The story of the hamster that would not die
Once upon a time, a large ad agency had a nice big client. It was in the middle of summer, and capacity was way down when the call came from on high. Immediately produce and deliver two design concepts for an email marketing campaign. Two digital art directors were tasked to come up with a concept idea each, and present it to the customer the day after.
I don’t know what possessed her to do it. I really don’t. I think she was a bit fed up. I know we both were. I mean, we had a lot on our plates, especially her.
I made a concept that was safe and sane, on the verge of boring. She made a concept that had hamsters in it. We presented our concepts to the project managers, hours before the client presentation. The project managers actually looked pale when they saw the hamster boards. This was hours before the presentations, we absolutely had to present two tracks. No other creatives were to be had, even if there had been time.
Moreover, sensing that the hamster track was met with some skepticism my colleague threw her hands in the air and growled ‘-You got your concept. There. But I don’t have time for this anymore. I got work to do.’ And she stomped off.
Leaving yours truly to present both tracks. Now, it might be important to stress the fact that this client wasn’t some nice, hip consumer brand. No, this was heavy duty B2B known for being extremely conservative when it came to creative, and also our biggest client. This was a pickle. Because now I had to proudly present my hamster idea to the client as if it was my own beloved brainchild. I did some research, and found a nice big doctoral thesis that cute animals are not to be underestimated in advertising. I included this document, some 60 pages of it, with the PDF:s of the creative. Couldn’t hurt, i thought.
And so came the time of the pitch. The team piled in to the little stuffy teleconference room I was convinced would soon reek of roasted hamster. Roasted Art Director, for that matter. The first track, the conservative idea i had made, resulted in a resounding ‘meh’ from the client. Their gist was that it was ‘…ok, I guess, not very surprising…’. At least it passed, although not with a big margin.
The account director was visibly nervous. ‘-Ahem, as to the other idea…’
The clients voice came back from the tinny speaker of the conference phone: ‘-Yes. The mouse.’
‘-Uh, actually, it’s a hamster. Uh, we have Klas here, the Art Director, maybe you could explain…?’
I drew a deep breath. Use the force, Luke. Use the force.
‘-Well, as the documentation i sent you clearly shows, you should never underestimate the power of cute. At the end of the day, people quite simply like what they see. And everybody loves a cute hamster! Also, it is a nice contrast to the more boring… i mean conservative.. image you…uh… normally use. It will certainly surprise your customers! Also, the theme is very versatile. The hamsters can be made to do all sorts of cute things, so this can really be a long-running theme. We really feel this one could be a winner! Eh… what are your thoughts?’
Clenching my teeth in anticipation of the epic smackdown i was about to recieve, i waited for their reply.
‘-Well, we kind of like it. We feel it is very fresh, very edgy.’
The account director who had been cowering in a corner preparing for the spatter of atomized Art Director snapped to attention:
‘-Uh, excuse me? We didnt get that last part. Edgy?’
‘-Yes, we are very happy with it. The mouse is very cute. Especially the one holding a little birthday cake? But maybe, we’re thinking it could hold a package instead?’
‘-Oh yes, no problem, we can just do that in photoshop, absolutely.’ A feeling of unreality was seeping into the conference room at this point. Was this candid camera? Had the client suddenly mastered the dark art of sarcasm? They were starting to sound enthusiastic, for chrissake!
‘-Oh yes, and ***name redacted*** would like it maybe to be a dog, instead? A dog is more like our way of doing business than a mouse.’
Here, being the resident hamster expert, i had to step in. ‘-Well, you see, the problem with that is there are many different type of dogs, and we would need to find out exactly which dog is the symbol of your company. And even then, it would possibly not work as well for some of the clients as for others, uh, you know, there’s a lot of difference between a dachshound and a….. uh, dalmation. A hamster is a hamster, you know?’
I had that old familiar feeling of being on very, very thin ice. The client was evidently not happy with this answer.
‘-Well…. yes. But we would like to see more creatives with the mouse holding a package. And also a dog.’
We emerged from the teleconference blinking at the bright afternoon light and marveled at air that actually had oxygen in it. Little did we know that we had witnessed the birth of the Amazing Immortal Hamster.
First off, because my little furry friend had not gone up in flames as i fully expected, i did some quick research into the fine art of hamster imagery. Turns out that there are a finite number of hamster stock art images, and to boot, there are a whole bunch of different kinds of hamsters. Go figure. This meant that if we wanted cute images of hamsters, we might have to photograph them ourselves. Thus, I learned the gruesome truth that in order for a small furry adorable animal to do adorable stuff like sitting in a teacup or holding a little birthday cake, they had to be quite docile. As in, still. As in lightly killed. Hamster clip art are most often made with stuffed or dead hamsters. As hardened as my advertising agency heart was, i could not see myself ordering the actual death of a small furry hamster. We were in trouble. The hamster idea needed to die.
The team, however, were in good spirits. We were sure we would see the death of this little rodent yet. After all, the client had requested two tracks for testing purposes, and were sure to go with the safe, conventional track we had prepared for them.
The dog was the first to die. It was a simple matter of selecting a range of different dogs and sending an innocent email to the client asking which dog best summed up the brand image of the company. In a very short while, the sound of a dog getting torn to pieces in a inter-office email barrage reached us. We had high hopes the hamster would join the choir invisible as well. But word came back that the hamster was now in the lead for the alternate email track.
We realized that the hamster was doomed as it progressed up the chain of command at the client. It would certainly be incinerated by the cigars of the top floor, as had so many more deserving ad ideas in the past. However, it would benefit us if the hamster met with an early demise. So we came up with the Amazing Cartoon Package.
The Cartoon Package was just that, a cartoon package with arms and a little cute face. We presented it to the client as being more in line with their brand image while at the same time preserving the power of cute the hamster had. After all, it was the very concept of cuteness, not the acctual hamster itself, that was the point? Yes? Yes?
No. The little cartoon package was sent its merry way into the hallways of the clients marketing team, but very soon we started to receive little pieces of cartoon cardboard in the mail.
‘-Our marketing manager feels that the box-man is just not as cute as the mouse. She especially likes the one with the mouse sitting in a teacup. Maybe he could have a little cap on, with our company logo?’
The hamster was growing, and started to look a little dangerous. We were getting a bit unconfortable. Strange and worrying mails from the client started dropping in, bearing witness of a mighty war that raged in the upper management hallways of our clients headquarters. A high-level manager of a different part of the company suddenly mailed us directly, demanding that we immediately come up with a set of images using a cute terrier. This order was countermanded by an even higher manager, who said no other animals than hamsters could be used, but that it was vital that the hamsters ‘had on at least a piece of our company uniform’ and displayed a ‘positive, can-do attitude’.
We now had a major headache. The hamster images that had been presented to the client represented the least awful of the gazillion stock photos we had looked through hunting for hamsters. Photoshopping in pieces of clothing, small packages and the like was simply not going to happen. It looked like crap. In order to do the hamster track we would need to take our own hamster images. Which would be expensive and most probably involve doing nasty things to small, fuzzy animals.
There was, however, a light at the end of the tunnel. The marketing research tests. The clients insisted every creative produced be thoroughly tested and the test results acted upon. Real people, not in advertising, would surely go with the safe, sane alternative track that included nice pictures of office people smiling instead of little furballs that had zip to do with what the company was selling.
Research tests sure are fun! It’s such a delight to work with a concept through a pitch, endless revisions, painful redesigns and tweaks just to have the work submitted to a research group that probably for cost reasons always seem to consist of two people, a 70-year old grandmother and a surly truck driver who for reasons known but to the wise men of the research agency . These two, then, are watched – sometimes through one-way-glass – by a bunch of nervous people hanging on to their every word as if it was writ in stone dictated by a burning bush. The results are fun, too, especially as you can easily guess whom of the two research subjects each pearl of wisdom came from.
‘-Research shows the target audience does not feel the color yellow is appropriate. Also, it feels that the room is a bit cold and that it misses its grandchildren. Our recommendation is that the creatives be changed to reflect on this.’
The feedback on this particular test was inconclusive but leaned towards the pictures of smiling people. Smiles and high-fives were exchanged by the creative team and everyone drew a sigh of relief. The hamster was now pining for the fjords.
Or so we thought.
Turns out the hamster had friends in high places. Every time we tried to go ahead with our other track, an email came from upon high, and here was the hamster again. Every time we submitted a new artwork, it was compared, unflatteringly, to the cuteness of the hamster. Different managers stepped in and demanded new artwork with the hamster. In the end, the hamster track was resurrected and handed to the bewildered project manager from the client, who was dumbfounded: ‘A rat? This is the symbol of our company? I don’t think so. Get rid of it!’
We, the agency, looked with compassion at our new project manager, who had not yet learned the might of the immortal hamster. In time, we felt sure, he too would learn of the futility in resistance. But he killed it. It took him a long time, and as the weeks passed, he more and more got that thousand-yard stare of a war veteran, but eventually the squeaks of the hamster subsided.
I guess the moral of the story is that you don’t mess with hamsters, or any other cute animals for that matter. They are more powerful than you can ever imagine. The hamster is now dead and the email campaign has been sent, featuring smiling office people and being very successful indeed. But all of us who worked with the project now look around us nervously at the sound of a squeak or rattle. It could be the hamster, back again from the dead.