The 50 celebrities who changed my world

April 14, 2010

Like all iffy plans, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

I was still in the agency world, and by some miracle, I had been promoted to creative director. It was the boom time of the late 90s, and things were ticking along nicely, but most of the work we were doing was pretty pedestrian stuff.

I wanted to build a big blockbuster campaign. Something to inspire generations. Something to make creatives take a deep breath and say something really crass like ‘Now that’s why I’m in  advertising.’  Something like – oh, I don’t know – the pregnant man.

I had taken to dropping in on brainstorming sessions for little projects, some of the pro bono stuff we did for free, and seeing if there was anything there to tap into.

These were usually charities, and we’d take on a couple at a time. The deal was that we would have creative freedom (in other  words, we would try and win awards) and they would get great advertising for next to nothing.

One of them was a testicular cancer charity. Yes – ouch – that was my initial response too, but if you have never had it or don’t know anyone who has -apart from that cyclist who kept winning the Tour de France for years and years – count yourself lucky.

Anyway, the chief exec of the charity was the agency’s head of client services’ brother – and he was probably the charity’s chief bottle-washer, too, because he was the only client rep who ever turned up to our meetings, and a more cynical man than me would have suspected a scam. But needs must, and he seemed an amusing cove, despite – or maybe because of – only having one bollock, like Hitler in the playground songs of the 40s and 50s.

Odd that the first  thing you should know about a bloke  would be that. Wthe next thing I learned was  a marvellous – and scary – new word. Orchidectomy. Within an hour, I had become an expert on surgical procedures,  recovery programmes (top tip? salt water in the bath) and the sex life of a mono-orchid male (not very different, apparently).

I tried not to squirm too obviously, and at some point I blurted out ‘How about 50 celebs in their pants’?  He looked a bit startled at first, but then slowly nodded, like a bad movie.

So I scribbled the idea down and sketched a block of seven silhouettes in seven rows, and one in the bottom row, and then scratched out some space for a tag line. I showed it to him, and he nodded again.

‘So what shall we say there?’ he asked at last.

‘Oh, I don’t know yet. Let’s get our clever creatives on to it…’

A few hours later, we had a list of tag lines, but none of them really worked.

Jem,  a graduate trainee with a fine degree in anthropology from somewhere in the West Country, had suggested a new image, of a bunch of footballers waiting for the free-kick, clutching their balls, and the tag-line ‘Don’t leave it too late’, which I quite liked, but I still wanted 50 celebs, one of them blacked out, representing the one with cancer.

We made a list of about 100 celebs and  started phoning their agents.  Posh and Becks were unavailable because, as it turned out, they already had pants contracts. We were offering free publicity, and I did think of offering buckets of cash, which would probably have done the trick, but the client was a charity, dammit, so there was no cash.

Pleading and cajoling, at the end of three days, brought us, if I remember rightly, the following:

  • 3 premiership footballers (all of whom were sold by their clubs at the end of that season)
  • 8 footballers from lower divisions (none of whom, so far as I know, ever made it any further)
  • half a dozen rugby players (one of whom is now an England  international, but would be deeply embarrassed if I named him, wouldn’t you, Matt?)
  • a couple of boy bands, one of them from Belgium
  • a smattering of actors, at least two of whom have gone on to fame and fortune in crowd scenes in The Bill, or standing in the back of the Queen Vic in EastEnders
  • a couple of entrepreneurs
  • a load of students, all friends of Jem, and  hired completely against instructions simply because they looked a bit like celebrities (‘Look, Al < I was called Al in those days p it helped me get down on the kids, or wast down with the kids? > a bit of make-up and Jack here is a dead ringer for Gary Lineker,’ was what he actually said.)

I began to sense desperation. The great idea showed signs of going distinctly pear-shaped. But then slowly, the appeal of lookie-likies started to appeal more and more. They would be cheap, enthusiastic and hungry for their 15 minutes of fame. They wouldn’t need to look exactly like the people they were supposed to depict – in fact, the less convincing, the better. We would have to change the copy to make some tongue-in-cheek reference to them being look-alikes and somehow link that to a need to check your goolies for lumps every once in a while, but that was what we had creatives for, wasn’t it?

So I set Jem to work on calling round the agencies looking for lookie-likes. He spent the next week ploughing through model books, looking for people who with a bit of make-up, a wig here or there, and some tongue-in-cheek irony, would look like our celebs. Half of them turned up, half didn’t, but we did the shoots anyway.

I had to beg the client for more time, and they were starting to get twitchy, envisaging a campaign that would never hit the streets, but a bit of grovelling never comes amiss in the ad agency business, and the suit who managed the account got them tickets for the races.

Finally, we got our fake celebrities, put them in the ad, and it ran with mixed successes in some of the newer men’s magazines. Word of mouth helped a bit, and the number of younger men getting check-ups seemed to increase. The client, eventually, was happy, especially when we won a couple of awards, and one or two of our lookie-likies went on to fame, fortune, and a brief spell in tabloid heaven. So there you are, folks. The path to true happiness is through a little subterfuge…

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