How do you know when to pull the plug?

I've written before, very favorably, about the Showcase TV billboard campaign. (And the people there were nice enough to send me a thank-you coffee mug. This is good. I cannot be bought, but stroking me does wonders.)

I’ve written before, very favorably, about the Showcase TV billboard campaign. (And the people there were nice enough to send me a thank-you coffee mug. This is good. I cannot be bought, but stroking me does wonders.)

I’ve found the campaign clever in both strategy and execution. It uses quick little Q&A’s — THINK CRONENBERG IS A TRENDY GERMAN BEER? YOU NEED SHOWCASE — that both define their audience and compliment them as well. In other words, if I do know who Cronenberg is, I’m amused by the wordplay and I feel superior to the bumpkins who don’t.

The campaign is in its fourth year, and I look forward to it every fall. This year it showed up, right on schedule, and you know what? It bored me.

I don’t think there’s a more difficult question in this whole difficult advertising business than the subject of wear-out. When, and why, do you yank a successful campaign? It’s like the retirement of a great athlete: does he go out leaving them saying, ‘Why’s he quitting?’ or hang on for the much more common ‘What took him so long?’

Clients have asked me, and I’ve asked research people, for the magic formula that says, ‘Yesterday was too soon, tomorrow’s too late, DO IT NOW!’ Nobody seems to have it. (If you do, my contact numbers are below.)

I think more often than not, we pull a campaign too soon rather than too late. We are the ones who see it in the meeting rooms, we see it on the storyboards, we see it in the focus groups, we get tired of it and the public hasn’t even seen it yet!

Clients are impatient — where are the results, dammit, we’ve been running it for five days already! And creative people may be even worse. The spectacular one-shot tends to win a lot more awards than the slow-but-lasting build of identity. There’s very little glory in doing the forty-seventh commercial in the Maytag campaign, even though the lonely repairman has become part of our folklore. As I’ve said before, sooner or later a creative team will be assigned to the Fido business, shouting ‘Yeah, but we ain’t gonna do no frigging dogs!’

But on the other side of the coin, when an agency-client team does have the patience to let a campaign build — a Maytag, a Merrill Lynch bull, a Dofasco — how do they figure out when to say, ‘It’s finally peaked, it’s over, we love it but we gotta give it a gold watch and a pension plan.’

It’s hard, but maybe I can offer a few suggestions. Let’s use the Showcase campaign as an example. (Hey, Showcasers, I’m sorry, I love your work and your coffee mug, and I’m trying to be helpful, not nasty.)

1. Is the client trying to get the campaign to do too much?

Sometimes new strategic demands push a campaign into places it was never meant to be. Like the new spot for Labatt Blue, with the bottle sliding down the counter, evolving its historic labels as it goes. It’s trying to make a point that just doesn’t fit with the wacky unexpectedness of ‘Out of the Blue’. Has Showcase reached too far, maybe by trying to promote specific shows that just don’t lend themselves to wordplay?

2. Has the public gotten the joke long ago, and enough already?

Puns, though I love them, are a shallow kind of humor. The campaigns that really last are based on humanity — the old Miller Lite jocks, Maytag again, even that strange Taster’s Choice couple. People never get tired of people, but they do weary of ‘jokes’.

3. Are you working as hard on it in year four as in year one?

We all try to avoid going through the motions, but sometimes it happens. Isn’t there a wittier play on The Big Lebowski than to mistake it for a wrestling movie?

4. The pundit is full of crap and the campaign is just as good as it ever was.

An interesting potential theory, but not possible.

John Burghardt’s checkered resume includes the presidency of a national agency, several films for the Shah’s government in Iran, collaboration with Jim Henson to create the Cookie Monster, and a Cannes Gold Lion. The letterhead of his thriving business now reads ‘STRATEGIC PLANNING * CREATIVE THINKING.’ He can be reached by phone at (416) 693-5072 or by e-mail at burgwarp@aol.com.