The Best and Worst of Shoptalk

Headshot of Tim Nudd


What Were They Thinking?

June 13, 1991: perhaps advertising’s most surreal night. The radio and print Clio Awards were scheduled, but what ensued was less an ad-award show than a tawdry circus, an event so grossly mismanaged that its trajectory from embarrassing to appalling seemed, in retrospect, almost destined – “beyond the beyond-o,” as Ruth Ayres of DDB Needham put it. The ceremony started late, was hosted largely by the caterer, featured presenters who (when they weren’t singing Irish lullabies) tried to guess the agency winners since they had no list, and was aborted when fevered, greedy ad types rushed the stage in a mad grab for Clios they hadn’t won. It was “like watching piranhas eat the flesh off a cow in the river,” said one attendee. Said another: “If anybody enters the Clios after this, they’ve got to be out of their minds.” Shoptalk gratuitously resurrects this sordid tale because it’s, well, good fun, but also to point out that the Clios did recover – the ship righted by the steady hand of VNU, also parent of Adweek.

… Speaking of asinine, if you’re over 35, you recall Dinkagate from 1987-88. The trouble began when Fallon in Minneapolis, then known as Fallon McElligott, got a letter from a feminist complaining of sexism in its ads. Charles Anderson, a partner in Fallon unit Duffy Design, shot back with what he later called a “tongue-in-cheek” letter that included a photo of a boy from the Dinka tribe in East Africa orally stimulating the backside of a cow to increase milk production. Anderson suggested the woman write to the Dinkas and put an end to that barbaric behavior as well. Pat Fallon and Tom McElligott later sent letters of their own: Fallon enclosed a map of Africa and offered to help pay the woman’s way there; McElligott sent a pith helmet and a mosquito net. The woman forwarded the letters to Fallon’s clients, and the scandal broke nationwide. The shop apologized, but it was too late to save the $8-12 million US West account.

… Remember Volvo’s 1990 “Monster Truck” spot out of Scali, McCabe, Sloves? The way Dean Stefanides, art director on the spot, tells it, Volvo came across footage of a monster-truck event in which a Volvo held up while other cars crumbled. SMS decided to stage a re-enactment. But the production company decided to reinforce the Volvos, just to make sure. The doctoring of the cars eventually came to light, costing SMS the $40 million account and Volvo hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines and untold amounts of consumer trust. Stefanides and his copywriter partner, Larry Hampel, survived the debacle (they went on to open their own agency), but the episode is a sore spot, even today. “Larry did it all. I had nothing to do with it,” jokes Stefanides.

Stupid Client Tricks

There’s no shortage of marketing ideas that are worthless and weak, but the category of idiotic marketing tricks can be divided into silly trends and silly clients. Of the former, renaming cities remains the worst fad of all. It started in 2000, when paid Halfway, Ore., to adopt its name. More surprising was the normally level-headed Jeff Manning’s attempt to get Biggs, Calif., to take the name “Got milk?” He was told to shove it. Then last month, PETA offered Rodeo, Calif., veggie burgers if it would take a less meaty name – and was also sent packing. Among clients, Taco Bell is the top offender. With its Mir promotion in March 2001, it set the standard for making grand-sounding promises while being in no danger of having to follow through on them. Compared with the 156-million-square-kilometer Pacific Ocean, the 15-by-15-foot target anchored off Australia was pretty small. The likelihood of Mir hitting it and earning every American a free taco was zero. This summer Taco Bell finally found a more appropriate promotion, when it offered a prize of a whole lot of free gas.

Hello, You’re Fired

Getting canned is bad enough. When it happens with little or no respect for decorum, it’s worse. From the long file of unceremonious dismissals, some high (low) points: Ken Olshan, who is Jewish, was ousted from New York’s Wells Rich Greene BDDP via fax on the eve of Rosh Hashana in 1995. David Page was recuperating at home from a serious water-skiing accident in 2000 when he got the call that his services would no longer be needed at TBWA\Chiat\Day in New York. And, famously, Tom McElligott was forced out of his own Minneapolis agency, McElligott, Wright, Morrison, White, while he was in Cannes to attend the International Advertising Festival in 1992. “When the cat’s away, the mice will play. I suspect this mouse has a Cockney accent,” McElligott said, referring to Tony Wright.

The ‘Truth’ Hurts

“Let me ask a question in order to give the illusion that I give a shit.” “John, can I pop by your office, say around 5-ish, to kiss your ass until it’s soda-cracker white?” “Awkward, uncomfortable drink with the client, anyone?” “I’d love to, but I have to go snort cocaine off a stripper’s tits.” “It’s going to be fun producing this blight on our culture.” “Look forward to sleeping with you.” The genius of Tim Hamilton’s Truth in Advertising, a satire of the ad business commissioned in 2000 for an award show sponsored by Marketing magazine in Canada, is in the brutal dialogue delivered in the cadences of everyday speech. “It’s all stuff we’ve pretty much seen or heard about,” Hamilton told Adweek. “A lot of it is about neuroses and everyday things. Your worst fears realized.”

When Good Spokespeople Go Bad

They seem like a good idea at the time – until they run afoul of the law or otherwise prove themselves not ready for prime time. Among the spokespeople who fell from grace, who turned out to be the worst hire?

a) Michael Jackson. Pepsi dumped the King of Pop in 1993 when he became the Prince of Painkillers.

b) Kobe Bryant. Sprite, Nutella and other brands ditched the L.A. Lakers star this summer when he was charged with sexual assault.

c) Ben Curtis. The Dude languished in jail for 16 hours and was dismissed by Dell after being charged with marijuana possession in February 2003.

d) Dan O’Brien. Five weeks before the 1992 Olympic Games, the star decathlete, one-half of Reebok’s “Dan and Dave” Olympics ad campaign, blew the pole vault in the U.S. Olympic trials and failed to qualify for the team.

e) Britney Spears. A constant and public fondness for Coke dashed her Pepsi endorsement deal in 2002.

f) Madonna. Take your pick.

g) Clara Peller. Her Wendy’s campaign was hardly a failure, but the fast-food chain was forced to fire the “Where’s the beef?” octogenarian when she appeared in a Prego Plus spaghetti sauce ad saying, “I found it!”

Losing by Religion

It’s dangerous to mock people’s beliefs, because you can be tortured and destroyed. But 2001 was a banner year for marketing that pushed religious buttons. Wasatch Beers peeved Mormons in Utah with its Polygamy Porter brew (“Why have just one?”). The Church of Satan gave Apple’s lawyers fits with its “Think different” parody showing church founder Anton LaVey. But the award for least subtle religious slam went to Larry Weathers, a barber in Oregon, who incensed Catholics by putting up a billboard that blared: “The Pope Is the Antichrist.” Tell us what you really think.

Trials by Fire

For a while there, it seemed marketing managers at fast-food companies were getting sadistic to motivate their minions. In October 2001, some Burger King execs, fresh off the invigorating task of firing McCann-Erickson, were injured in a hot-coal-walking incident at a motivational workshop. Then, six months later, almost the exact same thing happened to a KFC team. It’s been quiet since, suggesting maybe there are better ways to improve fast-food morale than getting your people to become one with the cooking process.

Memo to Agencies: Keep That Internal Correspondence Coming

Live, uncensored airing of dirty laundry. What’s not to love about internal agency memos? Here are a few of our favorites we obtained over the years.

4) ‘This policy of constant creative shootouts is reminiscent in effect and tonality of the Spanish Inquisition.’ – Andy Berlin of DDB Needham on Bristol-Myers Squibb’s request for other shops to compete for an assignment (September 1992)

3) ‘Like a bird that has died in midflight, our creative product has fallen to Earth with a plop, lifeless.’ – Rick Fizdale, board member of Leo Burnett, railing against the shop’s ‘insipid,’ ‘smarmy’ work (March 2001)

2) ‘Reported rumors of this kind are often planted to make us look like arrogant, self-indulgent assholes. So please don’t be a participant or contributor.’ – Laurie Coots of TBWA\Chiat\Day, telling staffers not to leak memos to reporters who are ‘circling like sharks.’ Naturally, this memo was itself immediately leaked (July 2001)

1) ‘I am concerned for the person or people who feel it necessary to light up at such an hour. This is not good for you – in either a personal or a professional sense.’ – Jeff Goodby of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, reminding staffers not to smoke marijuana in the office at 10 a.m., particularly when a client is visiting (October 2001)

Tales From the Shoot

Things go wrong on set. An actor flubs his lines. The lighting’s not right. But to avoid having a very bad day at the office, follow these basic rules: Do not let your 25-year-old pop star get too close to the pyrotechnics. Michael Jackson and Pepsi learned that in January 1984. Do not schedule your shoot so your 21-year-old pop star has to sing in a residential area of Los Angeles at 4 a.m. You might find, as Britney Spears reportedly did in March 2000, buckets of urine raining down upon you. (The client was not revealed, but we have a sneaking suspicion this was Pepsi, too.) And most important, do not drop a half-ton crane on a treasured sun clock at Machu Picchu, the fabled lost city of the Incas in Peru. A production company shooting a beer spot for J. Walter Thompson’s Lima office did just that in September 2000. JWT apologized, pledged to fix the damage and emphasized its (and the client’s) respect for and love of local traditions and treasures. Which brings to mind the old question: With friends like these, who needs enemies?

@nudd Tim Nudd is a former creative editor of Adweek.