On Madison Avenue, Old Players Learn a New Game BBDO, the agency that's handled General Electric's account for 80 years, is an ad-industry legend. But new technologies threaten to make its favored methods obsolete.
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On Madison Avenue, Old Players Learn a New Game

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On Madison Avenue, Old Players Learn a New Game

On Madison Avenue, Old Players Learn a New Game

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

The advertising industry is trying to figure out how to keep pace with changing media technology. For years, its bread and butter has been the 30-second television commercial.

(Soundbite of Pepsi TV commercial)

Mr. MICHAEL JACKSON (Singer): (Singing) And the whole world has the answer right now and will tell you right away - it's cool.

SIEGEL: That classic by Michael Jackson is from the 1980s. These days, a 30-second spot isn't enough. Many ads try to take you somewhere else. This M&M commercial wants viewers to BecomeAnMM.com.

(Soundbite of M&M commercial)

Unidentified Man: There's an M&M in everyone. Find yours.

SIEGEL: Now both of those ads are from BBDO, one of the original Madison Avenue agencies and one that's trying to change with the times.

In the first part of our series this month on The New Ad Age, NPR's Lynn Neary goes inside BBDO to learn how new media are changing an old industry.

LYNN NEARY: BBDO's history goes back to 1928, when George Batten merged his company with Barton, Durstine and Osborne. And the newly formed advertising agency took up residence on Madison Avenue. The firm's name was an alliterative mouthful that comedians like Jack Benny couldn't resist.

(Soundbite of comedy act)

Mr. JACK BENNY (Comedian): Hello, operator. I'd like to get the number of Batten, Barton, Durstine and Osborne.

Unidentified Woman: How do you spell that, sir?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BENNY: B-A-T-T-E-N, B-A-R-T-O-N, D-U-R-S-T-I-N-E, O-S-B-O-R-N.

Unidentified Woman: What's his first name, (Unintelligible)?

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Back in the 1940s, the agency handled the advertising for Benny's radio show. By the 1960s, TV had overtaken radio and the agency now called BBDO mastered that medium.

Bill Bruce, chief creative officer and chairman of BBDO New York, says he first came to the agency some 20 years ago for one reason.

Mr. BILL BRUCE (Chief Creative Officer and Chairman, BBDO, New York): It was TV. TV, TV, TV. And at the time, BBDO was working with A-directors from Hollywood, A-celebrities, doing big productions. It was the place to go.

NEARY: But all that is history.

Mr. BRUCE: The words that I have proscribed from our lexicon are traditional, classical, mainstream...

NEARY: Andrew Robertson is CEO of BBDO Worldwide, an advertising powerhouse with 290 offices in more than 70 countries.

Mr. ANDREW ROBERTSON (CEO, BBDO Worldwide): These are words that are completely inappropriate for anybody who's in the business of creating work and content that we want people to choose to access. The last thing in the world I'd like to be described as is traditional.

NEARY: BBDO is still the kind of agency that produces great TV commercials. And the 30-second spot still delivers a mass audience to advertisers. But Robertson is well aware that advertising has to stay ahead of the trends in technology. So a couple of years ago, Robertson hired David Lubars as the new chairman and chief creative officer of BBDO North America. Lubars is an advertising star known for his creative approach to new media.

Mr. DAVID LUBARS (Chairman and Chief Creative Officer, BBDO, North America): There is risk and intuition and gut involved in this business. You can't fight it. Everybody wants to test everything and find scientific evidence about why one thing works, one thing doesn't - but the thing is, you're talking about creativity and what will move someone. You have to have some guts.

NEARY: While working at the Minneapolis-based Fallon agency, Lubars came up with the idea for BMW films. It was an entirely new advertising concept. Hire major directors, like Ang Lee and Ridley Scott, to make short films featuring a BMW. Then show the films on the Web. Each one tells a story about a driver, played by Clive Owen. In this one, he's been hired to follow someone.

(Soundbite of BMW commercial)

Mr. CLIVE OWEN (Actor): Your mind wonders. Wondering what it would be like watching your own life from far away.

(Soundbite of speeding car)

NEARY: BMW films were not only an artistic success; they also had more than 100 million views during their original Web release. And they're currently enjoying a second life on YouTube.

The films illustrate Lubars' approach to advertising. These days, he says, consumers have endless media choices.

Mr. LUBARS: So it is our job to create content or commercials - whatever you want to call it - that is so engaging and so cool and great that instead of us coming to you, and you have to take it, now you want to come to us voluntarily to see it. It's so great you have to seek it out.

Mr. JOSEPH JAFFE (Marketing Consultant; Author, "Life After the 30-Second Spot"): The company culturally has to buy into this new way of working.

NEARY: Joseph Jaffe is a marketing consultant and author of "Life After the 30-Second Spot." Jaffe says Lubars shocked the ad community when he got rid of some of BBDO's well-known creative directors. But Jaffe says Lubars was brought in to shake things up.

Mr. JAFFE: One of his primary mandates in terms of joining the agency was to, I think, inject that new-age thinking, that alternative or nontraditional thinking - and quite frankly, help them diversify their portfolio away from the 30-second spot.

NEARY: People at BBDO like to say they are media-agnostic. The buzzword is the integrated campaign. digital, print, radio, TV - all have an equal place at the table, says Lubars.

Mr. LUBARS: Today, since there are so many different channels and mediums -again, some has yet to be invented. The way to do it is to come up with a big idea first - a big upstream idea, and then figure out where we are going to put it.

NEARY: Lubars says even designers, who often were called on at the end of the creative process, are now there at the start. Thirty-year-old Craig Duffney leads a team of young designers who share a small workspace in corporate headquarters.

Mr. CRAIG DUFFNEY (Design Director, BBDO): These are our lead designers. There's eight of us in here and...

NEARY: Duffney and Lubars talk about one design project for a TV network called G-4, which is aimed at 15- to 25-year-old guys. The network wanted a logo for a block of programming called "Midnight Spank."

Mr. DUFFNEY: First idea I went to, which actually became the logo for this was just two monkeys holding fraternity paddles, but, you know, we developed the iconography for it, and then they were like - so we're going to present some TV, and we want to use the monkeys that you made for the logo, and we want them to do all this crazy stuff.

Mr. LUBARS: So it was a case where the design led the TV idea. So it doesn't matter who leads - it's just having great brains who have different - things they know how to think of - sparking off each other.

NEARY: This push to think differently isn't just coming from within the agency. It's also coming from the clients. One of BBDO's most innovative new campaigns was for General Electric. BBDO has been GE's advertising agency for 80 years, one of the longest-running relationships in advertising. Executive creative director Don Schneider worked with GE advertising executive Judy Hu on a campaign called GE One Second Theater.

Mr. DON SCHNEIDER (Executive Creative Director, BBDO): Judy said to us, if you don't come up with something new, you're dead.

Ms. JUDY HU (Advertising Executive, General Electric): You're dead.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHNEIDER: All right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HU: You're absolutely right.

Mr. SCHNEIDER: And then Judy said, think of something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Why? Why was this so important to you? Why did you understand the...

Ms. HU: I'm constantly challenging the agency to come up with the next big thing. And in fact, as soon as we launch this, I basically said okay, so that's today's news, so what are we doing next?

NEARY: Schneider said the idea for One Second Theater came about when his team was trying to figure out a way around the problem of people TiVo-ing through their commercials.

Mr. SCHNEIDER: And we said, how about this: Let's not run from TiVo. Let's embrace TiVO. Let's embrace what you can only do with a DVR, which is stop it.

NEARY: Demonstrating how it works, Schneider shows what seems to be a standard TV commercial.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SCHNEIDER: And here comes the spot.

NEARY: Toward the end, a series of words or symbols flashes by. It's an encoded message and the viewer has to stop the commercial to see what's there.

Mr. SCHNEIDER: Okay. So here we get towards the end of the commercial. And remember, what you saw at the end was a...

(Soundbite of hissing sound)

Mr. SCHNEIDER: ...a very quick. It was actually like a third of a second of something. You don't know quite what it is. When you go back with your DVR and step advance, you see just the symbol GE. You press one more time, you see One Second Theater.

NEARY: Viewers who were intrigued enough to continue spent an average of two-and-a-half minutes on the site - a number that made GE very happy. And that, says Judy Hu, is why agencies like BBDO have to embrace the challenges presented by staying ahead of the latest trend in media technology.

Ms. HU: I think the biggest challenge is ignoring it. And that's the danger -if I were on the agency side, I would say that the biggest challenge is if you ignore it that your client will find another agency who doesn't ignore it.

NEARY: A lot of people said David Lubars are uneasy with how quickly technology is changing. They want to know what the next big thing is right now. He believes there's no way of knowing. You just have to be ready to work with it when it happens.

Lynn Neary, NPR News.

SIEGEL: You can see examples of BBDO's work at npr.org. Next Tuesday, what happens when television viewers skip the ads?

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