When you’re pitching to work on a brand like Levi’s, it’s wise to
wear the label during your presentation. When the jeans giant put its
dollars 90 million US business up for review at the end of 1997, almost
all of the eager competitors showed up in denim. Most of the jeans
appeared relatively new. Lee Clow’s 501s, however, looked well worn. It
was Clow who won most respect from the Levi’s executives.
Clow, the legendary chief creative officer of TBWA Chiat/Day who was
responsible for come-backs such as Apple’s ’think different’ campaign,
seemed just what Levi’s needed. In January 1998, after a three-month
review, his agency duly won the business for its strategic thinking, its
understanding of the Levi’s brand, and what the client described as its
’incredible creative capability’.
But Chiat/Day had a lot to do. Levi’s is having a rough ride. In the
last decade, it has suffered an alarming slump in sales following
competition from designer brands such as Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger
and Ralph Lauren. Market share in America has fallen from 48 per cent in
1990 to 25 per cent last year. And in February, the company sacked a
third of its US workforce to relocate abroad.
It was these market conditions - rather than an unhappiness with
creative work - that had led to the account going up for review in the
Chiat/Day’s predecessor on the account, Foote Cone & Belding, had worked
with Levi’s for an impressive 67 years. Indeed, FCB’s ’doctors’ ad for
Levi’s was nominated for the US Emmy Awards in 1997 - the first time
that advertising had been included in TV’s equivalent of the Oscars.
’We know we have good advertising,’ explained Steve Goldstein, Levi’s
marketing chief at the time of the review. ’It has nothing to do with
the current campaign. It’s to do with the continued health and welfare
of the Levi’s brand.’
After a heated pitch, Chiat/Day won the account against competition from
FCB, BBDO Worldwide, Bartle Bogle Hegarty and Hal Riney. (FCB retained
the advertising for non-denim brands, such as Dockers and Slates.)
Since then, Clow has devoted considerable time to the Levi’s account,
focusing on the hip Red Tab label rather than the somewhat passe
But after more than a year, Chiat/Day is unwilling to speak to Campaign
about its work, and Levi’s could hardly be described as helpful. Both
parties, clearly, have been stung by on-going criticism.
So what went wrong? The truth is that Chiat/Day’s ads have won lukewarm
reviews from critics. Its first work was an attack on the designer
More than 20,000 white billboards featured the following slogans:
’Calvin wore them’; ’Tommy wore them’; ’Ralph wore them’. In the corner
of the poster appeared a signature, Levi’s Red Tab.
Some considered the campaign brave, a sign that Levi’s was getting
But others didn’t like the acknowledgment of Levi’s weakened state. ’I
don’t thing they need to go there,’ Ed Taussig, group creative director
at Grey Advertising, says. ’Levi’s has never admitted before that anyone
was even in the running.’
Another campaign, showing young people with placards stating, ’I want to
be happy’ and ’conformity breads mediocrity’, was simply patronising.
And Levi’s admitted it did not have the impact on 15- to 24-year-olds
that has become so desperately necessary.
The jury is still out on the most recent campaign, ’opt for the
original’, which broke last month. The first commercial, ’invisible
man’, features invisible people clad in Levi’s playfully getting ready
to make love.
The second spot, ’artist’, presents a female artist and her lover
wearing denim and rolling about passionately on a canvas of wet paint. A
third ad, ’train’, debuts in the spring.
Tellingly, Clow has said the Red Tab campaign emulates the risque
approach of work produced by BBH in London. BBH must be something of a
bug-bear to Chiat/Day, having bounced back after the brief
disappointment that followed its long-running ’boy meets girl’ campaign.
In the spring, the agency reversed the dismal effect of last year’s dead
hamster ad by introducing the yellow puppet called Flat Eric. The
result, for the Sta-Prest range, was an impressive combination of
cutting-edge cool and popular appeal.
Ever since winning the Levi’s business, Chiat/Day has emphasised the
importance of ’viral communications’ - infiltrating youth culture right
at the cutting edge. Clow and his colleagues have studied how rave
promoters publicised their parties with flyers, posters, pavement
markings and e-mail. BBH did the same with Flat Eric - the ads were
directed by an underground French DJ, and e-mailed to a tiny number of
opinion formers before being let loose on TV.
Chiat/Day’s advertising, by contrast, looks heavy-handed. ’If I were Lee
Clow now, I’d be very worried,’ a rival agency chief, who preferred not
to be named, says. Another adds: ’The advertising is off-pace. It’s
trying too hard to be cool. It looks like advertising done by
40-year-olds for 20-year-olds. What Levi’s needs is something
BBH’s creative director, John Hegarty, who is based in New York, paints
a brighter picture. He believes Levi’s problems are cyclical: ’I do
think the brand is having difficulties. Denim is in decline. But it will
come through. Remember, we’ve been there before when BBH took over the
business in the early 80s.’
Whether Chiat/Day has a hand in that revival is another matter.