on a campaign intended to replace the venerable "Blues" campaign for Levi's 501 jeans, working with David Fincher.
Before directing movies such as "Se7en" and "Fight Club," David directed dozens of distinctive music videos. A short list includes "Express Yourself" and "Vogue" for Madonna, Don Henley's "End of the Innocence," Aerosmith's "Janie's Got a Gun," and Billy Idol's "Rock the Cradle of Love."
Our internal research team discovered that jeans equaled youth in the minds of enough people that it became the focus of the new campaign: "Wear `Em As Long As You Can," as in "preserve your youth as long as you can" - the kind of energy that was exactly why we chose David to do our commercials.
We shot 20 of the darn things. Several focus groups were run on them and the comments were negative. The focus group didn't understand them. "I don't get it" is what focus groups usually say.
Politics also played into it. The "Blues" 501 campaign had been so successful that the creative director decided to return to it. These converging forces meant that the new campaign never had a chance.
Although the creative director apologized to me years later for killing the campaign, I learned a valuable lesson: the more successful a campaign, the harder it is to follow it up. The campaign you want to do is the campaign after the campaign after the campaign. The bar is lowered and you have a chance to succeed.
Of course, none of the most successful campaigns I worked on - like Max Headroom for Coke or the Saturn "Launch" campaign - were subjected to testing. The client trusted the agency's vision and - just as importantly - their own.
British director Barry Myers told me that he saw his job as getting back to the original idea in its purest form and shooting that. The problem can be that after fighting for so long, nobody remembers that first idea.
After poring over reels and long discussion, we brought in another British director for New Coke's Max Headroom campaign: Ridley Scott. He'd just completed the "1984" Apple spot for Chiat/Day, on the heels of finishing "Blade Runner."
Our creative director insisted that everything have a "Spielberg" look and feel. The 80s were huge for Spielberg: Indiana Jones, "Amazing Stories," "The Color Purple," and of course "E.T." The creative director was sure that the right place for Max Headroom was Spielberg's suburbia.
I brought a book to our first meeting with Ridley called "Dead Tech," full of pictures of decaying industrial and military installations. Ridley's eyes lit up, and there was no more talk of happy suburban environments after that. The dystopian vision of the original Max Headroom movie would guide our commercials.
The creative director probably hasn't forgiven me to this day.
A final note about the New Coke campaign with Max Headroom and Ridley Scott: my next job was for BBDO, one of the world's leading advertising agencies
- working for Pepsi!
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PARTING THOUGHTS: Free to be creative
My background is art, so it made sense that I wound up as a creative director. But I wanted to be a commercial director. We all did back then. In fact, we all wanted to be Ridley Scott.
The problem is the idea of authorship. The author of a film is usually the director. For a major commercial, the author is the agency. The director is there to provide the "look." Even though I was able to complete 60 or 70 commercials in the next few years, I always heard, "Nice idea. Now shoot what we told you." It felt like the world's highest-paying blue collar job. I returned to agency life, where I pushed the new agency to get its own in-house editing system. I'd taught myself Final Cut, along with software like After Effects and Pro Tools. When I left the agency for good, I set up my own shop producing and editing with these tools.
I also do commercials and events, but I find that I especially enjoy corporate work. It offers the longest relationship with the client, and the most creative input. That's really the trade-off, isn't it? Agency work pays more, but it's less creative. I now get paid less, but have more creative input. I prefer the creative input!
Arthur Vibert Marin County, California USA
Arthur Vibert has been, at various times, an advertising creative director, commercial director, video editor, motion graphics designer and visual effects artist. He was half the team that created the Max Headroom campaign for Coca-Cola, as well as creating work for BMW, Levi's, and Sears, just to name a few. He currently lives in Marin County, California, but has also lived in London, Chicago and New York. He shares his home with a wife, a son, a dog, two cats and two birds. You'll find him most often in the Cow's AE forum, followed by FCP, Cinema 4D, Art of the Edit, and Demo Reels.
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