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Bunny, Fantasy Ads May End Chiat/Day/Mojo’s Creative Drought

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When baseball players have hitting slumps they take batting practice. When car makers suffer sales slumps they lower prices. But what happens when an advertising agency has a creative slump?

Well, at the Venice ad agency Chiat/Day/Mojo, they went back to the drawing boards.

There, they came up with a funny bunny that won’t sit still--and a car that makes sonic booms. That might not sound like much. But quicker than you can say Clio, the apparent slump at the agency’s headquarters office may be over.

The bunny is that pink Eveready Energizer rabbit that unexpectedly hops its way into commercial sets for products like coffee and nasal spray. Although another ad agency actually created the pink rabbit, it was Chiat/Day/Mojo that set it loose.

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Meanwhile, the car that appears to break the sound barrier in a yet-to-be-aired commercial is a Nissan 300ZX Turbo. That Nissan ad--which will premiere during the Super Bowl--is part of a new “fantasy” campaign for Nissan that features dream-like dramatizations of the fantasies of Nissan drivers.

“Sure, we were in a slump,” said Bob Kuperman, executive vice president and creative director at the agency. “But we’re out of it now.”

What shook them out? “We got tired of our New York office doing better work than us,” said agency President Lee Clow.

But the ad firm’s New York office isn’t sitting back. Today, it is expected to name a new creative head, Tom McElligott, the outspoken adman who recently left the red-hot Minnesota ad firm, Fallon McElligott.

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Chiat/Day/Mojo’s New York office has won national acclaim over the past two years for a series of NYNEX ads filled with hilarious visual puns. But during that time, about the only laughs the headquarters office in Venice generated was from critics who panned the ad firm’s first Nissan ads. Those commercials featured yuppies who sat around a conference table gibbering about “human engineering.”

That laughter was extremely difficult for top Chiat/Day/Mojo executives to take. The Venice office of the ad agency takes great pride in its creative work. In fact, on Wednesday a panel of New York judges selected the “10 Best Ads of the 1980s,” and the agency’s Venice office outpaced every other agency in the country, with three of its campaigns listed in the Top 10.

But there was something even more telling about the selections. Every winning ad from Chiat/Day/Mojo’s Venice office was created at least four years ago.

Winners were selected from among 12,000 entries by the One Club, an organization of art directors and copywriters. The Orwellian “1984" commercial for Apple Computers--that looked something like a set from a science fiction film--placed No. 2 in the competition. The ad aired only once--during the 1984 Super Bowl. The ad that took top prize in the contest was the familiar Federal Express ad from 1982 that featured the ultra-fast-talking businessman. That ad was created by the New York agency Ally and Gargano.

Two of Chiat/Day/Mojo’s campaigns for Nike placed among the One Club’s Top 10 ads of the decade. One prize was for Nike’s striking billboard campaign during the 1984 Olympics. The other was Nike’s 1985 “I Love L.A.” TV commercial that featured the hit song by Randy Newman.

But that is the agency’s past. More recently, the Venice office has not only been upstaged by the firm’s New York office, but it has also been beat up at home. For years, Chiat/Day/Mojo kept winning the top prize in the West Coast’s best-known ad competition, the Belding Awards. Some even jokingly began to refer to the competition as the “Chiat/Day” awards. But for the past two years Chiat/Day/Mojo has been bested by other local agencies.

Some speculate that Chiat/Day/Mojo’s Venice office grew so big so fast that it took its eye off the creative ball. By taking on Nissan, it more than doubled its annual billings. And it added dozens of new employees. Then the agency virtually doubled its size last year to more than $1 billion in annual billings when it purchased the Australian ad firm Mojo MDA.

Now--even as the ad firm continues to search for a European partner--its growth seems to have a least temporarily settled. And top executives at the Venice office say it is back on track.

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Of course, it is consumers who will ultimately decide that.

Next week, the agency will unleash its commercials that focus on the fantasies of Nissan drivers. In one, a man driving a Nissan 240SX wishes he were sitting next to model Christie Brinkley and-- voila --she appears. In another ad, a woman driver wishes for Ken Wahl, star of the TV show “Wiseguy” and--presto--he appears. These ads are scheduled to air on ABC next week during Monday Night Football.

And in an action-packed ad to be aired during the Super Bowl a fast-driving guy in a Nissan 300ZX Turbo earns his wings with an unusual wish to drive his car at the speed of sound. Wanting to take no chances, the agency even brought in Ridley Scott, who directed its famous “1984" Apple Computer ad. Scott may be even better-known for directing the film thriller, “Alien.”

The new Nissan ads follow on the heels of a Chiat/Day/Mojo campaign for Eveready Energizer batteries that has won the agency--and an over-rambunctious pink bunny--national attention.

The Eveready ads feature a battery-operated rabbit, decked in sunglasses, that literally walks off the Eveready spots and appears to jump from commercial to commercial. The rabbit--beating a drum--suddenly waltzes across a coffee table in what appears to be a commercial for some coffee. And 15 seconds later, it unexpectedly dances across a scientist’s laboratory stand in what seems to be an ad for a nose spray.

Some say this unique campaign could garner the kind of publicity for Eveready that the “Dancing Raisins” brought to the California Raisin Advisory Board or that Joe Isuzu continues to bring to Isuzu.

“The ads force you to pay attention,” said Dave Vadehra, president of the New York research firm Video Storyboard Tests. “I really think it has the potential impact of the Dancing Raisins or Joe Isuzu.”

But it certainly won’t have the ad budget of an Isuzu. Most battery companies spend the bulk of their advertising dollars in November and December. “The big test will be after Christmas, when their ad spending goes way down,” said Vadehra. “If people still remember the ads after that, that will be a very good sign.”

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Of course, it takes more than a good ad or two to come out a winner. It takes quality ads--over the long term, said Larry Postaer, executive vice president and creative director at the ad firm of Rubin Postaer and Associates. The Los Angeles agency created Honda’s “Stealth Bomber” ads that won the top prize at this year’s Belding competition. “Slump or no slump,” said Postaer, “Chiat/Day tries just as hard--or harder--than any agency around to do things differently.”

One top ad executive, who formerly worked at Chiat/Day/Mojo, said the bunny is clearly a winner. “It’s a great campaign,” said Gene Cameron, president of the Los Angeles office of BBDO Worldwide. “It’s the kind of thing where you say to yourself, ‘Gee, I wish we had done that.’ ”

And this may be just the beginning for the Eveready bunny, said Chiat/Day/Mojo’s two top West Coast creative directors.

“We’re still trying to figure out a way for him to walk across the set during the middle of some program,” said Kuperman. “Maybe he’ll walk across Johnny Carson’s desk one night.”

Clow said that Ralston Purina, which owns Eveready, has even shown interest in having the mechanical bunny make appearances in commercials for some of Ralston’s other products. The company’s various divisions make such products as Chex cereal, Wonder Bread and Beechnut baby foods.

Why is this maniacal bunny such a hit?

“Advertising interrupts people from doing something else they would rather be doing,” said Clow. “So when someone finds a charming way to present that interruption, people seem to appreciate it.”

10 BEST ADS OF THE 1980s

The list is the creation of the One Club, an organization of 700 advertising art directors and copywriters. Club members reviewed hundreds of ads during a three-day period and cast votes for the one they judged best. There was a three-way tie for ninth position. The Chiat/Day ads appear in boldface.

COMPANY/CAMPAIGN: YEAR: AGENCY, CITY

1. Federal Express “Fast Talker”: 1982: Ally & Gargano, New York

2. Apple Computer “1984": 1984: Chiat/Day, Venice

3. Rolling Stone magazine “Perception Reality Campaign”: 1986: Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis

4. Nynex “Dumbwaiters, Rock Drills, Furniture Stripping”: 1988: Chiat/Day, New York

5. Bartles & Jaymes “Intro” TV campaign: 1985: Hal Riney & Partners, San Francisco

6. Levi Strauss “Gang, Blues Singer, Street Singer”: 1985: Foote Cone & Belding, San Francisco

7. Federal Express “Helloooooo, Federal”: 1980: Ally & Gargano, New York

8. Nike billboard campaign: 1984: Chiat/Day, Venice

9. Nike “I Love L.A.”: 1985: Chiat/Day, Venice

9. California Cooler TV campaign: 1987: Chiat/Day, San Francisco

9. Miller Lite “Butkus, Uecker, Powell”: 1984: Backer & Spielvogel, New York

10. Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef?”: 1984: Dancer-Fitzgerald-Sample, New York


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