Nationally recognized creative director Chris Birt has written a book about generating brand awareness without much advertising.
The CEO of ABdBUZZ, with offices in Minneapolis and Denver, has been in advertising 20 years, during which time he has courted controversy and helped brands expand. A Sharper Image ad of his that ran in Paper magazine landed a New York Times story. In that ad, Amanda Lepore stands seductively near a New York City subway entrance, next to an air purifier. “Clean up the air but don’t touch the freaks,” reads the tagline. Birt’s very proud of how forward-thinking that ad was: “I was friggin’ featuring transgender people in ads before it was trendy!”
Another of his faves was the “This Is Your Wake-up Call” print and TV campaign for caffeinated Wide-Eye Schnapps. One spot captured parents waking up their kid with the sound of a chain saw. “Lynne Rossetto Kasper, retired host of NPR’s ‘The Splendid Table,’ called it the most demented product of 2014!” Birt said, laughing with delight. See more ads at abdbuzz.com.
Q: What inspired you to write "Awareness Without Advertising"?
A: I’ve long believed that advertising is about talk value, yet brands don’t really get that. If you create advertising that has talk value, you don’t have to pay the media companies to run it for you. My brand of work, my whole career, is based on creating advertising that people talk about. You’ve covered ... a campaign I had [for a local brewery] with a fake Italian model, Lorenzo Lucid. Women made marriage proposals to him. I finally had to blow his cover.
I had another ad you covered when the Minnesota Lynx were getting going. This is back when they had about 1,000 people in the stands. Oops, wait, I suppose I shouldn’t say that ... My whole idea was that women can play a fierce game of basketball. So I created an ad where I compared Seimone Augustus to Michael Jordan by saying, “Think Michael Jordan post-op.” I did get in trouble for that, but the ticket sells went up, the walk-up traffic went up 41 percent. It’s whatever you can do to get the message out.
Q: A piece of advice for someone who wants more media attention?
A: Instead of thinking about what makes your product different, think in terms of how you can fit your message into a conversation already being had out there. This Gillette ad, with the toxic masculinity, now every time I shave I’m saving a woman’s bottom from being patted ... When brand has buzz that’s advertising that’s free ... When you strike a nerve with something like that, people talk about it.
Q: That was a good message Gillette decide to piggyback on, so I was surprised there was any criticism of it.
A: [Laugh] People think advertising is about products and whatnot. No, no, no. Advertising is about the zeitgeist. It’s literally about social issues, the conversation that’s happening out there. Politics are a quintessential example of what I’m talking about. There are people on the right, on the left, people who are closed-minded, people who are open-minded. I’m sure they [Gillette] anticipated blowback.
Q: Blowback creates buzz?
A: It does ... I was at a Silicon Valley conference a few months ago where [someone said] the internet is nothing but a giant conversation. Your goal as a brand or company is to become part of that conversation. That’s where I get the idea for my campaigns. That validated everything I have been saying for the past 15 years, and that’s, I think, when people in Minnesota started listening to me.
Sometimes brands here locally have been a little reticent to push the envelope of doing buzzy work because they are afraid there might be blowback. My thinking is the risk is that nobody talks about you. There is a new trend in the media now they are calling “brand bravery.” It doesn’t always have to be a social position. I did a campaign for the Minneapolis Public Library which helped them raise like tons of money. I said, “You’ve got to tap into the fact that librarians are actually kind of sexy.” That’s probably kind of sexist to say that.
Q: It’s not sexist if you say both the men and the women are sexy.
A: They both are ... I talked about all the people who were librarians and that they were change-makers.
Q: What do you think of the concept of “influencers”?
A: Influencers are a fad. Everyone knows the deal is quid pro quo. If everyone can be an influencer, then no one has real influence.
C.J. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and seen on Fox 9’s “Buzz.” E-mailers, please state a subject; “Hello” does not count.