:: Article

The Total Restage

By Kai Ming McKenzie.

One day word came down that we had finally landed the big account which our business development guy had been working on pitching for years.

Months before, when he first got them to agree to look at a proposal, we had put together a thick PowerPoint deck highlighting the agency’s capabilities across many engagement platforms, detailing our depth of experience in packaging, in-store messaging, outdoor advertising, broadcast, social media and the web. Anywhere the consumer interacted with the brand, we could help to sharpen and refine the experience, to ensure a unique and ownable call to action was optimized and driven home.

But this was a global account, one of ‪the biggest, and as the weeks had gone by without an update, many of us couldn’t help but think that while we were really good at what we did, winning awards and being sought after by corporations on both coasts, we still didn’t have the sheer number of warm bodies needed to service this ultimate account. And we were thirsty for it, too. Revenue was way down, and talented people were starting to polish their resumes.

And then finally, on one last trip out to meet with the prospect, the business development guy sent an ecstatic email to us from his phone: we had won the pitch and were now on retainer with Death itself.

The chief creative officer called to hear the details while the business development guy was still in the back of his Uber, returning to the airport. He’d managed to sell in a total restage, a top to bottom update to Death’s look, tone, and feel across all touchpoints. The brand was intent on remaining relevant in a rapidly changing consumer landscape. Death already touched the lives of thousands of people every day, and now our agency would have a chance to extend its reach even further.

We immediately put our A team on the work, and they scrambled to understand Death’s brand heritage, to evaluate the awareness and favorability of its offerings among emerging consumer demographics. The strategists assigned to Death commissioned data-driven sentiment analysis reports, categorizing mentions of the brand on Facebook and Twitter by mood and intent. Then they took a pass at the fuzzier cloud of sentiments expressed on adjacencies such as illness, grief, and the void. They mapped half a million data points onto colorful quadrant graphs, looking for whitespace opportunities where Death could step in. They uncovered the insight that Death’s target consumer segments intersected in unexpected ways with other major brands. For instance, what was to be made of the cultural current propelling teenagers to record themselves eating Tide Pods, and was there an opportunity here for Death to reach out and propose a synergistic cobranding effort that could be made to feel responsive and authentic?

The designers started work collecting visual stimulus to create mood boards for inspiration, and out of the gigabytes of JPEGs on the server began to develop sets of fresh visual themes that could support the new communication strategies the editorial team was coming up with.

It seemed like our chief executives were coming in to the office a little earlier, moving a little more briskly, and this uptick in energy made us speculate about how big this retainer could actually be, and what that might mean for us when we got to bonus season at the end of the year. That was about as far ahead as we were thinking back then.

Post-It notes in all colors were proliferating in an expanding grid across the walls of the agency’s best and largest conference room, which the Death team now referred to possessively as their “war room.” No one else was allowed to book it, and it was said that the client had a confidentiality clause restricting anyone not on the team from even entering the space. Perhaps this was something the Death team had made up in order to create a feeling of exclusivity, but even so, no one dared to look.

Some people on our other brands felt a little miffed that they’d been passed over for this high-profile account, wondering what it meant for their careers. Others claimed it was just as well that they could still go home at five and see their families, instead of staying late to satisfy Death’s associate brand manager, fulfilling whatever changes she had demanded to see by the end of the day.

Visually, the brand was strongly associated with black, and probably always would be, but there were also accents of bone white, and the red of blood and gore. Coincidentally or not, these brand colors were well known to be the optimal palette for visual impact, going back to the earliest schools of Dutch, Russian, and Japanese graphic design, so we had a rich vein to mine for inspiration. A fashion trends analysis informed our creative director’s decision to evolve the singular red of Death into a velvety gradient running from glistening hot and bright at the top end, down into a deeply murky liquid ruby range in the darks. As the new design platform iterated through rounds of refinement, it looked as if our Xerox printers had simply run out of any other colors.

In the months that followed, while the new work was out for research, we lost a few of our other accounts, long standing ones. It might have been because more of our star talent had been pulled in to Death, but the client relationship people didn’t seem to pay it much attention. The team was always heading to the airport now, to run tests of the new brand design in growing markets around the world, from Michigan to the Middle East. We had never known a more demanding client.

Death had come to us as a brand that was in a leading position already, with high market penetration and consumer awareness. Any piece of business that isn’t growing is dying, as we would say to clients when we were trying to get them to act on our advice, but here we might have found a brand that operated on principles beyond our standard branding playbook. Could our work really move the needle on the bottom line, by compelling consumers to invite the brand even further into their lives, by finding new territories in which we could prove Death had a right to win?

The day eventually came when the brand managers at Death felt ready to unveil to their executive team what they’d had us working on, and all the Post-Its quickly came down from the walls of the war room. We had a lavish breakfast with fruit and pastries catered and set up on a side table, waiting for Death to arrive. The rest of us were subdued but smiling, going about the office as if it were just another morning full of energy and engagement with some creative task at hand.

Finally, we heard our chief creative officer out in the lobby greeting the people from Death, expressing knowing familiarities with the brand managers, and an eagerness to finally get to know the CEO, about whom he’d heard so many interesting things in the press. The rest of us kept our eyes on our screens, pretending not to listen as the client entourage was led into the conference room, and the doors were quietly closed behind them.

That morning the rest of us didn’t get much work done, as we tried to imagine the pressure the team was under, showing what we thought was probably the best work we’d ever done, hoping that it would be enough. We were in a fragmented media space where brands had to fight harder than ever for attention, and so we had come up with a holistic campaign that was strategy-led, yet flexible enough to meet consumers wherever they were, transforming Death from a static brand expression into a fluid, immersive, fully realized brand experience. The CEO had undoubtedly heard a hundred leading creative agencies go through their routines before, but we held out hope that our team could really sell in this ambitious vision we’d authored of a landscape where Death was top of mind more often.

Around lunchtime, the caterer warily wheeled a cart up to the conference room doors, with a crisp white tablecloth laid beneath chilled bottles of sparkling water and platters of roasted vegetables and healthy wraps. She cracked the doors and peeked in, and we could hear the CEO’s self-assured baritone resonating from inside. Our chief creative officer murmured something in response, and the CEO laughed, comfortably.

The senior client relationship lead opened the conference room doors wide to let the caterer in, and while she was turned our way, she carefully looked around, holding her arms close to her chest and making the two-thumbs-up sign.

We’d killed it.

Kai Ming McKenzie’s stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Western Humanities Review, and elsewhere. He lives in the Midwest, and works in the consumer packaged-goods branding industry. He is a graduate of the Creative Writing program at Syracuse University. You can find him on Twitter at @kaimingmck.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, November 19th, 2019.