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Behind the Curtain of Skittles' Broadway Show

Behind the Curtain of Skittles' Broadway Show

Ari Weiss and Patrick Milling Smith take us behind the scenes of Skittles' triumphant turn on Broadway.

In a stunt that broke last year’s Super Bowl ad-land roundups, Skittles decided to eschew this whole ‘biggest television audience of the year’ babble and instead concentrate their efforts on making a commercial that would only ever be viewed by one person - namely US teenager Marcos Menendez.

For this year’s endevour, agency DDB decided to be a little more generous with the level of exclusivity, but not by much. Instead of creating a stand-alone ad, the brand instead premiered (if such a thing can be said for a one-night-only affair) Skittles Commercial: The Broadway Musical - an actual, real-life 30-minute Broadway show performed by a full cast and live band in front of a PAYING AUDIENCE at The Town Hall in New York City.

Written by Pulitzer-finalist playwright Will Eno and led by Dexter’s Michael C. Hall, the show “takes an absurdly self-reflective look at consumerism and the ever-increasing pervasiveness of brand advertising in our lives”, incorporating songs such as Advertising Ruins Everything, This Might Have Been A Bad Idea and This Definitely Was A Bad Idea.

We chatted to Ari Weiss, chief creative officer, DDB North America and Patrick Milling Smith, co-founder of Smuggler, which produced both the show and accompanying promotional films, to find out how such an audacious idea came to fruition.

"Everyone was very clear that it was a Broadway house or bust."

A Broadway show is an inspired way to follow up The Most Exclusive Ad. Can you talk us through the early stages of trying to think up a worthy idea to hit that heady high?

AW: We were obviously haunted by the success of last year’s campaign, and that fear always drives you to push yourself out of your comfort zone. When we did a postmortem on last year’s effort, the only thing we wished we had done differently was make the game day activation more visible.

Of course, we couldn’t have done that with last year’s idea, so we wanted to remedy that with whatever we were going to create this year. But why a musical? Skittles is all about disrupting the everyday. Brands, especially ones targeted at our demographic, keep trying to create content their fans seek out. We wanted to see if we could make something bigger than a 30-second commercial and if we could create content that people would actually pay up to $200 a ticket to go see.

We figured, in true Skittles fashion, this should be a self-reflective interrogation of the role advertising plays on the biggest marketing day of the year. And we’d place it on Broadway because that’s the least commercial, most Skittles place to have that conversation.

Once the idea had been locked in, what were the first steps? Had anyone on the team had any Broadway experience?

AW: We had no Broadway experience whatsoever. Our first step was to reach out to Patrick Milling-Smith at Smuggler. Patrick and I have worked together many times, and every time we got together, he would nonchalantly remind me that he had won eight Tony’s for producing the musical, Once. We needed an advertising expert and a Broadway expert and nobody knows these two worlds better. Then, [creative director and copywriter] Nathaniel Lawlor and I had the pleasure of attending almost every show currently running on Broadway. We read hundreds of plays from The Drama Bookshop (which, sadly, has since closed). We’ve been drinking from the Broadway firehose ever since our very brave Skittles client greenlit this project.

"Michael C. Hall was one the first names on the list. He was wonderful in Six Feet Under and Dexter, and was also the lead in Bowie’s musical, Lazarus, last year."

PMS: Ari had the idea to try and put on a musical early last year and we sat down together to discuss the feasibility of it in August. Putting on a Broadway show is not the simplest of endeavors at the best of the times and I think our initial conversation was pretty focused on all the reasons it would be next to impossible to get up. Like any good idea that needs to earn a right to live it was about pulling together the different pieces to build momentum.

Producing a show, much like producing anything good, regardless of medium, comes down to idea and talent for us. If the idea is brave and undeniable then you start building on it with key talent. If the idea is strong then it's going to attract the right creative talent to get involved. We’ve always focused our attention on trying to find strong concepts and then attract great directors and key talent, but as important as a strong idea is, knowing that the creatives behind the idea also are strong enough and experienced enough to protect the idea throughout the process.

When did Will Eno get involved? How did he help steer the project?

AW: Once Smuggler was on board, Patrick introduced us to Will. Will has a way of interrogating the usual and making it seem very unusual, which is exactly what Skittles is all about. And his plays are absolutely genius. He was the perfect match.

PMS: Ari and Nathanial had written a very clear outline and had very clear ambition for what and how this project should be. Nathanial mentioned wanting to talk to a playwright called Will Eno, who [Smuggler co-founder] Brian Carmody and I happened to have worked with before on a TV pilot. We called him up and he was instantly intrigued and came in for a meeting.

"Everybody knows why advertising exists, and if you make it interesting and of value to people, they love it."

[Nathanial and Will] are arguably two of the best writers in their fields and there was a great degree of intrigue and respect for each other and their experiences. Will gave the project some theatre cred, a world in which Will is rightfully revered, which only further emboldened Nathanial to go for it.

When Ari and the team started thinking of actors that could also deliver on Broadway and also record an album for Spotify, Michael C. Hall was one the first names on the list. He was wonderful in Six Feet Under and Dexter, and was also the lead in Bowie’s musical, Lazarus, last year. He has an incredible range from a vocal as well as performance standpoint. It was serendipitous that Will Eno and MCH had a great working history and close friendship. Having Will on board definitely helped Michael feel more comfortable with the whole project. To this point, Michael had never done a marketing project or any sort of advertising so he was initially very reluctant to jump in. 

The show seems to take a very pointed look at consumerism - was it cathartic to write or were you worried you were exposing the true evils of advertising to the world?

AW: Ha! Yeah. It was cathartic. But it was also honest and transparent. Everybody knows why advertising exists, and if you make it interesting and of value to people, they love it. Our demographic is incredibly intelligent, and we wanted to respect that intelligence. Of course, we’re advertising the entire time we’re doing this, so we wanted to do that with a wink that says to the consumer, if you want to play along with the joke, then dive in and enjoy.

PMS: I don't know if anything was being called out as evil, more just “called out” in general. It's a very fresh, fun and sharp observation of the world we live in. The show definitely has a strong meta quality but is also accessible and stands on its own feet as something that can be enjoyed by everyone. Definitely a cathartic experience for anyone in advertising, but my seven-year-old son was also laughing his head off at the actor wearing a cat suit singing about how this was the worst idea and his career was over. 

"Having Will [Eno] on board definitely helped Michael feel more comfortable with the whole project."

Were there any unforeseen pitfalls along the way? What was the biggest challenge?

PMS: The biggest challenge that was slightly out of everyone’s hands was being able to get a theatre on Broadway. The new season on Broadway is starting and so pretty much every theatre already has their new shows loading in, or is deep into tech and rehearsals. The rest of the houses have pre-existing shows that are still running. Everyone was very clear that it was a Broadway house or bust. In November we finally got confirmation that we had a window of availability at Town Hall and the client jumped on it.

AW: Every day was a pitfall. I kid... kind of. When you’re doing something that you’ve never done before, every day is a massive learning experience. This whole thing was one massive challenge, but I’ve never learned more from a smarter and more dedicated group of individuals. I am eternally grateful for this experience.

How were you feeling pre-show?

PMS: Pretty tense. Very tense in fact. I felt like the overriding idea and project had already been a massive success regardless of what the actual show was like but then it would have been so depressing if no one liked the show. There is so much rubbish in the world that is hyped up in our industry already. I feel like we question the necessity or impact of so much of the work that gets produced in advertising so it would have been really disappointing if we had hyped a show that did not earn its own right to exist.

The show was excellent. It was a rarity and a true joy to see all the pieces, the intention, talent, craft and creative expression all hit the right notes at the right time in the right place. Really a highlight for us all at Smuggler. It felt very pure, beautifully built and totally bat-shit crazy in the best of ways.  

AW: I thought I might throw up.

Any regrets that it’s one-night-only? Would you like a full run for your next show?

AW: Of course. And of course.

PMS: It’s definitely bittersweet. It’s not often one gets to be a part of something that original and I wish more people could have experienced it, but there was its own magic to the whole set up and conceit of the project. You can’t go back and still expect it all to retain the purity and magic that made it so special. Maybe the form was part of what stopped it all collapsing under its own weight. The impermanence in itself allowed it to be exactly what it was. I think the team should come back together and create a whole new show that is conceived and built to run on Broadway for years to come. Why not?

"It would have been really disappointing if we had hyped a show that did not earn its own right to exist."

Will we see any elements from the show appear elsewhere?

AW: You’ll have to wait and see.

Photo credit Skittles / Susan Farley

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