A brief encounter, and a lesson learned, from one of advertising’s legends

—The new Pete Davidson campaign for H&M reminded Craig Redmond of some invaluable advice from a short client pitch he shared with Gerry Graf—

It was a late Friday afternoon at the agency when my cell rang. It was the CEO, and his executive assistant would later tease me that the only reason he called me was because I was literally the last creative person at the office.

“Craig, I need you to go to New York Monday morning,” he barked. “Okay. Why?” I asked with some hesitation. “They have a big, global client presentation and they need somebody with a Canadian accent to recite their scripts they wrote so it sounds like we did them instead of their New York guys. Global agency optics. You know the drill.”

So, come Monday, off I jaunted to Madison Avenue for one of the most unforgettable advertising adventures of my career. A journey that would produce no less than a dozen insane stories requiring an equal number of manly tumblers of Pilot Tavern plonk to explain, but only one of which I will share here in the interest of brevity, and the soul of wit.

After meeting the account team and getting the green light to massage those New York scripts, I spent the rest of the day and most of that night rewriting them entirely. And the next morning, I walked into a football stadium-sized boardroom clutching those new scripts, hastily scribbled on Hilton Hotel notepaper.

It was 7 a.m. and I had to face an audience of two dozen foreign clients, each representing a different market around the world, and facing an army of equally heavy-hitting agency executives. I sat two chairs away from the New York ECD, whom I still hadn’t met, nor received his approval to show those new scripts I was about to present. Oh my.

Then, suddenly falling heavily into the chair next to me like someone who—I suspected—may have been recovering from a raucous evening past, arrived advertising legend Gerry Graf. I could not believe my eyes. And held my breath, wilting in the glowing brilliance of the man who gave us the Snickers “Not Going Anywhere for a While?” campaign and who would go on to start his own agency, Barton F. Graf to deliver genius for years to follow.

He was there to present one single retail script before I was to take the stage with my hand-written scripts and best Canuck brogue, eh. I introduced myself awkwardly to Graf, who didn’t even respond, knowing full well that I knew who he was.

“You want to know the secret to great retail advertising, Craig?” Graf grumbled without even looking at me. “Repeat the message four times in the spot. And make it fucking funny!”

He then stood up and presented one of the most hilarious scripts I’d ever heard in my life, and would later go on to win a walk-in-closet full of awards. The room roared. After which he politely excused himself, and left, I assumed to return to his office couch for a rest.

That crazy moment returned to rearrange the furniture in my head when I saw this latest campaign for notoriously fast fashion brand H&M, unveiling Pete Davidson as its new ambassador.

The first spot features Davidson wearing a loud Hawaiian shirt and strolling with a friend through an urban neighbourhood. And it seems to take Graf’s retail words of wisdom to heart by drawing attention to that retail item not four but seven times.

The second spot doesn’t use the same retail formula, but taps equally into Davidson’s notoriously weird, neurotically twitchy persona to sell the H&M wares.

Of course, the new H&M work is nowhere near as funny as Mr. Graf’s library of retail work over the years. But I think it is a smartly amusing brand alliance united in the quirkiness they share that could be enduring. It will, no doubt, serve up many more executions to follow. So, good on them.

As for Gerry Graf.  After his beloved bad boy agency Barton S. Graf closed before the pandemic, he partnered with Brazilian ad giant Maxi Itzkoff to start Slap Global a year later in 2020.

And surely, more genius is in the forecast. But I will never, ever forget that fateful moment sitting next to him for probably just seven minutes and the invaluable wise pearls he imparted: “Repeat the message four times, Craig. And make it fucking funny.”

Words to live by for us ad grunts.

The Encounter

The Dentist

Craig Redmond is creative director at Grey Canada.  

Craig Redmond