Curiously Strange

True story: A few weeks into the launch of the Altoids campaign an account guy runs into my office. He’s breathless. “People are cutting down the posters and taking them! What do we do?” I look at him and smile. “Get down on your knees and praise God,” I said. “Because that shit never happens. Nobody steals ads.”

Fade to black. Twelve years later. I open my bookmark to Adweek. The story: Altoids is leaving Burnett. I am hit with many feelings and, to be honest, not all of them are good. But the better part of me fills with gratitude, for this was an account (and an agency) that blessed me forever. I’m proud too, because the senior vice president of brand integration at Riney, where the business is heading, was once by my side. Nice going, Jamie. You cheeky bastard!

I don’t work on Altoids anymore, or at Leo Burnett, so why am I floored by this news? Accounts change agencies all the time. But the agency and client involved in this story changed my life.

Twelve years ago, our creative director marched into my partner’s office with a vaguely familiar package and an ultimatum from Kraft: “Use it or lose it,” she said, referring to the red and white tin, which she plopped upon our communal desk. She was paraphrasing the client, who had assumed responsibility for Altoids as part of the acquisition of its parent company. Kraft didn’t have a plan for the obscure peppermint and so they challenged their roster agencies to come up with one. “They don’t want to spend much time on this,” our boss said, “nor money.”

We did it anyway.

The following year Altoids received a Kelly Award for best print campaign in North America. Among the group of finalists were my brother and father, two men on any other day more talented than I. It was like winning a gold at the Olympics, with silver and bronze going to my immediate family! In a cynical business, often rife with schadenfreude, here was a moment that wasn’t.

Altoids and Burnett would win the Kelly Award again, last year as a matter of fact. Some of the most talented people in this business picked up where we left off. They don’t deserve to lose this business. Not after the Lions. Not after repeat Kelly Awards. Creatively and financially, Altoids was a mind-boggling phenomenon, insinuating itself into America’s briefcases, glove compartments and pop culture.

Personally, Altoids granted me something even more precious: I got to breathe the same air as my idols. Indeed, not long after we put up our first set of posters, the phone rang, and it was Lee Clow. At the time, I thought I was being had. I hung up on him! Needless to say, the phone began ringing a lot.

With our work for Altoids, we delivered maximum impact for minimum dollars, a promise I now try and make (and keep) for every one of my clients. Altoids became an incubator for that new buzzword: integration. I don’t mean to debunk the fine print on the official case study, but more than any insight it was budgets (or lack thereof) that predicated all those down and dirty solutions for Altoids. Necessity is the mother of integration. You can bank on it. Altoids sure has. “Curiously strong” was and is the best strategy and piece of copy I’ve ever known. The smartest thing I did as original copywriter on Altoids was not to write an original tag. I used a line that was over 100 years old!

So why write this note—I mean, really? Could it be that when I read the headline in Adweek, it not only closed the book on a case study for the ages but on the most supercalifragilistic chapter in my professional career? Doubtful I will ever see the likes of Altoids again. Most of us never do.

There is no better way to end than with credits. There are precious few, but they are precious. First and foremost belongs to my partner and my friend, Mark Faulkner. It was his campaign for Altoids. I merely wrote the copy. And how about photographer Tony D’Orio? He made just about every photograph ever made for Altoids and continues to do so today. Jamie King was the best account guy Altoids ever had. Or should I say has? The client I remember most is Chris Peddy. Thank you for never subjecting us to a focus group! Noel Haan and Andrew Meyer took over the account from Mark and me. And that is precisely what they did. You guys rock. I was at Burnett for 10 years before crafting the Altoids campaign. And there is no finer place to learn my craft than Burnett. Altoids is proof. And I am forever grateful to them both.

Publish date: January 15, 2007 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT