Monday, September 15, 2014

"Ladies and Gentlemen, we are now beginning our descent into Taco Hell."

This week we're going to do something we've never done here at RoundSeventeen.

I'm going to tell of my adventures with America's leading purveyor of fast faux-Mexican food. But I'm going to do it four parts, because to compress it into one would simply not do the hi-jinx justice.

Keep in mind, this all happened in 2001, the year of our other great national tragedy. So this has absolutely no bearing on today's Taco Bell, its current marketing regime or their current ad agency, where I am sometimes employed on a freelance basis.

"We're not selling dog food!"

That was the battle cry from many Taco Bell franchisees in the spring of 2001. Methinks the owners and operators of Taco Bell doth protest a bit too much.

Nevertheless, the rank and file were tired of the Taco Bell chihuahua, Gidget, and the numerous catchphrases that digitally emanated from her mouth.

It isn't often that an ad agency (in this case, my alma mater Chiat/Day) produces a pop culture icon who appears in movies, TV shows, lunch boxes, coffee mugs and T-shirts, and generates millions of dollars in unforeseen merchandising.

It's even less common to have that same national advertiser request a 180 degree shift in direction and, in effect, demand the death of the goose that laid the Golden Egg. Or, the Chihuahua that deep-fried the Cheesy Gordita.

"Kill the dog!"

Had Jay Chiat still been at the helm, I'm sure he would have had some choice words for the khaki pants and polo shirted half wits in Irvine. Not only would he have resigned the account, the next day he would have pitched the talking chihuahua to the folks at Del Taco. And more advertising history would have been made.

But at this point Chiat/Day had been swallowed up by a holding company. And holding companies don't like to lose $200 million accounts. Those holding company yachts, private jets, 24 hour a day Town Car limos and discreet top shelf escort services don't pay for themselves.

While this drama was unfolding, our stock -- meaning my partner John Shirley and I -- was dropping faster than the hull of the Exxon Valdez.

The glow from our somewhat infamous ABC Yellow campaign had long faded. And though we were winning awards for our other client Earthlink, we weren't winning new subscribers.

Inside the agency walls, John and I weren't making friends. We were contrarian, combative, and uncompromising.  And spent a fair amount of time answering complaints via the HR department. In other words, we were being creatives.

And that's when it happened.

Not unlike the prisoner who gets that unwelcome and unexpected tap on the shoulder from the biggest, baddest triple murderer in Cell Block D.

"Hey you know that huge, obstinate dumbass client that hates the agency, hates the campaign, hates Playa Vista, hates this building, and hates the fact that they paid for the expensive art work in this building? 

They're yours now. 

You guys are the new Creative Directors on Taco Bell."

Tomorrow: One of the most embarrassing commercials ever produced at Chiat/Day. On my watch, I'm happy to add.


Anonymous said...

Okay revisionist history boy. Here are some actual facts. One, EarthLink subscriptions were increasing geometrically based on the work we did together -- so don't sell yourself short. Two, as a current Holding Company employee, I resent your characterization of us as jet-flying, limo-riding, teat-suckers. We work darn hard here at Ad Central.

glasgowdick said...

Point taken Claudia. But it's all about shading. Nuanced, literary shading, you know, my strong suit.