During the late 1990s, as a creative director at Cliff Freeman & Partners, Eric Silver
was the reigning enfant terrible of advertising. His campaigns for Outpost.com, Fox Sports, Budget Rent-a-Car and Mike's Hard Lemonade featured shockingly outrageous (and usually hilarious) stunts involving gerbils shot from cannons, wolves attacking marching bands, golfers and pool players clubbing each other like hockey players, trees falling on people, and various random acts of dismemberment. But that was then: Today, as executive creative director at BBDO, Silver is in a new phase of his career, working on more established accounts - including FedEx, DirecTV, Guinness and Snickers - at one of Madison Avenue's powerhouse agencies. Silver is still utilizing offbeat humor, but with considerably less bloodshed involved. one spoke to him about his own transition, as well his approach to finding good ideas and his philosophy about controversial work.
On growing up.
I was 30 years old when I started doing some of the early Fox Sports work at Cliff Freeman. And I honestly think there was kind of a kid-in-the-candy-store mentality. It was literally like, "What can we get away with?" Now I'm 37, and it's different. I still want to do provocative work, but I think I'm equally obsessed with more grown-up questions - like, how will it impact clients' sales? Is it sound? Is it relevant? Is it responsible? On FedEx, we're not going to fire gerbils out of a cannon, because they don't need to do that. I think that's the evolution. It's not so much backing down from what's creative and what pops, but maybe looking at it with more of a business lens on top of that.
Different brands, different needs.
At Cliff Freeman, we always had the number two or three brands. Hollywood Video was chasing Blockbuster, Budget was chasing Hertz, Mike's Hard Lemonade was chasing all the beers, and Outpost was chasing everybody. I think in a way, there's a direct proportion between the outlandish nature of a particular campaign and the desperate need to be noticed. Working on accounts like that is kind of a mixed blessing. We had a chance to be very experimental, but it was often for clients that were just a bit shaky. And that was part of the reason I knew eventually I wanted to go to a bigger agency - where you have more established accounts and there isn't this constant pressure. These brands are already defined, and you can take what's there and enhance it. The other nice thing about working on bigger brands is the level of exposure - FedEx and DirecTV have $100 million media buys. And at some point, you do like it when somebody actually sees your ads.
The bad boy rep.
I felt good about having that reputation at the time, and I wouldn't change anything now. If I got back in my time machine I would do it the same way, because the work was right for those clients. Take Budget, for example: They were this stodgy company, and they were against the ropes. And they wanted to be hip, and to skew younger in the demographic. The fantasies we came up with were pretty out-there scenarios, but they were rooted in trying to make the company better. Of course, to do that kind of campaign for Hertz would have been suicide. You also have to keep in mind it was a different atmosphere then. It was pre-9/11, the tail end of the '90s. I think the rules were a little different then and the accounts I was working on mandated that style.
The current mood.
I think the shock of the towers falling has passed. But what's still with us is the malaise of the economy. Any reticence you now see on clients' part to do risky work is probably more because of the economy still being uncertain. That's when clients tend to be afraid to take chances. Of course, the irony is, this is the best time to take chances, because it's so easy to stand out. I'm not seeing much work like what we did in the late '90s - which was, yes, sometimes a little violent or crazy or wild, but it was also always smart. What I saw in the last Super Bowl was something different - sophomoric, obvious attempts to be outrageous. I'm hoping we'll see a new standard at this year's Super Bowl. Because somewhere along the way, you have to ask, does a farting horse really sell beer?
I always liked comedy that turned convention on its head. The old David Letterman show was a big influence on me. Monty Python influenced me. And Wieden+Kennedy had a big impact on me. I worked there during the early part of my career. My first week on the job, I showed some work and I was told, "That feels like an ad." This was a new concept to me - that I had to learn not to do anything that "feels like an ad."
To read more about our interview with Eric Silver, pick up a copy of the Fall 2004 issue of one. a magazine, available at the end of October.