This week I'm writing an article for The Weekly Surge on Super Bowl advertising. I spoke with Venables, Bell & Partners Co-Founder and Creative Director Paul Venables about his experience putting together campaigns for advertising's biggest night. Venables and his team at VBP have handled Super Bowl ads for client Audi since its first spot in 2008. Since then, Venables helped rip apart the German luxury "aristocracy," campaign, after campaign. In this interview, he explains what goes behind making some of the Super Bowl's best commercials.
How does it feel to see your Super Bowl ad running?
"Having your ad play on the biggest stage imaginable, with millions and millions of viewers across continents, is a pretty darn exciting thing. Usually you're watching the Super Bowl in an atmosphere -- either party-like, or at least there's a spirit of good times and fun -- your ad comes on, and you just wish it could be longer. Commercials are so fleeting in our lives, so you watch a three-and-a-half or four-hour game…so you stole the audience's attention for 60-seconds but that's still pretty fleeting in the grand scheme of things. But it's worth it. It's a fantastic experience. When you go in designing something for the Super Bowl, I think your approach is a little different. There's higher stakes, so maybe you're a little bit more nervous. But, you know the opportunity is tremendous, and you keep kind of pushing yourself to do something great."
Was it Audi's idea to go for the holy grail of TV spots, or did you pitch that to them?
"We pitched that. When we pitched the business, we had a Super Bowl idea at the time. We, with Audi particularly -- this brand was doing all the right things from the product and engineering side -- the world just didn't know about Audi. The world didn't know that they were beating BMW and Mercedes at their own game. So we, with them, worked to shift their media dollars to be in more marquee events; to really stand out -- to create that conversation. And so we've done that from day one. The first one we did, you may recall, was the 'Godfather' spot, where the guy wakes up and instead of the horse-head in the bed, it's the front end of his luxury car. And we put old luxury on notice. That was our stake in the ground: Audi's here, shoulders back, chin up, we're coming at-cha. That was the gauntlet that we through down, and now here we are."
Is that why Audi is a good brand for the Super Bowl? It's not a mass market brand, but it's a brand that wants to get on everybody's radar.
"I think that's exactly it with Audi. They're not a mass market brand. We're never going to compete with the Doritos, and the Pepsis, and the Budweisers of the world, with slapstick humor and the silliness. And that stuff, I love it; it's all well and good. But, Audi has to do both. It has to appeal to the masses, but has to maintain its sophisticated persona. And, that's a trick for luxury brands to do. It's hard. It's hard to do both; something that wins on the Super Bowl with the mass audience, but is true to who you are. I think the Mercedes Benz [Kate Upton] teaser that they released is just a terrible embarrassment for them because they're trying to be…something that they're not. It's really, it's kind of sad."
"They're clearly trying to say, 'Hey, look at us! We belong in the Super Bowl and we can act like Doritos.' But no one wants to buy a Mercedes knowing they're acting like Doritos. You need to keep that allure of the high end premium brand, and still do something creative, provocative, and funny -- whatever your angle is. But, you got to be true to who you are in the Super Bowl. It's just that some of the rules, some of the guidelines, are less rigid. You can push it a little bit more, but you can't step outside and be somebody that you're not."
How do Super Bowl ads compare to campaigns that are otherwise run throughout the year?
"Well I think Super Bowl ads now are campaigns in and of themselves. You have to figure out your pre-Super Bowl strategy; are you releasing other content. You have to create a dialogue online. You have to use social media. You have to create content for social media. Do you do a YouTube channel? Do you launch it all on Facebook? Do you do both? You got a hashtag? We were the first to put a hashtag at the end of our Super Bowl spot two years ago to create a conversation in that regard. You know, how do you play the press angle? The traditional auto press, the USA Todays of the world. And, it's an onslaught; it's an entire campaign with other content created. And, I think that's the value of the Super Bowl. It's not just you buy a spot and you're done. You're basically creating a conversation that has a lot of people involved that lasts from several weeks before the game to several weeks after, and so there's value in that."
Is this a trend that you've seen recently, that Super Bowl ads are no longer a one-and-done campaign?
"Anybody that does the Super Bowl one-and-done is wasting an awful lot of money. It's too expensive to just play the game, hope you do well on some poll or meter, and be done. There's just way too much at stake. It's not a smart investment to approach it that way. I think very few companies do."
Has the style of Super Bowl ads influence advertising outside of the Super Bowl?
"I don't know. That's a good question. I think the Super Bowl in and of itself can be pretty predictable. There's going to be, you know, there's going to be a lot of dogs, I guarantee it. There's going to be some babies. There's going to be men being stupid. There's going to be men being too feminine and soft, who should be tougher. There's going to be slapstick; somebody is going to get hit in the nether-regions. There's going to be horses, probably Clydesdales. There's a lot of predictability, and I think that is comforting in a few ways to America; they have come to expect a kind of certain style of spot, but I think there's a huge opportunity for an advertiser to do something different, and stand out, and win people over with something different.
So, it's more than just slapstick. Do you think there has to be a "prevailing idea" behind the campaign that makes it a 'good' ad?
"Yeah, in my book. And you know we all probably judge the ads with our own value set, but I think you have to have something bigger than the *schtick.* Throwing the celebrity in the ad just because you know you're going to get more followers on Twitter is nice, but it's got to be meaningful. There's got to be an idea there. In fact, I'm interested to see, you know, instead of celebrities, and dogs, and monkeys, and talking babies -- what about good, old fashioned storytelling? A nice piece of film that tells a story that's captivating, that's interesting, that's shot well, that's casted well, that doesn't rely on the usual gimmicks -- I would love to see some more of that on the Super Bowl. Just win with the value of the idea and the storytelling of it."
Do you think a lot of agencies are starting to get that, and move away from the banal, slapstick humor?
"No. I think in a lot of creative departments the call comes to do a Super Bowl spot, and they immediately go, 'Well we have to do something extreme and crazy and gimmicky.' I just think that's still how people approach it. And, sometimes that yields great stuff, but a lot of times I think it leaves people reaching for something that isn't quite worth reaching for, or is shallow because it's a quick gimmick."
From an agency standpoint, what goes into getting an ad ready for the Super Bowl?
"Like I said, we approach it like a campaign. We have strategy specific to the Super Bowl. We work out a range of ideas. I like to have some flexibility going into the creative development to make sure we know of the absolute best thing that's suitable for the Super Bowl and yet true to Audi, in this case. And, so we approach it with a lot of discipline on the front end. What do we want? What do we want to accomplish? There are a lot of ways to measure success. It could just be impressions. You know, we've hit billions of impressions with past ads. Or, it could be the amount of buzz generated, or the activity on Facebook, or the USA Today poll, [or] did you make it on Good Morning America -- or, whatever. And, you kind of need to be clear on what you're going for, and have some discipline and rigor on the front end, and really unleash creatively on a range of ideas, and then put the rigor back in when you evaluate and debate which things have merit and which things don't. So, a lot goes in. Usually a lot of ideas I want to generate. You know with Audi, we can do a brand specific thing that's just really about the four rings, or we could do something about a particular model. The Super Bowl ad that we're running this year features the S6. Or, we could do something about a technology; we could do a Quatro thing, or a TDI clean diesel thing. So, right there, those are three different briefs, really. And sometimes we open it up. We know generally the objective we want to hit, and then we might look at from each of those angles -- product, technology, and brand -- and see what's the best story; what's the most compelling thing for the Super Bowl."
Do you have any all-time favorite Super Bowl ads, other than your own, of course?
"Off the top of my head, some things pop-in just randomly. One is the old 'Mean Joe Green' classic Coke spot from, I guess it was the 70s. I'm pretty sure that was a Super Bowl spot. That was just phenomenal and endearing commercial. The 'morning after' spot -- I forget the name of it -- that Nike did after the 'Y2K' non-event. That was just epic and wonderful…I think '1984' is a great story, but a little overrated. And, I think it was for its time and all of those things, amazing -- it's nothing short of amazing -- but I still don't count it among my favorites for some reason. And, maybe it's just because it's been so hyped over the years."
Some in the industry have suggested that Super Bowl ads are bad for the advertising industry, suggesting that it conditions people into believe that all advertising is like what Doritos typically does during the Super Bowl. That is, putting slapstick ahead of smart ads. What's your take?
"You know what I say to that? Yada, yada, yada. Only in advertising, in the industry of advertising, would you have someone in the industry complaining that the entire world sits up and takes notice of our craft. [Laughs] Give me a break. Now I don't think the industry always does itself proud because I think that sometimes we put a lot of dreck out there on the Super Bowl, [but] I'll take the eyeballs and the attention for one day a year on advertising. …We do a Super Bowl survey every year, and I don't have the numbers in front of me, but it says something like people are just as likely to talk about the ads as they are the key plays of the game the next day, or on Twitter, or during the game. So, it's a day we're elevated to pop culture status and we have to accept that, and we, as an industry, have to do our part which is to deliver the good content. But, to complain that people are paying too much attention to the Super Bowl, or its not what it's supposed to be cracked up to be, or look at our ads for the rest of the year -- you know what, we're lucky they're looking at them that one day."