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Nigel Tufnel and The Hard Sell

Posted on August 8, 2011 and read 3,034 times

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jbp Nigel Tufnel and The Hard SellBrent Pulford
Right Brain, Creative Communications

Among the people I know who’ve done any real time in ad agencies, most agree that their best ideas never got past the boardroom presentation. Yet I vaguely recall, when the Cannes reel would get passed around, some clients asking, “why can’t we do work like that?”, a backhanded indictment of the agency for the usually banal pap that was their advertising.

In referencing the Cannes reel I’m not referring to the contrived, strictly-for-award show-ads that frequently found their way into the mix, I’m talking about the genuinely clever stuff that really did deserve recognition for engaging consumers while getting the job done.

But about the question. The answer to clients then and today is: BECAUSE YOU WON’T BUY IT!

Sherman, set the Wayback Machine for…

… a simpler time, a time when my art director partner, Colin Priestley, and I, were the creative stewards of a popular brand of sugarless gum. A brand that had finally become the most popular thanks to a well liked campaign we had devised. That kind of success means your credibility with your client is as good as it ever will be. Your ability to sell ideas that might otherwise not see the light of day is undoubtedly enhanced but you don’t get carte blanche. And that became evident when our client asked us to develop a television commercial to announce a packaging innovation, an innovation that included 8 sticks of gum instead of the usual 7. One more.

Since “one more” was the clear, singular benefit, all we had to do, or so we thought, was figure out a way to deliver the message in an engaging, amusing and memorable execution. So, retiring to the bar – where all our good ideas were born – we drank, marveled at the bodacious capacity of our waitress for natural buoyancy, then bereft of any more distractions, addressed the issue at hand. Both of us recalled the movie Spinal Tap, the pioneering comedy about a fictitious British rock band that gave birth to the term “mockumentary”. Not only is the film considered one of the most original, iconic comedies ever, but without its blueprint we likely wouldn’t have The Office, Borat, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Fubar or Trailer Park Boys. And Colin and I wouldn’t have been inspired by Tap guitar player, Nigel Tufnel, who explained the volume knob on his amplifier by saying, “It goes to 11″… one more than the usual 10. If you don’t fully appreciate the connection between that statement and the job we were tasked with, here’s a clip that ought to help you recognize the opportunity we saw.

Get the Flash Player to see the wordTube Media Player.

Nevertheless, selling the apparently obvious is not without its challenges, so before presenting the client with an idea that hadn’t been fully researched, we wrote a script featuring the actor Christopher Guest, who originally created and portrayed the character, then sent it to him asking if he would reprise the role in a TV commercial for a gum that now goes to 8, “one more”. He not only agreed, he flattered us by complimenting the script for recapturing the humor of the original bit and assured us his fee was within our budget. Slam dunk. High fives all around. Nothing to do but shoot the thing, get it in the can, then bask in the accolades and attention that were sure to follow. Oh, and sell the idea to the client. But really, how hard was that going to be?

Sometimes you go to presentations so sure you have a winner that you actually can’t wait to get the creative in front of the client. Your confidence in the brilliance of what you’re about to show takes away all doubt, any concern that might otherwise have you anticipating questions that could suck the air out of the room and prevent the sale. This was one of those ideas.

simpsonsspinaltap 99x156 Nigel Tufnel and The Hard SellSo much for confidence. So much for credibility. The client didn’t bite. He didn’t know Spinal Tap. He didn’t think the consumer would either. And despite all our protestations, our willingness to have the idea tested, our insistence that he was denying breakthrough creative, he killed the idea. To add insult to injury, the following week, the Spinal Tap he decided nobody knew, were featured on the number one comedy series in America, The Simpsons.

Colin took the loss badly. His British decorum failed him and he cursed the guy (not to his face mind you) for being a philistine; a short sighted cultural imbecile who wouldn’t know a good idea if it bit him on the ass. Though equally baffled and frustrated as Colin, I, in a complete role reversal, made an effort to empathize, to understand the failure. And what I came up with was this: our client was a guy who spent anywhere from eight to twelve hours a day consumed by chewing gum. A product so truly insignificant in life’s grand and wondrous pattern, that if it didn’t exist tomorrow, would barely be missed. Yet by virtue of his job, the poor guy’s perspective was as unbalanced and disproportionately skewed as it could be. Gum for him was arguably the most important thing in the world. And that’s when it made sense. And explained why potentially great creative can rarely be effectively evaluated by the client. And explains why clients don’t get the work they so admire on award reels, they get the work they deserve.




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