An open-ended question to those seeking fortune and fame

SPOILER ALERT: This is an ethical dilemma that I don’t have an answer for.
These images are scanned in from the book Advertising is Dead Long Live Advertising! by Tom Himpe. I was at Y&R Chicago when the team came up with this idea. 

Here’s the story as I remember it:

The agency had already developed two different poster campaigns for the Hard Rock Hotel in Chicago. The team thought it would be cool to do some guerilla advertising by having a glam-model with smeared lipstick walking around Chicago a few blocks away from the hotel in a HRH bathrobe, asking strangers if they knew the way to the hotel. The gist was this hotel let you party like a rock star, and this was just another starlet/groupie/guest who had partied a little too hard and was now just a bit lost.

So the team hires a model and a photographer and heads down to Michigan Avenue. I could be wrong, but think the plan was to be there just long enough to get some pictures and make it legit for the award shows.

While they’re down shooting, a camera crew from a local news station shows up and asks if they can cover the stunt. Serendipity, right? Well, as it turns out, the model doesn’t want to be on TV in a bathrobe looking like a skank. Can’t remember why. Maybe she was afraid her parents would see her. But the bigger concern is that the creative director has to call the client on his mobile phone and say, “Um, remember that idea we talked about? The one where the groupie/stripper would be on Michigan Avenue, asking people – yeah that’s the one. Well, we’re kind of shooting it right now, and there’s a camera crew from Channel 4 that wants to film it for the evening news. You cool with that?”

The spin on this was that the agency was taking photographs of the model to build the case for the client that it would be a good thing to do.

Ethically, you could say this should have never happened because the client didn’t give their approval. You could also argue that doing agency-produced work like this simply for award shows is a waste of time.

Professionally, you could point out that this campaign is now featured in one of the seminal books on ambient media and certainly doesn’t hurt to have that when you’re interviewing for a job or asking for a raise.

I’m not saying which is right, or for that matter which I’d choose. But work long enough in this industry, and you’ll probably have to answer that question yourself.

Avoiding Groupthink

Here’s a personal anecdote. Maybe you can learn something from it.

I once did work for a client that had very strict marketing guidelines. Most of them were very poorly thought out, in my opinion. All their print work had to include the following:

  • A key visual taken from the client library.
  • A frame on at least two sides of the key visual.
  • The frame had to be one of six pre-approved colors patterns.
  • Supporting copy in bullet points, just like these.

Very restrictive. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen an ad with bullet pointed copy in an awards show. (If you know of one, I’d love to see how they pulled it off.)

Every time we went to the client, we’d bring in ads that adhered to their guidelines, and some better ones that didn’t.

They’d usually appreciate the more creative ones. But they’d always fall back on their guidelines, because they were, after all, guidelines. (Emerson has some words about this.)

It became apparent that no matter how brilliant the idea, we weren’t going to do any award-winning print for them. Realizing this was pretty crushing. And I spent the better part of a morning researching other agencies I might work for.

But then I realized that their guidelines only applied to print. No one had written guidelines for ambient media. Or webisodes. Or PR stunts. Or bus wraps. Or a ton of other media they probably hadn’t considered and might benefit from.

Sometimes even the best clients and the most creative creatives get trapped in their own Groupthink. Where everything is done a certain way because it just is.

And sometimes coming up with a big idea is figuring out a better way to come up with a big idea.

Presenting Ambient Pieces

A guerilla piece (alternative, ambient, whatever you want to call it) has already become an essential part of any book worth reviewing. And for good reason.

But I see a wide variety of how those pieces are presented in student books. I’ve seen very good ideas presented very poorly. Some examples of common mistakes would be:

  • Overly and needlessly art directed boards.
  • Little / no / unclear explanation of what the piece is about.
  • Too much explanation of what the idea is about. It needs to be clear, but not belabored.

If you need clarification, look at how these types of ideas are presented in the annuals. Or pick up a copy of Advertising is Dead, Long Live Advertising. Or just write a sentence or two as if you were explaining the idea to your parents.