Commercially Disappointing

Every story should have somebody to root for. Except, well, this story’s about advertising.

Illustration by Ward Sutton

“Why do you hate me, Bob?” That’s Dave. A client. More expansively, a client of the ad agency I work for. I’ve never spoken with Dave on the phone before, only in person, always at Star 64, the TV station where he’s the general manager. The fact that he’s calling me, the creative director and copywriter on his business, rather than Mike, his account exec—the agency co-owner, a.k.a. my boss—bodes ill. That he’s doing so as I walk through my office door at 8:30 Monday morning bodes iller. That in answer to my “Hello” he’s accused me in a flat, cold voice of hating him bodes terminal cancer.

“I don’t hate you, Dave,” I reply instinctively, self-preservationally, because that’s what a normal, reasonable person says to such a loaded question, even if it’s Hitler calling. Also, as a word guy, I value precision. I don’t hate Dave, I simply have no respect for him. Which, take my word for it, is not an atypical or insurmountable sentiment in this job. A certain amount of (unspoken, un-middle-fingered) disdain and antagonism is business as usual in advertising. The unavoidable chafe of creativity and commerce, audacity and caution. For his part, Dave, up until this ante-upping phone call, seemed to regard me as an arrogant, uncooperative jackass, also not atypical or insurmountable. That neither of us has, until this moment, let our reciprocal distaste derail a productive working relationship is a credit to our professionalism and mutual exploitation. Without such self-restraint, capitalism breaks down and we’re all doomed to the chaos of honesty.

Since winning the business about 18 months ago (about the time the station was rebranding from plain old Channel 64 to shiny object Star 64), the workload’s been bruising. They need a buttload of ads—so far, more than 160 radio and 200 print ads, most for their prime time movie, a five-night-a-week crapstravaganza of third-rate, fourth-run action excreta targeting young men. And I’m up to my duodenum in every facet and phase of them—concepting, writing, overseeing the art on print, going into the studio to do radio, all wedged between enough meetings, internal and external, to choke a middle-management horse.

I know: “Boo-hoo-hoo, poor little ad-boy, such grueling, backbreaking labor he could, potentially, if his office weren’t air-conditioned and his ergonomic chair made with breathable, synthetic mesh, lightly perspire. And all in the service of releasing into the world more unwanted, irrelevant intrusions into my already over-marketed-to life. So sorry for your suffering and thanks a million, asshole.” Which, OK, I guess I deserve that. Though maybe, on a good day, only 99.9 percent deserve.

The grounds for this would-be .1 percent redemption? Well, without getting bogged down in advertising’s bottomless pit of specious truisms, strategic assumptions, subjective objectivity, behavioral trendications, psychographic id-mining™, and/or other emerging neo-obfuscating wordclusters and gobbledyguistics, it boils down to this: Every once in a lingering while an ad resonates, clicks, inexplicably transcends its purpose (lying huckster) and becomes welcome (or not unwelcome) in our lives. Typically, such an ad is funny, a bit peculiar and—critically—doesn’t sell too hard, too overtly. (Some examples from the era of which I write: FedEx’s fast talker, Bartles & Jaymes, Spike Lee and Michael Jordan for Nike.) The takeaway is entertainment rather than infringement, goodwill rather than bad blood.

And that’s the ad I’m trying to create for Star 64. Every time. All 360 and counting. One that people—not customers or consumers or end users or the target demo—will laugh at, listen to, or look at freely (or worst case, ungrudgingly) with, hopefully, any residual, post-exposure positivity accruing to the party responsible, i.e., the station. Not exactly ministering to the sick, I get it, but it’s not unleashing another payday loan campaign on the city, either. You’re welcome.

Click to hear some of Star 64’s advertisements:

Murphy’s Law advertisement; Lee Cooley, talent

American Ninja 2 advertisement; Tom Walker, talent 

The Quiet Man advertisement; Tom Sapp, talent

Now the fact that Dave (with support from his promotions manager, Phil, and director of programming, Jill) bought this kreativ-über-alles strategy was pleasantly unexpected but also practical. Unexpected because the spec work we presented was high-concept, irreverent humor, each spot a comic one-off as opposed to a traditional, unified campaign—immersive, theater of the mind stuff that emulated (or at least aspired to) the absurdity and cheekiness of Firesign Theatre, Stan Freberg, The Goon Show, all the audio alchemists I’d discovered in my teens and was still in awe of. Practical because when a station’s primetime schedule has been known to score 0.0 ratings: a) there’s nothing to lose; and b) it’s time to get people’s goddamn attention.

But if Dave bought our bill of goods, he also sold us a pig in a poke. Because he astutely withheld the magnitude of the workflow we’d be swept up in and was cagily vague about his budget. That info came to light in the weeks following, after he and Mike had agreed to a deal. Which is not to imply that full disclosure up front would’ve queered things. Not at all. Opportunities to do this kind of “good work” (an industry euphemism for “ads I’m not ashamed to admit my involvement in”) come along too rarely in this business. This was as close as it gets in advertising to doing something principled.

My interaction with Dave goes in spurts, the frequency spiking around ratings sweeps months (February, May, July, and November). During those periods, Mike and I schlep out to the station for as many as four meetings in five weeks to “go over the creative.” That is, for me to present and the Star 64 team (Dave, Phil, and Jill) to approve a new batch of six or seven radio scripts and an equal number of print ad layouts. We gather in an undersized, airless conference room containing an oversized, wood grain non-wood conference table and a collection of mismatched office chairs. No art hangs on the walls. A dormant TV atop a high metal stand casts its Cyclopean gaze on the proceedings. The overall atmosphere is of a hospice for comedy.

Dave always comes in last, planting himself, no matter where the rest of us are sitting, at the head of the table. He’s in his late 30s, tall and lanky, with short hair the color of an old penny and a pallor that could get him into the Vampire Guild. His style is strictly suit and tie but, for these little tête-à-têtes, he removes his jacket and deliberately hangs it on the back of his chair, as I imagine a hotheaded dandy might before a bar fight. He has an open, youthful face and largish, tortoise-shell glasses that help him bring an individual’s vulnerabilities into focus. Occasionally, he flashes a smile, but it almost seems scheduled, as if he’s grinning with an agenda.

After a few pleasantries, it’s down to business. The next 90 minutes unfolds as follows:

  • Anticipating the points below, we restate the original creative strategy
  • I perform the scripts
  • After each one, Dave voices concern: Is that even funny? I don’t think people will get it. We can’t say that. Can we say that? Somebody could take that the wrong way. What’s that spot have to do with the movie? Is the movie mentioned enough?
  • I re-restate the original creative strategy
  • I defend the spot, turning to Mike for back-up, and to Jill and Phil if one of them laughed when the script was read
  • Dave’s not convinced
  • Dave has doubts
  • Dave suggests some lame idea
  • Dave suggests killing the funniest line
  • It’s determined there’s not enough time to write and produce a new spot before the movie airs
  • Dave reluctantly goes along with the general consensus
  • We repeat the process with print

It is, in other words, a recurring fight. One disguised as a civilized, nothing-personal discussion of divergent humorous sensibilities, yes, but a fight all the same. Crazy thing is, the result’s always the same: We leave the station with 99 percent of what I’ve written intact. So what’s the point? Why does he do it? Why does the process require this elective pain? Also, if I can’t answer these questions, does it mean I’m losing?

And yet. This account has been a gift. For one thing, the sheer volume of work has made me a better writer. For another, the commitment to do stand-alone ads has pushed me creatively, obligated and provided me the freedom to explore and experiment, to jump from satire to slapstick, parody to wordplay, topical to conceptual. And then there’s the less abstract, less internal, best gift: radio production. Because the days I spend doing that are—don’t let this get back to Dave—pure joy.

It starts with the talent. Each recording session we bring in the same core group: four men, two women. Versatile, smart, game, quick-witted actors who don’t just take direction but intuitively elevate it through interpretation and improvisation, by discovering something new—a nuance or quirk that’s not on the page, an angle that ups the funny—making every spot better than it’s written.

Just as indispensable is John, the audio engineer. A contributor of the highest order. Impeccable technical skills, absolutely, but more important to the mission, an independent yet simpatico sense of humor; sharp suggestions; frank, cogent opinions; and a pride of craft and confidence that’s contagious. It’s John who keeps the impetuosity and inanity at productive levels over the two days it takes us to turn a batch of approved scripts into finished spots.

Rounding out the room are Michel, the agency producer, who’s booked the studio and the talent; Phil, the station’s emissary, who, in light of his agreeing with every decision the rest of us make on the fly, I’m beginning to suspect is a victim of Advertising Stockholm Syndrome; and me.

None of which gets at the aforementioned joy. A joy born of the collective effort of 10 people in a room all trying to make something, the same something, funny. Then funnier. Then topping it. A joy that suffuses the process and that the process, defying physics, multiplies. The upshot being flow, submersion, absorption, a creative ecosystem where instinct trumps analysis and I can slip my bespoke bonds of doubt, anxiety, and insecurity. This, in turn, produces a by-product: a spontaneous, free-form, uninhibited 16-hour (mental) gag reel, two eight-hour days of tearful, hysterical laughter, my smile literally aching from overuse. It’s as much fun as I’ve ever had at work, and ever expect to have.

Oh, there’s also the finished product. The spots. Often, by the time they’re done, they’ll still make me laugh; if I’m lucky, a couple may even make me happy. So there’s that.

Now excuse me while I slip back into my bonds.

Have I mentioned the radio ads only run one day each? Yeah. When the movie airs at 9 p.m., the spot’s obsolete. Gone. Apparently, they’re being heard, though. By some, definitely. By others, debatably.

Deejays aren’t just playing them, they’re talking them up, commenting on them after they air. In my experience, rare.

The Cincinnati press is writing stuff about them. Some national trade pubs, too. With our print ads running as part of the stories. Read: free media.

The campaign, both radio and print, is doing well in local competitions and major New York ad shows. Winning awards gets coverage and burnishes the station’s image.

Hugestly, however, ratings and viewership are up. Way up. Where once household and share data were at or near zero, there are now integers. Modest integers, true, but integers—quantifiable movement and improvement—nonetheless.

However: Dave’s of the opinion he’s responsible for the uptick. That it’s because he’s airing better movies (I’ll concede Gone With the Wind is several steps up from Amityville 3-D but, as I’ve discussed with Mike, 1) GWTW is still over 50 years old; and 2) a good Charles Bronson movie is still a Charles Bronson movie). Also, more often and adamantly, he attributes it to the monstrously gigantic, gigantically monstrous new antenna he’s recently put up and which beams into thousands more households in previously unbeamable nooks and counties. And he’s right. It’s just a question of whether he’s 100 percent right.

I see no point in quibbling, though. There’s enough good news to go around. Just not indefinitely.

My phone conversation with Dave is brief. In the end, he’s not convinced I don’t hate him. I did, however, ferret out why he thinks I do: The Cincinnati Post ran a story over the weekend about the writer “behind the Star 64 campaign.” Me. In it I was quoted saying I didn’t watch the station’s movies because I can’t get the station at my house (due to its location near the base of a steep hill). To Dave, brazenly announcing to the world that I don’t watch his bullshit movies is bad enough, but saying the waves from his brand new antenna don’t have the power to explode a lead television in an underground house in Adams County is unforgivable. He’s sure my intent was to humiliate and disgrace him.

Believe me, I’m not that smart or cunning. But Dave? Well.

Here’s the thing: The spots we’re doing come with headaches. His regular disagreements with my dickish diva self, I’ve mentioned. The occasional angry calls to the station from people hacked off by some ad or other, I haven’t. But those are minor issues compared to this late-breaking nugget: Star 64’s ratings are now of sufficient bulk that deep-pocketed advertisers (national fast food chains, packaged goods brands and the like) are looking to buy time with them. Except those conservative companies don’t like associating with irreverent or provocative or angry-phone-call-inspiring controversy. Soooo, Dave is cleverly brandishing the Post piece to chasten me and rattle the agency, using his displeasure to bring us into line and dial down the edgy. In the process, he keeps his bargain price ad mill on the job while making the station McDonald’s- and P&G-friendly.

It only sounds paranoid to somebody with no imagination.

Epilogue: In the wake of Dave’s call, I thought it best to recuse myself from the account and forfeit my joy. He didn’t object. A new hire, a junior copywriter, was assigned to Star 64, the workload slashed, the funny slashed further. Within three months, the account was gone. Within six, I’d left the agency. About a year later, I heard Dave had left the station and TV altogether to become a pastor in northern Ohio. Ready, I guess, for higher stakes fights.

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