Laughable Ways to Lose Creative Battles
Why Comedy Is the Most Effective Way to Advertise
There have always been battles over creative. Cavemen were probably scratching out and scribbling over other cavemen’s drawings. Some battles you win and some you lose. And then there are those battles you lose for unimaginable reasons – blindsided by circumstances you could never have seen coming. It didn’t matter how good your ideas were or how well you prepared. It was fate. And all you can do is move on. It happens to the best of us. And me, too.
THE DAY I BECAME A CARTOON CHARACTER
I was sitting in a conference room across the table from the Head of Development for MGM Studios. You know, the folks who’ve made some of the most iconic movies of the last century. It was my very first pitch meeting; just me and her. And it’s debatable that I was really even there.
A fact about pitching to Hollywood execs that I learned many years later is that they’re totally pulling for you. It makes sense. Every major studio’s lifeblood is the next blockbuster, and so they’re secretly praying that what you’re about to say is so sensational that they can’t say no. It was true here; I could almost see the desperation in her eyes. That is, until I opened my mouth.
She was a confident executive with real-world smarts, Midwestern values and leading-lady looks – miles from the caricature of a pretentious studio executive. And thank goodness, because my stress levels were so high that my voice actually went up at least an octave. The moment I walked in the room, I went from a natural baritone to speaking in falsetto – which kinda worked for the comedy script I was pitching.
I tried drinking a glass of water, sitting down, standing up, pacing, spinning away from her to grab deep breaths; anything to lower my squeaking. After a while, it dawned on me that my voice had been stuck like that for way too long. What if my voice changed back to normal? Wouldn’t she wonder what happened? At that point in my career, I didn’t fully understand the pitch process, but I did understand grand mal anxiety, and I cut the presentation short. I asked her if she’d like to read the script, and with a soft smile in her voice she quietly said, “I’m gonna pass.”
Praise Jesus! It was over.
Then she followed up, “Tell me more about the thriller you mentioned earlier.”
And my stress levels shot to new heights, along with my voice. By now, I’m sure she could smell fear oozing out of every pore of my body, so I overcompensated by slouching into a ridiculously relaxed pose in my chair. It was like living through a Mr. Robot sitcom; my thoughts were clear, but I had no control. The words coming out of my mouth were fine, but they were in the high-pitched voice of a cartoon character. And… she passed on that script too.
If you’re curious, you can see my presentation for the thriller, A Girl Named Trouble on my website; password: Trouble.
If you work long enough in advertising or production, you’ll find there are all kinds of ways to blow a debate about creative; sometimes you freak out – as in the story above – sometimes you have all the right answers, and other times no one’s interested in the right answer. As in this next example.
AS I EXPLAINED: BLOOD ISN'T A LAUGHING MATTER
I was invited to take a look at a commercial for the game “Magic: The Gathering,” created by a large, well-established advertising agency. We all huddled around a monitor in their conference room; after one viewing, my jaw dropped to the floor. They had been airing the spot in the Midwest for a while. The client and others were having trouble with the ending. I couldn’t agree more. One of the final shots showed blood splattering across a research laboratory window – the aftermath of an Orgg (a character in the game) tearing apart Bob from accounting.
After pointing out that you’re never supposed to show the blood, the agency salvos came fast and furious. The point where I should have walked away was when the copywriter told me that they wanted to show the blood, and that was the whole point. But for me, repeatedly doing the wrong thing and then wondering why it didn't work is a little like putting your finger in an electrical socket and then complaining you’re getting shocked. Keep your fingers away from the socket!
This same thinking is what led movie director Adam McKay to kill Buster the dog in the movie “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.” Recounted by McKay in the podcast Scriptnotes, the test screenings got big laughs but the movie only scored 48 out of 100 – a terrible number. McKay reshot so they could bring Buster back to life at the end of the movie, and the scores rocketed up 30 points.
MGM understood the rules, too. They insisted that producers revise the original cut of the movie “A Fish Called Wanda.” One of the stars, Kevin Kline, explains in this interview that they wanted to “take out the blood” from two scenes: Ken trying to kill the old lady and Otto being run over by a steamroller. In fact, after testing flat with audiences, the annoying dog being squished became one of the biggest laughs in the entire movie.
Kill an accountant? Sure! Kill a dog? No way. And showing blood? It’s a non-starter. There are just some things you can’t get away with, and there are just some people who don’t want to hear it. So the agency on “Magic” returned to L.A. for a reshoot, even though I told them they already had the coverage to simply re-edit the commercial without the blood. But they didn’t listen. They shot two alternate endings, one with a dummy being tossed in the air and this version with the actor, Larry Mauro (the accountant) bouncing off the window.
Some people just have trouble understanding electricity.
SO YOU’RE SAYING THE CAMPAIGN WORKED TOO WELL?
Other times you can’t win for losing. I was sitting in yet another conference room – this time with the creative team from the University of Washington. They were running a little behind their fundraising campaign goals and wanted to solve the problem by creating a series of television commercials. But their solution had a serious flaw at the center of it.
They wanted to make a “donut.” The term donut is industry jargon for a commercial built with a standard open and close and new material updated in the middle. It’s a classic structure used by retailers for “price and item” events. Have you ever seen a commercial for Macy’s One Day Sale? But I couldn’t image that structure driving donations for the university, and told them so. This potential new client – not being a large, well-established advertising agency in love with splattering blood across the screen – had a very different response.
They were all ears.
I explained that they needed to connect on an emotional level with a broader audience. And what I proposed was showing the impact the university was having outside of academia – through programs that changed real people’s lives. They agreed to test the waters with a trial run featuring this new direction. The campaign struck a chord with the community. It eventually went on to win national awards and raise $2.5 billion from over 226,000 donations, almost a year and a half ahead of schedule.
However, after several very successful years of doing their production, we lost the client. It was determined that they needed a more traditional advertising agency moving forward. So for all the strategic restructuring, quality storytelling and obvious results, sometimes success leads to failure.
During my creative career, I’ve fought more battles than Julius Caesar. And it seems like every day I’m inventing new and interesting ways to win and lose them. But in hindsight, some of my absolute favorites are the ones I lost for reasons I never saw coming. And when I say favorites, I mean terrifying, dispiriting and bewildering cautionary tales that anything can happen, so be ready for everything. And even then, you still might be screwed.
Mike Johnston is a production executive and advertising creative in Seattle. He is available for freelance consulting, writing and directing. Contact Mike.
Wanna know more about convincing clients that comedy really works? Read, "The Art of Pitching Comedy to People Who Hate Comedy."