Fast Talk: Advertising Architects

Buzz-worthy campaigns turn ad-agency creatives into the cool kids of the moment. But behind every copywriter-cum–rock star is a courageous client. Meet the people who had the guts to greenlight this past year’s boldest advertising.


Judy L. Hu, 54

Executive director for advertising and branding
General Electric
Fairfield, Connecticut

“One Second Theater” (BBDO): The award-winning ecomagination commercial, “Singin’ in the Rain,” was transformed into a DVR experiment in which viewers could pause frames to get the Hollywood dirt on its dancing elephant star.


“I’m always challenging my agency people to come up with ideas they think I won’t want, or that they think I’ll think are too risky. Sometimes they are too risky for us, but the process still allows us to go further than we would have gone. In the 1950s, we sponsored a series of black-and-white TV programs that Ronald Reagan hosted, called General Electric Theater. A while back, we challenged our agency–whom we’ve been working with for 86 years–to come up with an idea that reinterpreted GE theater in a contemporary way. With DVRs, we also realized there was the potential for advertising in a new medium, and we wanted to figure out a way to engage people who were fast-forwarding through ads.

Our agency had been floating ideas for a couple of years, but nothing was really breakthrough or innovative. Then they came up with ‘One Second Theater.’ We could insert extra content into our very popular ecomagination spot that has an elephant dancing in the rainforest to Gene Kelly’s ‘Singin’ in the Rain.’ We loved the germ of the idea, but to be honest, the first couple of rounds they presented to us weren’t that funny. They were just what you’d expect from a company like GE. We wanted to do the unexpected, because we wanted people to wake up to the things we were doing that they were unaware of.

It took us a while to get to where we are, but we were able to finally hit the perfect tongue-in-cheek humor. There are 10 extra frames inserted into the spot, and DVR watchers can pause them to find such ridiculous things as ‘It was hard to imagine Elli [the elephant] ever recovering from… the peanut scandal.’ When you’re trying to do something new at any big company, there’s always going to be some amount of skepticism. But part of the new culture here is you can’t just sit back and do the same old.”


Kevin McSpadden, 40

Senior director, brand marketing
San Jose, California

“It” (BBDO): In this playful campaign, the everyday world interacts with “it”–the personification of everything from a skateboard to a designer dress.

“EBay has always been seen as an anti-retail way of shopping. The downside is that some people think of us for only the quirky or hard to find–not for practical things. We had to find a way to communicate our enormous inventory without getting too specific about any one type of product. We needed to find a metaphor that somehow represented everything without alienating anything.

The creative director at our agency is a copywriter by background, and he was just listening to how people talk. He kept hearing, ‘I’m going to eBay to get it.’ We would have meetings to discuss ideas for the new campaign, and he kept saying nonchalantly, ‘What if it was just a big “it”?’ We thought, ‘That’s kind of interesting,’ but we weren’t sure what to do with it, so we’d move on.


What we later realized is that it’s not just the word–it’s how you treat the word, how you bring it to life. Our agency presented us images of an ‘it’ in place of where an engagement ring or a steak would be, and you could start to see a commercial where people are interacting with the abstract object as if it were a thing. We all had the same gut reaction: We had just found lightning in a bottle. You get a little sweaty-palmed, your mind starts racing. There’s a little bit of anxiety, doubt, and fear, too, when it comes to doing something that’s so nonformulaic. That nervousness is important. It’s actually one of my gauges.

After the spots started running, people immediately started creating their own ‘it’ models and selling them on eBay–everything from ‘it’-molded earrings to a giant ‘it’ cake. For us, that’s the ultimate test–for our community to feel like they own it.”

Mary Ann Wilson, 50

Marketing communications manager
Auburn hills, Michigan

“The Art of the Heist” (McKinney-Silver): Audi staged a labyrinthine cross-country hunt for a new 2006 A3 “stolen” from its Park Avenue showroom. More than 500,000 people tracked the heist online and through live events, resulting in 10,000 dealer leads.


“We were faced with introducing a premium compact car [A3] to the U.S. market, a segment that no German manufacturer has ever succeeded in before. It wasn’t about coming up with something that would have the loudest voice, but the voice that would engage our customer, a well-established younger person with a high income.

There were some people in the company who couldn’t quite understand a three-month, real-time thriller that would take spontaneous plot twists and turns. I remember the marketing department had to educate people internally that gaming was now a bigger industry than the movie industry and we could use it as a tool to really engage our target audience. In situations like this, where it’s hard for people to wrap their heads around something so new, it’s important to give the business thinking behind it.

One of the scariest things about the entire campaign was whether people were really going to get into this. We had no guarantee. We became much more comfortable when we had barely seeded the heist, and we found there had already been six or seven Web sites set up to track it. There was this real frenzy. People were going to the dealership to see the broken window; they were taking their own photos and posting them on their Web sites. There was a giddy ‘Wow, it’s really happening’ excitement. But we needed to maintain a game face. In order for something like this to work, everyone at the company had to act as if the car had been stolen, to keep it as real as possible. The joke internally was that it would have been so much easier to do a few TV and print ads. But that wouldn’t have been nearly as rewarding.”


David Rubin, 35

North America brand development director
Chicago, Illinois

“The Gamekillers” (BBH): This multimedia campaign coaches dudes on how to pick up chicks without getting intercepted by one of 14 archetypal “gamekillers.”

“The thing with the young male consumer is you really need to do things he hasn’t seen before, both in terms of content and how you bring it to him. A couple of years ago, we did a campaign showing an anthropomorphized armpit getting all the women. To be honest, the armpit was pretty shocking–some people had violently happy reactions, others were not such fans. What we learned was that it’s the polarizing reaction that made the campaign so powerful, that really got people talking.

To drive growth for our Axe antiperspirant stick, our agency came back to us with the ‘gamekillers’–the idea that in the mating game, there are forces that work against you, and the way to beat them is to keep your cool. There are characters like Man Candy, the Mother Hen, and the Drama Queen. We reacted to it so strongly because they took a truth everybody knows about but gave new language for it. We knew it would work when we started showing people in our company, and the first thing they would start telling you about was a story of when their game was killed or what kind of gamekiller they were. I’m probably the One-Upper. And to be honest with you, I’ve played Sensitivo once or twice in my life.


Since the gamekillers is inherently a discussion-worthy topic, we wanted to make long-form entertainment that would seed the vernacular we’d created. In February, we did a one-hour half-reality, half-scripted unbranded TV show on MTV called The Gamekillers, and we also did a spoof lecture series with Mo Rocca on college campuses where he played a professor. In order to be successful with this audience, I have to take risks, so in some ways it alleviates the pressure because it’s an imperative.”

Diego Scotti, 32

VP of global advertising
American Express
New York, New York

“My Life. My Card: The Directors Series” (multiple): Legendary and precocious filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese, M. Night Shyamalan, and Wes Anderson, direct two-minute minifilms.

“We look to be associated with people of substance, whose success is based on real achievement, not just temporary success. Last year, when the Academy Awards and the Tribeca Film Festival were coming up, we got to thinking: ‘People want stories, so why don’t we bring some of the best storytellers in the industry and ask them to tell their story?’


So how do you get people like M. Night Shyamalan and Wes Anderson to play ball? It goes back to relationships. Not who you know, but your respect for their creative integrity. We never put a script in front of these people and said, ‘Here’s $20 million.’ We said, ‘We want you to write, produce, and act in a piece that tells a story about how your life is connected to American Express.’ Once they realize we’re serious about artistic integrity, that’s how we gain their trust and don’t have to pay them salaries that are millions and millions of dollars.

Authenticity is the thing consumers respond to the most. So if M. Night wants to tell a story that’s dark and introspective, or Wes’s is lighthearted and funny, it’s okay as long as it’s authentic. In my role, you sometimes need to exercise a lot of control; other times, you need to let all of the control go. In this type of collaborative process, I needed to relinquish enough control to let the alchemy happen. I needed to let the people who are specialists in each area do what they are great at, even if it is like a room with no walls and makes some people nervous.”

About the author

Danielle Sacks is an award-winning journalist and a former senior writer at Fast Company magazine. She's chronicled some of the most provocative people in business, with seven cover stories that included profiles on J.Crew's Jenna Lyons, Malcolm Gladwell, and Chelsea Clinton