March 26, 2008

notes on the death of hal riney

I’m sure what’s left of the San Francisco ad community is in a little bit of shock this week after the death of Hal Riney.  For all intents and purposes, Riney and his eponymous firm were advertising in San Francisco in the eighties and nineties – his campaigns (and his voice) were as beautiful, elegant and indefinite as the fog coming in through the Golden Gate. 

The work that Riney did for Bartles & Jaymes, Crocker Bank and Ronald Reagan is legendary. Go Google a Bartles spot, or watch the “morning in america” ad for Ronald Reagan if you need a refresher. But it was his work with Saturn that helped shape brand marketing.

In 1988, when Riney pitched GM for the Saturn account, they were the the underdog. They had only had one auto account before, were much smaller than the entrenched agencies, and were way the hell out in California. (That actually mattered then, apparently.) So when the story broke that GM awarded Riney the business, the insiders were surprised by GM’s choice. One exec at Lintas was shocked that Riney wasn’t even sure if he would open a new office to service the account. “He better be prepared to spend a lot of time in Detroit. This will change his agency, its culture and all his attitudes about the agency business.”

I don’t doubt that the Saturn account had an impact on his agency. But I’d wager that Riney had an even bigger impact on advertising. While his competition was worried about office space, he was focused on the Saturn brand. At the news conference announcing the selection of his firm, Riney was quoted as saying “I don’t think we’ll ever shoot a picture of a car going down a wet, windy road with pylons. We’re going to talk to people in different ways than the standard process agencies use.” And when it came time to design the dealerships, Riney connected the essence of the brand to the experience of actually buying the car. (Riney to GM on the design of the new Saturn dealerships:  “How about starting by bringing in some plants, something alive, if not kicking.”) That little piece of experience design became a key selling point in their ad campaigns.

Unfortunately I couldn’t find any of the earliest spots on YouTube (I’m sure I could look elsewhere, but I’m a lazy blogger).  But here’s one from around 1993 about the “Saturn homecoming.” It’s classic Riney.

Watching this spot now it’s clear just how much television advertising has changed in the past 15 years; the Riney “tone” that permeates that spot doesn’t feel right anymore. If that ad aired today we’d be waiting for the punchline at the end that gives us that little bit of ironic distance.  And when the punchline didn’t come we’d reach for our laptops to find blog posts and Flickr photos from Saturn homecoming attendees to see What Really Happened.

So while it may never have actually been morning in America when Riney sold us Reagan, we bought it. And while Saturn may have been just another division of General Motors, we bought that, too. But somehow, his death this week for me reinforced how far away our advertising and media culture is from that era of silky-voiced earnestness.