It was the middle of the summer of 1978, I had just taken a job working with Grey de Venezuela, an advertising agency in Caracas, Venezuela.
The appeal to me was for some control. I had been working in massive agencies in New York City where I was just another brick in the wall. In a smaller agency, I could exorcize my entrepreneurial demons.
My first full day in the agency, my new clients from General Foods came to visit and tell me that the agency would be fired in 90 days if things didn’t improve. Great way to begin a new assignment in a country where I knew no one and didn’t speak the language.
Things would get worse.
I had to return to NYC to get married in August and the agency had to shoot a new commercial for GF while I was gone. We preproduced in great detail to make sure everything was covered. The product, after all, had never been advertised on TV before.
The day I got back, I went to see the edit of the commercial. There were about 10 seconds of blank footage of the 30 seconds. “What’s that?” I asked.
“Oh, we didn’t shoot that part,” came the reply. “We were having some troubles and the talent didn’t want to do those shots.” And at that point our clients arrived to see their first ever television commercial. Whoops.
I pointed out the problem. They still wanted to see it. They were upset, telling us that they weren’t going to pay for the production; but agreed to give me a week to see if we could solve the problem. There was no option for us to go and shoot the missing scenes. The budget was gone.
Having seen “Chess Fever” where the Russian film master, Pudovkin, made a movie by editing boring footage into an interesting film, I thought we could create a new spot from the footage that existed. Off we went to the editors and worked like mavens to create a new commercial. Language challenges aside (the editor, Nario, didn’t speak English and my Spanish was very weak). And we did.
While the client was surprised the commercial was different from what they had approved, they agreed that it was a very good commercial and so the brand went on TV for the first time.
You may have noticed that I haven’t revealed the brand name. Because things were about to get even worse.
Venezuela is located next to Colombia on one side and Guyana on the other. There are mountains on the Colombian border; jungle on the Guyana side. There were a group of Americans in the Guyanese jungle near the Venezuelan border who set up a commune a year before.
Shortly after we got our commercial on the air in October, the headlines around the world focused on this commune, called Jonestown. A total of 909 of the inhabitants committed suicide by drinking cyanide.
The headlines screamed “Cyanide Kool Aid!”
And if you haven’t guessed the brand our commercial was for – well, it was Kool Aid.
We did our best to deflect the behaviour of the crazy Gringos and stayed the course with the advertising. It seemed to be a breakthrough as sales responded to our advertising.
Our client appreciated our efforts as we hunkered down for sales to fall off the table. They never did. The crazy Gringos were generally ignored.
Trial by fire is sometimes the best option, if you can make it through.
Three years later I left with Kool Aid spending 10 times the advertising budget we had when we began.
So never give up. No matter how bad things may look, they can always get worse. And if you persevere, they might get better.