By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
Sensing that his message had been lost in the din of modernity, God decided it was time for a little self-promotion. Churches weren't full, the flock was straying, people were slacking, sin was spreading like Miracle Whip, and he needed something to stem the tide.
Something to get folks back into the pews again. Maybe some slick advertising, he thought, would help get the message out. His own ideas, his own words, straight from his own pen and ink. Yeah.
"TV commercials are so me-damned expensive," sighed God. "And everyone has TiVo now."
Peter suggested direct mailing.
"I don't know," said God, rolling his eyes. "I always throw that crap out."
Peter thought for a moment. "Satellite radio? Maybe your own show?"
God sighed. "Nah. My voice is so geriatric, I make Diane Rehm sound like a 16-year-old."
"Wait a minute," Peter said. "How about billboards?"
"Or how about those scrolling electronic billboards?" Peter asked excitedly. "We'll put them everywhere! They could display the temperature in hell! That'll get 'em!"
"No, no," God said. "No. Something motivating. Witty. Snappy. Something that'll get people thinking of me, without hitting 'em over the head with a Bible."
Peter thumbed through the Big Rolodex. "Who should we call?"
"Try South Florida. We need to keep things discreet."
"Discreet? South Florida?"
"Sure. No one there will believe it's me anyway."
Down on Earth, a Fort Lauderdale advertising agency received a visitor. A mysterious and anonymous stranger met with the company's president and namesake, Andy Smith, in June of 1998. So goes the story, anyway.
The stranger envisioned a series of billboards, signed by the Almighty himself, with short, pithy phrases meant to strike a chord with believer and heathen alike. The Smith Agency was a bit player in the billboard trade at the time. The idea of billboards bearing a message from the dude upstairs was an odd request, but Smith welcomed the challenge.
Neither Smith nor his right-hand man, creative director Charlie Robb, were church-going men. But the nondenominational slant intrigued them. By September, Robb's creations began appearing along South Florida roadways. "Let's Meet at My House Sunday Before the Game God" showed up on I-95. Broward County transit buses rolled through town with "Keep Using My Name in Vain and I'll Make Rush Hour Longer God. "
Massive success ensued. The campaign went national, popping up on 10,000 billboards along the country's highways. National media rushed to rejoice in the messages from God, and the Smith Agency's prospects soared. John Avila and the Today show visited the ad men, and Smith and Robb toured the globe accepting accolades. In just two years, more than 500 newspaper articles were written about the billboards.
It was good money and good times.
"This would have been just like any other campaign," Smith says, "but because it created so much excitement, it was more fun than anything we'd ever done. And we knew what we were doing every step of the way."
Smith grins as he remembers driving to the office one morning while local FM station Y-100 hosted a call-in for anyone who could identify the donor behind the billboards. He phoned up and played around for a while, never letting on who the mystery benefactor was.
"Everybody was trying to find out who was behind it," Smith says. "And to this day, we haven't told anybody."
But speaking for God had its consequences. Within a year, his agency had been bought by dot-commers who turned around and dumped the men who had created the wildly successful ad campaign. Subsequent versions of God's billboards turned amateurish and then strident. Today, they're nearly as ubiquitous, if more divisive.
God has turned ornery as new ad men have taken up his voice.
Meanwhile, ad execs still consider the first campaign, which came out of Fort Lauderdale, as the pinnacle of their craft. And they still talk about the mystery of who put up the money to make God speak from billboards. They insist that the secret is still the best-guarded one of their industry.
Even if it did leak out, to little fanfare, nearly four years ago.
After college in Ames, Iowa, Andy Smith started his own company in Boca Raton back in 1983, a small agency that expanded slowly over the years. Charlie Robb, a journalism major from Northwestern who had gravitated to advertising and firms in Chicago and Toronto, joined in 1990.
Robb wrote all the copy for the first GodSpeaks billboards. "He could come up with four or five words that would just knock your socks off," Smith marvels. A cherubic man who's clearly happy to be out of the business (he now runs a center for children with learning disabilities and autism), Smith says that Robb was fully responsible for the GodSpeaks idea: "He's the one who made the Smith Agency what it became." The firm had clients like Holy Cross Medical and Bethesda Hospital but "nothing extraordinary until Charlie came along."