By Michael E. Miller
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Robb's concept was simply about getting people to go back to church and embrace spiritual thinking. He calls himself "the intended target audience" the exact sort the campaign was trying to reach. "If I'd been a devout, church-going type of person, I'd have probably followed into the trap our client was falling into, which was making it too biblical. It would have been a failure."
Pitching his ideas to the client, he constantly fought the client's tendency to preach to the choir. "There was actually a fairly heavy battle getting the thing through. But we were successful, and it ran basically as I wrote it."
What Robb so masterfully accomplished was giving God an unmistakable voice of cool. Like your hip uncle with facial hair, who probably listened to the Dead back in the day, he's nonthreatening, funny, and perceptive. He came off more like a guy who'd have fun building a campfire on a fishing trip than sending someone to roast eternally in hell. God ended up an understanding soundingboard, capable of giving sage advice without being too judgmental.
However, from the beginning, the billboards had detractors, from factions on both left and right. "This merger of the Ten Commandments and Madison Avenue is particularly objectionable," raged the Orlando Sentinela year after the billboards started. "When the ravages of sin is, well, a traffic jam, haven't we lowered the stakes just a tad below fire and brimstone?"
"These billboards are arrogance in a most undiluted form," read a peeved Duke University editorial a few years later. "They are imagination presented as quotation. They are interpretation stated as fact."
In the meantime, the humble company Andy Smith had started was the most talked-about ad agency in the country. The Outdoor Advertising Association of America picked up the campaign and ran it in 40 states, and Smith and Robb won the OAAA's 1999 OBIE award as best public service campaign.
"We think there's a book in there," she told him on the phone, and they began plans to publish one.
But the news that Robb had parlayed the campaign into a book angered Quikbiz as well as the anonymous client. The latter's concerns were quelled, but the atmosphere in the office became uncomfortable, with tension between the campaign's originators and the new owners.
"I was caught way off-guard with what they ended up doing to Charlie and me," Smith complains. "Some things you just don't forget."
As the agency was mired in disagreement, a local attorney offered a free mediation session. During the meeting with Bawarsky, Robb received a phone call from a colleague back at the Smith Agency, who informed him that the locks were being changed. "And that was pretty much it for us," he says.
The book sold 50,000 hardcover copies and was even published in Italian but that success was overshadowed by the untimely dismissal of Smith and Robb.
With the two of them out of the picture, the agency began phase two of GodSpeaks, this time with ad man Shelly Isaacs at the helm. "It was left to me to figure out the next step," he says. "I took it to another dimension by developing different language," he says. "I said, 'Let's talk to kids in that graffiti way, in the way of the street.' It turned out very well."
Isaacs used a hip-hop font that evoked a graffiti style. "[They were] modern-day homilies for kids. To me, the best one was 'Chill, Don't Kill. '"
But the new urban-tinged campaign, dubbed WuzupGod, didn't come close to matching the success of its predecessor. "It didn't run very long," Robb recalls, "and it got really preachy." Invariably, middle-aged ad men attempting to co-opt hipness especially the phraseology of the street ended up making themselves look like schmucks.
"Think I Planted Stuff Down Here for You to Smoke?" was one unfortunate example, particularly in tobacco country. And clunkers like "Bro, Save Me a Seat!" and "You Can Run But You Can't Hide From Me" were so wrong-headed, they threatened to ruin the reputation established by the earlier campaign.
In 2000, MTV refused to run TV spots with the messages (because the actual client was still anonymous, Isaacs says), and the resultant publicity bought another couple of seconds of interest.
"I got a lot of heat because I said MTV probably would have rejected the Ten Commandments," Isaacs recalls.
The press backlash intensified, with editorialists taking potshots at those who'd presume to speak for God. "I'd say, how else would we talk to God? It's human!" exclaims Isaacs, who admitted that some educators found the messages condescending. "It's a polarizing campaign. And I wanted to create controversy."
Smith and Robb started their own shop after their dismissal, but a lawsuit filed by Bawarsky and Lobel alleging intellectual property theft and breach of contract dogged them.