Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Two Biggest Flops in My Career

It was the best of times.
It was the worst of times.
I don't know how Dickens could have been so prescient, but he certainly pegged 1998 with surprising accuracy.

My Art Director, John Shirley and I, had just come off the whirlwind success of the ABC "Yellow" campaign. We had never experienced anything like it in our lives. Rolling Stone was writing about it, Bill Maher was talking about it, and pundits were buzzing about it.

Naturally folks back at the agency, Chiat/Day, were happy about all this free press. And for one fleeting moment in time, Shirley and I were unofficially named the unofficial creative Flavors of the Month. The Golden Boys, as it were.

But that Dickens fellow sure knew what he we was talking about.
When things seem too good to be true, they often are.

In February of 1998, something was amiss at the NY office. And when I say amiss, I mean a Vietnam War era, surrounded-by-Charlie, lost-in-the-jungle clusterfuck. A young creative team was about to go into production on a series of three new commercials. But a week before the shoot, the client, Outback Steakhouse,  decided they weren't happy with the concepts.

That's when Lee Clow, the legendary Chiat/Day Creative Director, came into our office. He asked us to stop polishing our awards, get on a private jet and fly down with him to Tampa to fix the mess.

The dismissive and disrespectful CMO and her fresh-out-of-college assistants ignored all our sage advice.

They wanted a spot with hot twenty year olds, frolicking on a beach, eating steak, shrimp and Bloomin' Onions. Nevermind that the Australian Outback is a vast desert inhabited by Aborigines. And that their "food" is served in a restaurant, usually in a strip mall and not on some non-existent beach populated by the rainbow coalition.

There's so much cognitive dissonance going on here, it could only make sense to people who choose to live year round in the Florida heat.

Oh and one last thing. The spots had to include the Outback Steakhouse jingle. That's right, I said jingle.

Flash forward a month after all the beach frolicking and onion blooming had been meticulously committed to film and my partner and I are in NY, at 57th and 5th Ave, at one of the premier jingle houses in the advertising business.

We laid down the first track (I can't believe I even wrote that) and not knowing anything about jingles, we mistakenly thought it sounded OK. So we corralled Lee Clow back in LA, on the phone and played it for him.

It wasn't right. Of course, having zero experience with jingles, how were Shirley and I to know what right was.

Lee didn't like it. So he did what could only be described as the unthinkable, he grabbed the phone and sang the jingle the way he wanted it sung. There are but a handful of creatives in this industry who have heard Lee Clow sing a jingle. John Shirley and I are two of them.

That experience made up for all the pain and suffering we went through for what I am about to share.
I think.

By the way, finding these two spots, made before the age of digital storage, was no simple task. It has taken me over two years to track them down.

And now I can't stop looking at them.
It's like when you have a stinging abscess in your mouth and you keep rubbing your tongue over it until your brain produces dopamine.

Mmmmmm, dopamine.


Unknown said...

hey rich, if these are your two biggest flops, you did ok. these aren't so bad. i think my biggest flop was a frozen pizza commercial i did with my still-friend and art director John D'Asto when we were both at Zechman in Chicago, a small boutique. believe me, i can no longer find the film, but i remember it. the idea was we'd get a pizza dough spinner --someone who really knew how to through dough, almost an artist in that area-- and he'd throw it up and catch it, throw it up and catch it, throw it up and this time throw it so high it went out of frame and when it came back down, it wasn't the dough. No, sir. It was a giant block of ice that fell on the dough thrower, encasing him in ice. Which in production did not exactly look like that. im not sure what exactly it did look like other than odd. but the idea was that this block of ice that suddenly encases a master dough thrower represented a frozen pizza that's really fresh. (Follow me?) then we cut away to a pizza shot, a package shot and the logo. but as long we were really trying to be creative, we put in so many bizarre visual treatments over the package shot, and odd, jarring musical notes that the end-result was, well, confusing. at least your outback spots delivered on what the client wanted. and they were clear. and you got to shoot attractive women in skimpy beach ware. John D'Asto and I just got a trip to Toronto in the winter and a spot that is still my post peculiar.

Bob said...

They're only bad if they're on your reel.

Unknown said...

If only you were able to work in the nudity.

Unknown said...

Ball playing. Check. Dogs. Check. Loud music, Open fires, swimming. Check, check, check. If only you had been able to deliver the nudity.

Rich Siegel said...

I'm sorry Steve that pizza spot actually sounds good. But I appreciate sentiment. Let's just all agree to bask in the bad-worthiness these spots.

To paraphrase the folks at Weiden, "If you're gonna fail, fail big."

Mission accomplished.

bernieodowd said...

At least you got a trip to Australia out of it... er, I mean Malibu. I made salads at the Outback for two years. Good times.

Gary Holme said...

I'm looking at this post, Rich, and dreading the day you write something about us working together at the pretend ad agency we both started at, JWT/Thompson Recruitment Advertising. God knows there were horror stories there. If you ever run out of interesting things to write about and have to dredge up some embarrassing crap about that dark period in our careers, please be kind. Then again, it doesn't really matter. Lee Clow approved a client-mandated idea and a jingle.

Rich Siegel said...

@Gary. If you were to comb through the 800 or so entries in here, I'm sure you'd find story about those dark days.

It should be noted however that your dread is completely unwarranted, as this blog is simply not read by any significant number of people.

Maybe when I retire from the biz and write my tell-all book, it will be a different story. Tentative title for the book: Burning Bridges.

gl said...

Huh. I thought the whole, "but I was just following orders" defense went out with the Nuremberg Trials.

Rich Siegel said...

@gl. Not so. If you're looking for longevity in the ad business sometimes you just have to be the 'good soldier.'

Or as I have heard from many a scornful HR director, "Rich, you have learn to pick your battles."