My Afternoon with Norman
” Give me the freedom of a tightly defined strategy.”
– Norman Berry, Creative Genius and Ad Legend, Ogilvy & Mather.
I quote him often.
He was my big boss from 1986-89 in New York when I was a copywriter at Ogilvy.
I frequently saw him dashing by atwitter, burgeoning with disruptive, brilliant ideas, clad in Omar Sharif collared shirts inspired by Dr. Zhivago and made by Turnbull & Asser.
He would be hunched over with laser-focused attention on the print ad or TV spot at hand, chain smoking, and moving his head about in bird-like sharp movements with lovely, deep, caring eyes. His laugh filled the atmosphere in any room with hope and endless possibilities.
My assignment was for New Freedom Maxi Pads, a product from Kimberly Clark. First, I worked on Pull-ups, those in-between baby diapers that kids wear when they are potty training. Now it was time to move on to more mature bodily emissions. The dreaded period.
How might my partner, fabulous Senior writer, Alice Henry Whitmore, and I make this interesting or most importantly, tasteful? How could we hook people in and prevent them from being instantly turned off by the decidely intimate subject matter, and change the channel the second they heard the words “maxi pad”?
Well, we had an idea.
For historical context, let’s remember that this was in the late 80s. It was before the end of the Cold War. The world was a different place.
People in communist countries had little to no freedom, especially the women.
So for our New Freedom project, Alice and I posited this intriguing question at the top of our TV spot:
“What if the women of Moscow discovered New Freedom?”
But here’s the kicker: the entire spot would be spoken in Russian – with English subtitles.
While the startlingly beautiful model we’d cast was moving freely about Red Square (oh yes, LOVE the irony) you would hear her extolling the virtues of these awesome maxi pads that were the best thing since sliced bread (visual intended) while the translation populated the bottom of the screen:
“I can wear it everywhere I’m allowed to go…I can even wear it with my Official Party Dress. I can carry them in modern pouches of plastic…even in Red Square.”
And so on.
The campaign would also extend to the oppressed Chinese women and have the same opening line:
“What if the women of China discovered New Freedom?”
Our lovely Chinese model would be elated about her newfangled maxis while English subtitles played on the screen.
We were tickled. We loved our idea. We thought for sure we had a BIG win. A smash hit, one that would march us right into the Copywriters Hall of Fame.
We couldn’t wait to present this to Norman.
The day arrived for us to see him. I was terrified. Sweating. Obsessing about what to say – writing my notes for the set up for our brainchild, then scratching them out in a furry, and starting over again and again and again. I was a mess.
I finally calmed myself down before we went in.
When Alice and I arrived at his office, we were surprised to see Norman sitting on the floor in front of his coffee table puffing away on a cigarette wearing his signature Omar shirt. We sat down and joined him. I was wearing a skirt, so sitting cross-legged was not an option. Didn’t want to flash anyone. I was no Sharon Stone.
I was already a bit jittery to begin with. As I positioned myself on the floor in what felt like the most awkward of poses, my leg and hip started to cramp. I thought my elbow upon which I was leaning was going to give way. But that all went away once we launched into our idea.
I got off to a sputtering start, “So we thought that, well, I mean, we were thinking that, um, women in Communist countries who had few liberties would be a good juxtapose, sorry, juxtaposition to the name, New Freedom,” I said.
Luckily, Alice jumped in and saved me while she pulled out the key frames for the TV spot.
Norman inhaled on his cigarette with such force, I knew we were in trouble. His brows furrowed, his eyes half shut.
With an exhale like God breathing life into the universe, he said, “This is brilliant, simply brilliant. I love it. Great work, darlings.”
We couldn’t contain our elation. Alice and I both tried to disguise our smiles, giggled a bit, but were still focused on the work.
“However, ” Norman said, “this would never fly in the States.”
We were heartbroken.
“It would play smashingly, swimmingly in the UK,” he said. “There, you don’t have the strict social mores like we have here. It would be a brilliant there….but not here,” he said.
He went on.
“I applaud your bold creativity, loves,” he said to me. “Can you all come up with something else as brilliant?”
Alice and I both nodded eagerly like little cocker spaniel puppies indicating, “yes.”
We thanked him for his time and left.
After that day, I saw him at department meetings where he’d give a rousing, encouraging speech to all and then show some stellar, recently finished spots – Seagram’s Wine Cooler spots featuring Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd who were the stars of Moonlighting.
I had worked on the radio and it was presented to Edgar Bronfman, CEO of Seagrams, with my voice recording of the spot I had written (#thrilling), but it was never bought.
Back in those days, we had an Ogilvy bar, replete with a bowtie-wearing bar tender who would serve up terribly strong drinks and bowls of peanuts to the wayward, haggard account execs who needed to recover after being beaten up by the client or weary creatives who needed to birth a new idea after theirs was savagely killed.
I loved hearing Norman give the State of the Agency address at Carnegie Hall and Radio City Music Hall, where we had our holiday meetings, after which, the Ogilvy Choir would sing. Yes, a choir filled these famous halls with lively Christmas cheer that somehow made me think of fruitcakes – the food, not the people. Also offered while I was there was a bevy of swag in Ogilvy red: watches, umbrellas, and finally, a flannel unisex nightshirt. I still have mine.
With Norman at the helm, it felt like a club. Not a company. Not a job. But a place, a home, where you could make memories, history and lifelong friends. I think there was even an Ogilvy alum newsletter – way, way before social media hit. This was a place that just got things right.
In those pre-Cold War days, we could have never foretold something like Facebook. The world is radically, immeasurably different today – especially in the ad business. Web is King, the Grand Poobah of all. Mobile is Queen. Google is a verb.
The nerve-wracking days of meeting our air date or print deadline are mostly over. Ideas are distributed through a dizzying array of channels and are evaluated through a new lens: your Followers, SEO, and all those other things that makes my head spin. It’s a whirling dervish, a technological cauldron of activity which, if I let it, can become a time-sucking life invader.
These days, if I am in a meeting with ad folks, I will invariably quote him. Sadly, few people know this classic maxim. It’s too bad. It has helped me many times when explaining to a client why the TV spot filled with 50 competing ideas just won’t work.
Here’s to you, Norman. My time with you was brief, but meaningful – indelibly etched on my heart.
Because after all the hoopla of new media is said and done, and we’ve moved on to The Next Big Thing, you and your timeless, tightly defined words still reign.