Interview by Steve Coll, Creative Shop ANZ
Since arriving at DDB New York in 2017, Weiss has transformed the legacy agency of the TV age into a 360 degree powerhouse whose work now runs from digital to even a Broadway musical. We speak with the Global CCO of DDB on seven decades of iconic campaigns from Volkswagen’s Think Small in 1959 to last year’s Skittles Commercial: The Broadway Musical, and how to stay at the forefront of culture and creative in the age of Covid.
For Ari Weiss the secret sauce is simple: “Find something interesting to say and then say it in an interesting way” a piece of advice from advertising outlier Bill Bernbach who started the agency DDB Worldwide that Weiss now steers.
“That to me still remains the secret sauce,” says Weiss. “The messages aren’t as linear as they once were. The audience is infinitely more savvy than it ever was. But at its core, we have a very simple job to do.”
While the media landscape has become infinitely more nuanced and complex since Bernbach began his career as one of the original Mad Men in Manhattan, Weiss says it is more important than ever to remain steadfast to his guiding principle.
“We fall down oftentimes because we over complicate it or forget those core principles,” he says. “The way consumers, brands and storytelling has evolved is more complex and more connected,” says Weiss. “When we were first getting started, a great TV or print ad was pretty easy to understand. Now it’s harder to break through that way so we have to find really simple, interesting ideas and (negotiate) the amalgam of communications that surround them.”
To do this, according to Weiss, requires 3D ideas and a nonlinear approach. A big idea must work across all platforms, not just TV or print, to deliver big results. Amplifying a single, strong concept with a suite of creative solutions spanning everything from digital and social to tour buses and T-shirts has enabled Weiss to build all-immersive narratives that resonate with consumers to connect them with the brands he works with.
“Narratives exist on so many different platforms now,” says Weiss. “I look at them as 3D stories versus things that used to be single serving consumptions. Each one has its own self-contained story, but in aggregate it builds a really beautiful compelling narrative.”
For Weiss a strong idea is just the start: it must come to life beyond the television set across a set of diverse but complementary platforms, evolving as it goes into a dynamic 360 degree brand view.
“Over time we started to realise: ‘What if instead of just finding that simple idea and regurgitating it over and over again in different places, you can actually advance the narrative as you put it in different places’?”
The ad industry is addicted to linear, long-form stories with a beginning, middle and end, but Weiss has proven if you begin with a single image worth a thousand words, then put as much thinking into all the other parts of the campaign beyond television or print, it can live meaningfully across a range of touchpoints.
Take Skittles’ Commercial: The Broadway Musical, for which Weiss created everything from a Spotify cast recording to wrapped tour buses, Times Square billboards and T-shirts and souvenir playbills for those in the audience.
“What if you can advance the narrative in a way to connect more with the consumer, depending on where that narrative is?” says Weiss. “We played the game to make it as enjoyable as possible wherever you turn.”
ADVERTISING AS AN ECOSYSTEM
“Advertising has become an ecosystem,” says Weiss. “In constructing these interactive stories, we have to think about how we give back and how we become part of the conversation. We’re navel gazing when we ask people to give to the brand. The brand has to give to the consumer.”
When Weiss flipped McDonald’s golden arches upside down for International Women’s Day in 2018, that meant everything from outdoor signs and social media logos to packaging and staff shirts and hats.
“It was to make that experience as enjoyable as possible on all the different touch points,” says Weiss.
A decade earlier, Weiss masterminded There Can Only Be One, an integrated campaign for the NBA in 2008 based on split-screen faces of two competing athletes that involved interactive, print, film and stadium components.
“We had unlocked such a simple visual device that then became a whole ecosystem,” says Weiss. “When you have something that simple and strong, it can live everywhere. It’s carrying on that level of detail and making the experience all that much more enjoyable as you go.”
SKITTLES AND SUPERBOWL: BREAKING THE MOLD
When it comes to advertising ecosystems, The Superbowl is a singular proposition. “Super Bowl has a unique media window that people launch into so there’s a unique ecosystem in that,” says Weiss.
But in 2019 he decided to do something very different. When Skittles came to DDB wanting a Superbowl campaign, he advised expanding beyond the tried and true formula. Rather than describing the results as brave, he says the campaign was a pragmatic response to the particular circumstances of the brief, which demanded big results from a not-so-big budget.
“(Skittles) said ‘here’s the deal: we have $300,000 this year instead of the normal millions plus. And we want you to get the same results if not more. We have this big media circus that is the Super Bowl and we know that most of our consumers are actually not watching because they’re young 14 to 25 year olds. How do we reach these young millennials in a way that’s actually really relevant to them’?”
The result was a commercial only for the eyes of teenager Marco Menendez, a real superfan found online, and on Super Bowl Sunday, Skittles allowed fans to watch Marco’s delighted reaction to the ad on Facebook Live for almost 20 minutes.
The campaign earned over 1.5 billion media impressions and made it onto multiple lists of the best Super Bowl ads, so the pressure was on when Skittles came calling again the following year.
“We thought ‘we did something for one person last year and it got a lot of reach, so what if we could expand beyond just one person to 1,500 people?’, which is what a Broadway theatre holds.”
The all-singing, all-dancing Skittles Commercial: The Broadway Musical had a single performance starring Michael C Hall on February 3, 2019, telling a story about how manipulative advertising is. Tickets cost $US200, but that didn’t stop fans flocking to Broadway, where they discovered T-shirts, posters and vinyl records, followed by a cast album on Spotify and a musical video that didn’t exactly celebrate the biggest marketing day of the year. For Weiss it was another considered approach to a specific brief – and it paid off in spades. Skittles’ Commercial: The Broadway Musical became the most talked about ad of the Superbowl, without Skittles buying an actual superbowl spot, with USA Today naming it “the most inventive ad in the history of ambush advertising” and Polygon pronouncing it “rendered every other ad actually playing during the Superbowl pointless.”
For Weiss it was once more about 3D ideas: “It was going back to that 3D storytelling, because if we only had one POV we would get the same reach we had gotten previously.”
THE CULTURE VULTURE
“The Superbowl is one of those cultural moments that you can draft off of,” says Weiss. “Our job as marketers is to connect brands with people, and culture is an amazing shortcut to being able to do that.”
Take his work in 2016, when he helped launch the political campaign of the fictional presidential candidate Frank Underwood (star of the Netflix series House of Cards), which released during the highest-rated political debate in American history, and quickly become the top trending topic on Twitter. It won seven Lions at the 2016 Cannes Festival, a recognition of the finely tuned cultural antenna Weiss has applied to advertising at agencies including Wieden+Kennedy, Silverstein and Partners, 180LA and Cliff Freeman & Partners, where he began his career.
While Weiss has worked over the years for a range of brands such as Nike, Sony, Playstation, FedEx, Guinness and Fox Sports, a consistent career theme has been his belief in irrational growth.
“Great creative ideas drive unreasonable growth through unreasonable reach, and that’s going to drive more sales,” he says.“If you can connect emotionally versus rationally, you can get a disproportionate amount of growth,” says Weiss. “Because as much as humans want to believe they behave rationally, we’re pretty irrational creatures, if Covid has taught us anything.”
He cites as an example the success of a recent campaign during the pandemic for Miller beer.
“It was for the start of the NFL season and football is obviously a huge beer drinking occasion,” says Weiss. “Miller Time at its core is having authentic connections with your friends, like watching football together, but during these Covid times that’s harder to do.”
The solution was the “Cantenna,” a beer can adorned with a set of football goal post-shaped digital antennas that allowed free access to NFL games. The campaign around it began on social media with links imitating sketchy streaming sites that led viewers to a humorous country music video warning about the dangers of illegal streaming for football watchers. The film then followed the story of one illegal streamer, now in prison. He consulted with his attorney, who chided, “You should have used the Cantenna!” The video then directed viewers to a phone number, 877-Cantenna, which if called, directed them to a website where they can submit their name to win one of the devices.
“In a moment where we’re launching football during Covid, we know there’s going to be an appetite for a conversation,” says Weiss.
Sure enough, the campaign received over a billion media impressions in its first week. “The way to do it is to make sure you have something that the world is going to want to talk about and share,” he says.
The Cantenna may sound like a risky idea, but Weiss says the way around any risk is always research.
“You do the homework,” he says. “I always get a little allergic with the word brave, because there’s actually quite a lot of smart thinking that goes into these things. You’re saying ‘I can prove to you that this is going to grow your business more so than most other things you would dream of’ so you do your research, then you just have to be masters of your craft. The Accenture’s, the Deloitte and the McKinseys of the world, they’re really good at giving you rational growth. But what we’re in the business of ultimately is delivering irrational growth and at its core the engagement and the emotional connection that you have with the product.”
COVID AND CREATIVITY: LOSSES AND GAINS
That mission has remained constant, but its challenges have increased exponentially due to Covid.
“I look at the filter of change through the notion of ‘what am I giving up, but also what am I gaining’?” says Weiss of advertising in the age of a pandemic. “The biggest thing we’ve given up is the emotional quotient as there’s so much lost over Zoom. There are so many subtleties that we as humans feed off of to understand things like ‘how is your creative director responding to an idea? Does the producer think this is doable?’ That’s not to be underestimated.”
When it comes to gains, Weiss cites a deconstruction of silos.
“I’ve seen teams pulled together from around the world in ways that we would never have imagined,” he says. “We’ll have Australia, India, Korea, China, Chicago and San Francisco: all these guys all on the phone at the right time if that’s the right team to solve a project. There was a lot of talk about doing this for years. I just think we’ve advanced in six months what would have taken 10 years otherwise. It will be really interesting to see how much of that we hold on to when we return to the emotional quotient and a more systematic productivity.”
When we do return to the new normal – whatever that is – Weiss has a single prophecy.
“We’re going to embrace chaos,” he says.
“We’re going to have to be in a beta mode for probably the next 18 months as we try to gear back up to ‘normal’. We’re going to try some things and some things will work and some things won’t work and we’re going to have to try [things] at a much more rapid rate than anyone was ever accustomed to. But I’m a firm believer that chaos drives creativity.”