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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  • As I said elsewhere, I think we should stop calling it
    piracy and call it fraud on a mass scale (and before anyone
    complains, I’m talking about the illegal downloading industry, not
    individual “filesharing.”) Pirates are of course romanticized, but
    everyone thinks of frauds as rather sad and pathetic.

    • If the word pirate actually brought up images of ACTUAL pirates (you know, raping, pillaging, thieves and murderers) instead of Johnny Depp having adventures in spring break land, it would be more accurate.
      But, then again, since it is romanticized, that’s why they adopted it and continue to wave the flag.
      What’s funny: in the world of nicknames, doesn’t someone else than the person in question usually give the name? We’ve allowed the pirates to pick their own persona. This needs to change…

      As for Chiat/Day, i believe it was deceptive business practices in all honesty. They knew all along they weren’t promoting a band, rather than promoting themselves. They saw the big ‘free’ sign space and took advantage.

      FWIW, i believe they’ll be loosing customers if they keep up these practices.. see Chevy/Grooveshark

  • adamsmith2009

    Interesting point, and thought provoking re: calling it what it is in terms of a legal-historical definition. I think I saw your post over on DMN. Also, pointing more to the industry than the individuals will naturally indicate that SOMEone is really making lots of money on this fraud. It surely isn’t the artists, publishers, or smaller labels. The industry is luring the individual with the word “free” and other such words. Words are important in all of this, and choosing the right ones can hopefully open peoples eyes. Another excellent article by David Newhoff!

    • That’s really the point,isn’t it? There’s this assumption that if you’re not paying for it, nobody’s making money off it.

      • Yes, and I wound up in a discussion with a really good friend on FB the other night regarding piracy…that did not go well. As I tried explaining to him about ad click money going into peoples pockets that were NOT the artists, I could feel his eyes glazing over through the monitor! I think once I sit down and 1.2.3. this on paper those conversations will go better. Articulating a simple, very pointed response would be well worth rehearsing, (rehearsing is something music people are supposed to be good at, right?LOL) because these conversations are happening to me more and more. Thanks guys, This blog and conversation has been inspiring.

  • An interesting footnote had occured to me: the ad industry
    actually has more skin in this game than we may at first realise.
    In short: the ad industry is quite likely among the biggest users
    of creative works of all stripes. Given that the whole business
    seems to have started as AE figuring out how they can reduce their
    direct licencing cost (by trading ad space), it seems highly likely
    that the folks who work in advertising these days would be thrilled
    to see an erosion of traditional creator protections. This might
    mean both greater access (for example, by removing the creator’s
    ability to say no to a certain use) and lesser cost (for example,
    by way of extending the system of statutory rates onto a greater
    number of uses and then pulling a Pandora). Something to think
    about over the weekend, perhaps…

    • David Newhoff

      Hey, Faza. I thought about it, but I don’t think so. Assuming the strategic minds at Omnicom have even discussed the issue, it’s hard to imagine many scenarios that would not potentially hurt their short-term bottom line for the sake of hypothetical or negligible savings at some point in the future. Aside from the fact that they’d be weighing in on a side that runs afoul of some of their existing and potential clients, the overall high cost of doing business with A-List talent helps keep the agency’s own fees relatively high. The agency world is like the entertainment world today in that it is largely owned by massive conglomerates. I suspect there’s far too much complexity in all the various relationships for the ad conglomerates to see the market through Pandora’s eyes, if you will.

      It is the advertisers and not the agencies who have to license the works, and there are no mandated rates like there are for radio licensing, et al. If Pepsico wants to use a Mumford & Sons song, they’ll have to make a deal directly with the band, and the band can ask for whatever it wants in this case. If the deal is affordable, the project will happen, and the agency will be happy they get to execute whatever spot they’ve developed; but if M&S won’t deal, some other creative campaign will happen, and the agency will still have the Pepsico contract. Unless something has changed that I don’t know about, the big-ticket licensing is revenue neutral to the agency.

      • I admit it’s just a bit of musing on my part and you know a lot more about advertising than I do, but I’m not sure it’s quite as clear-cut as that.

        While the agency may not have to pay out of it’s own pocket, I do believe that the ability to do something that is considered difficult – if not impossible – or at least do it cheaper than one would expect it to be, might be seen as a competitive advantage. In all, I believe that the ability to carry out your big idea (which may not necessarily come from the client) is the central bit. As things stand, the person preparing the campaign may find themselves unable to do what they’d like either because the owner of the copyrighted work they’d set their hearts on says and outright no (see Adam Yauch), or the asking price is too high.

        I’m also thinking that a successful agency listens to their clients and tries to accomodate their wishes (or they’ll go to someone who will). My current experience in accounting bears this out, unfortunately – the key thing being to pad your own butt if it goes pear-shaped.

        Again, it’s my inner cynic speaking and I’m definitely talking out of my well-padded butt here. Still, it’s Friday and a bit of wild mass guessing may be excused, I hope.

      • David Newhoff

        But if the copyright landscape changes as you describe, Omnicom, Interpublic, WPP, and Publicis remain on a level playing field. No one agency within these conglomerates would enjoy a competitive advantage. It sometimes happens that agencies and advertisers want a song or something they can’t get, but in my experience, it’s not usually that big a barrier to fulfilling a campaign’s goals. There’s invariably another route to take, and all of us creators know that sometimes barriers yield great results we would never have considered without the obstacle. This happens for ad creatives, too, and they know it. There might be a client out there who says, “Get me the Rolling Stones, or you’re fired,” but it isn’t all that common; and no competitor will be able to deliver either. The truth is, and your cynical self will appreciate this, most ad people at agencies and advertisers are easily star struck and like to work with big names, even when there is not much intrinsic value they can add to the work. With all due respect to Spike Lee, this is part of why he’ll get a gig to direct a TV spot that just about any competent director can handle. And if Spike won’t do it, they’ll be happy to rub elbows with, I don’t know, Jason Reitman or someone. Same goes for musicians and actors in some cases, although of course their personae or sounds are part of the overall concepts.

        All that said, wild guessing is always welcome from you, Faza. You guess better than many think.

  • Amazing analysis. And I guess it makes sense – why on earth would a massive ad agency do “pro bono” work for a small band? Chiat saw the self-promotion opportunity here and jumped on it.

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  • Just had a thought…
    How do you pronounce ‘Chiat/Day’?
    Is it ‘she-aught-day’, or is it ‘shod-day’, or maybe ‘schit-day’ 😉

    • David Newhoff

      I hear you, James, but I prefer to stay focused on discussing the issues. It’s certainly not my desire to trash them just for sport. Thanks, though, for reading and being part of the conversation.

  • You’re right. apologies (to you)

    • No worries at all.

      • I’d query the argument that Ghost Beach haven’t got much out of this. They’re a very mediocre generic “indie rock” band of the kind you find everywhere. This made them stand out; the very fact you and the Trichordist are discussing them illustrates this. Even if they can’t capitatlise on this, it’s still got them a pr campaign they wouldn’t have been able to afford.

        I don’t necessarily blame them for this. A significant number of artists (on all sides of the debate) are currently at least as well known for their stance on these issues as anything they’ve produced. I’m also not suggesting that it means they’re being dishonest- something being useful publicity and entirely sincere aren’t mutually exclusive.

        It’s always been the case that cultivating a fanbase who agrees with you ideologically is an effective tack. (I was a massive Crass fan as a kid and they were neither primarily about the music) It’s just a bit depressing that at one point bands were doing this with ‘big arguments’ like Marxism and anarchism. These days, we get them doing it with far smaller points like copyright.

      • David Newhoff

        Both my point and Lowery’s is that the artists in this case got thrown under the bus. I’m sure GB’s intent was altruistic and, at worst, maybe a little naive; but I don’t blame them at all. I really think what happened was a couple of small-time musicians went to giant Chiat/Day with an idea, and the agency took the opportunity to create a campaign for themselves. Ghost Beach are like the tourist with a handful of cash saying to the dishonest merchant, “I don’t understand your money. Just take what you need.”

      • Sam, have a look at the link in the ‘ADDENDUM’ (final
        paragraph of the article). You will see, with several metrics, that
        the band has not received any sort of bump from the campaign
        whatsoever. Truth is, NO-one is talking about the band… they’re
        talking about the campaign and the advertising company…

  • Well, it hasn’t the effect they’ve hoped for, true. But,
    realistically, without this campaign, would be talking about them
    at all? It hasn’t translated into sales, but my suggestion is that
    what has probably happened is that people have checked them out and
    either a) only downloaded the free stuff on offer or b) decided
    they aren’t keen. I come from the perspective of a critic as
    opposed to an artist, so I have a slightly different approach. But
    I’m genuinely intrigued to know if anyone on here has listened to
    the band and got excited about them. Because I simply can’t see the
    appeal. As I said, there’s thousands of bands that sound like this.
    But yeah, I agree that the campaign is about winning awards for the

    • Did you even look at the link?
      it looked at things like YouTube views and such as well.
      The band’s website was so tiny and obscured on the advertising, i’m not surprised they haven’t seen any bump whatsoever.

      • David Newhoff

        From my perspective, Ghost Beach bought themselves about five minutes of attention that I’m willing to bet got a handful of people to sample their music. I did, and agree with Sam that it’s nothing extraordinary. On the other hand, if 100 people listened, loved what they heard, and shared, then this move might have been a bump for them. Unfortunately, this is one of those bullets you only get to fire once, and it missed. Lesson learned IMO: when a brand wants your song for their commercial, take the cash, have a celebratory beer, and go back to making more music.

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