Don, Updated

Look! Up in the balcony! Wearing a deep tan, Cuban shirt, linen pants, and Florsheim shoes! It’s Don Draper! 

Well, kinda, sorta, maybe. The actor Jon Hamm did appear at the Cannes Lions “Festival of Creativity” last week, and in his own modern man-wear, and  loose, non-shellacked hair, looked much younger than Don ever has. Imported as a special guest to electrify a private cocktail party held by agency McGarry Bowen, Hamm indeed earned his dough. He spoke a little, mingled happily, and even posed for photos, Bar Mitzvah style.

As you might imagine, the actual ad peeps gathered there went gaga. The sense of veneration (and lust) in the room did seem weird, given the reality that Hamm (and what a name for an actor!) is playing a part, a figment of "Mad Men" creator Matt Weiner’s imagination -- and a lying, womanizing, often married, morally compromised, and occasionally ad-writing sod who is semi-responsible for two suicides, to boot.

Everything is romanticized through the lens of history, of course, but a favorite question for many MM maniacs is to ponder how Don Draper would do in the present-day biz, particularly in the digital sphere. Can the cold, online world of banners and targeting also accommodate the kind of hot, emotional storytelling that Don became famous for in his “Carousel” and Jaguar presentations? 

This year, the first ever Grand Prix for Mobile was awarded to Google’s “Hilltop Reimagined,”  part of Google’s absolutely brilliant Re:Brief campaign, (from Johannes Leonardo and Grow.)  It absolutely shows the creativity of technology, as opposed to the banality of the “Click here” banner.

A great call by the new mobile jury, the remake of Coke’s Hilltop spot allowed people to use vending machines to send Coke bottles, and messages, to people on the other side of the world. Thus, through the not-so-warm arms of technology,  it literally made good on the original lyrics, “I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company.” The reveal was a breathtakingly human story in a similar way that the original “Hilltop” spot  (once it pulled back to show the helicopter and rolling type explaining how the spot was created), made me cry.  The remake succeeds because it smartly taps into the fundamentally human need to share and be social. And it made me bizarrely emotional.

The project, which also updated Alka-Seltzer’s “I Can’t Believe I Ate the Whole Thing,”  Avis’ “We Try Harder,” and Volvo’s “Drive It Like You Hate it,” is positively meta as it updates the iconic ad campaigns by getting into the story of the story, and then slicing and dicing the work in many different forms. It also includes an hour-long overview, a documentary by Doug Pray and his team that is absolutely worth the viewing investment. They’re the same crew who did the excellent, award-winning One Show film, “Art & Copy.”  

But Project Re:Brief is better because, while it also plucks the creators of those "Mad Men"-era campaigns out of retirement, (and some out of relative obscurity),  this one has the luxury of ending on a natural crescendo: the updated, technologically enabled versions of the classic work. 

All of the creative icons -- Harvey Gabor for Coke, Paula Green for Avis, Amil Gargano for Volvo,  and Howie Cohen and Bob Pasqualina for Alka-Seltzer -- are excellent at voicing what Don would say (no doubt) these days,  had he been an actual human being in the ad business in the 1960s instead of a made-up character played by an actor on a beautifully filmed AMC TV show.

Gargano, of Volvo (and Fed Ex fast talker!) fame, probably comes closest to embodying Don in terms of being a still-handsome Korean war vet from the Midwest.(He’s still married to his original wife, however, and says he was always much more interested in working than pursuing any of Don’s extracurricular shenanigans.)  

Shown working with the young Google team at his lovely country house, he says, “Keep bringing them back. Creativity loves constraint,” he explains, and the Internet is ”the absolute removal of constraint. I  believe Bill Bernbach would say you’re making it too complicated. Always adapt the technique to the idea. Never adapt your idea to the technique.”

Cohen and Pasqualina prove what most people in the biz these days are thinking: that the early ‘70s were a lot more fun and a lot less sleep-depriving. “We used to have three weeks to solve a problem,” Cohen said. “Now you get three days.” His partner amended that to  “three minutes.”  Later Cohen, who was in his late 20s when he did the Alka-Seltzer work, said, “In the old days all we had to worry about is ‘Is the line funny?” That realization elicited hysterical laughs from his young Google comrades in the room

The still-elegant Paula Green, she of “We try harder” fame, who mentions that she was a Peggy type, in the end, had to try the hardest, as the campaign didn’t lend itself organically to updating. But here’s how she summed up the situation:  “We got to Google (the NYC office) and there were these enormous long hallways, and all these people sitting around -- barefoot and young and they look great. It’s like a playground, like elementary school. We needed a guide constantly.”

But art director Harvey Gabor, who worked with writer Bill Backer at McCann-Erickson on Coke’s Hilltop, gets to be the star of the show. He’s full of one-liners about age. “It’s better than sex!” he says of the tech update magic for Hilltop, then adds, “I remember sex!” In the beginning he admits that he rarely uses a computer, except for an occasional email, and to “look up all my aches and pains and what I’m gonna die from.”  

He tells his new Google team, “I’m old at it, and you’re new at it,” as he explains that the song had a “lovely melody,” and that he thinks keeping the song is “sacrosanct.” He’s all energized on the morning of the presentation to the new Coke client, when he stands in front of the white board -- and, most poignantly, actually sings. 

But, most important, he gets it. “It’s connecting people, rather than showing people,” he says to his young Google buddies. “You know better than I do how to start connecting people.” So thank God for Google, which is hands down doing the most interesting advertising of any client around today. Last year’s award-winning work for Google -- “Slam,” from Johannes Leonardo, involving visual and voice recognition -- had Apple’s awkward Siri spots beat by a mile.

Word has it that in the final season of "Mad Men," Weiner will update it to present day. I wonder if he’ll somehow allude to Project Re:Brief.  That would be far better than seeing Don get himself into a compromising situation with Siri.

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