The Unsung Hero
July 6, 2020

Advertising isn’t a bad place for crazy ideas, as long as you know what’s crazy and what’s good. We had this copywriter, Wally Fineberg, who couldn’t tell the difference. He’d get an idea and run down to Harry Bellamy’s office — Harry being the creative director. A few minutes later, Harry would scream, “A Trojan Horse, Wally? The client can’t afford a Trojan Horse. They’re Embassy Cleaners, for chrissake. All they want is a simple commercial.”

Wally would come back looking all dejected. As soon as he sat down, the account people would call, They’d want to know when they could show the client something. “I’m still working on it,” he’d say, and they’d tell him he didn’t have much time. Research was planned for the following week.

That only made Wally freeze up even more. Sometimes we’d be grabbing dinner, and we’d ask him to come along. “I can’t even think about food,” he’d say. We’d come back an hour later and hear him typing away. Then, around eight o’clock, the security guard, this young guy with a spotty beard, would come walking around on our floor.

He’d stop at Wally’s door and see Wally sitting there. His name was Riff and his uniform looked three sizes too big for him. One night he started looking at Wally’s rough sketches tacked up on the wall. Wally was always sketching and scribbling. Riff looked at each one real close, pushing his hat back on his head, while Wally scratched and scribbled.

“This one’s cool,” he said.

“Harry won’t buy it,” Wally replied. “Too complicated.”

“What about this one?”

“Same deal.”

Riff kept looking, trying to figure out what the problem was. Every one of Wally’s sketches had these penguins. Some were big, some were tiny, some hardly looked like penguins at all. Embassy Cleaners had been using penguins for years. They even had inflated penguins on top of all their roofs.

Riff had an Embassy Cleaners down the street from his apartment. When it got windy, he could see those penguins bobbing back and forth.

“Why penguins?” Riff asked.

“They look like they’re wearing tuxedos,” Wally said, rubbing his eyes. “You know, neat and tidy. I inherited the stupid things.”

“Why not seals?” Riff asked.

“Seals are brown and dull, Riff.”

“They’re funnier than penguins.”

“They’re still seals.”

“What if you had a seal wishing it was a penguin?”

“Why would a seal want to be a penguin?”

“To be neat and tidy.”

“The seal wants to be neat and tidy?”

“He could say to the penguin, ‘You’re my idol.’”

“And the penguin says, what? ‘Don’t mention it’?”

“That’s funny.”

“You think that’s funny?”

“Sure, it’s funny.”

Wally started sketching again, this time with a seal looking up at a penguin. “You might be onto something, Riff,” he said, suddenly getting up, sticking the sketch on the wall. “It’s like the ugly duckling wanting to be a swan. Kind of a Hans Christian Andersen fable.”

“Who?” Riff said.

“Haven’t you ever heard of The Ugly Duckling? It wants to be a swan. That way it’ll be popular. This is a variation on the same theme.”

“So the seal wants to be popular?” Riff said.

“Why not?” Wally said. “He isn’t getting anywhere being dull and boring. It’s aspirational. People love aspirational stuff.”

He started sketching again, getting more excited, showing a seal saying to a penguin, “I like your style.” Wally was on a roll now, telling Riff this was going to save his ass. “Remind me to buy you dinner,” he said.

Wally got everyone in the boardroom the next day. “Seals are brown and dull,” he told them. “That’s what happens when you take your dry cleaning to the competition. Embassy Cleaners is different. You end up looking neat and tidy like a penguin.”

The account director remembered a documentary where a leopard seal ate a penguin. “Isn’t one below the other in the food chain?” he said. “Why would a seal want to be a penguin?”

“It’s symbolic, for chrissake,” Wally said. “It makes it more unusual, more unexpected. If you saw a cartoon in The New Yorker and a seal says to a penguin, ‘I wish I looked like you,’ wouldn’t it seem unusual? That’s the whole idea. It’s a fable. It’s the ugly duckling aspiring to be a swan.”

“What if we had swans?” someone asked. “They’re white.”

“Seals are funnier than swans,” Wally said.

Even Harry thought it was a good idea. “At least you’re off Trojan Horses,” he told Wally. “Let’s run it by the client and see what he thinks.”

A meeting was set up. My office was across from the boardroom. I could hear Wally pitching his idea, and the client saying, “We’ll be animating this, right? I don’t want animal rights groups coming down on our asses. Other than that, I think it’s great.”

Everything went to studio to be worked up. Then the client called, wanting bigger price points. By the time the layouts were finished, Wally’s penguin and seal were down in the bottom corner.

The research turned out better than anyone expected. People loved the penguin and the seal. A seal aspiring to be a penguin was a novel idea, especially the seal wanting to be classy. “Big points on the classy aspect,” the account director told Wally afterwards. “I’m still a little hung up on that documentary. You ever see a leopard seal eat a penguin?”

“We’re using Emperor penguins, for chrissake,” Wally said. “No seal ever ate an Emperor penguin. They’re eight feet tall.”

“Just make sure the seal is small,” the account guy said.

As the layouts progressed, the seal kept getting smaller and smaller. “It’s starting to look like a chihuahua,” Wally was saying when Riff showed up the next night. Riff looked at the layouts tacked everywhere.

“Are they putting seals on the Embassy Cleaners’ roof, too?”

“Sure, seals, Emperor penguins, the works.”

“I’ll see them from my apartment.”

“You’ll see them everywhere. The client loves the idea.”

Wally was gathering all the layouts together. “Look,” he said to Riff, “as soon as this is over, I’ll take you out for dinner like I promised.”

“When’s that?”

“Another week or two.”

Coming back from dinner later, we saw Riff walking around in the main lobby. “I’ll ride up with you,” he said. Wally was still at his desk making last minute changes. Riff walked around Wally’s office, pushing his hat back on his head, examining everything Wally stuck to the wall.

“Why does the seal have a bowtie?” he asked.

“He’s transforming. Like the ugly duckling becoming a swan.”

“Swans don’t have bowties.”

“It’s a prop, Riff. We can’t change the seal’s colour. We’re giving him a bowtie, instead. We have to show the seal is changing. How about this? The seal says to the penguin, ‘What’s your favourite? Rothschild ’58 or ‘59?’”

The next week, Embassy Cleaners put seals up on their roofs along with huge inflated Emperor penguins. Riff woke up one morning and saw them.

“They put up my seals,” he said to Wally.

“Not so loud, Riff. I shouldn’t even be talking to you about this.”

A heavy television campaign was planned. Producers were casting voices, animators were bringing in storyboards. The account group was happy, more importantly, Harry was happy. He even dropped by one morning, saying he loved, “We’ll make a penguin out of you yet.”

All the trades were talking about the campaign. One reporter asked Wally how he came up with the idea. “It’s based on a fable,” Wally said. “The Ugly Duckling, by Hans Christian Andersen.” The article went out with the headline, “Embassy Borrows from Danish Classic.” More articles followed, the client was thrilled, they were quoted in Advertising Age.

“We’re very impressed with the creativity shown by the agency,” the president remarked. “My daughter thinks the seal is adorable.”

Wally became a hot commodity around the agency. Everyone wanted him on their brand. He got his confidence back and started having these crazy ideas again. Harry chewed him out, telling him to do something simple. “Like your penguins and seals,” Harry said.

“Everyone wants penguins and seals,” Wally said. “If I show anything else, they say, ‘It’s not as good.’”

“Well, figure it out, Wally. I can’t hold the account group off forever.”

Wally went back to his office all dejected again. The phone kept ringing, people left messages, nothing was coming. Every time Harry walked by Wally’s office, Wally got worse. He’d scribble something down, tear it up, toss it in the wastepaper basket. Then Riff came by.

“What’s up?” Riff asked.

“Harry’s on my case,” Wally said. “I have to have a Purina spot by tomorrow. He’ll fire my ass if I don’t.”

“Did you hear what happened?”

“What?”

“One of those Emperor penguins came loose off the roof. Took out a car right in front of my place.”

“That’s all I need.”

“It was pretty funny, actually. Everyone was laughing.”

“Why were they laughing?”

“It looked like a flying penguin. You know, like flying pigs.”

“It’s an expression, Riff. Have you ever seen a flying pig? It means something is about as likely to happen as a pig flying.”

“Well, people were laughing.”

“Great.”

“Why don’t you do something like that?”

“Like what?”

“Have the dogs flying in your Purina commercial.”

“Why would they fly, Riff?”

“Maybe the food makes them fly?”

“How does food do that?”

“It gives them energy.”

“Maybe they do somersaults over ledges and stuff.”

“Or cartwheels over fire hydrants.”

“That’s funny.”

“You think that’s funny?”

“It’s funnier than dogs talking.”

Wally started scribbling again, then he’s on the phone to the studio. “I need lots of dogs. Dogs sailing through the air, retrievers, terriers, beagles. They’re all doing flips and somersaults through the air.”

Harry was coming down the hall.

“What the hell’s going on now?” he said.

“I’ve got it,” Wally said.

“Got what, Wally?”

“The Purina commercial,” Wally said. “Imagine flying dogs. Healthy, happy dogs. All because they eat Purina Dog Chow. It’s full of protein, right? They’re so hyped up on protein, they’re doing back flips.”

Harry got on the phone to the account group. They met in the boardroom. Wally covered the walls with pictures of somersaulting dogs.

“Is there any chance of them breaking their legs?” someone asked. “We don’t the want SPCA on our case. How about short-legged dogs?”

“We’re using all dogs,” Wally insisted.

“How many are we talking about here?” another account guy asks.

“Tons of them. The whole sky is full.”

“We can duplicate a lot of them with animation,” Harry said.

He was pacing around the boardroom table. Then he noticed Riff standing at the door with his hands in his pockets.

“What do you want?” Harry asked.

“I just came to see how Wally’s making out,” Riff said.

“Well, get back downstairs. This is confidential business.”

Riff left with his hands in his pockets. We didn’t see him for a couple of days. When he did show up, Wally was busy working up the television scripts for Purina. Pictures of dogs were tacked up all over the place. Riff stood there looking at the layouts. “I like the beagles,” Riff said.

“I got beagles all over the place, Riff.”

“When are we grabbing dinner?”

“Let me put this campaign to bed first. I gotta go upstairs.”

He went off, leaving Riff standing there in the hall. Riff saw me sitting in my office across the hall. “I came up with the flying dogs,” he said.

“I know, Riff,” I said.

“Wally’s buying me dinner.”

“I heard.”

Riff started looking at the layouts on my wall. They were for a new lipstick.

“What if the women aren’t putting lipstick on their own lips?” he asked. “What if they’re putting it on each other’s lips?”

“Why would they do that?”

“Isn’t it harder to put lipstick on someone else?”

“You should go, Riff.”

“It’s a good idea, right?”

“Yeah, it’s a good idea.”

“Are you going to use it?”

“Probably.”

“What about contests?” he said. “Women putting on each other’s makeup. They could win pink cars or something.”

“I think I hear Harry coming,” I said.

Harry was yelling at another copywriter. “What the hell, Burroughs,” he screamed. “This is all you could come up with?”

Riff took off the other way. I made a few fast sketches, stuck on some headlines. Harry was back in his office at this point. I took everything down there and knocked on his door.

“What do you want?” he asked.

“I got an idea for the Revlon account,” I said.

“It better be better than Burroughs’ stuff.”

“What if we had women putting on each other’s lipstick?”

“This is your idea? I just told Burroughs I was going to fire his ass. Maybe I’ll fire you, too.”

“Hear me out, Harry. It’s harder to put lipstick on another person. We have contests. Women can win pink cars. It’ll be the Revlon Challenge. Our lipstick goes on easier. In fact, so easy, you can put it on someone else.”

“Sounds like something Wally would do.”

“It could be big, Harry.”

He looked at the thumbnails again, sipped his coffee, then picked up the phone and called the account people.

“Get down here,” he said. “I think we’ve got something.”

He hung up the phone.

“Thanks, Harry,” I said.

“I still think it’s something Wally would do. Go put your stuff up in the boardroom. And tell that security guard to quit hanging around. We’re doing confidential business here. Little creep acts like he works here.”

“I’ll get rid of him.”


Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

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