That One Time We Tried To Win A Refrigerator Account
Editor’s Note: You know the saying “You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs,” right? Well, these are the broken eggs; they’re Tales From the Creative Graveyard. These stories give you a behind-the-scenes look at how we do what we do—more specifically, what happens when what we do goes horribly, hilariously wrong. We pride ourselves on being scrappy, honest, and kind. This story is most certainly honest. It is not our proudest moment or finest hour. It doesn’t paint us in the best light either, but it deserves to be told…warts and all. By me. It’s penance.
I believe that if you quiet yourself and become a void ready to receive a sign—whether spiritually, physically, or mentally—the Universe will speak to you. In Its own awesome, weird way It speaks—and It will lay a path forward, providing purpose and direction and inspiration. Ley lines and invisible cosmic energies all working in perfect concert, guiding us toward a prosperous future, should we take the time to simply cease activity and listen. And equally so, this extrasensory, ethereal Force can prevent harm and proactively warn of future danger. I’ve listened. I’ve heard It. I’ve experienced It. I’m a believer.
This is a story about how the Universe screamed into our collective faces to not proceed and we did anyway.
It’s June 2018. We’ve recently landed the Alliance Laundry Systems business and it’s left us hungry for more appliance work. As luck would have it, our appetites were whet shortly thereafter with the prospect of pitching a luxury refrigerator brand. Better still? Our client contact for the prospective account is a former customer and an agency friend.
The opportunity is served up to us on a platter—and it’s this mentality that will contribute to our undoing. We take to referring to it as a “Canned Lion Hunt” almost immediately and—to this day—we regularly, reflectively self-flagellate for this offense. Lesson learned: Never take a customer or an opportunity for granted. Period. Big, BIG period.
The project has a six-week runway, and it’s a mess right from the start. There are three creative leads attached and none of us really see eye-to-eye (author most shamefully included). We commit one grave creative sin after another: being mealy-mouthed with our critiques, fighting for our own ideas without listening to each other, and going off on our own only to come back with work we can’t stitch together. The list is painfully endless. The three of us flap and flail like fish off-hook on the bottom of a boat while the rest of the team patiently waits for some semblance of order and direction.
It’s brutal, but we chalk it up as “part of the process.” And with half of the time spent, we eventually get some creative footing. The good news is that the brand has no personality in market. It’s a blank canvas, and as such, we’re free to create and build our own beautiful story:
It’s not about the refrigerator. It’s about loving a life well lived. A full embrace of achieving not only a financially successful existence, but a meaningful one, and the moments that come about because of it. The kitchen is merely the setting of these stories. It’s an affluent woman indulging in a moment of peace with something sweet away from the party in the other room—a party she flawlessly planned to the delight of the guests. It’s a proud father, welcoming his son home from the army. A moment catching up over a glistening mason jar of from-scratch lemonade becomes an emotional embrace—father is grateful son is home safe. It is …
Joe Rogge, Chief Creative Officer, isn’t on board.
“I can slap any competitive logo on those ads and they’d work. If this is about loving life then it NEEDS to be LOVE! This needs to be RAW! I wanna FEEL IT! She needs to be in AB-SO-LUTE ecstasy, not just smiling. Dad needs to have tears in his eyes! I want to see him crying over his son’s homecoming!”
He’s not wrong.
“These moments need to be REAL!”
And that’s how what is affectionately referred to around the office as “The Naked Ad” comes into existence.
THE NAKED AD
“I want to see two people who just worked up an appetite from a hedonistic marathon in the bedroom standing sweaty and naked in front of their fridge ravenously looking for something to eat. THAT’S the ad.”
“I get it, it’s like after a big workout, or maybe they just did a triatha–”
“No! It’s not LIKE—IT IS TWO PEOPLE NAKED! They’re in front of their fridge, and they’d probably eat a raw steak right now, that’s how hard they’ve been at it! That’s how hungry they are! THAT’S REAL! THAT’S WHAT THIS NEEDS!”
Advertising is a weird business, and we find ourselves engaged in some pretty bizarre conversations; compounded to the nth degree when taken out of context. But no matter how hard I try—no matter how creative I pretend to be—I never thought I’d turn to a coworker and ask: “Can we see a little more of his butt crack?”
And yet, there we were, four creatives huddled around a monitor giving direction on hand placement, degree of side-boob, and amount of sweat and body hair to our photo retoucher.
The ad makes everyone uncomfortable. And in our world, uncomfortable is good. The team is energized. Invigorated. Relatable, yet raw. That’s the cornerstone of the campaign. That’s the difference between like and love.
In our client’s world though, uncomfortable is bad. Two weeks out, we run the naked ad past our inside man and it’s a hard NO. We’re told these folks don’t have much of a sense of humor, and we should explore other avenues.
“Nice work though!”
The news neuters us. If I’m being genuine with you (and that’s the purpose of this series: confessional-level honesty with a dash of entertainment), the creative never really gels. The concept is there; the work is good … we just can’t get the stuff to stick together. The batter doesn’t set. Still raw in the middle. Whatever. Our own hubris insists we’ll cover the blemishes with a charming presentation. Foolishly onward we march.
NINETEEN HOURS FROM PITCH
Our flight will depart Milwaukee at 3:30 pm and arrive in Atlanta at 6:30 pm (with the time difference). There’s a brief layover in Atlanta, before we depart for Miami at 7:30, putting us in Florida at around 9:30 pm. Get some late-night Cuban food, and maybe toast ourselves with a pre-celebratory cocktail (again, “Canned Lion Hunt”) around 10:00 pm. Back in our rooms to wrap up the deck around 11:00 pm. In bed by midnight. It’s a solid plan.
Feeling particularly invincible without any—ANY—justification whatsoever, I taunt the Universe by declaring: “What could possibly go wrong?”
Said the Universe: “Hold my beer.”
At 4:30 pm, Joe Rogge, Fuzz Martin, Erin Puariea, Kristin Neubert, and I are sitting on the runway in the same spot we’ve been for the past hour and a half. Things are getting a little tense, but we’re told the connecting flight is also slightly delayed so we should be fine. It’ll be a run through the airport, but we’re good.
SEVENTEEN HOURS FROM PITCH.
We’re not good.
We’re still in Milwaukee.
We will probably miss our connecting flight.
FOURTEEN HOURS FROM PITCH.
We’re in Atlanta and our connecting flight is gone. Gone-zo. Buh-bye plane. Miami is about ten hours from Atlanta, and Erin begins tracking down a rental car. The day is beginning to take its toll on all of us. Atlanta is a nightmare. That the airport is under construction doesn’t help. Removed ceiling tiles expose all of the wiring, giving the place a dystopian feel. And below, it’s an undulating beast: a massive, biblical wyrm of humans pushing and shoving. The five of us huddled in a circle are bumped and pushed and shoved, our bodies absorbing the blows.
Joe has managed to connect with a real human from the airline. There is a plane. It has five seats. It leaves in 20 minutes. Joe secures our tickets.
It’s a sign!
It’s a miracle!
It’s just the Universe toying with us.
ELEVEN HOURS FROM PITCH
We’re on a plane. It’s taking off. We’re going to make it to Miami. I doubt we’ll see our rooms much before 2:00 am. But that’s fine. There’ll be a place to lay my head in blissful sleep. And tomorrow (it’s already tomorrow in Miami), there will be a successful pitch.
No, there won’t be rooms.
No, there won’t be beds.
And the real kick in the crotch?
We’ve already lost the pitch.
We just don’t know it yet.
SEVEN HOURS FROM THE PITCH
I have no recollection of landing, renting the car, or driving to the hotel. But here we are.
I’m convinced I smell abhorrent. It’s that been-awake-too-long-stewing-in-my-own-juices-in-an-airport-on-a-plane-on-a-runway smell. I’m failing to stand up straight in the hotel lobby … it’s more of a box step as I stare into the middle distance waiting for Fuzz to secure our hotel keys. I’m nodding in agreement (or perhaps just nodding off) as Rogge lays out the next couple of hours:
“Let’s get to our rooms, splash some water in our faces, and then meet for an hour or so to wrap up the deck.”
It’s no Ocean’s 11, but it’s a plan and it’s doable. At the same moment I’m starting to wonder why it’s taking Fuzz so long, he seemingly materializes in front of us and delivers the good news:
“So, when we didn’t check in by midnight, they started giving away our hotel rooms. They only have two rooms left, and for some reason they have Joe and Erin staying together. They’re trying to find us three more rooms nearby.”
In my head, I see someone throw two slabs of raw meat between a circle of five starving rottweilers with their teeth bared.
But it doesn’t come to blows. It’s decided that I have the deck and Joe has the plan, best to get us accommodated and working as soon as possible. We part ways with Erin, Fuzz, and Kristin, and agree to meet back in the lobby in five hours to go through the presentation. They drive off into the night to God knows where. I agree to meet Joe in his room in 15 minutes.
SIX HOURS FROM PITCH
Joe’s room is sprawling. It’s a corner spot. Two of the four walls are all glass and I can see the sun flirting with the horizon, threatening to rise.
Our brains have lost any semblance of firmness … just gray-matter slop rolling around in our skulls like cereal left steeped in milk for 8 hours. Our actions are neither strategic nor creative; we’re acting on impulse now. Primal.
“I’m hungry. Let’s eat,” Rogge says.
Sure. Fine. It’s 4:00 am, let’s eat.
There’s a 24-hour Checkers across the street from our hotel. I can hear you asking: “Why, Daniel! Who were the clientele sampling the fine, culinary fare of Checkers outside your Miami hotel at 4:00 am?!”
Glad you asked.
Two prostitutes, a man failing to conceal a handgun tucked into his pants, and a bachelor party from Detroit. Add to that a creative director and a chief creative officer.
The words I force my mouth to make are barely coherent: “I would like a Big Buford Combo and a Banana Shake.” I turn to discover Rogge has opted to engage the man with the gun rather than order. Now, someday I’d like Joe’s job, but even the two or three synapses I have left still firing tell me Joe getting shot by a stranger in Miami isn’t how I want it to happen. (Obviously, I want to be the one pulling the trigger—ZING! POW! RIMSHOT! AMIRIGHT!?)
But of course, Joe is Joe—cordial, charming, and engaging. If you saw these two from a distance you’d think they were old friends. And besides, we quickly learn it’s not a gun tucked into his pants. It is in fact a massive, inoperable, gun-shaped tumor. How do I know this? Because he pulls his pants down and lifts his shirt to show us. My stomach does a loopty-loop. ORDER UP! BIG BUFORD COMBO! There’s no way I’m holding food down. Joe orders, and buys the fella dinner. Nothing else happens. We go back to Joe’s room.
“Alright, we’re not getting anything done at this point. Let’s get an hour of sleep, meet in the lobby at 6:00, and wrap this thing up,” Joe says.
I’m glad we went on that side quest for food.
I don’t sleep.
FOUR HOURS FROM PITCH
Whu-Whys’everything s’fuzzy around the edges?…The deck esss done? Ooo…Iss’the deck done?! I think the deck isss done–s’probably done. I’m hungry, um’also sleepy. Where are we? Isss this Miami? Whass that smell-smells bad? Ooo. Itsss me, I smells bad. Shower?
Two-fifths of us have been awake for going on 48 hours; the rest have slept a cumulative 12 hours. We’re all in rare form.
We meet our contact at the door, pleasantries are exchanged, and we’re led to a small, cramped blue-ish grey room slightly larger than a bathroom stall. There’s barely space to push a chair out. That tenuous anxiety-stricken moment of getting ourselves hooked up to their technology that those in the industry are all too familiar with passes without incident. Rogge and I fist bump. Locked and loaded! Wired for sound! The Universe threw everything it had at us, and we overcame. We’re here. We’re ready!
The door opens and our three European prospects enter. A man, a woman, and a giant. Clearly, they’ve modeled their refrigerators after this guy. Nearly as wide in the shoulders as I am tall. He could crush a watermelon in one hand the same way I’d smash an egg in mine. His English is weak, which makes him all the more imposing. He sits down, the ground shakes, and he puts his head on the table. Face down.
Entering with them is the thickest, most noxious wave of stale alcohol smell I’ve ever experienced. It has weight and mass. It is a presence. If this whole thing were a movie, that smell would be played by Randy Quaid.
We obviously notice it. They notice us noticing it. And then, the awkward silence of this moment is broken by Erin Puariea, the greatest comedian of our generation:
“So…you guys go out last night?”
Someone snorts, holding back laughter.
We present, and it’s flawless. And while I’d love to dramatize some specific moment, or comment, or whatever—nothing extraordinary really happens. We pitch, it goes perfectly, and then it’s over.
And then it’s every thespian’s worst nightmare. Silence. Nothing. We just kinda sit there looking at one another blankly. All of that, for this? Yeesh. Erin asks if they have any questions. One of them says no, and politely tells us they’ll be in touch. Then the three Europeans stand and leave. Randy Quaid decidedly stays.
I don’t remember much else. I don’t remember the drive back to the hotel, packing my bags, or flying to Milwaukee that afternoon. Terrifyingly, I don’t remember driving from General Mitchell International Airport back to my home.
I take the following day off. Rogge calls while I’m out mowing the lawn.
“We didn’t get it. It was the agency that pitched the day before us. Client bought it in the room. It was over before we even got to Atlanta.”
I hang up, finish the lawn and go inside. I pull a pint glass from the cabinet above the sink and turn to look at the fridge, begrudgingly. And when I open it, the only thing I see is the ice-cold plastic bottle of Orange Juice staring back at me.
If you listen, the Universe speaks.