Monday, March 10, 2014

Honesty (and Humor) in Advertising: A Conversation with Gerry Graf

Gerry Graf — the mind behind Red Stripe’s long-running Hooray Beer campaign, theKayak brain surgeon and a rather … saucy Ragú campaign — has built a career by creating ads that are at once hilarious and cunningly effective.
Formerly a chief creative officer at Saatchi & Saatchi NY, Graf is now the founder and chief creative officer of Barton F. Graf 9000 (the name is a mashup of sorts, combining the name of Gerry’s father, Barton, with the BFG 9000, a gun in the game Doom). In just a few years, Gerry and his team have assembled an impressive portfolio of multi-platform work for DishFinlandiaWishbone and many others. The company also offers a very literal mobile website.
All of which goes to explain, at least in part, why we’re delighted to announce that Gerry Graf is the newest member of Facebook’s Creative Council — a group of chief creative officers from the world’s biggest ad agencies organized as a sounding board for identifying top priorities for agency creatives in areas like product, measurement and programs. Council members also serve as the judges for our annual Studio Awards.
In a recent conversation with Facebook, Gerry spoke about the role of honesty in his work, and how the humor in his ads is ultimately driven by strategy.
There seems to be a kind of dark undercurrent to a lot of your work. The ads are always entertaining, but they can also be creepy or a little sad.
I think of it as a realistic undertone. Classic marketers always want to portray the world as though everything’s great. My family’s perfect, my life is perfect. But life’s not perfect. I always look at things in a realistic way, and that view can slide toward the dark because reality’s kind of dark.
With Ragú we did a piece of advertising on Facebook about how to feed your evil kid. The traditional logic would be that you couldn’t say something like that — mothers love their kids, so there’s no way you could call their kids evil. But if you ask any parent they'll tell you right away that, yeah, sometimes their kids are evil little monsters. And I guess it’s that aspect of reality that I’m working with a lot of the time.
Why do you use reality in your ads? What about it resonates?
Whenever a company or brand speaks, we’ve all been trained from growing up in front of the TV, to tune out the message. We block out ad speak. Anytime I’m doing an ad I like to think the way humans speak. When you’re talking that way peoples’ defenses are lowered. They know you’re not just totally full of crap.
I sell hard in everything I do. With Little Caesars, I made it clear: the pizza costs five dollars. But I use entertainment to make the ads really funny. And because we’re being honest, it makes people listen to us a little more closely.
It seems like brands don’t always enjoy speaking directly.
I don’t know if it’s that brands don't enjoy speaking directly. I think the frightening part is that people can speak back to you now. In the old broadcast model, brands could just shout at people. If people were upset, it took them at least a week to write a letter or find the time to call and complain. So a lot of brands got used to speaking in ways that weren’t entirely honest. No one was calling them on it.
Now people can respond instantly. It makes for a bit of fear on the part of marketers, and I think everyone is still trying to figure it out. That’s why I think some of the best campaigns on Facebook so far have been really honest. Brands like Newcastle are being honest about their motives, but they’re having fun with the medium at the same time. And that’s fantastic.
What do you think makes successful creative on Facebook?
The best use of Facebook comes from brands with a clear and distinct voice. When a brand knows who it is and understands how it is connected to its consumers and pop culture, that’s when things work best.
How do you tell your teams to approach working on Facebook?
We study what connections, good or bad, we have with people who use our product and play off of that. We always start with simple static pieces of creative — mini Facebook print ads. They seem to be the best way to stand out in someone’s News Feed. We also operate like a newsroom. Each morning we meet and see what is going on in culture, in the news — is there something we can associate our brands with? We also keep a daily watch on comments and shares, to see which execution is getting sticky and try to fuel the fire.
In general, what do you think people want from an ad?
An ad’s a transaction. As an advertiser, you’re saying to people, “Give me your time or your consideration, and I’ll give you something back.” That thing you give might be a coupon, or a piece of information, or it might be a laugh.
How do you think people value what they’re receiving from ads?
Different transactions elicit different levels of loyalty. If you’re offering a coupon through an ad, it may get traction, but the loyalty will be low — people are engaging for the money, not necessarily out of any affinity for your brand. With a laugh, I think the level of loyalty is higher.
Any form of spam will be valued the least. Anything that’s in your face, unwanted. You need to give people a choice as to whether or not they’ll see it. I think that’s why Facebook has a very easy-to-find button highlighting spam. People don’t want to feel hoodwinked for opting into something. They want to feel like it’s a fair transaction.
What are the limits of honesty for brands?
Everything always derives from a larger strategy. Before we do anything creatively, we know what the brand is, what it stands for and what it should be known for. The things we’re honest about are aligned with the key points of the strategy.
With Kayak, we decided Kayak shouldn’t be known for travel, it should be known for search. Everything we did led people down that road. Our ads showed people that Kayak searches quickly, and it searches the way people search. When you have a strategy, it’s a guidepost for what you want to talk about. And then when you talk, you do it in an honest way.
Everyone has a different sense of humor. How do you get your clients to recognize the humor in your ideas?
Before we start with any ideas we decide what we want to communicate. Like I said, everything starts with the strategy. When we’re first meeting with clients the discussion is purely around understanding strategy. Entertainment doesn’t even come up. When it comes time present our ideas, I always start by saying, “Don’t even comment on the execution.” The important question is: Does this communicate what we want it to?
Facebook’s annual Studio Awards celebrate the best creative campaigns on Facebook. This year Gerry and his fellow Creative Council members will be evaluating work based on the following criteria:
  • Craft & Execution
  • Scale & Targeting
  • Business Results
Awards submissions are due January 31st, with winners being honored in New York City in April 2014.

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