Ad Report Card: Agency as Auteur

The point of this column is to explore whether or not a given ad or series of ads works, regardless of who made it. So while occasionally I’ll mention the name of the advertising agency that produced a particular spot, the bottom line (I believe) is that the most people outside the ad business don’t really care about keeping track of which agency did what. It’s true that the auteur idea can make sense when applied to film—it’s meaningful to put this or that Hitchcock or Truffaut picture in the context of a filmmaker’s larger body of work—but ads, really, can only be evaluated on their own.

Today’s installment of the “Ad Report Card,” then, is a departure. Recently, Advertising Age picked its agency of the year: Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. As it happens Goodby, Silverstein has made several of the ads that this column has highlighted (for good or ill) in its brief history. So it might be interesting, just this once, to look back at those ads and consider the agency as auteur.

Goodby, Silverstein is based in San Francisco (which is somewhat unusual for an ad business powerhouse) and is a growing firm with a reputation for “strong creative,” as they say; it seems to be at the point in its life where the challenge will be holding onto that reputation as it gets bigger and pulls in more business. In any case, many of the firm’s most celebrated ads have in common a particularly edgy brand of humor—attention-getting humor—that seems to be the firm’s main “creative” tool. A good ad has to do more than just get attention, of course: Any number of creative, attention-getting campaigns end up overshadowing whatever it was being advertised and in the end do little for actual sales. Still, it’s safe to say that an ad that is neither talked about nor remembered would be a flop.

Just last week I wrote about the recent ads for the Discover card, two of which are quite funny: In one, a father and daughter shopping for a pet briefly consider a hyena (bad idea), and in another, a guy pays for his emergency room treatment with his Discover card so he can score a little cash-back bonus in the process of having his life saved. Although the hyena spot is quite amusing as a skit, I gave it a middling grade of C-plus because it seems to send the message that Discover cards are somehow more expensive than others. The emergency room ad got an A-minus.

Another spot that’s gotten attention recently is Goodby, Silverstein’s Super Bowl ad for E*Trade —the one featuring the chimp among the ruins of dot-com civilization. The ad got a B-plus and was generally one of the most discussed spots in the millions of post-Bowl commercial wrap-ups.

Goodby also produced ads last year for Pacific Bell’s DSL services. One that I like—you can view it here via—is presented as a self-consciously fake documentary about a suburban neighborhood. Folks there used to get along until everyone started signing up for cable modems, the performance of which deteriorated as more and more users clogged up the same lines. Pretty soon people were painting “Web hog” graffiti on one neighbor’s house or simply clipping another’s cable lines. The tag: “Don’t share a cable line. Get Pacific Bell DSL. Always fast. Never shared.” It’s a pretty good ad—an A, I think.

The same firm has also done ads for Tivo that have a similar flavor. And while it’s done less directly humor-driven work for Hewlett Packard and has the well-known “Got Milk?” campaign, it’s clear that Goodby, Silverstein is right at the forefront of the overwhelming trend among advertisers to try to stand out by way of extreme irreverence. What stands out when considering these ads together, though, isn’t the irreverence or humor at all. (As we’ve seen in this column before, irreverence doesn’t save a bad ad, it buries it. Actually, the Discover card “Danger Kitty” spot is a good example of this.) What stands out is that the firm—much of the time, anyway — does a good job of using humor, edgy or otherwise, toward some specific end. The idea, after all, isn’t really to make the ad memorable, it’s to make whatever’s being sold memorable.