One thing I’ve noticed over my long-ish career is that the things that work best in advertising are frequently, upon analysis, what was staring us in the face in the first place.

I’m going to mention Nike, so you can yawn now. YAAAAAWN!!! Anyhoo, Nike’s Just Do It idea is the ONLY thing worth saying in that category it turns out. A fact Adidas embraced wholeheartedly years later. And good for them. Just because another brand “owns” the only thing worth saying doesn’t mean you can’t say it too. You just have to, er, do it.

Personally i’ve also found this to be true too in my own work. My most successful ideas have been the ones that were pretty much staring me in the face to begin with. In retrospect. They were pretty much just common sense brought to life.

I remember years ago (1999), I found myself working on the Subway sandwich account. The agency was owned by the legendary Hal Riney (RIP) – an Irish-American writer from the old school. Hal had run the San Francisco office of Ogilvy and Mather in the 1970s. And he had a really distinctive style. It was like Disney meets Rockwell. Sincere American aspirational. And Americans lapped it up.

I had bizarrely and coincidentally met Hal years before in his Irish cousin John Riney’s Irish bar in New York one Christmas Eve. Hal had skipped out of his NY agency outpost’s rather dreary Xmas party to steep himself in Irishness — and whiskey — at his cousin John’s annual Christmas party for his regulars. The party went on all night. It was a lock-in as they say in the UK. And Hal could really drink his whiskey. I remember being introduced to Hal. That’s about all I remember of that night.

Anyway, I found myself working on the Subway account at Hal’s agency a decade later. And i hated their campaign. Which featured Hal’s voiceover. Hal had a seductive and reassuring masculine whiskey-soaked voice. Imagine John Wayne meets Garrison Keillor (VO of Honda UK ads). But clients came to Hal for his voice. Both his creative voice and his actual voice. And Hal cannily sold them on both. And he scored millions of dollars in TV and radio residuals in the process. Hal lived in a cavernous firehouse in San Francisco and owned a few islands in Belize. Hal was famous for, among other things, helping re-elect Ronald Reagan in 1983 with a series of ads that only Hal could have written (and voiced). I liked Hal! He understood what made America tick. And i wanted to know what that was.

The Subway campaign that i was asked to work on featured Hal cooing effusively about the wonderful sandwiches at Subway and the, ahem, “sandwich artists” that created them. I thought they were complete and utter shite. Hal was the only one making money off this campaign!

I went to Subway to research the brand and found that my “sandwich artist” was usually a very recent immigrant from India with a tiny English vocabulary limited to the various ingredients of Subway sandwiches. Hal was romancing something that just didn’t live up to his Americana shtick.

While researching i noticed that on the napkins at the Subway restaurants i noticed they had printed facts that compared how little fat their sandwiches compared to a Big Mac and BK Whopper and other popular fast food choices. This excited me greatly. Americans are obsessed with losing weight. And the idea of eating your way to being thin could only resonate positively. I knew I had struck gold.

So my idea was to bring this napkin to life. To show how much more working out you would have to do to work off a Big Mac or a Whopper. We had nutritionists and bio-mechanists work this out precisely and we shot ads that demonstrated just that. We had the TAE-BO exercise creator Billy Blanks lead a class out of his studio to a Subway for lunch. Punching and kicking the air as they went. It was crude but effective. It actively claimed the territory that they had already staked out on their napkins. It had literally stared me in the face.

A couple of months later I was in LA. I got a call from a producer from that agency, which I had since left. She told me that she was producing a spot with a guy who had seen my work and written a letter to Subway about how he had lost weight by eating only at Subway. His name was Jared. I can’t claim credit for that ad. But I will take credit for seeing what right in front of my and Jared’s (and everyone else’s) face. They’re still running that campaign.



  1. Is it really in retrospect, or does it just really take a lot of work to shed off all the rest of the crap and find the obvious.

    Never knew you worked at Hal Riney.

  2. i only worked there for like 9 months Dan.

    I think in a lot of cases it comes from ad agencies wanting to be “clever” and so ignoring the obvious reason(s) that brands exist in the first place. subway franchisees knew the power of comparing their fast food with fried fast food.

    Hal Riney sold Subway a Hal Riney campaign without asking themselves if it was the right thing to do. And having Hal purr on about the bread and ingredients Subway used wasn’t doing anything for anybody.

    People resist doing the obvious smart thing for lots of reasons. But when you ask yourself the question: what will sell this stuff? what really works? it becomes a lot clearer.

    i used to love going to Budweiser qualitative focus groups for this reason. the ideas came tumbling out of the beer drinkers mouths.

  3. I’m sure it helps that beer is a bit of a truth serum.

  4. I love this story.

    And i think that for TRUE creatives, discovering the right strategy is even more fun than writing a commercial or thinking of a poster.

    BTW visit my blog and click on my new twitter widget. I just got that new toy but it’s only fun when people i know click.

  5. glad you liked nico. i agree, the strategy bit is the most challenging and the most fun. execution is easy!

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