Part 3 of a 6 part serial from Lou Aronica and The Story Plant.
The Creative Shop is a smallish agency (our president, Ron Isaacs, likes to call it “the biggest of the small agencies”) that treats its staff like children. I mean this in the most complimentary way. Though I’ve never been privy to the planning sessions that guide the overall direction of the firm, it’s obvious that the intention is to generate a playground atmosphere in the hopes that its mostly young staff will flourish. Cartoon and comic book characters adorn the walls, the break room includes arcade games and a stereo system playing everything from James Brown to the Rolling Stones to fun. to Jay-Z, and we’re actually encouraged to download whatever we want from the Internet.
Which is not to suggest in any way that The Creative Shop doesn’t take itself seriously. The account managers are in perpetual rainmaker mode, and I’m called on to do a headstand for one potential client or another on just about a weekly basis. This on top of the dozen or so clients I regularly serve and the occasional pitch I do myself in an attempt to keep extending my range of employable talents.
Six years ago, I was brought on board as a senior copywriter at the same time as Daz was hired as an art director. In the kind of blind-to-the-consequences move that typified business life in 2007 and would be unthinkable now, we brought our digital portfolios to a bevy of small and mid-size agencies and auctioned ourselves off as a package deal. A few of these agencies bit. By that time, Daz and I had done some memorable campaigns – especially those focused on the teen and college markets – and had a little bit of a reputation.
Ultimately, it was the Maximum Speed game that decided our new work home for us. On our third interview, Steve Rupert, the Creative Director at The Shop took us to the break room and while I told him I was impressed that Jonny Lang was playing on the stereo, Daz veered over to the arcade games.
“You mean this is here all the time?” he said, grinning in the way he usually only did when Pop Tarts came out with a new flavor.
“All the time,” Rupert said.
“And we can play it whenever we want?”
“We’d prefer it if you didn’t leave a client meeting to play but just about any other time.”
Daz rolled his eyes to the ceiling. And when he looked at me, I knew it was going to be nearly impossible to get him to consider working anyplace else.
Whether the decision was made for the best reasons or not, it turned out to be a very good one for both of us. Daz and I got to work on some great campaigns together and we quickly became the go-to guys for anything in the tween, teen, and new adult demographics.
We did national campaigns for breakfast cereals, sporting equipment, and vacation destinations and we did local campaigns for soft drinks, clothing stores, and a small chain of Mexican restaurants.
Our signature gig so far was BlisterSnax, a bite-size candy that was hot, sweet, and sour at the same time. Daz and I did their very first print campaign when the company (started by a couple of guys on the inheritance from one of their grandmothers) was tiny and distributed only in the tri-state area. Six months later, their early success led to a major expansion, and we launched them nationally with a TV, radio, and web campaign, which included the legendary BlisterSnax anthem, the lyrics to which I wrote. It was my first hit song – I mean kids actually sang my words, and the video we did for it was downloaded on YouTube four and a half million times. The launch was hugely successful and the campaign became a blitz, which brought a significant amount of billing to The Creative Shop – and some hefty bonus checks and big promotions to Flash and Dazzle. I was now Associate Creative Director for the entire firm and Daz had a staff of six art directors working underneath him. It meant that both of us had to deal with a modicum of administrative work, but the core of every day – and the thing that got me out of bed every morning – was still the campaigns. I could deal with budget meetings, employee reviews and the occasional tiffs that flared up among members of my staff as long as Daz and I spent several hours every day just doing ads.
I love this stuff. I really do. It certainly isn’t fine art, it might not have any edifying social significance, and it probably isn’t the kind of work that any real adult should do, but I love creating ads. I love throwing ideas around until one sticks. I love joining words and images in incongruous ways that make people laugh or cringe or just take notice. I love the brashness of the form. And I love the fact that if I do my job well enough, people might tell someone else about my ad the day after they see it instead of reaching for the remote to change channels.
The nine-thirty meeting that day didn’t happen until eleven. Not because Daz couldn’t get out of his apartment or because the traffic down Broadway was tortuous, but because the second we stepped off the elevator we were told to go to Steve Rupert’s office to deal with the day’s first hassle.
“SparkleBean doesn’t like the angle you guys are taking,” he said as we walked in. Rupert was the only guy in the entire place who wore a tie every day and it was usually a truly awful one. I couldn’t tell if this was his version of “dressing down” (maybe he had a whole drawer of Versace and Hermes at home but wore these because it made him fit in more) or if he truly had such horrendous taste that these street corner specials appealed to him. Certainly, it wasn’t because of the money. He wasn’t rich – no one who worked at an agency this size made gigantic salaries, even with bonuses – but he could definitely afford better duds.
“What don’t they like about it?” I said, feeling peeved instantly. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand that the client had the final call on all campaigns. I came into the business with a very clear sense that my job was to serve someone else’s needs. Still, I hated it when good work got questioned.
“They don’t think you’re being reverential enough.”
I narrowed my eyes to slits. “They want us to sell cream soda to fourteen-year-olds by being reverential?”
“Their marketing director kept talking about a hundred and seven years of history and how they’re still using the same recipe that the original Mr. Hanson used from the very beginning.”
“All of which is very appealing to kids,” I said.
Daz shook his head. “Assholes.”
We went about as far from reverential with this campaign as we could, storyboarding a thirty-second TV spot that featured a teenager in a convenience store buying a can of the stuff, taking a gulp and being propelled to amazing places on a stream of carbonation. Our tagline was, “Be the Bean.” Not a single mention of – jeez – history.
“They really want us to talk about tradition and hand-crafting and all of that crap?” I said.
Rupert threw up his hands. “Look, I’m not saying I agree with them.”
I knew that was true. Whatever Steve Rupert lacked in taste in clothing he made up with his eye for advertising. I also knew that if he loved a campaign – and he’d made it very clear that he loved this one – he would try everything at his disposal to drive it home with the client.
The fact that he’d struck out meant we had no chance of winning the argument we weren’t going to have anyway.
“What did the original Mr. Hanson look like?” Daz said.
Rupert shook his head. “I don’t have a clue.”
“Is it on their website?”
“Who knows? Probably, considering what a big deal they’re making about it.”
Though I had no idea why we were doing so, we called up the site on Rupert’s computer. Sure enough, against the umber and sepia tones of their home page, there was a shot of Alexander Hanson, a year off of the boat, sitting on a crate of “Hanson’s Original SparkleBean,” and flashing us a sly smile.
Daz leaned toward the screen to give it a closer look. “What do you think he’s smiling about?”
“Probably just made his first buck,” Rupert said.
“Yeah, but it looks like he’s goofing,” Daz said. “Something tells me this guy wasn’t nearly as hung up about tradition as the new Hansons are.”
I slapped Daz on the back. “That’s our campaign,” I said, kissing him on the temple. He reached up to his head and then looked down at his fingers like he was expecting to see blood. “We start with a slow zoom in on this picture with soft orchestral music in the background and a voice over that says something like, ‘A hundred and seven years ago Alexander Hanson crafted the very first bottles of SparkleBean out of the finest vanilla, sweetest cane sugar, and purest spring water. People said he was crazy to care so much about his soda. Some even called him a renegade, but you can still taste that dedication today.’”
Daz lay down on the carpet in Rupert’s office and said, “At which point every kid in America will be doing this,” and he started to snore.
“Wrong,” I said. “Because right then, we cut to some guy standing on a box of SparkleBean and holding up a can and he says, ‘Who cares about dedication? Just give me the taste.’ And then he takes a drink and the colors get really hot and the music changes to speed metal and it’s obvious that the kid never drank anything this good in his entire life. And we tag it with a line like, ‘SparkleBean. Taste the renegade’.”
Daz sat up on the floor. “Everything is sepia except for the kid and the can, which we do in a color wash. And then when he drinks, the whole screen comes alive in incredibly vivid colors.”
“Right,” I said, “of course.”
I turned toward Rupert.
“It’s pretty good,” he said. “Needs a little work but it’s pretty good.”
“Good enough to get past the automatons running the company?”
“Hard to say.”
Rupert looked at Daz. “You on board with this?”
Daz stood up and glanced over at the computer again. “There was something in that guy’s face. I know the old man would have loved it. The new guys? Who knows? But yeah, I’m on board.”
“Then let’s try to sell it. Do up the storyboards and I’ll try to get an appointment to see them on Thursday.”
I nodded toward Rupert and then gestured toward Daz. “Come on; let’s go be brilliant.”
“I thought we were already being brilliant.”
“Thanks guys,” Rupert said. “I figured you were going to mope for at least half a day about this one.”
“Put it on our account.”
He chuckled and waved at us. Daz and I headed toward our individual offices, which were within shouting distance of one another.
“That was a pretty nice little save you made over there,” Daz said as we walked.
“It was your idea.”
“Right. I’m so great at what I do that I don’t even know when I’m doing it.”
I smiled at him. I really never would have come up with the new pitch if Daz hadn’t suggested looking at old man Hanson’s picture. “Give me ten minutes to see what’s happening in my office and then come by and we’ll start pounding out the storyboard before we meet with the team.”
“You got it.”
I stopped by my assistant Gibb’s desk and he handed me three pink message slips. I booted up my desktop machine and grabbed a cup of coffee, then browsed through the e-mail that had come in since I last checked in the cab. I had twenty-four new messages. Some of them (and one of the phone calls) were easily dismissed, but a few required some real attention. It was obvious this was going to be an insane day. I groaned inwardly, but the truth was that this was exactly the kind of professional life I’d hoped for.
I’d gotten my first taste of this in college, where I graduated Magna Cum Laude and received a couple of small-time awards. Then my first job at Tyler, Hope and Pitt allowed me a few moments to shine. However, The Creative Shop was the first place to give me the opportunity to show what I could become professionally, and I loved the place because of it. If I was going to work for someone else – and I definitely didn’t want to do that much longer; we really needed to start our own agency – these were the guys I wanted to work for. Until Daz and I were ready to strike out into the world, these cartoon-laden walls were home for me.
“Hey, are we meeting today?” Carnie Brinks said, popping her head into my office.
“Eventually, yeah. The Bean Brains have us redoing their campaign.”
“They didn’t like ‘Be the Bean?’”
“Can you believe it?”
“Yeah, that’s what Daz called them.”
Carnie walked in and sat down, propping her legs under her. Though she worked for me as a copywriter, “employee” was not the first thing I thought when I looked at her. Carnie graduated from Swarthmore, got a Masters at Columbia, and was decidedly on the fast track at The Shop. She was also 5’4”, olive-skinned, black-ringleted, aquamarine-eyed, and in sensational shape. I truly believed that I never let her charms – physical and otherwise – affect me professionally, but I had a crush on her within five minutes of our first meeting. At the same time, I was convinced that I’d never do anything about it. Office romances were rarely a good idea and employee/employer romances seemed especially ill-advised.
“I’ve got some ideas about the BlisterSnax Max video,” she said. The BlisterSnax people had developed a sourer version of the candy and they were presenting it to their distributors next month. They asked us to put together a five-minute promotional video for the event. “I want to introduce the distributors to Max.”
“Well, yeah, that’s sort of the point, isn’t it?”
“No, not Max the candy, Max the guy. You know, BlisterSnax Max?”
“Is that something like Yosemite Sam?”
“Almost nothing like that at all. I’m thinking he’s this really nerdy kid who pops one of these things and his glasses fling off and his hair flies into something more stylish and his clothes for some reason I haven’t figured out yet turn into something much cooler.”
I nodded. “Could work.” Carnie was definitely a kindred spirit, and I appreciated how enthusiastically she took to her job. “Listen; let’s talk about this after the meeting. I’d love to do it now, but the day is already backing up on me.”
“Got it.” She stood up. “Beam was great last night, weren’t they?”
“They definitely were.”
“I think they sent Michelle into some kind of dream state. She spoke in these loopy sentences the entire cab ride home.”
I remembered Daz talking about the “thing” that had passed between him and Michelle, but I doubted it was their imaginary encounter that had made her loopy.
“It was a really good show. We’ll have to catch them again the next time they come to town.”
“Definitely.” She smiled and tilted her head. She really was stunning. “So I’ll hang back after the meeting, okay?”
“And when, exactly, is the meeting?”
“Maybe an hour or so from now. Stay tuned for more.”
She left and I was still staring at the spot where she last stood when Daz walked in. He looked down the hall at Carnie, then back to me. “Why don’t you just deal with it already?”
“Deal with what?”
“Your burgeoning lust.”
“It would be unhealthy.”
“Ignoring the urge is unhealthy.”
“Yeah, like you should talk.”
“Do as I say, Flaccid, not as I do.”
I looked off in the direction in which Carnie had gone, though there was a wall preventing my view. “Nah, not a chance.”
“There’s always a chance.” Of course there was a chance. That wasn’t the point, though. I looked at Daz. “Let’s get to work.”
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