George Parker: the tools of my old ad trade – for cheap booze try expensive women!

My favorite Benton & Bowles client was Heublein, which was one of the biggest distillers in the US. Their best-known brand was Smirnoff vodka, but they had dozens of others, from high-end imports to nasty, low-proof, canned cocktails aimed at teenagers who took coolers of the stuff to the beach so they could get their girlfriends shit faced and have their evil way with them.

I ended up on the account by default because the agency had run out of creative sacrificial lambs to work with the world’s worst client, Jack Martin, Heublein’s marketing director. This was a guy who had the power of life and death over the agency.

I’ve had the misfortune to work with way too many of these wankers over the years, but Jack was an absolute fucking douchenozzle. If he didn’t like an ad, he would spit on it, rip it to pieces, throw it on the floor and jump on it. Rumor has it he once murdered an ad by stabbing it to death with the German SS dagger he kept on his desk. In desperation, the agency decided to throw me at the problem, because apparently Jack’s wife was English. They hoped he might go easy on me if I laid on the Brit-Chat.

I was introduced to Jack and he must have taken a shine to me, because when the suits invited him to lunch, he insisted I be included. So, we descended on 21, one of New York’s landmark eateries. Now, when I said Jack had a reputation for being a pig, it wasn’t just for the way he abused the agency. In actual fact, Jack looked remarkably porcine. He was overweight, had a big red face with tiny eyes, and a snout-like nose.

The lunch was unbelievable. He ordered everything on the menu, from lobster to caviar, whilst shamelessly selecting the most expensive wines on the list, which was fine by me; particularly as the agency suits were picking up the tab.

Throughout the meal, Jack never stopped talking. The problem was that he never stopped eating either. This meant the food sprayed in all directions, resulting in the account people desperately trying to protect their Brooks Brothers without making their frenzied flapping of napkins too obvious. None of this bothered me, as I was helping Jack consume the Château Lafite at an alarming rate, much to the consternation of the food spattered suits!

It was decided my first effort for Heublein would be to solve the secondary and tertiary brand vodka problem.

You should understand that this was not some obscure mathematical theorem from MIT. What it meant was that, besides Smirnoff, the company also produced six other brands of the same basic, nothing-gets-you-pissed-quicker spirit. It’s a little appreciated fact that by Federal law all vodkas, with the exception of the flavored ones, are exactly the same. They’re all are made with grain neutral spirits diluted with water. The common misperception that this fiery brew is made from potatoes by Russian peasants is a myth the liquor trade has shamelessly nurtured.

So: if you fancy a vodka-based highball, don’t be a schmuck and ask for “Stoli and Grape” or “Sky and Cranberry.” Ask for the well vodka. It’s exactly the same and a damn sight cheaper. However, if you’re trying to impress the blonde art director with the big knockers, then go for the Nunsvasser. It might help you achieve your nasty end.

So, now I’m the Heublein creative and have to come up with a campaign for one of their minor brands, Relska Vodka. The problem is, even though the stuff inside the Relska bottle is exactly the same as the stuff inside the Smirnoff bottle and sells for sixty per cent less, we can’t say “it gets you just as fucked up, but for a lot less money” because then they’d stop buying the expensive stuff.

So, naturally, I decided to say absolutely nothing about the product. Instead, I decided to say something about the people who drink the product. This is the fallback position ad hacks have always used when they are totally at a loss. It allows you to show glamorous people posed by your car, eating your bean dip, drinking your booze, etc., without making a sensible statement. The dumbest way to do this is to sign up a celebrity.

This often backfires when the star basketball player you have on a multi-million dollar contract gets accused of raping hotel maids. Or, the world’s greatest golfer you signed up three years ago hasn’t won a single tournament since. Or, even worse, was discovered to have a tendency to fuck anything that moves. Better to stick to far less expensive, anonymous models.

In the case of Relska, I chose some of the most glamorous blonde New York models of the sixties. In a series of ads they were shot sitting at a white table, against a white background, dressed all in white. On the table was a bottle and martini glass. The only color was the red and gold of the Relska label, the green olive in the martini, and the color of the girls’ eyes.

In one memorable shot, a Swedish model’s eyes were a startling violet! Her name was Camilla Sparv (left), and she later went on to star in Robert Redford’s Downhill Racer. Unfortunately, her acting skills hardly matched up to her looks, and she soon disappeared.

Jack loved the visual aspect of the ads, but he loved the headline: “I’d really, rather Relska.” He thought it was terribly British (it was the “really” bit that did it). And because the overall monochromatic effect served to make the label punch out of the background, the fucking product was the hero!

As a reward, I was invited to dinner at Jack’s house to meet his English wife. They lived in a posh part of Connecticut in a typical upper-middle-class home. You can imagine my surprise upon entering to find that everything in the house was covered in plastic! And I mean everything. Carpets, chairs, tables, lampshades, probably even the bed sheets and pillows. Jack’s wife seemed very nice, but rather quiet, leaving most of the talking to Jack. You can imagine my dismay to discover when we sat down for dinner that the tablecloth had a plastic sheet over it. Fortunately, the china and silverware were made of actual china and silver.

Pre-dinner cocktails had consisted of Heublein’s premium brands, so I was expecting some rather impressive wines with the dinner. My dismay only increased as I watched Jack unscrew the top from a gallon jug of Gallo’s finest! (This from a guy who would think nothing of ordering a four hundred-dollar claret, obviously on the agencies tab).

I wish I could say the quality of Mrs. Martin’s cooking made up for the choice of wine. It didn’t. To complete a memorable evening, it turned out Jack’s wife made more noise and sprayed more food around whilst eating than Jack did! I began to wish that I was covered in plastic as well.

Still, I got to “play” with Camilla Sparv before Robert Redford did.

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About George Parker

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George Parker has spent 40 years on Madison Avenue. He’s won Lions, CLIOs, EFFIES, and the David Ogilvy Award. His blog is adscam.typepad.com, which is required reading for those looking for a gnarly view of the world’s second oldest profession.” His latest book, Confessions of a Mad Man, makes the TV show Mad Men look like Sesame Street.

10 comments

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    Wonderfully written. Quite apart from being very entertaining, it is spot on the money! We had several clients out of the ‘Heublein-type’ drawer at CDP back in the day – the ones where after working out the cost of entertaining them for a year, it was frankly debatable whether they were profitable or not! The point was that they tended to be smaller accounts, ruled by a proprietor/owner who took everything personally (including all the credit) but who also wanted a ‘good’ ad from us because the bigger agencies wouldn’t touch them. CDP made many a great campaign out of some of these little clients (the names are left out to protect the guilty – you know who you are!). John Salmon simply insisted on ads that sold the product. Hard. They usually tended to be the better ones creatively.

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    George’s stories are so much more entertaining than Madmen. He should write the bloody show. I would start watching again.

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    Unlike my friend in the previous comment (Happy Thursday, Mr. Turinas), I haven’t sworn off Mad Men. But I agree with him about George’s writing. I just posted a link to this very article on Facebook, with a short diatribe about a terrible client that Mr. Turinas and I used to work on together at Ogilvy & Mather’s Houston office. See, I’m not too proud to piggyback on George Parker’s wit.

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    @Mark… The great thing about CDP’s use of minor clients to produce great ads, was that they really were great ads, both creatively and effective at doing their job. Many agencies today produce ads aimed at the award shows that do fuck all for their clients.
    @Turinas… Unfortunately, Mad Men has turned into a soap opera that has less and less to do with advertising. Not a single writer for the show has ever worked in advertising. “Putney Swope” is still my favorite take on how fucked up the ad biz is. I also cover a lot of crazy BDA history in my previous book… “The Ubiquitous Persuaders.”
    Thanks to one and all for saying nice things… Now, get off your arses and buy the fucking books.
    Cheers/George

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    @Bill… O&M Houston… Remember it well. Went there several times when I freelanced on the doomed Compaq pitch… See my first excerpt… “How I met David Ogilvy twice.” I must say, apart from Ogilvy, I also went to Houston a lot on other business… The place is a shithouse. The people are nice… But why they would live there is beyond me. Still, I suppose it’s better than Detroit… Standing by for the hate mail.
    Cheers/George

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    Dr. George (for that is how you shall now be addressed in the respectful German style) – if only there were more of us. CDP under John Salmon – with Neil Godfrey, Tony Brignull and John Withers – produced loads of wonderful work for brands like Dunns the Tailors, Clarks shoes, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, Met Police (Indra Sinha, Jeremy Clarke & Graham Fink), Great Ormonde Street Hospital, Harveys Bristol Cream – TINY clients. Look at them now. Nobody understood the underdog brand better than CDP. Yes, it did B&H, Barclaycard, COI. But under John’s guidance, it also supported some seminal British brands that otherwise might simply have drowned in the wonderful new world of trainers/fast-food/payday-lenders nonsense etc.

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    @Mark… Having worked on a few Swiss accounts, they went even further, referring to each other as… “Herr Doctor.” They barely restrained each other from clicking heels and doing a Dr Strangelove salute. One Zurich client confided over several beverages… “The Swiss Germans are more German than the German Germans.” Having worked on a Swiss private bank account, I can assure you there are still several tons of “Nazi Gold” buried beneath the side walks of Zurich. Clever fuckers.
    Cheers/George

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    George I would have loved to have you teaching our advertising class. Our teacher spent the whole year mumbling from behind his briefcase. And you would have loved our class. We too had a Kate!

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    I have a swiss girlfriend and she often speak of the nazi gold on which all swiss people thrive. Up till now I was sure she was joking.

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    George, great story. I had a client who used to fly in from (place deleted, but it was a sherry account, ‘innocent face’) about twice a month. The agency would nod, accept the brief for a 25 x 4 in ‘Vintners Weekly’, then take him to a very expensive ‘gentleman’s club’ where he would gorge himself on expensive but crap wine, expensive but crap food, and have two ‘escorts’ for dessert (expensive and I can’t comment on the rest). Eventually this got so expensive (and crap), the agency fired the client.

    Another client, a gentleman named Burn, would come in and alter the work at the 11 3/4th hour. Inevitably, this became known as ‘fiddling while Burn roams’…

    Are client still this mad and bad? And where are the dangerous to know creatives?