Agency Takes a Road Less Traveled With Its Carless Infiniti TV Spots


Imagine Joe Isuzu, flute in hand, seated on some big boulder. Suddenly, an off-camera voice oh-so-softly whispers Zen-like thoughts of nature.

Last week, Isuzu’s agency seriously considered making this ad to parody those nature-filled commercials by rival car maker Infiniti. The firm finally decided not to. That it even considered creating the parody ad indicates how quickly this highly unusual Infiniti campaign has entered the American psyche.

The Infiniti ads are created on the West Coast at the Marina del Rey office of Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos Inc. Just about everyone has seen the Infiniti commercials that show everything from wind-blown trees to flying geese, but never show a clear look at the $38,000 car imported by the division of Nissan.


The West Coast creators are a branch of the same Boston-based agency that made those touching “Real life, real answers” ads for John Hancock several years ago, not to mention those sometimes-irritating ads for Wang that were jammed with computer jargon.

The agency--whose East Coast ad campaigns have won many of the industry’s highest awards--takes unusual pride in turning left when everyone else turns right. Its bay view office here is several miles away from the Wilshire Boulevard mass of most LA agencies. The agency’s Boston-based chairman wanted his West Coast employees to be able to waltz out of the office at lunch hour and see the ocean. The firm purposely placed executives on the Infiniti account who had no experience whatsoever creating car ads. And while glimpses of the cars will appear in future ads, executives at the agency say that the way the car looks will always rank a distant second to explaining the philosophy behind its design.

“We call it the gulp factor,” said Chuck Kushell, executive vice president and general manger of the Los Angeles office. “You have to gulp when you see our ads. People say, you can’t sell cars that way. I say, Says who?”

Perhaps more to the point, said Don Easdon, the creative director of the Los Angeles office who co-created the Infiniti and Wang ads: “Good ads are uncomfortable to be around. The fear is the fun. If you’re not scared, you’re not doing your job.”

With that unconventional philosophy as its calling card, Hill Holliday has set its sights on expansion here. Until now, its West Coast office has mostly created ads for Infiniti. Now, it wants to be something besides an agency that just makes car commercials. It has concocted some offbeat spots for PacTel Cellular telephones. And in trying to lure the Los Angeles Times as a full-time client, it has also created those billboards and commercials that--in a somewhat staccato tone--promote the paper’s new “faster format.” Indeed, Hill Holliday seems to be chasing a faster format for its own growth on the West Coast.

The odds, however, may be stacked against that. Los Angeles is a city that is notoriously unfriendly to East Coast agencies that open branch offices here. Witness Scali, McCabe, Sloves, the New York agency that was unable to dig up sufficient business here and was forced to close its doors several years ago. And giant William Esty had to leave town after it lost the Nissan business to Chiat/Day/Mojo several years ago.


“If Infiniti left tomorrow,” concedes Kushell, “we’d have to take a long, hard look at what we’re doing in Los Angeles.”

That’s why, after opening here only 1 1/2 years ago, the agency is looking so feverishly for more business. But even that may be a mistake, warns one executive. “Before they start beating the bushes, they’d better make sure they’ve pulled this Infiniti thing off,” said Vic Olesen, president of Vic Olesen & Partners, which creates ads for Chevrolet on the West Coast.

What’s more, Hill Holliday has yet to prove that it can successfully open an office in the world’s advertising center--New York. The agency’s New York branch office has consistently been an also-ran in its pitches for new business--and the top post in the bureau has been a revolving door since the office opened.

Other challenges are already unfolding, too. William Heater, whose soft voice whispers the current crop of Infiniti ads, seems closer than ever to leaving the agency. Heater, who also was co-creator of the ads, recently left his full-time status at the firm and is working for the Los Angeles office on a free-lance basis. Instead of promoting cars, Heater has ambitions to promote his own screenplays in Hollywood.

But early on, the agency seems to have made some smart moves in Los Angeles. To help gain easier acceptance in the market, it has already formed a partnership with an established local agency that specializes in direct marketing, Wakeman & DeForrest. Hill Holliday--which has nearly 100 employees here--is even considering buying that agency. Combined, the two agencies post annual billings of about $150 million--about half of which is Infiniti business.

Hill Holliday seems to thrive on adversity. It was a finalist for GM’s $100-million-plus Saturn account--the yet-to-be-introduced compact that GM says will compete directly with the Japanese imports. Instead of brooding over that loss, the agency pressed on and quickly landed the $60-million Infiniti business.


The general public seems to be intrigued by its Infiniti ads, too. According to many Infiniti dealers, many people who walk into their showrooms say that the offbeat ads coaxed them into that first visit. And Infiniti reports that only one month after the spots began to air, more than 60,000 people phoned the toll-free number in the ads to get more information.

Infiniti sales, however, remain a deep mystery. They company says it will wait until January to release sales figures for November and December. And it is making no projections. “Sales projections get in the way of establishing customer satisfaction as a goal,” explains Dave Hubbard, Infiniti’s national advertising manager.

Regardless how it sells--and whatever the public thinks of the ads--local industry criticism of the agency’s Infiniti commercials has been unusually harsh.

“They’re asking people to go on a $60-million blind date,” said Brent Bouchez, creative director of the Los Angeles office of Ketchum Advertising, which creates ads for rival Acura. “To spend $60 million advertising something, and the public doesn’t even know what it looks like, well, that’s frightening to me. It’s almost starting to feel as if they’re hiding the car.”

“They have invested an irresponsible amount of money on the longest tease campaign in history,” said Peter Stranger, president of the Los Angeles office of Della Femina, McNamee WCRS, the agency that considered making parodies of the ad for client Isuzu. “It’s an incredibly indulgent way to waste your client’s money.”

And even as its nature-laden Infiniti ads have become the butt of a number of ad industry jokes, executives at the agency outwardly say that’s fine with them. “It’s nice,” said Kushell, “that they find our ads interesting enough to talk about.”


Executives at Team One Advertising, which makes ads for Lexus, the rival Toyota division that introduced its cars several months earlier, say the Infiniti campaign is clever--but dangerous. “They’ve created a set of expectations that the product could have difficulty in fulfilling,” said John Hirschboeck, president. “Let’s face it, it’s another car. It has doors, wheels and an engine.”

Some dealers, who were initially fans of the campaign, agree that enough is enough. “Trees and rocks are unique, but we’re not selling trees and rocks,” said Jeff Qvale, general manager of Infiniti of Beverly Hills. “At some point, you have to show the product.”

Indeed, the agency says its next set of ads, which won’t air until after the New Year, will probably show the product. And some of its newest print ads already do.

After all, Infiniti plans to introduce three new models in the next 18 months. But there’s one thing the agency says it won’t do. It won’t show cars in ads just for the sake of showing them.

“Where it is appropriate to show the car, we will,” said Kushell. “But the real issue isn’t when will we show the car. By asking that, people are really asking when will you do regular ads. My answer to that is--never.”

Chiat, in a New Role, Looks Abroad

Now that Jay Chiat has given control of Chiat/Day/Mojo’s operations in the United States to newly named Chairman Bob Wolf, how will founder Chiat spend his time?


Evidently, racking up plenty of frequent-flyer miles. Chiat named these as markets where he wants to expand the agency: France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Scandinavia--and South America.

What about Japan? “Japan sounds nice,” said Chiat, “but we think it’s too tricky for an American agency to open there.”

Out-of-Towners to Judge Belding

The most prestigious advertising awards contest on the West Coast has wisely removed much of industry “politics” from the annual competition.

The 24th Annual Belding Awards last week named an exclusively out-of-town judging panel for the 1989 awards.

In the past, many judges for the competition were selected from the Los Angeles area. Some ad executives have complained that local judges sometimes stacked the decks for their own firms.

“When your work is judged, you want it judged by people who have no association with it,” said Dave Park, chairman of the Belding Awards and president of DDB Needham’s Los Angeles office. “This was an opportunity to improve a great competition, and I hope it becomes a tradition.”


The awards ceremony is scheduled for March 8, 1990, at the Century Plaza Hotel. Among the judges selected is Burt Manning, chairman of J. Walter Thompson. Also, for the first time the Beldings will have an international judge from London.