“Hello? Hey, Rob. Hey... I’m just leaving the sound stage. Everything looks fantast... wait... what? Sorry... my connection’s not very... what’s that? They WHAT?!?”
Less than 72 hours before we started shooting our first :30 TV spot for Michelin Stealth Wiper Blades, my venerable Account DIrector called.I was on my way back from the set, where we were testing gigantic rigged robot arms and discussing the ideal consistency of artificial pigeon excrement. And then the client called.
Maybe we should back up a bit. First, here’s the commercial we wound up producing in the six weeks that followed the above phone call.
This was not the spot we pitched to Michelin-licensee, Pylon Manufacturing. Nor was it a spot we would have pitched for two simple reasons. One, Pylon did not want to work inside Chiat/Day’s existing “Bib’s World” Michelin campaign and two, we had less than half the time and one fifth the budget.
The boards we had pitched a month previous depicted a “Michelin Stealth Test Lab” that was one part dingy CIA torture venue and two parts Fight Club. Two robotic arms (yes, real ones) would subject the test car’s windshield to an ever-increasing set of pain tests - sleet, leaves, snow, ice and yes, the aforementioned pigeon waste, while only reflections of the titular Michelin Man character could be seen manning knobs and levers in a control room.
Our client, Pylon, was far more interested in demonstrating the practical benefits of their product and, while Michelin certainly had a trusted name in tires, they felt the wiper blades would benefit for a deeper explanation. “Fair enough,” I said at the meeting. “Just to be clear though, Michelin is a very, very tightly controlled brand. Are you sure we can deviate from their global advertising platform?” My feathers smoothed, we began the production process.
That brings us back to the phone call at the beginning of this, which happened eight weeks before our spots had to be approved and uploaded. Apparently there was a... let’s call it a “miscommunication” between the powers-that-were regarding this whole “doing your own campaign with our logo on it thing”. And that miscommunication just took half our production budget and one third of our time out in one swipe.
All was not lost, according to our client’s Marketing Director. We just had to create a spot inside their existing campaign, they would co-op the cost of production. “Not to worry,” I said, dooming my team’s weekend, “we’ll have boards to show Monday.” “That’s great,” offered our client. “We’ll fly in Monday.” And then in a voice with all the gravity of a tombstone he added, “...and so will Michelin.”
I called my ACD and gave him the news. And I immediately started riffing on that scene from Tim Burton’s “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” where the road conditions and signs became comically foreboding. Okay, we’ve got a script. And luckily, an Art Director who had taught himself Maya, a 3d modeling program that got us pretty close to the campaign look.
That Monday, we had a 24 frame animatic with music and voiceover. Michelin were happy. Pylon were happy. Now we just had to figure out how to produce a fully animated, richly detailed thirty second Pixar film in seven weeks. PsyOp were not about to help a competing agency and told us as much.
The planets aligned and I found out that one of their lead animators had recently left and started a similar shop across town called Nathan Love. And they were absolutely in love with the script - to say nothing of taking a shot at doing their former employers’ work... just better.
The following five weeks were a complete blur. We stationed a producer in New York and sublet an apartment around the corner from the studio. Bear in mind, I still had an entire “main account” to run that was keeping me plenty busy. To their credit, Nathan Love managed to somehow hire every freelance 3d and VFX artist in the Tri-State area and somehow get them all working together to make a four month production happen in a third of the time.
And the email hit my inbox literally twenty-five minutes before the spot was due to first air. A forward of a forward of a forward by way of Michelin HQ in France: “La publicité est approuvée.” In other words: “approved”.
I took the day off and hoped my three-year-old would remember me. There isn’t an Addy for “Most Courage Under Impossible Circumstances”, but there should be.
Though my career had a change of venue a year later, the client was gracious enough to come with me. Here’s the next one we did - a play on the classic SAT question, “A train leaves station A at 45mph...” Only this time, we had four whole months to produce it.