Gnomes and bunny-rats come to life in ‘unexpected’ ads

You don't see much about them in the press, but they're there. Killer combinations of raw talent, enthusiasm and, yes, even sophistication. Strategy did a cross-country poll of agency creatives and commercial production execs, asking which new teams were doing drop-dead clever work. Despite the reluctance of some agency brass to name their brightest ('they'll get stolen') and even to name the top up-and-comers elsewhere ('I'm trying to steal them'), ultimately, after much wheedling, it was a long list.
The following teams are the ones whose names cropped up the most.

You don’t see much about them in the press, but they’re there. Killer combinations of raw talent, enthusiasm and, yes, even sophistication. Strategy did a cross-country poll of agency creatives and commercial production execs, asking which new teams were doing drop-dead clever work. Despite the reluctance of some agency brass to name their brightest (‘they’ll get stolen’) and even to name the top up-and-comers elsewhere (‘I’m trying to steal them’), ultimately, after much wheedling, it was a long list.

The following teams are the ones whose names cropped up the most.

Perhaps it was a sign that Ogilvy & Mather copywriter Michael Gelfand and art director Ian Letts needed some time apart.

Three years ago, Gelfand told Letts about a dream he had the previous evening in which he and Letts had a baby together. For whatever reason – and we’ll leave all speculation to dream therapists – the baby was named Baby Joe. Letts blended some photos of the two creative partners to come up with what Baby Joe would have looked like. Needless to say, the resulting mugshot wasn’t exactly appealing.

The same could not be said for the best of these two partners’ creative work. Talking garden gnomes, heartsick potatoes and the ultimate dysfunctional family (where the ‘family’ is made up of a man, a monkey sock and a stuffed bunny-rat) are a few of the absurd, yet charming, characters Gelfand and Letts, both 34, have pulled out of their creative hats for clients.

If there’s such a thing as an atypical route into advertising, Gelfand and Letts took it. After receiving a master’s degree in literature from the University of Alberta, Gelfand moved to Toronto to teach English as a second language and consider becoming a professor.

After meeting an art director at a party, he decided to change careers. To get a portfolio together, he snuck into a class at the Ontario College of Art & Design and convinced a teacher and several classmates – future art directors – to let him collaborate on some projects and build his portfolio in the process.

Letts, on the other hand, is completely self-taught. The Winnipeg native, home-schooled since the age of seven, always found advertising interesting. ‘As part of the TV generation, part of my home schooling was watching TV ads.’

Both Gelfand and Letts depended less on formal education and more on raw talent to get them in the door. ‘Advertising is a very meritocratic business,’ says Letts. ‘If you can demonstrate that you can do it, you’re going to succeed, no matter what.’

Indeed. In a matter of months after being brought on by Ogilvy & Mather last fall, the two were promoted to group creative directors.

‘They took off like a rocket,’ says Nancy Vonk, co-creative director. ‘They’re an incredibly well-rounded team.’

While Vonk says that they’ve had many successes, her favourite work is the Imperial campaign (the first execution of which was done in collaboration with Chris Ward and Dave Ross).

The spots feature schlocky love songs (such as Air Supply’s All Out of Love) while a potato yearns – if root vegetables could, in fact, yearn – for Imperial margarine. The magic of the spots is that the camera shots are so recognizably romantic.

‘They bring a particularly clean look to all they execute,’ she says. Their style, according to Vonk: sleek, interesting and unexpected.

The copywriter:

Michael Gelfand

The art director: Ian Letts

On their best work:

MG: I think that we learned the most from the first very good ad we did. It was an ad for Kellogg’s Eggo [at Leo Burnett three years ago]. The account people didn’t think the client would buy it, but the creative director said that we should take it in as a lark and we did and they loved it. [The Eggo ad features a guy having a family breakfast with two dolls. A prolonged close-up of each doll, as he addresses them, makes the spot all that much more absurd.]

IL: It got some attention here but it also got attention in the foreign press, especially the British press. We watch a lot of European spots and I think that affects our sensibilities.

On their style:

IL: There are ads that make you laugh and then there are ads that make you laugh and you think ‘What a smart solution to the problem.’ Too often, being a creative is seen as putting on your artist beret and doing something that’s a creative indulgence. But it’s really more about solving problems and practical communication.

MG: In a bold and interesting way, I think. Smart ideas that don’t get noticed are just that – ideas. Advertising needs to be interesting. I’m proud that we’ve done interesting work. We’ve done almost exclusively packaged goods, with a bit of retail.

IL: Traditionally, that’s kind of a wasteland of bad product claims and bad advertising overall. I think that we’re still fresh enough that we see that as a challenge.

On their fave ads:

MG: There’s an ad agency in London, [Eng.] that’s interesting and exciting – Mother. Whenever we’re working on something, we’ll ask ourselves ‘How would they solve this problem?’ because they have an amazing tendency to think different but plural at the same time. They’ll throw it at you in a way you’d never expect. [For Cup 'a' Noodle soup, for example, the agency created a campaign that highlights when not to enjoy the soup, such as when one is running a marathon.] It sounds goofy but it’s done with intelligence.

IL: Actually, what we say is ‘How can we rip off Mother and not get caught?’

On burnout:

MG: I don’t think either one of us feels burnout or anything like that. You stop doing it when you don’t enjoy it. There are lots of other things that we could be doing and maybe we will someday. But I don’t think it will be about leaving advertising.

IL: It’s the dominant art form of the latter half of the last century. If I wasn’t doing this and I didn’t need to eat, I’d be doing some sort of art. But I may end up doing this anyway because how many people see something in a gallery versus a commercial during Survivor?