Creative Roundtable: The 'It' Factor

Doug Jaeger, Rob Hudak, and Joe Jaffe dissect eBay's latest campaign with OMMA's Gavin O'Malley

The Algonquin Hotel seemed a fitting place to convene three of the most active and unrestrained brains devoted to online media and marketing. To gather there, where last century's cleverest characters met to match wits and tally bar tabs, felt a bit like a futuristic sci-fi setting where everyone wears antique Gotham chic just for kicks.

Joining me one mild evening last fall for drinks and badinage were Doug Jaeger and Rob Hudak of thehappycorp, and Joe Jaffe, principal of Jaffe, LLC and author of "Life After the 30-Second Spot." Fanatics about viral marketing, consumer-generated media, and empowerment, these guys have opinions to spare.

My mission was to loosen them up, get their synapses firing, and unleash their expert opinions on eBay's "It" campaign, designed and executed by Omnicom's BBDO and Agency.com.

In case you missed it: eBay's campaign launched in October with some out-of-home marketing and a crafty teaser on TV for "It" -- literally, the word itself in red, yellow, and green cinder block-size letters. The anonymous spot directed viewers to whatis-it.com, where a video tells the story of "It," a metaphor for every must-have product ever made, from its creation and subsequent rise to fame to its arrival on consumers' doorsteps after they found it on eBay.

Whatis-it.com includes a section where users can customize their own "It" by material and size, and then print or send it to a friend. The Web environment also features several original vignettes produced by BBDO, which further narrate the travels of "It" through the world media circuit from Mexico to Tokyo and so forth.

The purpose of the campaign, according to Kevin McSpadden, eBay's director of brand marketing, was to show consumers that whatever they wish for -- be it old or new, hot or not, rare or spare -- they can find it on eBay. While the guys and I only had the opportunity to see the first phase of the campaign, "It" is set to run through 2006. So, spirits enlivened and laptops blazing -- thanks to the Algonquin lobby's relatively new Wi-Fi connection -- Jaeger, Hudak, and the merciless Jaffe sat down to critique the campaign. Here are some excerpts:

Jaeger: For the people that I know, everybody was wondering what it was during the teaser phase. The ad didn't try to sell me on anything. As a creative person, I enjoy the work. In today's environment, eBay is the most popular player in its space, so it allows them to take risks and be creative and do something fun, and I think that's what they did.

Jaffe: I think, for every reason you just said, I hate it.

Jaeger: Oh, man. Just stab every word!

Jaffe: The fact that it preaches to the choir...It hasn't told me a single thing I didn't already know. It's not informing me about anything. It's not persuading me to do anything. All it's doing is very, very weakly reminding me that eBay exists. This is a dotcom that believes it needs television advertising to grow the brand and to grow the business, so it turns to creative agencies that don't know anything about their actual business.

Hudak: I agree with Jaffe. They were being way too safe in their approach. [At this point, we take a head count to see who among of us has ever tried to sell something on eBay. Jaeger is the only one.]

Jaffe: See, the fact that three out of four people at the table have never sold anything on eBay clearly represents a huge missed opportunity for [eBay] that they're not addressing. Now, in terms of shopping on eBay, I have shopped on eBay, and if this is a reminder saying, "Jaffe, get back on eBay," it's very weak. There's absolutely no call to action. It's just flat.

Jaeger: It's a spirit of entrepreneurism and invention that's really cool.

Hudak: I'm on the fence. I appreciate the quality of the ads, but [here's] the story about how I found out about it: I was in the office, and someone came in and said what "It" was. A few days later I see [the commercial] out of the corner of my eye on TV, and I connected the two. I was instantly bored with it. I instantly knew what the commercial was going to be like; I finished the whole story in my head.

Jaeger: I'm not saying this is the best campaign in the world. I'm saying I'm glad it exists. To me it's an art film.

Hudak: Yeah, I agree.

Jaeger: It's an art film about people reacting to this object that's completely nonsensical, and it's kind of funny. Hudak: I think they spent their advertising dollars having a good time, really.

Jaeger: Yeah, it seems like they had a really good time!

Jaffe: That to me says someone should get fired.

[Laughter.]

Jaeger: But that's what this business is supposed to be, and we're supposed to be putting content out there.

Jaffe: [Spending] shareholders' money is fun? What's even fun about it? What's the point?

Jaeger: This is the beginning of something. It's not the complete campaign, this is only a teaser.

Jaffe: For the record, the only thing missing from this campaign is the "sh" before the "it."

[Laughter.]

Jaffe: I just went to eBay to see if I can buy "It" on eBay, and the fact that I couldn't tells me that this campaign wasn't very well thought out.

Jaeger: Dare I agree with Jaffe on this? I do think they didn't go far enough.

Hudak: They could have auctioned off one "It" on eBay to see how much someone would pay for it.

[We stop to concede that by the time this piece is published, eBay and BBDO may have executed some of these ideas.]

Jaeger: I will say that I am excited that the ad does not choke me with product benefits. That's exactly why people don't watch advertising, because they know they'll be choked with product benefits. It's a soft sell! I'd like to see in the future what they do with "It."

Jaffe: What if there is no future? Then what would you say?

Jaeger: Then I'd say [to eBay]: You guys didn't maximize your marketing dollars.

Jaffe: This campaign is so quintessential BBDO. It's so safe, so middle-of-the-road. It doesn't have a position, it doesn't have a point of view.

Jaeger: What better message than to say. "We're It! We're It! We are rocking it, check us out"?

Hudak: I just think it's too soon to crap on it. But maybe we should sell the "sh" on eBay for the hell of it.

Everyone: Yeah!

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