Playing Pirate with Chiat/Day

In my follow-up about Chiat/Day and the “Pirate Square” campaign, I suggested that the agency’s decision to produce the work was motivated by an opportunity to promote the Chiat/Day brand itself in a big way and for free.  And the more I look at the whole business, the more I’m convinced this is what happened.  According to this article in Billboard, John Ocean and Eric Mendelsohn of Ghost Beach were offered the valuable Times Square space by landlord American Eagle Outfitters as at least partial payment for use of one of the band’s songs in an AEO commercial.  The duo states that addressing piracy was their idea and that they took the whole thing to TBWAChiat/Day, who developed the campaign for free.  I think the tactical decision was that the agency would naturally do the work pro bono because no matter what happens for Ghost Beach or American Eagle Outfitters, the entire campaign promotes Chiat/Day, including any negative press, because “pirate culture” is at the core of the agency’s brand.  The source of this cultural identity is attributed to an aphorism by Jay Chiat, supposedly said shortly after the 1968 founding that, “Its better to be the pirate than the Navy.”  It occurred to me, though, that the contemporary agency’s claim that the proverbial pirate flag has been flying ever since Chiat uttered these words in the late ‘60s might be what we call truth in advertising.

Neither my own father nor his colleagues, who were with either Chiat or Day before the merger, has any recollection of a pirate motif; and there is no mention of the theme in the book Chiat/Day: The First 20 Years.  Stevan Alburty, who began working at the agency in 1977 and worked in the New York office until 1994, says he believes the pirate branding came about sometime in the 1990s after he left, which seems about right with regard to pop culture and the dawn of the digital age.  Alburty also hosts a blog called Jay/Day, which is frequented by former employees of the agency, so you’d think someone might remember what the agency calls its mantra, if it were indeed a mantra dating back to the early days of the business.  And here’s the kicker:  an anonymous but reliable source traceable through my personal, family connections to this particular agency says that the quote about being the pirate comes from Steve Jobs and that the entire pirate ethos, including the flag, originates from within the C/D creative team that worked on the Apple account. In fact, a quick search for quotes does attribute to Steve Jobs the words “It’s better to be a pirate than join the Navy.” And I think we all know what Jobs meant when we look at Apple design relative to the rest of the computer industry.

So, why bring this up at all?  Why out Chiat/Day on this relatively harmless bit of revisionist history?  I’m not interested in petty gotchas, and as I said in the previous post, the pirate theme is a perfectly good choice for branding a long tradition of pushing creative boundaries and producing some brilliant work.  So what if the story takes a little license with the truth?  And what has it got to do with Times Square and the flap over the ArtistsvsArtists campaign?

Just this:

It’s okay to want to do what all the cool kids are doing, and Chiat/Day has plenty of street cred when it comes to advertising cool; but it can be a dangerous business when the cool kid starts to believe his own bullshit and takes his act too seriously.  As attractive as this opportunity must have been, its execution implies that the leadership at TBWAChiat/Day New York either don’t get that piracy of creative works is a serious and complex business, or they don’t care.  It makes me think of a story in which a guy dressed as a raffish pirate for a costume party gets knocked on the head and wakes up at the right hand of Edward Teach (Blackbeard) on the day the real-life pirate is threatening to hang men, women, and children unless their native township paid a ransom for their lives. Yeah, it’s a very Brady plot, but you get the idea about the contrast between myth and history, right? It’s okay to play pirate as long as you remember what is and is not a game.

Treating online piracy as a progressive business model emphasizes unfounded, techno-utipian ideas over the hard-won history of individual, creative achievement.  I and others believe the endgame can be a lasting, damaging effect on a system that has given creative people autonomous power to author great works, including the ground-breaking advertising of Chiat/Day, who is a beneficiary of this system in so many ways.  This whole  “Pirate Square” story is rife with irony, including the quote boosted from Jobs and attributed to Chiat that seeds a brand message, which leads to this Orwellian campaign brought to you by the same agency that once produced the award-winning TV spot for Apple in 1984 based on 1984.  But I think the real irony is this:  by choosing to play pirate with live ammo on the high-tech seas, the frigate Chiat/Day enabled this humble sailor to come broadside to its entire brand identity and blow a pretty big hole through its hull.

ADDENDUM:  With regard to motives and understanding who benefits, it’s worth noting that according to data published on The Trichordist, the band Ghost Beach did not appear to get much out of this deal.  This is consistent with what many of us see as the difference between vague promises of the digital age and tangible results that put food on the table.

© 2013, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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