Coming up with a billion dollar ad campaign? Priceless.

The Case of the Missing Cutlery: A Leadership Course for the Rising Star

Kevin Allen is a ‘pitchman.’ In his three decades in advertising, the bulk of which were spent with McCann Erickson, Allen assembled teams that created countless campaigns. But it was one slogan for one account that changed his life and had a strangely profound impact on American culture.

The first commercial aired during the 1997 World Series. It featured a father and a son attending a Major League Baseball game and the sound of Billy Crudup’s voice nostalgically reading:

Two tickets: $46

Two hot dogs, two popcorns, two sodas: $27

One autographed baseball: $50

Real conversation with 11-year-old son: Priceless.

The structure, capped off with that one word - "priceless" – struck a nerve. It was suddenly emblazoned on t-shirts, used in campaign commercials and spoofed on TV. And it's stuck around for 17 years. It not only helped solidify Allen's reputation in the ad world, it helped him finally answer a question that had been nagging him for years:

“When I was coming up in the business, my mom would call me up every so often and say, ‘So, Kevin. What is it you do?’ And I know what it was. She was talking to my neighbor whose son was a doctor, and mom couldn’t have any bragging rights. When I was able to say 'I was part of creating the ‘Priceless’ campaign for MasterCard' – of course she tells everybody I wrote it, I produced it, I acted in it – you know, it’s life-changing.”

Allen says he and his partner knew they had something big when they came up with the idea, but it wasn’t until they were in the pitch review session that they sensed just how big:

“It’s very, very rare that you present something in the pitch room that ends up on air. I think it’s happened to me only a couple of times in my career. It was probably one of the longest reviews in a long time – it was about six months – and everybody knew it would change the lives of everyone who was involved in it. And it came down to two of us. And when we pitched the idea, (my partner) leaned over to me and said, ‘I hope we don’t mess this up.’ We all knew there was something profoundly special about this idea, but no one knew that it would go as far as it went. It’s still in dozens and dozens of countries around the world.”

Allen says the industry has changed a lot since he first started in the biz. Advertisers are losing more and more control:

 “I would call the old days the supply economy. It was a nice, neat, little world where we controlled everything. Back when I was a young account executive I would monitor what were called Out Of Stocks or OOS. And that meant if a product was out of stock in Cleveland I turned the advertising off. As soon as it went back on the shelf again, on went the advertising and everything flies off the shelf. And when I tell those stories now to young marketers they giggle and say, ‘you gotta be kidding me.’

Why do the young advertisers laugh?

"And it’s because of this ultimate democratization that has occurred in general as a result of technology and the internet. You know, the customer is firmly in charge, and they’ll tell us so."

 

Kevin Allen's new book about starting his career in advertising and what he learned as he moved up is called "The Case of the Missing Cutlery: A Leadership Course for the Rising Star.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.
The Case of the Missing Cutlery: A Leadership Course for the Rising Star

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