Tuesday, June 27, 2006

MMODERNISTA! Gets Cadillac: Pearls Before Swine?

After decades with Leo Burnett, GM is taking its Cadillac account to a brash upstart in Boston, the five-year-old ad agency, MODERNISTA!

Make no mistake about it. MODERNISTA! is not your father's ad agency. They seem painfully polished, and are as avant garde as can be and still touch filthy lucre.

Their grunge-ish website is stylish past the point of cool. Past James Dean, past the Sex Pistols and well into Lilith Crane territory. Not so much cool as frigid. Was there a heart there or did I just miss it?

But that's just me. I like rainbows and kittens and duckies and unicorns, taking walks in the rain and rootbeer floats. Their kind of cool generally is rare in St. Louis, but if you're in Boston, you might want to keep a cardigan handy. These guys are chill.


Their graphics are stained, dirty-looking, reminiscent of the legendary $1 million idea on the back of a bar napkin, with an all-too-intentional non-chalance. They've got a sad-sack, heroin-addicted, weaving mascot reminiscent of Edward Gorley's pen and ink drawings, but without the wit. A witless Gorley is just beastly drawing and weird for weirdness' sake. Unless informed by a certain amount of self-awareness and cleverness, weirdness like this just wastes pixels.

But what do I know? GM is giving them the $22 million account, not Cambium Creative. But I think GM is making the same mistake it always does. Pyrotechnics are no substitute for insight into human character (and don't be fooled, that's the business), fake messiness doesn't make you creative, and just because you call it a big idea doesn't mean it's a big idea.

What Are Big Ideas?

I honked at this line, "At their best, big ideas tell you how to behave as a business--they're not simply an advertising tagline but a living, breathing business idea." Do these directional arrows have an ego issue? The hubris in that statement is kind of admirable, in its own deluded, twisted fashion. Even for advertising.

Big ideas don't tell people what to do. Really great Big Ideas tell something so true and compelling about who and what the company is at its core, that it's obvious. And not stupid obvious. But that brilliant kind of obvious that takes enormous insight to recognize and is hard to come up with because of its renegade elegance.

If a client of ours were looking for a tagline to be the basic behavioral instruction for the company, I would have to look hard at taking such a fool for a client. Now, if we get the Big Idea that succinctly describes the motivation, the ethic, the motor that keeps people passionate, then wonderful. But cart first. Then Big Idea.

Among Modernista!'s claims to fame has been their work for Hummer, a.k.a., the global warming 3-ton phalllus whose fading fortunes are tied topeak oil. The tv spot they showcase consists of a distorted shiny Hummer grill on a distorted dusty road to a driving techno beat. Copy reads: "Giddyap."

What a mild cleverness. In a world full of language so rich and descriptive, it's really empty. What does this so-called Big Idea really say? That you're a coyboy? You like to play? You can't wait your turn. Even though you're driving an $80,000 ozone depletion machine, you're just a little boy at heart. Giddyap puts no foie in my gras.

In truth, the Hummer brand relies on anything but boyish charm. It's bigger and meaner than anything on the road. Losers driving small cars would be decapitated if they rear-ended you--poor bastards. It's the testosteroni-cholestoral deep dish pizza of tank-cum-troop mover. It costs a fucking fortune, but you're rich enough not to care about anything but your immediate earthly pleasures. You might be Napoleonic in stature or might just be a small man, either way, but all those sweaty cowboy dreams make you hate queers. Your wife won't touch you, but your hemmoroid cream would turn into battery acid if you ever got the chance to nail the kids' sitter.

So you drive your ersatz-military phallus to display your masculinity. Like the little red sportscar of yesteryear, the Hummer is a big honkin' combover.

Meanwhile, it's kind of hard to feel sorry for Leo Burnett. With $225 million less in revenue, the cuts will be deep. And while there's not much sympathy for out-of-work advertising folks, I assure you, when cut, we bleed. (Although it doesn't show so much on the black clothes.)

What were they thinking with that pricey Super Bowl ad? Even with all those beautiful women, it wasn't even pleasant to behold. All black and white and hard people and cold metal. Whatever they were paid (airplane hangars and supermodels were involved), it was too much. Here's the the spot if you're so compelled.

It's almost as if the fine folks at Leo Burnett lost their way and when they should have been concepting, somehow managed to order gin and sushi . . . maybe some not-too-good hallucinogens--and cranked out this drivel.

MODERNISTA!, if they're smart, will build on Cadillac's truly golden, dusty rose image, which I'd argue still has incredible value to translate into new car sales. It would be time to put away the frightfully, dangerously cool bit, though. Getting down to the bones of a brand has nothing to do with cool and everything to do with feeling.

A good revival takes heart. I'd suggest a thoroughly contemporary approach at a retro-revival of the enduring meme that Cadillac is the best and most luxurious car money can buy. I think there's meat on them brand bones, but tarting it up, as I'm afraid they will do, to make an elegant lady shake her salt shaker like Brittany Spears in hopes a little hip will rub off? That would make as much sense as socks on a rooster. You wouldn't put Aunt Eugenie in a bustier and roller blades.

And just one more thing. I guess I'm on a bit of a rant, but these guys are just so emblematic of everything I was happy to leave behind at some of my worse big agency jobs that I am just going to indulge myself one last little bit.

That name, MODERNISTA!, with that exclamation point every damn time it's spelled, strikes me as that tortured ersatz fun found at boozeless office parties during which people laugh too loud, and merriment is mandatory. aIf you must CAP your NAME then INSIST on EXCITEMENT, isn't that pressing the point?

I'm being pretty rough on them, I know. It's hard to develop a site worthy of the exes and ohs that sacrifice their short digits for the greater good. But we ad folks need to learn something. Tell the truth, don't try spin gold out of straw. We never were any good at it anyway. All we got was a bunch of brassy sound and fury, signifying nothing.

I implore our entire industry. Let's once and for all get over being the cool kids. We're too old to be cool, and if we're not, we ought to be. There are many better things than cool. Cool has jumped the shark. Let's think of something else to aspire to. I'm leaning toward honest, warm, real and human.