Wednesday, January 25, 2006

See Spot

Called “the enigmatic ex-CEO at Enron,” Jeff Skilling is going to trial next Monday on charges of fraud and conspiracy. Because of the upcoming court date, his profile was refreshed in The Houston Chronicle yesterday.

Reporter Mike Tolson wrote, “Perhaps most perplexing, this admitted workaholic who retooled an old pipeline company into an innovative trading giant…walked away from it all just when it may have needed him the most.”

Whatever his faults, Skilling allowed me and my former colleagues at Quest to create one of the agency’s most inventive advertising campaigns – ads that won awards from most of the shows in the US. My original notes are right here next to the computer monitor. Skilling said, “We aren’t in the pipeline business. Pipelines will be the hardware.” Enron would build on its physical base: buying, selling, and moving molecules. Then it would add risk management in both physical and financial areas.

The “enemy” was the wild-and-wooley spot gas market, the traditional way of trading, and buyers could never depend on price stability. Stability and its opposite, out-of-control gas prices, were the subject matter of the ads. We showed Skilling and his team a half dozen different conceptual approaches and recommended the one that he not only accepted, but embraced: the “See Spot” campaign (example above).

The idea came from the old Dick & Jane reading primers. We intended to teach prospects about the new way to purchase quantities of natural gas at reliable, secure prices. Dick and Jane's dog was named...Spot. And build the new brand identity at the same time.

Art Director Mark Self chose Bob Blechman (cartoonist for The New Yorker and animator of the then-famous Alka Seltzer “Talking Stomach” commercials) to emphasize the human trying to dodge the craziness of the spot gas market. It was a real leap for us: Blechman charged an amount for each ad cartoon that we thought was outrageous at the time. But Blechman’s signature style was worth it for the additional throw-weight it gave the campaign.

Enron collapsed suddenly – in the ugliest possible way – long after our agency had lost its business and we had moved on to other natural gas accounts. But the domino effect wiped out a major sector of the energy economy and took our then-current gas client with it.

What was left: several remarkable series of ads, because we had figured out how to market to gas marketers, and knew the business well enough to be the “smartest natural gas ad agency in the room.”

We learned it at Jeff Skilling’s knee.

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