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Sub chain scores hit with unconventional ad torpedo

by Alf Nucifora

It seems the ad world is a-buzz about the new campaign recently launched by Quiznos Subs featuring a pair of crudely animated creature-characters, resembling rodents, who go by the official name, Spongmonkeys.

They're the creation of Joel Veitch who makes television shows for Britain's Channel 4. His web site, (www.rathergood.com), features the Spongmonkeys in a January 2003 video clip. Enter the Richmond-based ad shop, The Martin Agency, where the clip landed in the email box of one of its creative teams. The rest is history.

The "We love the subs" advertising campaign is polarizing the marketing world. And, it's pretty well divided. There are those who view the TV campaign (which can be seen at www.quiznos.com) as a breakthrough in the annals of advertising. The other camp derides the effort as a classic example of advertising arrogance and stupidity, making noise solely for the sake of making noise and damn the consequences.

What follows is an interview with Kerry Feuerman, Creative Director of the Martin Agency, who delivers an honest and candid response to the key questions that are currently driving the debate.

Q: Where did the idea come from?

A: It came from Ty Harper and Raymond McKinney who were developing several campaigns when we were pitching the account. They came to the conclusion that these characters would be an interesting vehicle to deliver a message about the great sandwiches at Quiznos.

Q: So they saw the clip that Veitch had done in the UK and asked themselves, "What?"

A: Well, what he (Veitch) did was include a song "We like the moon." Ty and Raymond came to the conclusion that it would be ideal if they sang "We love the subs" instead. So they took that refrain and applied it to several different spots. It always seemed to work. It was fun, and most importantly it was honest. If you look at those characters, they're charm comes from their child-like honesty.

Q: Did you have any fear about having creatures, rodents associated with food?

A: We looked at the characters and asked "Who's going to relate to them most?" They were dead-on with our 18-34 year old, male target audience. We thought they were a perfect marriage for an audience that has a tolerance for intrusive, fun, irreverent-type characters. So, were we worried about it? I think we were smart in the way we went about it. Here's the deal. What we didn't want to do was change or redefine who the Spongmonkeys are. We didn't change their look or the way they sang with that screechy voice. Either you buy into them or you don't. However, I believe that it could be a growth process, a case of familiarity breeding attraction. As you get to see these guys more and more, (even those who weren't necessary fans in the beginning), you grow to like them and embrace them and eventually even sing the song.

Q: They're almost campy, aren't they?

A: Absolutely!

Q: The thought that went through my mind is that you took a big risk in order to compensate for a small ad budget.

A: That's how we looked at it.

Q: Did you do any perception testing on the characters?

A: The client did. They showed it to focus groups. This is a client who is willing to take calculated risks. They wanted something that was attention-getting. They asked two questions in the research…what do you think of the characters and what message do you walk away with from the commercials. On the characters, the feedback was split. But when you can get 50% of your audience saying "I love them", then I'll sit up and pay attention.

Q: When you said the message was loud and clear…the message being?

A: Quiznos makes great-tasting, toasted subs.

Q: Is it a short or long-term campaign?

A: They'll stay as long as they're contributing to the overall marketing success of the brand. There's a place for them now and, you never know, they could become cult characters, in which case my guess is they'll be around for awhile.

Q: There is something about Quiznos, at least perceptually, that suggests superior taste and quality. Was there any fear on your part that these commercials would in some way work against the brand? Was there any fear that the product was of greater quality than the caliber of the communication given the rough, edgy look of the animation?

A: You need to go back and look at other Quiznos commercials. There is always heightened quality in the food footage. We made sure that the product always looked good. But, when you've got a budget that's a tenth of some of the competitors, you have to have a vehicle or vessel that can deliver the message and be remembered .

Q: Do you see any extensions…merchandising, toys, packaging, or are these guys too campy?

A: Actually, I don't think they are. I think their appeal and desirability on things like t-shirts, mugs, merchandising etc. could be huge.

Q: How's the client's state-of-mind today?

A: They are happy with the campaign. And, like all clients, in this category especially, always fine-tuning and adjusting. It's a constant calibration process. As for the Spongmonkeys, they're getting monstrous attention. The screensaver has been downloaded almost 100,000 times. The client has received over 35,000 emails and letters about the campaign. And, you have to remember, this campaign has only run for a month. In my twenty-three years in the advertising business I've never seen anything like it.

Q: Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night and think what the hell have I done here?

A: (laughs) I certainly did the night before the initial presentation to the client. I think we were pretty smart in how we presented. We downloaded Veitch's "We like the moon" onto a laptop and took it to college campuses and video taped kids watching it. Then we edited together a full minute of reactions which we showed to the client.

Q: What was their immediate, visceral reaction?

A: It was like everybody else's…"What the heck is that?"…then a smile…then a light bulb goes off…"We might have something remarkable here." That's exactly what happened.

Q: Finally, any advice to other marketers who don't have big budgets and are competing in a retail environment.

A: Keep it simple and remember that no one pays as much attention to the details of your product attributes as you do. People are still turning on television first and foremost to be engaged and entertained. If you don't do that first, you're simply going to become another one of those restaurant commercials with lots of food shots that are forgotten by the time the next car commercial runs. The funny thing is, it isn't complicated. Either you can pour three, four or five times your budget into media and try to get them to remember it, or you can take advantage of the tool called creativity. If I can only present to one person in the company, I present to the Chief Financial Officer. It's a financial issue. How many billions did they pour into "Ring around the collar?" It was terrible, but they poured billions into it. In Quiznos case, they don't have the billions so they need guys like the Spongmonkeys on their side.

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