How did you end up at Fallon McElligott Bruce?
I got there very early, but I suspect I came close to being there from the beginning.
I had met Tom McElligott at the University of Minnesota when he spoke to an advertising class I took.
He was at the creative agency Bozell and Jacobs and asked me to come back and interview a couple of times.
I got impatient with student loans to be paid that I took a job at a not-so-great agency.
Then, bam, a couple weeks later the iconic “Outsmart” Fallon McElligott Rice manifesto ad appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
(Oh, how I miss full page newspaper ads.)
Tom knew he was opening the agency when he was interviewing me at B&J and I always suspected he was looking for a decent cheap copywriter.
And I was cheap!
I think my uber talented friend Jarl Olsen filled that role at the beginning.
Then I moved to another strong creative agency called Duffy, Knutson and Oberpriller where I had a chance to partner with the great designer (then, actually, an art director) Joe Duffy and study copywriting under a great and vastly underappreciated writer and creative director named Gary Knutson.
With Joe and Gary, I was able to write those beautiful two-thousand-word long copy ads for some upscale menswear clients we had, which Joe made look absolutely stunning with beautiful illustrations.
They still hold up.
DKO was also where I met a future Fallon creative partner, the brilliant art director Tom Lichtenheld.
Then, after a year or so, Joe was invited by his old college friend Pat Fallon to open a graphic design agency -Duffy Design- that would be aligned with Fallon McElligott Rice.
I was the first person Joe hired: Me, a writer, because Joe wanted to create design work that was as conceptual as it was graphic.
But there was a handshake agreement with Tom McElligott and Joe that I could move over to the agency after a year, when Duffy was established.And, man, did it get established.Just a legendary design agency that gave birth to so many greats.But FMR was still a new agency.
If I remember correctly, I was employee number twenty-nine.And I knew how fortunate I was to land there.
I like to say it was like I was invited to join The Beatles.
So what was it like presenting work to Tom?
Of course, Tom was a brilliant writer but also an incredibly shy and, well, socially awkward man.
He wouldn’t say much, but what he did say mattered.
He had high standards about all the right things. I’m sure you’ve heard of his idiosyncrasies.
If he was undecided about a couple of ideas, he’d rub the back of his neck, nervously. At least you knew you were close.
One thing that always stuck with me with Tom was his fearlessness.
The first commercial I shot at FMR was low, low budget. It was shot on ¾” videotape by a cheap production house in Minneapolis.
But, damn, if Tom didn’t insist on me using a great, national voiceover.
It made this cheap spot feel rich. I took that boldness with me through my entire career.
It’s also important to note that by the time I got there, Tom wasn’t around long.
I remember I was at a TV shoot for Timex watches in London with my creative partner Houman Pirdivari. (We actually shot a lot of comedy in London at that time with directors like Roger Woodburn and Paul Weiland because the more subtle British approach to humor was more in line with FMR’s sensibilities.) Quite unexpectedly, Tom showed up briefly at a pre-pro meeting before disappearing.
Then, weeks later, he disappeared from the agency.
Of course, Nancy Rice never gets the credit she deserved. She was an art director with a keen sense of what made great, great. Nancy’s opinion really mattered.
As did the opinion of all the other giants at Fallon: Dean Hanson, Bob Barrie, Luke Sullivan, Mike Lescarbeau, and on and on.
The agency probably had a more award-wining clients at that point than any – were Porsche briefs the most coveted?
Obviously, Porsche was a very sexy brand. But we were doing great work for every brand -even the stodgy Wall Street Journal- so I don’t remember it being that much more coveted than others.
Every account offered the potential to do something amazing. Personally, I started at Fallon by working on these wonderful long copy ads for the iconic New York department store Bloomingdales.
At first, I ghost wrote body copy for McElligott’s headlines and then took over and wrote all the ads.
My good friend Mark Johnson was the (very tasteful) art director, and he also was the lead art director on Porsche.
John Jay was our client -talk about tasteful- well before he went to Weiden and Kennedy as his background was in design and fashion.
You could run those ads in the New York Times today and they’d hold up.
Porsche’s small ads were better than other cars big ads.
Did the senior creatives work on the tiny ads as well as the big stuff?
Remember I was very young in the late 80’s (and would like to believe I still am.)
Tom McElligott and Mark Johnson created the beginnings of the campaign: Big spreads and then some TV.
Mark had worked on some of the iconic BMW work at Ammariti and Puris, and he brought that sensibility and impeccable eye.
He also brought the great photographer Jeff Zwart, who he had met on BMW and gave him his first shot at TV.
Tom, although a very bookish guy, was fanatical about cars and Porsche.
After Tom left, a more senior writer than I named John Stingley took over on the big national ads.
And I and another writer named George Gier did the dealer ads, although I had the chance to write so many of them.
Legendary creatives Bob Barrie, Tom Lichtenheld and Bob Brihn were the art directors. (My sincerest apologies if I missed anyone.)
That was back when automakers created “dealer kits”: A book full of small space newspaper ads that they could add their name to and run in local media. Porsche wanted to give their dealers choices, so it was a great creative opportunity.
We just dug in and killed it on every ad. Literally, we’d write dozens of ads in a sitting, and then ruthlessly edited ourselves.
Speaking of “dealer kits”, my father was a minor partner in a small-town VW dealer during the Beetle glory years.
On some Saturdays he’d take me to work, and I’d hang out in his little office while he worked on the sales floor.
To keep me occupied he’d let me page through the dealer kit.
It was the early 70’s so those were still the Doyle Dane Bernbach glory years.
They left quite an impression on my very young brain.
What’s the difference between writing for a premium brand like Porsche and writing for a mass brand?
I’ve written for a lot of premium brands: BMW, Nikon, Bloomingdales, high end spirits, menswear brands.
And I always preferred them. I felt like the audience was more sophisticated so your language could be a bit more elevated and the ideas more intelligent. They also tend to be passion brands, instead of commodities, and that always makes things more interesting.
There’s something deeper emotionally and often history that you can tap into.
That’s just much more interesting to me than a laundry detergent.
Many premium brands avoid humorous, feeling it cheapens a brand, you embraced it, why?
I’d actually call our brand of writing wit, instead of humor. And that’s an important distinction.
There would be a sophisticated wink, the work was deliberately clever and smart instead of jokey.
I think when premium brands do go for more broad humor it does cheapen the brand.
I actually worked on BMW much longer than Porsche -twelve versus three or four years- so I felt even closer to BMW and have always driven their cars.
When other agencies would get the BMW account and start doing humor it just made me cringe.
One of my art directors on BMW, Tom Lichtenheld, actually wrote one of the best billboards ever for BMW.
It was for the high-end 6-series and the line was three letters: U.O.U. Brilliant. It was wit, not a joke.
Can you remember any lines you loved that didn’t go through?
Damn, I wish I could.
I remember us having a pretty high sell rate because we edited ourselves profusely.
There’s a fake Porsche ad that someone must have written for a dealer to win an award.
The headline was: “Small penis? Have we got a car for you.” I never would have shown the client something like that.
That’s too cheap and easy. And I had way too much respect for the brand and my client -Jim McDowell- who ultimately became my BMW client and championed BMW Films.
Most of the big, fancy Porsche ads showed the car flying along and talked about the exhilaration of the drive, but some of my favourites were the absolutely static looking ads where the car was shown like a sculpture and talked about it as being parked in your mind or a museum.
Why the shift?
The big color spreads Mark art directed were a mix of studio and moving shots: All stunning.
The small dealer ads begged for the simplicity of a static photo. It was “here I am and this headline is the proposition”.
But later, my partner Tom Lichtenheld and I had the opportunity to do a full-color magazine spread campaign for most international markets outside of the UK and Germany. (The UK and Deutschland had brilliant creative agencies in Leagas Delaney and Jung Von Matt.)
Tom and I wanted to do something a bit different with gorgeous studio shots, small headlines and less copy.
We wanted them all to feel like a print you’d frame, rather than an ad.
We actually borrowed one or two photos that Leagas had taken (we collaborated closely with Leagas and JvM and Porsche owned the images, after all).
And then a wickedly talented young Minneapolis photographer named Shawn Michenzi perfectly mimicked the style on the remainder of the ads to fit our smaller budget. I think there’s something more powerful about a studio shot.
The car is like a predator about to pounce.
In fact, when I led the Cadillac account at Fallon a decade ago, we did the same thing. Elegant static car shots and powerful, well-crafted headlines. (One showed a monster of a high-performance car -a CTS-V- with its door open, revealing an elegant interior. The headline, written by Duffy Patten, was “A china shop in a bull.” That could’ve been a Porsche ad.)
Did you feel in competition with the other handful of writers writing Porsche ads?
Oh, God yes. But only in the best way.
What made Fallon such a special place is that we all competed yet, at the same time, all strove to make each other’s work better.
We may have competed on some level, but we wanted the agency to succeed above all.
It’s a key to a creative culture that I still cultivate with my teams today.
Some CD’s believe in pitting creatives against each other. I steadfastly do not.
What’s the best Porsche ad you’ve written and why?
Man, that’s a tough one. I think it was one of the international spreads I did with Tom.
It was a photo of 911 Turbo with the line “Product Benefits: Too fast. Doesn’t blend in. People will talk.”
The one that keeps getting shared on Instagram by Porsche and car fanatics is “Honestly now, did you spend your youth dreaming about someday owning a Nissan or a Mitsubishi?”
Besides relating to me personally (damn, I guess I’ve still never owned a Porsche) it came out of an experience I had while working on the account.
I was invited to visit Weissach, the hallowed ground outside of Stuttgart where Porsche’s test track and main research center is located.
I drove in past security with Fred Senn, one of the founding partners of Fallon and an excellent account director.
It was the lunch hour and there was a new Mitsubishi 3000 GT parked out front.
It was crawling with very German engineers in lab coats: Under the hood, in the driver’s seat, underneath it.
It looked like a commercial, honestly. The car had just come out and with its massive performance numbers it was a formidable competitor.
But then again, it wasn’t.
But I had the opportunity to write so many.
Again, I was lucky to land at such a magical place at such a special time and work on such an iconic brand.
What’s the best Porsche ad someone else has written and why?
Without a doubt, “It’s like children. You can’t understand until you’ve had one.”
Which writer has had the most influence on your work?
I can’t choose one, honestly.
The entire early DDB crew because they changed everything… and the trailblazing DDB women.
Then Tom and David Abbott and Tim Delaney.
Obvious choices, I know, but still. I always admired that intelligent, observational, subversively clever school of writing.
What did you learn from Tom McElligott?
Again, I spent a lot more time being influenced by Pat Burnham and all of the other brilliant creatives at Fallon because Tom left so early.
I was at Fallon for twenty-five years, after all. But I think the thing I took away from Tom, other than intelligence and craft, was fearlessness.
The way he, Pat and Nancy (and Fred and Irv) started an agency in Minneapolis and just took on the world.
The fact that he insisted I use one of the best voiceovers in the country on my cheap, video-taped commercial was imprinted on me.
That same boldness and fearlessness led to the kind of talent we attracted to BMW Films. David Fincher, Ridley and Tony Scott: Why the hell not call them?
What single tip would you give a young copywriter working on an up-market brand for the first time.
Dig deep and then go deeper.
Interrogate the product.
Know it’s history, precisely how it is made, why people are so damn passionate about it.
Because if people aren’t passionate about it, it really doesn’t deserve to be an up-market brand.
Your mission is to make it feel like it’s worth even more, no matter how expensive it is.