WHEN CHIAT/DAY picked up the $150-million Nissan Motors national advertising account in August, 1987, it was the biggest score in the agency's 20-year history. However, when the agency's first television commercials for Nissan debuted last fall, the trade press and others in the industry gave them unusually low marks, going so far as to suggest that Chiat / Day had compromised its creative standards to accommodate the giant auto maker.
Not so, says Chiat / Day's executive creative director, Lee Clow, who was instrumental in developing the Nissan TV commercials that dramatized a round-table discussion by Nissan designers. In a later stage of the campaign, as part of a rebate strategy, Clow created the idea that loose cash was stashed in cars and trucks.
"I guess it just comes with the territory of being a high-profile agency," Clow says of the criticism. "We got the account in the middle of August. We're on the air with the first campaign in a matter of a month and a half, and we did 'B' work. We didn't do 'A' work, which is our goal. And people were ready to jump on it and criticize it and call it, like Adweek did, the worst advertising in the history of the world or something.
"By any other agency's standards, it was distinctive, unique advertising. I think you can point to six or seven other car brands that year-in and year-out do consistently weaker advertising than that."
In giving the Nissan spot its "Grand Baddie" award in January, Adweek magazine said it "reeks of phoniness." But the so-called yuppie designers commercial was actually inspired by Nissan's design center in La Jolla. "The reality is," Clow says, "it was based on something nobody knows about the company, which is that they have American designers in La Jolla building their cars.
"Probably the only mistake is that we didn't use the real people from La Jolla. We cast it because we didn't want to create celebrities out of this group of Nissan people. I think it probably didn't strike as honest a chord as it would have with the real people."
The object of these ads was not to publicize individual models, explains Nissan national advertising manager Joe Opre, but to increase Nissan's visibility, or what is called, in advertising jargon, "noticeability of the brand." "We wanted to do advertising that didn't look like advertising," says Opre, who, as a member of Nissan's marketing team, conferred with Clow, Jay Chiat and others at the agency in work sessions at which the ads took shape. Opre says Nissan was more than happy with the results.
"What no one seems to realize," Clow says of the critics, "is that (the campaign) worked incredibly well according to Nissan's research, in terms of changing their personality and getting a new and increased awareness of the brand to lay a foundation for introducing a bunch of new models this year."
As for the cash-back ads, in which loose bills jumped from the cars and into the pockets of buyers, Clow says they were simply a practical response to a specific marketing problem faced by Nissan. The company found itself with a large inventory of automobiles and decided on the tried-and-true strategy of rebates to clear it out. "It's been done 8,000 times," Clow says, "and I think we found a fairly fresh way of doing it." Opre calls the rebate ads "pure genius."
Clow emphasizes that the agency has adopted no double standard as far as the Nissan account. "Absolutely not. And the thing that's most unfair is to place any blame on Nissan, being big and bringing any baggage with them. In fact, they want the best we can do."
Chiat / Day commercials for four new Nissan models will start to air next month. In the meantime, Clow says, he's learning to live in the fishbowl created by success. "I think it has a lot to do with Jay walking around and saying, 'Good enough is not enough,' and then when we don't do our best work, people jump on us with both feet. A lot of people want to see us fall on our face now. But we're just trying to do good work and have fun."