Console Wars (2015)
THE NEXT LEVEL
TOO HOT, TOO COLD,
AND JUST RIGHT
“That sucks,” some random teenager said, and he said it with such visceral disdain that it was as if he’d been forever traumatized by the level of suckitude he’d been forced to witness. “It just, you know, sucks,” he said again, this time earning dismissive nods of agreement from the other kids in the room. There were about a dozen of them in total, all hired by Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein to review the commercials that the agency had prepared for their upcoming Sega pitch.
“He’s right,” another said. “Like, we already know our parents don’t know how to play videogames. Tell us something new!” More dismissive nods, and this time some high fives of agreement from around the room. Although none of these kids had ever met before, and likely never would again, they were fully united in their distaste for the commercials they had just seen.
Jeff Goodby, the agency’s leader and cofounder, watched all this from behind a two-way mirror. Goodby was a Harvard-educated ad man with the renegade mentality of a pirate philosopher, the lumbering physique of a friendly yeti, and the rare gift of being able to sport a ponytail and make it work. Once upon a time, he’d considered advertising to be the lowest form of writing, nothing but a nuisance to those in its perpetual line of fire. But after leaving his post as a city hall reporter for a newspaper in Massachusetts and moving to San Francisco with his wife, he needed a job quickly and wound up working for the ad agency J. Walter Thompson. There, his mind was blown by the art of advertising, and in the process he learned that he had a penchant for blowing minds himself with his creative work. After a stint at Ogilvy and Mather, he left there in 1983 to start his own agency with Rich Silverstein, his creative partner, and Andy Berlin, a brash entrepreneur.
Throughout the 1980s, GB&S grew into one of the industry’s top boutique shops, able to compete with the big firms by coming up with bigger ideas, like the Electronic Arts “We See Farther” campaign (1984), which personified the young ad agency almost as much as it did the young computer company. They also distinguished themselves from the competition by developing a distinct style (a cinema verité high-concept, low-production-values technique), promising clients a more hands-on experience (one of the founders would personally head up every account), and placing a forward-thinking emphasis on account planning (the initial consumer research and messaging that inform the creative process). After a decade of impressive growth, during which the agency had evolved into a firm of nearly fifty people, it seemed like only a matter of time before Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein reached the next echelon of success. That inevitability was derailed, however, when tensions among the partners caused Andy Berlin to leave and start a new agency (Berlin Cameron) in early 1992. To Goodby and Silverstein, this changed nothing, but to the outside world there was a skeptical feeling that this signified the beginning of the end. As a member of an industry where perception is said to equal reality, Goodby knew he needed to find a way to show that the Berlin-less agency was stronger than ever. And the way he planned to do that was by winning Sega’s business, but the shitty feedback that he was receiving from the focus group didn’t bode well for the agency’s chances.
“All right, then,” Silverstein said to his partner and the other creatives on their side of the glass. “Welcome to our worst-case scenario.”
Goodby nodded, keeping his eyes on the teenagers. “I’m tempted to celebrate the fact that their response is so overwhelmingly unanimous,” he said, “until, you know, I take into account the fact that they’re basically telling us to quit our jobs and go jump out the nearest window.”
With no silver lining in sight, Goodby, Silverstein, and the others returned their attention to the focus group.
“That footage you showed wasn’t even from Sonic 2!” said one of the teens. “It was from the original Sonic, and it was from level two, which isn’t hard at all.”
From another: “Those commercials look like they were written by adults.”
And from a third: “The guys who made it weren’t even good enough to get to the difficult parts.”
The kids were right. The guys who’d made the commercials weren’t very good at the games, but they’d hoped to compensate for that knowledge gap by spending time with people who were good at them. To truly understand what it meant to be a gamer, the agency sent Jon Steel, their director of account planning, and a small team of his best planners around the country to spend time with this demographic. As the head researcher on this project, Irina Heirakuji arranged for a two-week tour through the country during which she and the other planners would visit with boys between eight and twelve, invite over members of their friendship circle, and observe how they played videogames. In addition to these in-home observations, the planners also studied the children’s bedrooms, closets, and any other area that might offer an insight into their overstimulated minds.
What the account planners discovered was that these kids, just like those in the test group, had their own language, customs, and rituals; in a sense, they had their own secret society that adults could observe but never quite understand. Whereas secret societies in the past have met in lodges, taverns, and dimly lit alleys, this new generation’s meeting spot was the virtual world of videogames. And also unlike the covert gatherings of yesteryear, where furtive glances and secret handshakes were needed to gain entry, the only password into this world was up-up-down-down-left-right-left-right-B-A-start. Playing videogames wasn’t even so much about being good at them as it was about understanding them in a fundamental way that adults never could. For the first time ever, the kid who could never beat his father on the basketball court or beat his mother in an argument now had a place where he could reign supreme.
Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein recognized the value of this new dynamic, and for the pitch they created a series of commercials highlighting the concept of the kid as king. One of the ads featured images of adults-only luxuries, like sports cars and scantily clad women, playing over an unseen and unemotional narrator’s description of the power of adults. “They can drive cars,” he says. “They can go to R-rated movies, and they can also decide when to go to bed.” As he speaks, a barrage of semi-related buzzwords—“speed,” “babes,” “midnight”—blink on and off the screen. “But,” the narrator forcefully says as the screen cuts to game footage from Sonic The Hedgehog, “it will be a chilly day in hell before an adult gets this far on Sonic 2.”
In another ad, a kid named Mitch is seen playing Sonic 2 at home, desperately trying to reach the seventh level. As he nears this goal, his boring father tells him to stop playing and hit the books. Undeterred, Mitch continues playing. Eventually his father delivers to Mitch what he believes to be the most shattering of insults: “If you keep playing videogames, you’ll never grow up to be like me.” Following these harrowing words, the audience is told that Mitch’s new goal in life is to reach the eighth level.
Both ads ended with a tagline that had been cooked up by Dave O’Hare, the chief creative on the account, with a major assist from Jon Steel. After spending those weeks with gamers around the country, Steel informed the creatives that this videogame world is all about speed. It’s all about being able to get through a level in order to move on to the next one. The longer you spend on a level, the slower you are as a player, the less competent you are as an individual. These kids don’t just want to win; they want to win quickly. He also told O’Hare that although the majority of kids owned and played Nintendo, those who had tried both systems believed that Sega’s was superior. One kid even said that after playing Sega there was “no going back.” With comments like these, Steel paraphrased that going from Nintendo to Sega was like getting called up to the big leagues. O’Hare considered this, and after a minute of blending it all together, he suggested that the gamer version of this analogy would be getting to that next power, that next zone, that next level. Seconds later, he came up with the phrase that somehow incredibly summed it all up: “Welcome to the Next Level.”
Between the tagline, the account planning, and the scattershot we-get-you feel of the campaign, Goodby thought that he and his guys had nailed it. They had infiltrated the secret society and learned how to speak directly to this demographic. Or so they thought, until the focus groups’ constant allegations of suckitude.
“The more I think about the commercial,” another kid said, “the more it sucks.”
“Plus Sega shouldn’t be insulting our parents!”
How could they have been so wrong? Goodby wondered. When had they gotten so out of touch with America’s youth? And why had he wasted money on those bottles of champagne for an account his agency had no chance of winning?
“I wish this was a commercial for Nintendo!”
“Oh, yeah, did you see the new one for Mario All-Stars?”
Goodby and his colleagues watched the onslaught continue, still searching for some kind of silver lining. But eventually it became clear that there was none, and, more important, there was no time to look for one. The presentation was in a week and they didn’t have shit. Game over.
It’s all about cool; that’s the holy grail. You’re born, you die, and in between you spend a bunch of years searching for it—looking cool, sounding cool, buying cool, and, no matter what, not being uncool. That right there, that’s the secret formula. It’s addictive, it’s enlightening, and it’s goddamn recession-proof. In a world full of too many people shouting too many things, it’s the only adjective that really matters: “cool.”
Tim Price knew cool, or at least as much as any mortal could claim to know it. Price was an award-winning copywriter whose passion for wild, restless, high-velocity advertising could be traced to his love for off-road racing. He joined Foote, Cone & Belding as a creative director in 1978 and quickly caught fire with his team’s edgy work on the Levi’s Youthwear account. In the process of transforming the esteemed jeans company from a cute brand into a cool one, he found his voice (a sort of counterculture romanticism), he met his wife (the VP director of event marketing at Levi Strauss and Co.), and his firm won part of Nintendo’s business (they got the Game Boy, Leo Burnett got the NES). Price was psyched by the chance to help define this relatively new and fast-moving industry of videogames, to do for Nintendo what FCB had done for Levi’s and appeal to an older, hipper audience.
Unfortunately, this was not at all what Nintendo wanted. They weren’t interested in branding, expanding their demographic, or producing memorable, high-concept ads. All they wanted was cartoony, easy-to-digest commercials that showed a lot of game footage. If that was what they wanted, that was their prerogative, of course, but it raised the question of why they’d hired Foote, Cone & Belding to do this. Price tried to talk Nintendo into taking bigger risks, and whenever he did, he’d receive positive reactions from the NOA marketing team. Peter Main liked clever ideas, Don Coyner loved sophistication, and Bill White wanted to take over the world. But shortly after getting excited about big ideas, reality would sink in; either they’d decide that Nintendo was going to stick with what had been working thus far, or they’d bring the plans back to Minoru Arakawa and get a thanks-but-no-thanks. Fun, happy, and title-driven advertising was Nintendo’s bread and butter, and they didn’t need FCB’s jelly. Within the next year they moved all their business to Leo Burnett, which was not entirely surprising, though it stung Price nevertheless. But now, two years later, he had the chance to right that wrong by helping Foote, Cone & Belding win Sega’s business.
In terms of marketing philosophies, Sega of America was Nintendo of America’s polar opposite. They craved bold ideas, sky-high concepts, and aggressive, in-your-face branding. Sega represented FCB’s chance to let it all hang out, which led to the creation of a wacky, high-octane campaign centered around the tagline “Make your brain sweat.” Surrender to madness, give in to the insanity, and let Sega take your brain into overdrive—this was the hyperactive sensation that the campaign wished to impart. To help hammer home the point, Price wanted to bring an actual brain to the presentation. Obtaining a real one turned out to be harder than he’d anticipated, but he did manage to track down a medical supply company that sold brain-shaped molds, and he figured that just might work.
On the day of the pitch, Sega’s key marketing members arrived at FCB’s offices not knowing quite what to expect. Neither did Price, whose wife had yet to arrive with the key to the presentation. The night before, she had used the mold to make a life-sized green Jell-O brain, complete with veins of red licorice. It was gorgeous, it was disgusting, and, for the moment, it had been stopped in the hallway by someone at FCB who didn’t recognize Price’s wife and didn’t quite understand why she was carrying something that looked like it would be evidence of a murder committed in Candyland. Eventually she managed to sweet-talk her way past the evil Lord Licorice and get the noggin to her husband. After a thousand thank-yous and a kiss on the cheek, Price then explained to Sega how Foote, Cone & Belding would make consumers sweat their brains for Sega.
Back at Sega of America’s headquarters, Tom Kalinske, Ed Volkwein, Al Nilsen, Diane Adair, Doug Glen, Tom Abramson, and Ellen Beth Van Buskirk met in the conference room to discuss the agency review process.
“Thoughts on Foote Cone?” Kalinske asked, opening up the floor.
“Not as many as I would have hoped,” Nilsen said. “A bit unmemorable.”
“But the brain, Al,” Van Buskirk gravely reminded him. “The brain!”
“All right,” Abramson said, “I’ll just come right out and say what we’re all thinking: the human brain has to be the ugliest organ in the body, right?” Chirps of laughter fluttered around him. Tom Abramson was the newest member of Sega’s inner circle, and he fit in perfectly. His intellectual absurdity pleasantly turned every conversation into banter, but it was his ability to will promotions into existence that earned him a seat at the table. With a background in event marketing for the Ice Capades, the Harlem Globetrotters, and Walt Disney World, he had a certain savvy for nontraditional marketing, which at Sega propelled him to do things like hire student reps at colleges and send out Sega Shuttles to easily transport the newest games anywhere, anytime. Plus the guy was just plain fun. “Now, I know there are plenty of repellent organs out there, certainly more for the menfolk than the ladies, but when you factor in the weight and those creepy little folds . . . well, it’s gotta be the brain.”
“Maybe not the best presentation,” Kalinske said, “but you have to admit that it’s a cool line: ‘Make your brain sweat.’ ”
“Eh,” Volkwein said with a quick shake of the head. “Good, not great.”
Adair nodded. “Net-net, I thought it was cool, but did anyone else think that maybe it was too cool?”
“Too far out there?” Kalinske asked. “I can definitely see that.”
“Yeah,” Van Buskirk said. “Cool we want, but that was frostbitten.”
“Now I can’t help but wonder about other species,” Abramson blurted. “Dogs? Cats? Are there brains as objectionable? And what about koala bears?”
“I agree,” Glen added, his typical subdued enthusiasm even more noticeable in contrast to Abramsom’s gleeful musings. “I should clarify: I agree with Ellen Beth’s comment regarding the frostbite, although I’m admittedly intrigued by the tangential brain curiosity.”
“Bottom line,” Kalinske proclaimed, “we can do better. And I have a feeling that Wieden+Kennedy will find a way to strike the right balance.”
“Agreed,” Glen said. “I think we can do better.”
“Absolutely,” Kalinske said. “I have a feeling that Wieden+Kennedy will find a way to strike the right balance.”
“I’d be shocked if they didn’t knock it out of the park,” Nilsen said. “Shocked.”
“They do fine work,” Volkwein said. “No denying that.”
“Wieden will deliver,” Glen said, “but let’s not forget about Goodby just yet.”
“Nobody has forgotten about Goodby,” Nilsen said. “And if we ever did, I’m sure you’d be there to remind us.”
“What specifically should I infer from that comment?” Glen asked.
“Come on, Doug,” Kalinske said. “They sent us champagne during our dinner with Wieden and Kennedy. How do you think they knew where we were eating?”
Glen blushed a little and then smiled. “Because they have great market research!” Laughter broke out around the table.
Suddenly Kalinske pointed at the window. “Did anybody else see that?”
“What did you see?” Adair asked.
“Something small, moving quickly,” Kalinske said. “Looked almost like a golf ball.” Everyone froze and stared out the window, but nothing else appeared. “I guess not,” Kalinske said. “Hm. Strange.” And then the discussion about Sega’s marketing plans resumed.
Jimbo Matison had just puked his guts out, and he was certain that another round of gastric fireworks would be coming very soon. Until then, there was nothing he could do but curl up on the couch and hope that the distraction of crappy daytime television might be enough to briefly postpone the inevitable. The twenty-six-year-old had the flu, and sick days had stopped being fun about ten years ago.
Not long after failing to find something watchable, he received a phone call from a producer at Colossal Pictures, the commercial production company where he’d been doing grunt work for years. “I know you’re sick or whatever,” she said, “but do you think you can come in for just an hour or two?”
“I’m sick,” he said. “Like, legit sick.”
“It’s a voice-over thing,” she said. “I think you’d be good.”
“Oh,” Matison said, suddenly feeling a little better. He’d been trying to break into the voice-over business for years. “What’s it for?”
“We’re doing a bid for this thing called Sega.”
“Just come in.”
“What’s in it for me.”
“I’ll buy you lunch.”
He thought over the offer. “And?”
“And you’ll help me get my SAG card.”
“Yeah, whatever,” she said. “Just come in, okay?”
Matison waited for the next wave of vomiting, and as soon as it passed he jumped on his bike and rode over to the production house. When he got there, it was just his producer, a sound guy, and some dude from an ad agency. The dude seemed pretty cool—he wasn’t wearing a suit, at least—and he asked Matison to scream the word “Sega” as loud as he possibly could.
“Okay,” Matison said skeptically. “What’s this for?”
“Come on, Jimbo,” the producer said. “This isn’t rocket science. Do you want that free lunch or not?”
For the next hour, Matison repeatedly screamed the word “Sega” at the top of his lungs. The producer, the sound guy, and the dude from the ad agency were loving it, having him shout it from different parts of the room; faster, slower, faster, slower, over and over, screaming “Sega” as many ways as the four-letter word could be shouted.
When he was finished and the agency dude had thanked him for a job well done, he asked how they planned to use his scream.
“We don’t know yet.”
“Gotcha,” Matison said with a nod. “Because I was thinking: do you remember those old Quasar commercials, how they used to say ‘Quasar’ at the very end? It really stuck in your head, didn’t it?”
“Hmmm,” the agency dude said. “That’s not a bad idea.”
“Cool,” Matison said, and got on his bike, hoping not to puke on the way home.
Inside a former Gothic-style church that had been converted into a chic nightclub, Wieden+Kennedy employees decked out the holy space in futuristic fonts, pale neon colors, and the unusual feeling of a science experiment gone right (think rock-and-roll Frankenstein). It was like A Clockwork Orange, but for teenagers. It was as if someone had ripped the pages out of Brave New World and glued them into The Catcher in the Rye. It was 1984 meets The Breakfast Club, new-speak meets teen-speak meets Sonic The Hedgehog. And it was called “vidspeak,” the concept of new, hip, future-is-now language that Wieden+Kennedy had invented as the backbone of their campaign. The agency provided a sampler from the vidspeak lexicon, which included the following words, terms, and phrases:
Gearlets: The vidspeak word for gamers. Also known as gamelets, gameys, whoossies, vidiots, speaklets, bossaroos, and cluelets.
Hedgy wedgy: Anything pertaining to Sonic The Hedgehog, or to any fan of said Sonic The Hedgehog. Also that cute little way Sonic has of stamping his foot when he can’t believe you’re so slow and stupid. (See Slow geezer trying to play the game)
Whammy jammy: The way you feel when playing a good game.
Gobble-degoop: Running wild. Running fast. Running all over the place without time to say “Hasta la vista, baby.” (See Sonic The Hedgehog)
Mobile mover with wings: What gamers will call the Game Gear. Also referred to as the a-to-go-cup, a minda-rama, a home away from home, and a great thing to wrap your knozzles around.
Master blaster: What you do when you start playing the Sega Menacer Master Module. Or, how to be a real sure-shot full-tilt accu-sight kind of guy.
I was Brahms: I was drunk with power. I was mad with passion. I was blitzed with energy. I was actually able to reach the next damn level.
It was a little stranger than Kalinske had expected, a little more to swallow than “Just do it,” but there was a beauty to the chaos, and if anyone could make it pop into pop culture, it was Wieden+Kennedy. And, like Nike’s iconic slogan, the agency had created a tagline that was easy to connect with. “You are here,” Dan Wieden said. “You are here,” he repeated, and then elaborated on many ramifications of this seemingly simple phrase. “It’s a tagline that means: You are in. You are hip. You are cool. You are not there, which is where everybody else who is not here is. You are with us. You are smart, cunning, and extremely creative. You are inside the game, inside this new world, inside another reality. You are so good you don’t need a glossary to explain any of this stuff to you.”
When Wieden finished, he was pelted with applause, both from Sega’s marketing team and from his awestruck colleagues. He waited for the clapping to energize the room, and then he began to discuss a possible programming schedule. As he started to explain how his agency could get airtime at unmatchable discounts, Kalinske subtly elbowed Nilsen. “What do you think so far?” Kalinske whispered.
Before whispering back, Nilsen quickly flipped through the vidspeak sampler. “Mostly whammy jammy, but every now and then a bit hedgy wedgy.”
And just like that, Al Nilsen became the first gamer to express himself in vidspeak.
Before Sega of America could officially select Wieden+Kennedy, they needed to sit through one final pitch. It was all but a formality at this point, but they owed Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein the courtesy of at least allowing them to believe that the competition was wide open. Besides, what was the worst that could happen? They liked some tiny aspect of the Goodby campaign and passed it along to Wieden+Kennedy? Thoughts like these swirled around Kalinske’s mind as he walked into the lobby of the Foster City Crowne Plaza. Like W+K, the guys at GB&S had opted to pitch outside a dull office environment, though it’s hard to say that the Crowne Plaza engendered feelings of joy and enthusiasm. But any doubts about the venue instantly evaporated when Kalinske and a dozen colleagues entered the ballroom.
“Welcome!” Jeff Goodby shouted, ushering the Sega employees into what had once been an unspectacular ballroom with frumpy velvet curtains and asparagus-colored carpeting. “Welcome to the Next Level.”
The breathtaking what-the-huh sensation of swinging open those ballroom doors felt slightly on par with stumbling through a closet and suddenly falling into Narnia. In the center of the room, sixteen giant television sets had been multiplexed together to create one mega-sized screen. This beautiful monstrosity looked like what you might expect Transformers to use if the Autobots and Deceptions decided to momentarily put aside their differences and watch the Super Bowl together. Standing in front of the TVs was a twelve-year-old boy suavely playing Sonic The Hedgehog on the IMAX-sized screen. Sounds from the game blared through a booming sound system that had been installed by the roadies for the Grateful Dead. The speakers, the boy, and the tower of televisions were all on top of a massive stage that had been fashioned by George Coates Performance Works, a San Francisco-based ambient art company renowned for developing innovative types of theatrical performance. Part of this performance required a large ensemble cast, which explained the rows of stadium-style seats up against the walls. These seats, all of them filled, were occupied by employees from Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein. As the team from Sega was shown to their own seats, Kalinske concluded that this had to be greatest presentation he had ever seen in his twenty years of corporate meetings. And it had only been going on for about fifteen seconds.
“Thank you all for coming to our humble presentation,” Jeff Goodby said. He spoke from atop the stage, joined by Rich Silverstein, Jon Steel, Irina Heirakuji, and Harold Sogard, the agency’s director of account management. They were each wearing a school letterman’s jacket they had made, featuring a patch of Sonic on the shoulder.
Silverstein nodded. “We’re psyched to show you a little bit of what we’ve cooked up,” he said. “And we hope that you’re prepared to be blown away.”
“We’ve spent the past month traveling around the country and living with gamers,” Steel said. “We got to know them and understand what they want.”
“To search for any clue about how their minds work,” Heirakuji said. “We even raided their backpacks, bedrooms, and closets.”
“It’s true,” Sogard said. “Jeff even turned our conference room into a ten-year-old’s bedroom. Right down to the dirty clothes!”
As laughter emanated from the Sega crowd, Goodby gave an unapologetic shrug. “Hey, I’ve never had a problem with getting my hands a little dirty,” he said. “But before we get into the campaign, I wanted to first show you how committed to Sega our agency really is. So in preparation for the pitch, I went around the office and assigned everyone a Genesis game to master.” Goodby took a step forward and pointed to his employees in the stadium seats. “Over there, we’ve got an expert on every single game that you guys make. Go ahead and ask them any question about any game. I’m totally dead serious.”
When the Sega folks realized that Goodby was, in fact, totally dead serious, Nilsen was selected to come up with some brain busters. “In Phantasy Star III: Generations of Doom, what is the name of the main character in the First Generation?”
The agency employee assigned to Phantasy Star III stood up. “That’s a tough question,” he said, making Goodby sweat for a second. “But only because there are six playable characters: Rhys, Lyle, Mieu, Wren, Lena, and Maia. If I had to narrow it down to one, though, I’d go with Rhys, the Crown Prince of the Orakian Kingdom of Landen.”
“I couldn’t have put it better myself,” Nilsen said amidst applause for the Phantasy Star III expert.
After his employees correctly answered a few more of Nilsen’s questions, Goodby moved on to the campaign. “Welcome to the Next Level,” he said. “That’s not just the tagline, but the entire essence of our campaign. ‘Welcome to the Next Level’—that says it all. It’s a badge of honor; it’s the ultimate challenge; it’s an invitation to join the revolution. It represents the only thing that a player cares about when he’s locked into a game. Shut off the real world, dive into the game world, and just keep going-going-going at all costs until you get there. It means wake up and let’s get started. Put away your toys, put away that juvenile Nintendo, and go get a Genesis if you want to find out what life is really all about. Welcome to the Next Level. It means that you have finally arrived. And just in time, because we’ve been waiting for you.”
Kalinske loved everything that Goodby had to say. The guy got it—he just totally and completely got it. But as spot-on as his words continued to be, they were nothing more than that. Beyond the theatrical presentation, was Goodby’s “Welcome to the Next Level” really that different from Wieden+Kennedy’s “You are here”? And if it came down to a matter of execution, Wieden+Kennedy would get the benefit of the doubt based on their track record. By this point, however, Kalinske wanted Goodby to win the account. He wanted to give the business to a bunch of guys as smart, scrappy, and subversive as his own. In order to do that, however, he needed proof that “Welcome to the Next Level” could be more than just words. He had to know that this would be the weapon used to assassinate Nintendo. As if reading his mind, Goodby screened some commercials that the agency had prepared in advance.
The ads shown at the pitch were unrecognizable as those the focus group had seen. Following that barrage of atomic suck-bombs, Goodby and Silverstein had decided to take a step back. As they reflected upon what had gone wrong, they concluded that the agency’s account planners had conducted incredible research and the creative teams had written great copy, so the problem had to be a matter of execution. The dots were all there, but they needed a better way to connect them. After further examination, however, what they realized was that they shouldn’t even connect the dots at all. Beneath the focus group’s insults and criticism, there was a lesson to be gleaned: kids notice everything. For example, when one of the respondents had said, “That footage you showed wasn’t even from Sonic 2!” what he really meant was, “To you, all game footage looks the same.” And then when he’d said, “It was from the original Sonic, and it was from level two, which isn’t hard at all,” what he really meant was, “Unlike you, I can see a split-second frame from a level, identify it, identify with it, and also have an emotional reaction to it.”
These kids, their minds just operated at a much faster speed than anyone gave them credit for. In the same way that dogs can hear things that humans cannot, this generation of kids could see things that adults couldn’t even process. Not only that, but they remembered them too. So the best way to speak to them was to invent a dog whistle that played something only they could hear. This was kind of what they had been trying to do with the semi-subliminal messaging (“speed,” “babes,” “midnight”), but that was too obvious. That was like an old man wearing baggy pants and a backward hat. Kids were too smart for that; they could spot a poser from a million miles away. With this in mind, the agency had their editor, Hank Corwin, go back through the material and create some kind of beautiful chaos that spoke up for kids and, for once, not down to them.
What Goodby unveiled at the Crowne Plaza was unlike anything Kalinske and his colleagues had ever seen before. Quick cuts. Crazy zooms. Wild camera angles. It felt less like watching a regular commercial than like fast-forwarding through one on the VCR. Loud punk music. Intense lens flares. Aggressive close-ups. It looked sort of like a music video, but only if that music video was suffering from manic-depression and had just ingested a cocktail of heroin, cocaine, and speed. Weird lighting, unpretty actors, nonlinear storytelling—the whole thing was off-putting, migraine-inducing, and offensive to the senses, but it was absolutely incredible. And to tie it all together, at the end of every spot some maniac shouted, “Sega!”
“And just remember,” Goodby said as the video presentation came to an end, “we’re only a short drive away.” He then played a short video clip of himself, Silverstein, and a few other guys whacking golf balls off the roof of their office building. Except whenever they hit the ball, the real reaction shot was replaced with footage of golf balls hitting Sega of America headquarters.
During the ground-shaking applause that followed, Nilsen subtly elbowed Kalinske. “What did you think?”
Kalinske blinked for a second, then replied, “I think vidspeak just became a dead language. Sorry, hedgy wedgy.”
He was practically in a state of shock. This was it—everything he had wanted. The tone was edgy, but not too sharp. It cut, but only deep enough to leave a cool scar. It was sex without a condom, smoking two packs a day, and watching the speedometer break a hundred miles per hour; and the best part was that none of it hurt because it was only a videogame.
If there had been any lingering doubts that Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein was the right choice, they disappeared when the Sega people got back to their office and saw that the entire parking lot was covered in chalk markings. At first it looked like teenage vandalism, but upon closer inspection it turned out to be a single message written over and over: “Welcome to the Next Level.”