The Adversary, Part 3: The Work
Sam started talking the moment he walked into the room.
“Folks,” he said, slowly walking around the crowded table, “this morning we got a call that could be a potential life-changer, for this agency and for each of us here in the room.”
Seated at the table were handful of creatives who had been yanked away from their early morning bagel eating and social media checking for an emergency meeting. It was a mixed group, a clash of beards and high-heeled shoes and tattoos and tweed. They talked amongst themselves, trying to figure out what the meeting was about—a new client? Layoffs? A merger? Sarah sat apart from them, at the corner of the table, and waited silently for their chatter to stop, like the teacher about to reveal the assignment on her laptop.
“This is an opportunity to work on a huge, national brand.” Sam continued. “If we win it, it will be the biggest brand we’ve ever had. And maybe one of the most challenging. It’s a product locked neck-and-neck in a parity market, in desperate need of our help to break them on through to the other side. It’s a controversial product, one that maybe none of us in this room would buy.” Sam placed his hand on Sarah’s shoulder. “With some exceptions.
“Good grief,” blurted out Brian, a balding, bearded copywriter who had migrated from California to settle in Brooklyn. “What are they asking us to sell, candy flavored cigarettes for kids?”
“You’re really selling this assignment, Sam” Sarah said.
“I would buy candy flavored cigarettes,” said Arthur, a slouching young art director who was too cool for advertising. “I bet it’s one of those sex drugs for old folks with all the awesome side effects. Like, call your doctor in 4 hours…”
“No,” Sam said, with a wink. “Way worse. But it’s a huge leap for us, and we won’t shy away from the challenge.” Sam continued. “If you will remember our key creeds at this agency, the first is that we do not turn down clients, at least not those over a certain revenue. The second is that we don’t get hung up on the content of the message. We are the defense attorneys in a world full of prosecutors. Our sole mission is to help the client communicate their message better, and the truth will out in the end.”
“What is it,” asked Jordin, a junior copywriter straight out of college. “Is it some kind of really disgusting porn?”
“Ok, that’s enough,” Sarah said, and clicked the remote to fire up the big screen TV. She flipped open her laptop and the screen filled with black text on a giant white page. “Let’s take a look at the creative brief.”
“Thanks, Sarah,” Sam said, stepping aside to reveal the words on the screen:
Client: Ted Fairchild Presidential campaign
Job title: Disruptive marketing blitz
“Oh, you’ve gotta be kiddin’” said Paul, one of their oldest art directors, slapping his notebook down on the table. “That lunatic?”
“That’s even worse than porn,” said Jordin. “He’s completely evil. Completely evil.”
“They’re all evil,” Brian said, waving his Star Wars pencil in the air like a professor with a pointer. “How do you think they got to be candidates? Raw ambition, and dirty tricks.”
“Suckups to big business, is what they are,” Paul barked. “And this one is worse than most.”
“Ok, ok,” Sam said. “At the risk of making it sound like we are also suckups to big business, I will reiterate my earlier point. This is a piece of business that we are not certain of winning, but if we do, it will completely change the face of this agency. This is not a piece of business we are going to turn down, whether we hate, love, or are indifferent to the product, or person, at the core of it.”
“Some of us would be happy to take it on,” Sarah said. “I know some people like Sumner’s promise of getting everything for free, but it costs more than we think. Do you know how much this business alone pays in taxes?”
“Account services heard from,” Arthur said.
The rest of the room laughed, Sarah excluded.
“Ok,” Sam said. “Let’s dig into the brief and see what it is we’ve been asked to do. But before we do, I’m going to ask you all to take a deep breath and forget what you know or think you know about Ted Fairchild, or about President Sumner, for that matter. Clear your minds for a minute, because we are now all going to become devoted fundamentalist adherents to the letter of the law of this creative brief. This is your Bible, your Gospel, for at least the rest of the day.
“Remember guys, we just tell the stories. The audience does the deciding. Ok, Sarah, can you take us through the brief?”
Sam took a seat so Sarah could take over. She read from the document onscreen.
“The market situation is, while most American voters believe that the office of the President of the United States is as important as ever, many feel disconnected from the electoral process, and disappointed with the contenders they are given. However, they face a barrage of conflicting, biased, mistaken or deliberately false information about the available candidates, so that they don’t know what information is true or even relevant to their decision.
“Our problem to solve is, the election is a month away and it is close, close, close. Presidential challenger Ted Fairchild feels like he has a huge advantage over the President. He thinks the President has been a disaster, but despite that, he hasn’t been able to move the needle at all on the polls. Fairchild believes the president would lose, if people really knew what a screwup he was. The problem is, even though all the information about both guys is out there, people aren’t responding to it. Half the people love the president, and half hate him. It’s like they just flipped a coin instead of making a decision.
“But with the election so soon, he can’t afford for it to be so close.
“So Fairchild wants to do something big, some kind of metaphorical roadside explosion, to totally tip the scales in his favor. Something outside what his campaign managers would normally do. He’s got hundreds of seasoned political veterans on his payroll, and none of them can figure out the right story to break the stalemate.”
“Sarah, you mind if I interrupt?” Sam said, standing.
“Only a little.” she said, sighing.
“Who are we talking to here,” Sam asked. “Who is the audience we can influence? Aren’t most voters pretty well decided on who they are going to vote for at this point?”
“The standard first answer is the undecideds,” Sarah said. “If 49% of voters are leaning one way, and 49% are leaning the other way, the remaining 2% can have a lot of influence.”
Sam shook his head. “But if they’re still undecided at this point, what’s it going to take to move them?”
Sarah sighed. “We don’t know. At least we don’t know any one thing that can move them all. I had Analytics run some quick data on them and they are all over the place in their beliefs. Some of them are scared, some of them are deeply cynical, and some of them are just idiots who can’t figure it out.”
“Maybe they figured out that the parties are almost identical,” Brian said.
“If you ignore the fact that being pro-business and anti-business are exact opposites,” Paul said.
“And that pro-choice and anti-choice are different,” Jordin added.
“Wedge issues,” Brian said, waving the others away.
“Our own ‘Crossfire,’” Sam said. “I love it. We should just film this conversation and make this the presentation.” Sam turned back to Sarah. “So what you’re saying is it will be hard to come up with a single ‘wow’ message that would move a significant number of them.”
Sarah nodded, and scrolled down the screen to a section labeled “Target audience.”
“That’s why I think we need to go after a second audience that I’m calling ‘nominal partisans.’ They are the audience that needs a wake-up call,” she said.
Sam raised an eyebrow.
“That term needs a little copy love,” he said.
“What it means is that there are a number of people who are going to vote for a certain party, probably the party they have always voted for, no matter who the candidate is or even what the substance of the issues is. They do it because they assume they know what’s in their best interests, but haven’t given it enough thought to know for sure.”
“Give us an example,” Sam asked.
“Let’s say there’s a little old lady on the Upper West Side, who has always voted Democrat because she believes they have the moral high ground. But if she really sat down and saw how the left wing is working to limit her health care, and raising taxes in a way that makes everything more expensive for her, and rolling back police presence in her neighborhood so she’s not as safe, and negotiating with the enemies of the countries her late husband and son fought to protect, she might feel differently about who to vote for. But she hasn’t really thought about it. But she’s just going through the motions.”
“How is that any different than all the people who blindly vote for Republicans,” Paul sputtered. “All these people whining about how Democrats are taking all their money without realizing that the right wing isn’t the party of the middle class but of the rich, and that with all their talk of freedom, the Republicans are trying to restrict people’s bodies and morals more and more every day.”
“Preach, comrade,” Arthur said.
“I don’t think it is any different,” Sam said. “Very smart insight, Sarah. People who are voting because they believe in the brand that the party sold them, even though it’s not in line with their real values.” He rubbed his hands together. “OK, that’s something we can work with.”
Sam got up and began to pace. Sarah rolled her eyes, as she often did when Sam went off on one if his intuitive flights.
“Although it’s not specifically listed on the brief, I’m going to suggest that there’s a third audience we are trying to reach, as well,” Sam said.
“Who’s that?” Sarah asked.
Sam thought for a second.
“I’m going to call them ‘The Cynical Objectors,’” he said. “These are the people that are sitting at home, watching all the nonsense and the back and forth on the TV, and they just know that neither candidate is fully on their side, and that their vote isn’t going to make any bit of difference in the world as to how the election goes.”
Sam paused for a moment as this new idea floated over the room and settled in.
“If we can scare these people out of their trenches,” he said, smiling at his discovery, “then we’ll make a difference at the polls.”
“Sounds like somebody’s got some personal experience there,” Arthur said.
“No, I vote,” Sam said. “Frank Zappa, every year, every election. Alive or not.”
Arthur groaned, as Sam shifted from smiling to business-serious.
“Now Sarah, if you don’t mind, we can read through the rest of the brief on our own.” Sam continued.” I just want to cut to the heart of what we’re doing here.
“So the country is basically split right down the middle between two candidates. These two guys have said every nasty thing they can about each other, and still neither one has been able to move the needle.
“Because they’re the same,” Brian muttered.
“I guess it depends on whether you want to be owned by the oil companies or the health insurance companies,” Paul said.
“And we’ve got three basic things we need to accomplish,” Sam continued. “We need to convince the undecideds, who are either super-geniuses or morons, to make up their minds. Then we’ve got to convince people who think they are liberal that they are really conservative. Finally, we’ve got to scare the living daylights out of the voters who would otherwise stay home.
“Did I get it?”
“And for those of you in the room that are about to throw up at the thought of doing any favors for this shape-shifting, money-grubbing hypocrite—Jordin, you can get a glass of water if you want, you’re looking totally green—but for anyone who’s having trouble with this, I’m going to put something out there for you: it is our responsibility to get these waffling, unthinking, careless voters off their butts and into the voting booths.
“After all, this is the future of the free world we’re talking about. Do these people really care so little about the future, or take it so lightly, that they are willing to play around with this? Do they really not know what they believe?
“These people who can’t figure out how to vote are namby-pamby wusses walking in a half-sleep. They are zombies among us. And we have the power to change them. We are going to wake these people up, no matter who they vote for. We’re going to make history, by forcing people to make a decision. That’s why this is a great thing to work on, regardless of who you would personally vote for.”
“And the best part is, we’re not forcing the ending. As always, the market decides what is good. They decide what is true.
“We must put the evidence out there that demands a verdict.”
Sam paused for a second, panting from his sermon.
Jordin raised her hand.
“This isn’t school, Jordin. You can ask a question.”
“Sam, does that mean that everything we say is going to have to be true?”
Sam glanced at Sarah, who rolled her eyes. All he could think of was the question of Pilate, “What is truth?” But this felt like a Clintonesque dodge, even in the context of advertising.
“Jordin,” Sarah said, “As we pursue this project, we will do so with the understanding that everything will be fact-checked and verified, much the way that all the other candidates do.”
There was a moment of silence, before the room burst out laughing.
“Alright, now that we’ve got that cleared up,” Sam said. “Everybody get your caffeine, get your sugary snacks, and meet me back here in 15 minutes. We’ve got some brainstorming to do.”