The Totally Digital Man: Will Smith, Michael Jordan … and Ed Miller

Perhaps you’ve read about Ang Lee’s new movie The Gemini Man that features an entirely digital version of actor Will Smith’s 23-year old self. The results look pretty spectacular in early behind the scenes footage. By any technical measure, this is an extraordinarily special effect; creating an entirely computer-generated human being–particularly someone so universally recognized–is ridiculously difficult.

We certainly thought so back in 2003 when we needed a college-aged Michael Jordan for the end of a Gatorade commercial. Fred Raimondi of Digital Domain did amazing work throughout that groundbreaking project (watch the spot and a behind the scenes footage here) and yet, as good as the then state of the art effects were, the final version of young Michael always felt a little … Playstation.

But that wasn’t my first encounter with an entirely digitally-rendered man. No, I first experienced a digital doppelgänger upon joining J. Walter Thompson Chicago in 1997. That’s where I first encountered Ed Miller …


That’s Ed on the left. A kinda good looking guy with one of those faces that feel somehow familiar. For a year or two, we’d read about him in the agency newsletter occasionally and see his face up there with the rest of us on the big, agency wall hanging in the lobby.

The thing was though, Ed didn’t exist. He was the product of the pleasantly subversive minds of three agency creatives: Joe Van Trump, Russell Heubach, and Mark Westman. As Mark put it … the idea came from the growth and flux in the agency personnel. There were so many going away parties, we joked that we could make up a fake going away party and people would still come. I used to do a lot of compositing for Russell and Joe and I lived with Joe at that time. They asked me if I could make a mash up of Joe and Russell for a fake person that would use both their middle names to get ‘Ed Miller.’ What made it possible was 3 things:

  1. I had all of the company head shots.
  2. They were all taken in the same set up, at the same angle with the same lighting.
  3. Photoshop had just released version 3.0 and introduced layers, so I could stack the heads and align the features. 

Having great source material made compositing easier so we could focus on finding unique features to combine. Merging two people was too obvious so we started pulling in more folk. Russell’s hair, Joe’s smile, your jaw, Matt’s shoulders and Steve’s eyes. The face felt familiar, but you couldn’t put your finger on it. Then for me, it was just a little blending and minor contrast adjustment to make them all look like there were meant to be there. I was a figure painting major in art school; it felt like sketching in charcoal. John Siebert took the face and started dropping it into old photos of guys in the army, company party photos, etc. He finally put the face on a going away card to sign for Ed. The venue was the dive bar Trotter’s. The party was packed; multiple people asked where Ed was. Later, I put the example in my book when I interviewed at DDB. It was so fun to do.”

These days companies like Generated Photos (“100,000 Faces Generated by AI, Free to Download!”), offer entirely digital people as a way to serve content-sucking new media by making copyrights, distribution rights, and infringement claims a thing of the past.

But in 1997, none of us were thinking that far ahead. We were just having fun.

Of course, Einstein said “Creativity is intelligence having fun.” So maybe we were just being creative.

But done right, you can’t really tell the two apart anyway.



B-G-B (Bonus Guest Blog): The Next Great Athlete Endorser…Stewart Cink?

ChaseGuest Blogger: Michael Chase

Michael Chase is an account director at Element 79 and a man with both a deep track record with sports brands and an enviable short game.  He came to Element 79 to work on Gatorade and help develop Element 79 Sports with projects for clients such as Discover, US Soccer, the Wade’s World Foundation, and Chicago 2016.  Before returning to Chicago, Michael spent six years in Portland: two working on Nike Golf (and his short game) and four at Weiden and Kennedy where he first began working on Nike (and his short game).  He began his career with sports projects for Coors and Midas at Foote Cone and Belding after graduating from the University of Colorado at Boulder (where the mile-high altitude helped his drives).  Later this afternoon, Element 79 will be relying on Michael’s total game at the AAAA golf outing in Harborside.  Long and strong Michael, long and strong…

Throughout my career, I have had the distinct fortune and pleasure of working with a number of wonderful companies and brands with their sports-related advertising and marketing initiatives. While I have a great deal of passion and energy for the business of sports, I am also a fan.  Okay, not just a fan, but a fanatic

Growing up, if I wasn’t playing baseball, football, soccer, basketball tennis or golf, I was watching it.  Some of my favorites in no particular order were John Elway, John McEnroe, Jack Nicklaus, Pele, Nolan Ryan and of course, MJ.  And like the rest of my friends, I bought what these athletes used, wore, and endorsed. 

I loved watching athletes in advertising.  From Mean Joe Green and Coke to the cast of characters for Miller Lite’s Taste Great/Less Filling campaign, from Nike’s “Bo Knows”  to  Gatorade’s MJ taking on himself, the great ads came from brands with clearly-defined understanding of their roles.  The best brands tapped into insights that resonated with sports fans and took the time and energy to find exactly the right athlete to deliver their message.  I cannot stress that last point enough. 

It has become more and more challenging for brands to find the right athlete.  For years, Element 79 Sports helped brands do just that.  But with our seemingly unlimited media access to our sports hero’s lives, we know too much about today’s athletes and recognize they are not the bulletproof, do-no-wrong heroes they once were.  Worse, with so many sports vying for our attention and so many new media outlets splintering our focus, some of the old luster is gone.  Combine all this with a down economic climate where limited dollars exist to sign athlete endorsers and showcase them through marketing and it’s obvious the old rules have changed.  Those rules may even be gone completely and it is time brands recognize this.

Gone are the days of scouring the Q scores to find the best athlete for the job.  Today, brands need to consider a multitude of criteria to make this crucial decision.  Excelling at their sport and demonstrating an interesting personality is simply not as important as it once was.  One of the most important emerging criteria to consider is whether the athlete is doing a good job of marketing themselves.  Do they have their own website?  Is it any good?  Are they active in social networking?  And if so, as this recent SI article about Twitter and professional sports asks, are they being followed?

Some of the most popular athletes in the world of Twitter may not be among their league’s leaders in stats, but definitely make the most entertaining use of less than 140 characters.  This list of the Top 10 Twitter athletes tells an interesting story; while it contains some of the biggest names in sports (Shaq, Lance, and Serena), you might be surprised by some of the others (skateboarders Ryan Sheckler and Tony Hawk? Nick Swisher? Kareem?).  A new site called Athlete Tweets aggregates thousands upon thousands of tweets from hundreds of athletes from all different sports creating a sort of Twitter sports network.

522,894 Followers Is Waaay Above Par

522,894 Followers Is Waaay Above Par

PGA fans may know Stewart Cink but he is hardly a household name in sports.  Still, Stewart has nearly 523,000 followers.   He provides rich, personal details of his golf life through nearly 1,000 tweets and his Twitter bio, right down to which brand of shafts he uses in his clubs.  Fans comment on the courses he plays and his club selection–they definitely notice.

The brands who recognize this new playing field, the ones who embrace it and use it to create even deeper relationships with athletes through it will win. Social networking will radically restructure who is chosen to endorse brands, how they endorse brands and how those endorsement deals will be structured.  Brands can use sports to reach their consumers in more relevant and efficient ways than ever before.  And the ones that do will win.

Last year Buick made the tough decision to end their long relationship with Tiger Woods because they could no longer afford him.  Maybe they should call Stewart Cink.  Actually, they should tweet him.

by Michael Chase, Element 79

B-G-B (Bonus Guest Blog): Advertising Is Magic

Guest Blogger: Tom NapperPicture 2

Tom Napper is our Director of Digital at Element 79, but that hardly describes his real mission; what Tom does better than anyone in his field is drive convergence in constant practical ways.  For years, agencies wrestled with the best way to integrate online expertise into traditional creative development.  Instead of theory, Tom does that everyday through immersion and a calming understanding that, in the end, all that really matters in digital or any medium is the power of ideas.  Our recent awards for interactive creative at the Addy’s, D&AD, and New York Festivals all bear Tom’s influence.  For the past fifteen years, starting at Accenture and then on to Chemistri, Burnett and WhittmanHart, Tom has strengthened brands’ relationship with their customers in the digital marketing space, from Harley-Davidson and their owner/travellers to the KISS nation and the band.  With experience on everything from Secret to the US Army, Adidas, Quaker and Gatorade, Tom connects people, brands and minds.  Our agency deeply appreciates his willingness to commute down from Milwaukee, bringing us his insights and experience across the Cheddar Curtain…

Say what you want about what we do but I think it is magic. We take everyday things and do something remarkable with them. Our creative invokes a sense of wonder or curiosity: “What the heck was that?”

As a geeky kid in Connecticut, I was an amateur magician. I was paid so I guess I was a pro but that would put me in the league with Houdini and I was nowhere near that.

One of my best tricks was the coin-in-the-matchbox trick. Maybe everyone knows how this is done, but back when I was doing the cocktail party/birthday party circuit, it amazed even the most skeptical person. I would ask for a coin, telling the audience member they could mark it however they wanted. I remember one time a guy spent ten minutes marking his coin. When the guy was done marking it, I dropped the coin into my left hand pocket and pulled out of my right hand pocket a match box. You know, the big cardboard ones that have a bunch of matches in them. The box was secured with a bunch of rubber bands. I handed the matchbox to the guy (or anybody) to open up. What they found inside was not the coin but a series of five increasingly smaller matchboxes that were bound with rubber bands. The final box was about 2×3 and covered in rubber bands. Inside that box was a pouch that was secured at the top with another rubber band like a very tiny money bag.  Inside that pouch was the coin.  It freaked people out.

What was so great about this trick was that it used props that everyone had seen before. I let them handle every part of the trick. They could inspect the rubber bands, the boxes, the pouch, the coin. As I made more money doing magic, I tried buying fancier tricks from magic shops, but those tricks looked like tricks and people weren’t as satisfied. They liked my tricks that used everyday things, like their stocking caps to pull a bird out of or stuff like that.

MagicOkay, so what does this have to do with advertising? See I got into this field because I liked making something really cool, things that surprised people. The internet really helped with that. People logged into their computers and holy smokes; there was AT&T with a castle and a frog at their front door.

Our clients want magic to happen constantly. They want that magic moment where eyeballs turn to their table. If our clients were out there standing in the grocery store trying to get someone to buy their product, you bet they’d want a magician. That’s who we are. We take everyday objects or intersections or actions and surprise people. Sometimes we literally surprise them and they are surprised by how we’ve made them feel. We usually do this not by some fancy trick but by using things people know and relate to.

Working in the digital space, I’m constantly asked about the latest thing and how we can use it and what is it all about. In those conversations, what people really want to know is how is everyone else using it?  Until we know that…well, it is hard to find out what the surprise will be and how to create the magic.

One of the things I learned by being a magician was that it isn’t the fancy stuff that made you good, it was what you did with the normal stuff. We fall down when we start turning to the magic stores to supply our tricks. The trick or the surprise isn’t in the things that people haven’t seen before, it is in the cool ways we make the things everyone has seen before act. Everybody is talking about convergence and to my way of thinking, that is just about opening up and looking around. Digital is a space were we all can play. The best minds making creative in TV, print and radio can make really great creative in digital.

The digital space allows us to surprise and freak people out on so many levels because its reach is so great. What is freaky about Twitter today will be old news in about two months. But how the crazy creatives use Twitter to freak us out?  That has no time frame.

The digital space allows us so much flexibility because it is so fluid. What is out of reach today will be normal after you turn the page on your Kindle. And that is just so cool, right?  It can be frustrating to feel the sand moving under your toes, but the next wave is coming for you to body surf into shore. Paying attention and listening is what the best folks in the digital space are doing.

So what I love about this magical thing called advertising is that I can surprise you by pulling a lion out of my hat today, but tomorrow, through the magic of internet, I can make a lion eat your tweet.

Well, not really.  Not yet.  But wouldn’t that freak you out?

by Tom Napper, Element 79

B-G-B (Bonus Guest Blog): Forget That Bad Copy Meeting: Advertising Is Saving America

Guest Blogger: John Fraser

Picture 1

John Fraser is a marketing machine with a mind finely-honed for the key detail and meaningful insight–to wit, he is our first guest blogger to use footnotes.  Following the classic media department training in Burnett, he worked on brands like Kellogg’s, Kraft, GM, and eventually Philip Morris.  What few realize is during these early days, he also moonlighted weekends exploiting his silky baritone voice by announcing beauty pageants.  Moving to Bayer, Bess, Vanderwarker to pursue sports marketing, he began working on the Gatorade business.  He moved with Gatorade first to FCB and eventually Element 79 back in 2001, where he was a founding partner and served as Executive Vice President of Business Development.  John has probably forgotten more about sports marketing than most people know; his proprietary exposure analysis for Gatorade sponsorships helped the brand win its first Gold Effie.  He left the agency world to become Chief Sales and Marketing Officer for Rosa’s Horchata to scratch a persistent entrepreneurial itch.  An inveterate raconteur, a frighteningly powerful golfer and a quick to laugh father and coach, John builds brands and relationships with equal skill.  We fully expect to be two bottle a day rice milk consumers when he introduces Rosa’s to the Chicago market…

Advertising as a profession and practice has been taking it on the chin lately. As pressure mounts, clients expect more and more while returning less and less for an agency’s efforts, including civility (See: Marc Brownstein, 5/21/09, Advertising Age). While it can be a struggle to maintain a positive outlook, it is important to keep the big picture in mind. As we approach another Independence Day in America, advertising professionals have something to celebrate: our role in preserving the American “way of life”.

 Advertising to the Rescue

It is well documented that advertising helped drive the cycle of increased consumption, production and affluence even in the darkest of times in our nation’s history.  Ernest Dichter, consumer research guru from the mid 20th century, suggests that because “our economy would literally collapse overnight [without a continuing high level of consumption] defenders of a positive outlook on life, the real salesmen of prosperity, and therefore of democracy, are the individuals who defend the right to buy.”[1]

Several specific events during the 20th century prove this point. During The Great Depression, which many people, including economist John Maynard Keynes, believed was caused by underconsumption, advertising was used to spur purchasing. Private sector activity, along with New Deal programs, played important roles in preserving democracy and delivering on President Roosevelt’s promise of “Freedom from Want”. Next, as American democracy was threatened by the totalitarian regimes in Europe during World War II, advertising was called on to urge Americans to stop consuming essential resources needed for the war effort. “To persuade Americans to save rather than invest, the government embarked on an unprecedented marketing campaign, selling common sacrifice so that, as Lawrence R. Samuel has noted, it became a ‘secular religion’ which promised to minimize class consciousness, promote pluralism, revive democratic capitalism, and foster postwar affluence.”[2]

The next challenge for advertising was to get Americans spending again following World War II in an effort to prove democracy’s superiority during the early days of the Cold War. “From the late 1940s through the mid-1960s, businesspeople, politicians, the mass media, and many leading intellectuals trumpeted the benefits of the American way of life. They celebrated democratic capitalism, which, in contrast to Soviet totalitarianism, had produced ever-growing prosperity and in turn provided the foundation for an egalitarian and harmonious society.”[3]  

Early in the 21st century, advertising was once again called on to catalyze consumption following the terrorist attacks on 9/11/01.  As Daniel Horowitz summarizes, “An external threat of unimaginable dimensions, the possibility of a recession, massive corporate scandals and bankruptcies, and a declining stock market prompted Americans to perceive consumption as a critical factor in the nation’s health, and even its survival. We have to spend our way out of this danger, millions of Americans believed, so that the enemies who had attacked us would not have won. The consumer was it the saddle. Unlike in the situation the nation faced during World War II or the energy crisis, this time there seemed no turning back from a full embrace of affluence and a commercialized consumer culture.”[4]

Where Do Things Stand Today?

Newsweek 1It is clear from the two recent Newsweek covers that, once again, consumption fueled by advertising will be critical to preserving our economic and political system in America. [5]

Unfortunately, though, the economic downturn is making this more difficult by reducing the advertising resources available to drive consumption and help dig America out of this current deep recession. Ad spending declined 12% during the first quarter of 2009 and VSS, a leading media tracking firm, now expects advertising expenditures to decline 7.4% overall in 2009. Following a corresponding dip in 2008, it was the first back-to-back years of advertising recession in 75 years.[6] This pullback in spending comes amid yet another study showing the effectiveness of marketing during down times. According to a new Ad-ology Research study, Advertising’s Impact in a Soft Economy, more than 48% of U.S. adults believe that a lack of advertising by a retail store, bank or auto dealership during a recession indicates the business must be struggling. Conversely, a vast majority perceives businesses that continue to advertise as being competitive or committed to doing business.[7]

Newsweek2Compounding the problem for advertisers are indications from the new administration and Democratically controlled congress that government may be intervening more in the industry. Increased regulation is first on the list, with tobacco and advertising to children in the crosshairs. As Dan Jaffe, EVP, governmental relations at the Association of National Advertisers, points out, “Advertising is the engine of our economy. But the whole movement is toward greater and greater regulation in all areas and all at once.” He quoted FTC Commissioner Jon Leibowitz, who has reportedly said: “Industry needs to do a better job of meaningful, rigorous self-regulation or it will certainly invite legislation by Congress and a more regulatory approach by our commission.” Commissioner Leibowitz also suggested that advertising could be taxed in the near future. He pointed out that with the projected deficit this year of $1.2 trillion, lawmakers on both the federal and state levels would look at taxes on advertising as a way to garner revenue. “There are ways taxes could be imposed: from across-the-board ad taxes [which would] garner as much as $160 billion in the next five years, to specific taxes on unpopular categories, such as tobacco, direct-to-consumer pharma, and certain food categories.”[8]

If the federal government is serious about consumers spending their way out of the current recession, then they need revisit history about the important role of advertising in making it happen. If they do, then they will find that restricting advertising through regulation and taxation will be counterproductive to their efforts. Instead, I would argue that incentives should be given to companies who advertise in a down economy. Further, I believe that the federal government should increase its budget to include a pro-consumption advertising campaign of its own (what’s another $100 million on top of $1.2 trillion?). It worked during the depression and it worked following World War II. Why not now?

I was recently comforted to find that advertising seemingly remains at the corporate grown-ups table and at the forefront of preserving our capitalist economy and our democracy. Over the past month, CNBC has been airing a primetime, limited interruption panel discussion “Meeting of the Minds: The Future of Capitalism.” As CNBC promotes, “The worst economic downturn since the Great Depression has made the American taxpayer an owner in some of the most storied companies in the United States, and in the process, have given the government unprecedented influence in the free market system.”[9]  The program “assembled some of the country’s most influential leaders to explore and make sense of this new reality”. Seated among such captains of industry as Jack Welch (former CEO of GE), Vikram Pandit (Current CEO of Citi) and Marc Morial (CEO of the National Urban League) was Shelly Lazarus, Chairman of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide. Not only does her presence on the show suggest advertising still has an impact on capitalism in this country, but it suggests it may help retool our economic system for the future.

The weight of evidence suggests that over the past century and a half, advertising has emerged to become one of the foremost economic engines of American prosperity. Further, in times of economic, political or military crisis, advertising has been called upon to promote, maintain or even reduce consumption in support of the nation’s critical interests. So, I say, the next time you pass a weary ad man or woman in an airport…thank them for their service to America.

by John Fraser, Chief Sales and Marketing Officer, Rosie’s Horchata

[1] Horowitz, Daniel, The Anxieties of Affluence: Critiques of American Consumer Culture, 1939-1979, University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst & Boston, 2004, p. 60.

[2] Horowitz, Daniel, p. 37.

[3] Horowitz, Daniel, Introduction, p. 7.

[4] Horowitz, Daniel, epilogue, p. 256.

[5] Newsweek

[6] Mandese, Joe, “’09 To See Lowest Growth Rate For Media In 30 Years”, Media Post News, Marketing Daily, Tuesday, February 24, 2009

[7] Loechner, Jack, “Advertise or Die”, Media Post Blogs, Research Brief, Monday, May 25, 2009

[8] Freidman, Wayne, “Congress Pushes Tobacco Marketing Restrictions”, Media Post Blogs, Research Brief, Wednesday, March 4, 2009.

[9] CNBC,, Maria Bartiroma, May/June 2009.