The impish disciplinarian

They say that creative is a young man's game, but while twentysomethings hopped up on double espressos can keep those wacky ideas coming, many don't have a clue when it comes to long-term strategic brand building. It takes time to produce a multi-year campaign that achieves recognition levels of 95% (such as Monsieur B. in Quebec). It takes discipline. It takes experience. Not many Canadian CDs can do it. Here's a chance to meet four who can.
'What would Schwarzenegger do?'
Next time you're faced with a tough brief, try asking yourself that. BBDO Toronto's president and chief creative officer Jack Neary does, and it seems to work for him.

They say that creative is a young man’s game, but while twentysomethings hopped up on double espressos can keep those wacky ideas coming, many don’t have a clue when it comes to long-term strategic brand building. It takes time to produce a multi-year campaign that achieves recognition levels of 95% (such as Monsieur B. in Quebec). It takes discipline. It takes experience. Not many Canadian CDs can do it. Here’s a chance to meet four who can.

Jack Neary on Jack Neary

Title: President and chief creative officer, BBDO Toronto

Age: 47

Work history: At the age of 18 started as a newspaper reporter out West. Senior editor of Muscle & Fitness magazine (Los Angeles) for three-and-a-half years. Got my start in advertising in 1980 at a small shop in Calgary. Came to Toronto in ’86. Worked at Cossette, MacLaren, DDB, Chiat/Day (named CD in ’91, won Strategy’s Agency of Year two years in a row: ’91 and ’92).

All-time favourite ad: David Abbott’s ‘Writer lying under the Volvo’ print spread. Brilliant!

Favourite TV show: (old) Rumpole of the Bailey; (new) Iron Chef.

Last book read: Martin Sloane by Michael Redhill.

Pets: Chocolate Labrador.

‘What would Schwarzenegger do?’

Next time you’re faced with a tough brief, try asking yourself that. BBDO Toronto’s president and chief creative officer Jack Neary does, and it seems to work for him.

‘He looooooves to talk about his old days with Arnie,’ says Richard Burjaw, director of marketing for carbonated soft drinks at Mississauga-based Pepsi-Cola Canada. ‘You may or may not know that early in his career, he wrote exercise manuals with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and he wrote for Muscle & Fitness magazine.’

Strange beginnings for a creative strategy master, perhaps, but then again, it’s as good a way as any to learn about discipline, endurance and long-term goals, the attributes Neary feels every creative director worth his salt should bring to the table.

Discipline, in particular, is important. Neary doesn’t believe in doing something different just for the sake of being different. He doesn’t believe in throwing out a good strategy just because the agency or client team has changed. He does believe in research, as long as it doesn’t replace common sense, and he absolutely believes in getting to know the product as well as the client does.

But just when you get the idea that Neary is some kind of school-marmish stickler, he’s likely to pin a ‘kick me’ sign to the back of your shirt. Because underneath his stern advice lies an anti-authority impishness that made him a perfect fit for Diet Pepsi.

It was the fall of ’98 when Pepsi first came to Neary, creative director Michael McLaughlin, and others at BBDO Toronto with the Diet Pepsi brief.

While the parent Pepsi brand was actually out-selling Coke in Canada (and still is), Diet Pepsi was being thrashed by Diet Coke. This was a big problem in itself, but had the potential to become an even bigger problem as the average age of Canadians inched higher.

‘At the time, the competitor was outspending us, probably two to one,’ recalls Neary, ‘and the lion’s share of the strategic and the media thinking was against the parent brand, Pepsi. But Diet Pepsi represented the future in some ways, because with an aging demo in this country, more and more young people who would normally drink regular cola were migrating into the diet category. It was a growth category.’

It was clear that Diet Pepsi needed to figure out who to aim for and what it stood for, but when Neary and his team sat down to tackle the problem, they realized they faced the classic brand extension dilemma: How distinct should Diet Pepsi be from its parent?

This is where that muscle-building discipline came into play. ‘There’s a tendency on the part of some agencies, and some clients, to say, ‘Oh, let’s do something completely different, and put our own thumbprints on it.’ But I think it requires a bit of restraint, on our part and Pepsi’s, to say let’s take what’s working for Pepsi and leverage that to benefit Diet Pepsi.’

Pepsi’s brand was already well established: It unabashedly aimed for youth with the tag ‘The choice of a new generation.’ Even though it was actually the category leader, the Pepsi brand was the challenger brand, young and ready to take on the establishment.

If Pepsi was for teens, Diet Pepsi was for those in their late 20s and early 30s, and its character had to by adjusted accordingly. ‘The real insight is that there’s always this spirit in you that never dies, and this is what we call being ‘forever young,” says Neary. ‘So the whole premise that we built this campaign on is that ‘Diet Pepsi’s the one that’s forever young.”

Neary knew that this positioning would make sense to teens raised on the parent brand’s message when they moved onto diet drinks. More than that, he knew that aiming for twentysomethings at the lower end of the diet demo made sense, since boomers aspire younger, but those in their 20s don’t tend to aspire older. More than that, he knew that it was a ‘timeless’ positioning that wasn’t going to be out of fashion in two years. More than that, says Neary, ‘it just felt right in my gut.’

Putting the strategy into action is where Neary’s fondness for practical jokes comes in. ‘The campaign that we produced in the first year, I guess somewhat comes from my own personality,’ he says. ‘We had a bit of fun with moments in corporate environments where people would suddenly – because they were triggered by a piece of music or something a friend said to them – it would just trigger a moment of impishness. What we call these moments of ‘youthful liberation.”

Over the last three and a half years, the campaign stuck to those roots while the creative evolved. More recent executions play on the desire to revisit glory days, only to be brought down to earth by the realization that the clothes and hairstyles of the ’80s were actually pretty ridiculous. (Think of the spot where the business guy envisages himself in a floppy ’80s do when he hears a Flock of Seagulls song.)

The fact that Pepsi has stuck with the campaign year after year indicates that the strategy is working, and indeed, Neary can hardly wait to reveal the results.

‘Even though Diet Coke had a big head start on us three years ago, since then we’ve grown consumption significantly,’ he says. ‘And while our consumption has grown, Diet Coke’s consumption has dropped over the last 18 months. Our share gap has narrowed a lot, by over two share points, and we’re optimistic that 2002 will be our best year ever.’

In fact with any luck, says Neary, Diet Pepsi’s positioning will live for years to come, maybe even making it to the hallowed hall of multi-decade platforms, such as London Life’s ‘Freedom 55.’

That’s the ultimate test, he says. ‘We live in a world of one-offs. But the best ideas are big, sound, extendable propositions that live from ad to ad, from medium to medium, from year to year, and prove themselves over time. You don’t see that very often today. And it’s a shame.’