Stick out your tongue

While employed at a famous New York advertising agency twenty years ago, a partner and I created a TV commercial touting an over-the-counter medicine client’s revolutionary new cold and flu remedy for young children.

Only when the shooting and shouting was over did we learn that the product did not, in fact, exist.

The commercial whose every creative detail we’d had to fight for was never going to run.

The client—the marketing side of a product development group—had a budget of $60,000 to spend. So they spent it, even though the R&D side of the product development group had not been able to deliver the product.

It was not a liquid medicine that needed to be measured. It was not a pill that needed to be chewed or swallowed. It was a pill that dissolved instantly on the tongue. Or would have been, if the engineers had been able to create it.

During weeks of presentation, the client rejected campaigns that would have caught the attention of the nation’s parents. The client bought a safe campaign that called less attention to itself, then set about systematically softening its edges. My partner and I wanted to cast like Fellini or Woody Allen. We brought in amazing children of various backgrounds, their faces rich in character. But the client picked cute blonde girls instead.

And so on. Every decision, however small, required approval. Everything was a fight. A ladies-and-gentlemanly fight. A fight that sounded like polite, mutually respectful discussion. A fight with invisible knives.

We won some and we lost some. For all the back-and-forth with the client, the resulting commercial wasn’t bad at all. The first few times anyone—even the guy delivering sandwiches—saw it, they laughed. Afterwards, they smiled. It could have been okay. It could have gotten my partner and me out of that agency and to a better one.

After the shoot was completed, the client told our account executive that the product did not exist and the commercial was never going to run.

The client had known this going in. So why didn’t they let us win more creative battles? Because they wanted something soft and safe to show the boss who had the power of life and death over their budget.

Why did the boss give them $60,000 to produce a commercial for a product that didn’t exist? Because that’s how corporations work. If they didn’t spend advertising dollars in 1988, they wouldn’t get ad dollars in 1989, when (in theory) they would finally have a product to advertise.

Governments, at least the ones I know of, work the same way. Since last night, the city of New York has been paving 34th Street in places it doesn’t need to be paved. Why do they do this? To justify the budget. In a better world, money set aside to pave streets that don’t need paving would be reassigned to something the city actually needs—like affordable housing, or medical care for poor or homeless people. But cities are corporations—that Mike Bloomberg is New York’s mayor merely confirms this—and few corporations are agile enough to rethink budgetary distributions on the basis of changing needs.

Last week, in an airport, on one of the inescapable widescreen TVs set to CNN (and always set to the wrong resolution) I saw a commercial for a revolutionary children’s medicine product that melts instantly on the tongue.

I guess they finally made it.

[tags]advertising, design, artdirection, writing, copywriting, TV, production, commercials, adverts, wisdom, work, experience, budgets, business, waste, government, medicine, OTC, overthecounter, newyork, nyc[/tags]

44 thoughts on “Stick out your tongue

  1. Awesome post Jeffery. I worked as a government consultant for 5 years and the end of September was always an amusing time, not the fun kind of amusing though. The “why in the hell are my tax dollars paying for this” amusing.

  2. Ha! Fantastic story… I just finished watching this little gem:

    Truth in Advertising

  3. Bravo Mr. Zeldman and well played.

    I currently work in government and its complete lack of agilty never ceases to amaze – and consistently makes me want to pull my hair out. Recognizing that these kinds of issues need to be addressed I suppose reminds me of a wise quote:

    That’s good. You have taken your first step into a larger world.

    Sadly, I’m not sure if the culture within government really wants to change.

    I remain hopeful this kind of discussion can at least foster conversation for possible remedies. If anyone could use agile development on all levels it’s the public sector.

  4. Good story. But I couldn’t get over the fact that you produced a spot for a big NYC agency for a mere $60,000. Even in 1988 dollars. Amazing.

    I also winced with pain knowing the soul-crushing process from the client side of the table. You might be brave enough to let the creatives run free, but you get your paycheck from people that aren’t. C’est la vie.

  5. Great story, and an incisive observation. This game is even played at the nonprofit (corporation) where I work.

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  7. The lack of agility is part of the price you pay for accountability and transparency. If we give local managers discretion, then they will use it and it is subject to corruption. Of course many programs are starved for funds to make political points too…

    Corporations have the opposite problem, their budgets are opaque and often division centered instead of product centered.

  8. Regarding the pills developed: while suffering from my birch pollon allergy I’ve been eating pills that melt instantly on my tongue, and those pills have been on the Swedish market for at least 10 years as far as I can recall. Maybe it’s something in the active ingredients in those pills you mention that makes it hard to bind them to the “dissolving stuff”, I don’t know, but I just thought it was interesting that your american pharmaceutical companies call an old product revolutionary. Btw, great site :-)

  9. It’s sad how that money could go to much better use yet it gets blown simply because they want that money again next year. You’d think they’d come up with a way to deal with that in a more effective way.

  10. I just finished reading “Maverick” by Ricardo Semler… I behoove you to do likewise, as it provides a wonderful counterpoint to typical corporate thinking.

  11. This sort of fiscal atrocity rings a bell for me. When I was in the Air Force back in the 80s we’d spend money like crazy on all sorts of useless things come the end of the fiscal year. I recall one year we had an excess of a few hundred of dollars. Not a great deal of money, but we would be damned if we were going to lose it — we bought fly swatters. It was a reasonable purchase, we had, after all, a few of those big flies of Fall buzzing on our screens trying to get outside to hasten their death. But we went slightly overboard, buying hundreds of dollars worth of these inexpensive tools. There were roughly 200 cheap fly swatters per case, and our wasteful purchase ensured that each man in our shop had two cases. Yes, 400 fly swatters per person. That experience put the taste of government (and corporate) wastefulness in my mouth, where it remains today. You’d think that government, corporate, and institutional (since colleges do this too) bodies, since the 80s, and earlier, no doubt, would devise a way to fairly distribute funds without promoting such rampant waste.

  12. nice story,thnx.

    if I had 60,000$ which they have to be throw away,I can found my design studio, but i can’t. It is tragic ;)

  13. It similar to having to build a small web application for like two users that takes a weeks worth of hours to build over two months. When completed it saves the people like twenty minutes each per month. At least let me make something useful for everyone that saves a ton of time instead of this.

  14. The same thing happened to the Michigan public school system in the early 1990s, when they switched funding models. Schools that hadn’t blown through their entire budget got less money.

    It wasn’t fun being a student during that period–we started losing music, art, and anything that couldn’t be justified as “essential.” I imagine it was even harder for the teachers and the administration, losing jobs and having to lay people off.

    Thanks for bringing back strong memories from my ill-spent youth. I hope I remember how it felt, while my kids are growing up and if I have to make any kind of budget decisions like this.

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  16. Man, Jeff, did you ever hit this one on the head! I had a couple of federally-funded clients back when I was freelancing — and they had to use up their federal funds completely, or their allotment for the following year would be cut back by the amount they didn’t spend. So to keep the money, they spent it on unnecessary frills and junk on their web sites, which only inflated the costs and upped my stress levels — and the amount of money I paid in taxes at the end of the year (unless I found a way to pad my equipment needs and use that as a write-off).

    Talk about inefficient and over-complicated…

    To echo what Josh said: you’re a better writer today than you were back in ’95 (and I read you then because you were relevant and one of the best around — and that hasn’t changed in 13 years).

  17. Great story Jeffrey. Now maybe they’ll air that commercial after all–the 80’s are back in style so no one will know the difference, right? :)

  18. this saddens me greatly — not the least of which because i witness this type of wastefulness occurr day in and day out.

    it’s ironic that corporations or government organizations punish for efficient spending when they should be rewarding them.

  19. I’m suddenly reminded of that scene in Falling Down where he challenges the roadworks guys about why they’re digging up the road, knowing full well it’s to spend budget for sake of getting budget the following year. And then he unleashes an RPG at it just for shits and giggles.

  20. I recently made the transition from full-time freelancer to long-term contractor at a major financial services company, and let me tell you, the extent to which the behavior you describe in this post seems to exist industry-wide (or, as you point out, really in any bureaucracy), is staggering. You wouldn’t believe how often I hear arguments to the effect of “this is how we’ve always done [x], we have money appropriated for [x], and if we don’t do [x] we won’t have the money for it next year, so why bother to rethink anything?”

    Frustrating stuff. And here I was looking forward to the relative simplicity of reducing my freelance workload in favor of something more stable. I’d give a lot to do things my way again.

    Excellent post.

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