The Champions Series: A Salute to Griffin Bacal: Creative courage keeps kids specialist shop Griffin Bacal a leap ahead

I met Ray Bradbury at a dinner a couple of years ago and we got to talking about creative courage,' remembers J'e Bacal. 'And he said, 'If you come to the edge of the cliff, don't be afraid to jump off....
May 1, 1997

I met Ray Bradbury at a dinner a couple of years ago and we got to talking about creative courage,’ remembers J’e Bacal. ‘And he said, ‘If you come to the edge of the cliff, don’t be afraid to jump off. Have faith that you’ll grow wings on the way down.’

For nearly 20 years, Bacal and his partner, Tom Griffin, have made that leap, developing breakthrough advertising techniques that have earned their company, Griffin Bacal, the reputation as one of the best children and family advertising agencies in North America.

Griffin Bacal isn’t a massive conglomerate, nor is it a tiny boutique satisfied with servicing a small client base. It’s a mid-size agency, which handles clients such as Hasbro, Discovery Zone and Sharp Electronics. Its 150 or so employees operate on several floors in its lower midtown Manhattan office. The company’s interior space resembles a house more than an office, and sets the climate for the creative and family atmosphere that Griffin Bacal is dedicated to maintaining in an industry where the human touch is often lost in glass towers and overstretched bureaucracy.

That attitude is shaped from the top by Tom Griffin and J’e Bacal, co-chairmen of the agency. Combined, the pair bring about 70 years of advertising expertise to the children’s market. Their relationship dates back to the 1960s, when they were fresh-faced rookies working at Benton and Bowles, earning their stripes on accounts such as Procter & Gamble, Gillette and General Foods.

On the surface, Tom Griffin has a more buttoned-down look and a more deliberate manner of speaking. But a quick glance around his office, strewn with plush toys, Tonka trucks, Transformers, board games and other assorted kids products, suggests a playful humor and intellectual curiosity that becomes evident when he speaks.

J’e Bacal, who also serves as creative director, is the more animated of the pair, speaking in a staccato rhythm, thrusting his body into his answers, coloring his responses with anecdotes and humor. Despite different styles, their passion for the subject of the conversation kids, and how to reach them remains unmatched.

‘The kids area is what I wake up thinking about in the morning.’ Tom Griffin

‘We know how to speak to families and children in a way that motivates them like nobody else does,’ Griffin says. ‘We recognize that to speak to a child, you’re not just speaking through a single TV commercial or print ad. You’re really speaking to all of those elements that pervade the culture: those entertainment aspects that help define and make big hits of properties. It’s as applicable to Chester Cheetah as it is to The Tick as it is to Transformers.’

Griffin and Bacal headed out on their own in 1978 in search of a new adventure, and they’ve never stopped looking for higher mountains to climb. They wanted to reach beyond advertising and become involved in programming. ‘We thought our advertising skills and our skills of communicating with and understanding kids would be really helpful for us in developing programming for children,’ Griffin says. When the pair launched their agency, they also founded Sunbow Entertainment, the Peabody Award-winning production and distribution company that has been responsible for developing shows such as The Mask and The Tick.

Since then, they have set up a variety of in-house divisions, including LiveWire: Today’s Families Online, a first-of-its-kind on-line research panel; Kid Think, Inc., which provides market research about what appeals to young consumers; Licensing Works!, designed to identify hot licensing opportunities; as well as divisions that cover promotion, graphic design and technological integration into marketing and business strategies.

Key to the early success of their agency was bringing in Hasbro, which the pair had serviced while at Benton and Bowles. Griffin Bacal’s success with advertising Hasbro products stems from examining the Hasbro line to seek ways to incorporate the fantasy of play as the key selling point.

‘The idea was, how do you take the fantasy and bring it alive?’ says Bacal. ‘If we can dimensionalize the fantasy, whether it’s a humorous fantasy, or good versus evil, it really helps kids role-play with the whole idea. It gives the characters dimension and real personalities and makes it larger than life for kids.’

Extending the brand has been accomplished in several ways, including advertising, comic books and animated series. This strategy has been most successfully deployed for Transformers.

The changeable toys were first introduced into this country, under another name, by a Japanese company. The advertising was very ordinary, and as a result, nobody responded to it. A year later, Stephen Hassenfeld, then-chairman of Hasbro, brought the toy back, but under the new name of Transformers.

‘We created a ‘good guys versus bad guys’ [situation] just by dividing up what already existed,’ says Bacal. ‘Cars kids love cars we made them the good guys. Planes kids aren’t too sure about planes we made them the bad guys. We divided the line that way. We created Autobots, which were the good guys, and the Decepticons, the bad guys. We created a whole fantasy world, and it became a phenomenon.’

In essence, the agency took the existing property and gave it a new life and personality. ‘When you find the legend in a property, it often takes on a life of its own,’ says Griffin.

At the time, another toy company was readying a similar product called Gobots, scheduled to come to market before Transformers. Griffin Bacal decided to pique kids’ interest in the Transformers by publishing a Transformers comic book that advertised the fact that these characters would soon be available as toys.

‘The kids held off buying Gobots because they heard this was coming out and it seemed so much better and fun,’ says Bacal. ‘We came in and destroyed Gobots and took the market away. It was a great, fun time because when kids found out that you were associated with Transformers, they’d go ‘Robots in disguise,” he says, mimicking the Transformers commercial.

‘You’re always out there looking for that new character, that new property, that new drawing or personality or bit of entertainment that will excite and entertain someone in a different way,’ Griffin adds. ‘Children like to find that new image with a touch of irreverence that they can identify with.’

In today’s marketplace, many of those images are offshoots from movies or TV. But the toy industry is still producing great original ideas, Bacal suggests, pointing to Beanie Babies as an example. ‘It became a phenomenon because it taps into something that kids really want,’ he says.

‘Kids really focus on things.’ J’e Bacal

Trying to guess what kids like, and truly understanding what kids think are completely different processes. Griffin Bacal invests vast amounts of time and resources to stay on top of current trends in culture, music, entertainment and fashion as well as to anticipate what future ones will be. In addition to using focus groups, the agency speaks with kids on a regular basis via its Internet research service, LiveWire: Today’s Families Online. The service keeps the agency on top of kids’ likes and dislikes, and is also used to test advertising concepts.

‘One of the things about working in children’s advertising and programming is that you have to respect the intelligence and attention of your audience,’ says Griffin. ‘Children are not little adults.’

‘Kids really focus on things,’ Bacal adds. ‘It’s part of their culture. It’s why video games are so successful. Their [minds are totally] focused on that video game that they are playing. They aren’t thinking about other things. Kids are really in the moment and getting the most out of it.’

‘Children have a passion far beyond what adults have in the television medium,’ Griffin continues. ‘You have to respect that intelligence and respect them for their interest in fantasy, story and good solid adventure.’

‘Kids love advertising,’ adds Bacal. ‘When an adult tapes a TV show he wants to watch later, he zaps past the commercials. A child watches the show and the advertising, because the advertising is about something that could make his life even more fun.’

Hand in hand with respecting kids’ intelligence is understanding the need to honestly depict the product you are advertising to them. ‘Kids want to be entertained, but they also want to see the meat,’ says Griffin. ‘There’s nothing worse than misrepresenting a product or showing it in a light that isn’t quite what you get. That news flashes around the kid network very fast.’

Bacal says he has found this to be especially true when advertising interactive products. Kids are not impressed by exciting situations and scenes from CD-ROMs, he says. Rather, they want to know exactly what type of sound, animation and graphics they’ll get, as well as what they have to accomplish to win the game.

‘Parents want to involve their kids.’ Tom Griffin

Children’s need for information is part of a larger cultural change that stems from an evolving social dynamic in which children play a greater role in family decision-making, according to Griffin. With more and more kids in families where both parents work (or single-parent households), the child is forced to become more independent. The child’s influence on purchases now extends beyond merchandise like toys or cereal, and into such areas as dinner selection, or even car choice.

‘Parents want to involve their kids, but they don’t spend enough time with their kids. So they want the time they spend with their children to be constructive,’ Griffin observes. ‘When your time is limited, you measure what you say no to, as compared to what you can yes to.

Bacal uses dinner selection as an example. Parents are less reluctant to accept their child’s choice about a fast-food restaurant because they know their kids have a strong feeling about the place and will have a good time there. ‘It’s less important [for parents] where they want to go. It’s more important to be spending time with their kids,’ he points out.

The advertising industry faces a challenge similar to that faced by parents getting to spend more time with kids. It’s a problem that vexes all advertisers who target the youth market: How do you reach the greatest number of kids in a market where the choices are proliferating and the audiences splintering? This market diversity has a huge impact on how companies advertise particular products. The key, Griffin believes, is to focus your message on the child who is most interested in hearing it, and to make sure that it is the right message for that child.

Griffin Bacal does pro bono work for the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. It believes its recent anti-drug campaign, ‘Don’t want to. Don’t have to,’ delivers a far more effective message than something like ‘Just say no,’ because it touches certain nerves that kids can relate to that adults may not.

‘Empowering children to make a right choice is a much stronger message than ordering them to make the choice you want,’ Griffin says.

‘Today, if something doesn’t hit right away, the trade becomes less interested in it.’ J’e Bacal

Griffin believes the huge amount of clutter clogging the airwaves hurts business overall, and is not good for kids. For children, the multiplicity of options makes it difficult to find a relationship or experience they will care about. On the business side, the proliferation of choices pressures producers, toy makers, Hollywood studios and advertisers to have a hit right out of the box.

‘There’s so much competition that the slow build is not possible anymore,’ says Bacal. ‘The demands are much greater to get that hit and get it right away.’

‘It requires doing things that are extraordinary rather than ordinary in terms of communications, programming and advertising, because otherwise you won’t get noticed,’ Griffin adds.

Convincing clients of this has never been easy, but they are slowly getting the message. ‘In advertising, there’s still more imitation than innovation,’ says Bacal. ‘We’re always trying to be in tune with what’s going on, and then trying to find ways to use that to bring the ideas that we have alive. Then, we have to persuade our clients to try these different approaches.’

Caution is still the rule of the day on the programming side as well. ‘Programmers can get caught up in a certain ‘me-tooism’ if they are not careful,’ says Bacal. With the proliferation of new media outlets, attaining high ratings becomes a more difficult process. ‘If you step up and do majorly different programming than your competitors, kids have a real choice, a real other place to go. By doing that, there is a greater chance to have some breakthrough hits.’

Both Griffin and Bacal believe that ultimately, the best marketers and the strongest brands will be the ones that last. Griffin feels that many classic brands will experience revivals in the coming years, as companies learn the value of marketing not only to the child, but also to boomer parents who grew up with those product themselves.

‘Tonka is my favorite example, because it has such a great heritage,’ explains Bacal, who points out that Tonka is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. ‘Parents remember playing with [the brand] themselves and now they enjoy the idea of their kids playing with it. You look for Tonka because Tonka is a brand name you can trust.’

‘If you don’t laugh a lot, you won’t succeed in this business.’ Tom Griffin

After nearly 20 years together, Griffin and Bacal are perhaps even more enthusiastic about children’s advertising than ever.

‘One of the founding principles that J’e and I had in 1978 when we started this company is that we didn’t want to have walls and barriers,’ explains Griffin. ‘We wanted to find a good idea, seek it, chase it, pursue it, develop it and make it happen. That’s one of the things that working with children and children’s advertising lets you do. Because that’s what kids want. They want to explore what’s beyond that next horizon.’

‘We like to say, ‘we all do windows,’ which basically means that there’s no part of the idea that’s so unimportant that we don’t care about it,’ adds Bacal. ‘You’ve got to care about all of it. That’s the fun of it; being involved and being tremendously hands-on in all of the work that we are doing.’

‘The kids business is serious business, no question about that. It involves money and it’s highly competitive,’ observes Griffin. ‘But, if you don’t laugh a lot, if you don’t come to work with a twinkle in your eye and an excitement about what you are going to do, then you won’t succeed in this business.

‘This is a business that’s about passion and ideas and freshness and being smart professionally, but still having the enthusiasm and discovery of a child. That’s why it’s a wonderful business to be in. For those people who like that in their lives, it’s a great field,’ he says.

‘I always say that passion wins the day,’ Bacal adds. ‘When people have ideas that they really care about, we encourage them to stand behind them and fight for them. Eventually, if we’re not hearing them right away, and you persuade us that it is a great idea, we’ll go forward with it.’

‘We get to work with great, passionate people,’ Griffin points out. ‘One of the great things about our 20 years of working here is the vast number of talented and creative people that we’ve worked with.

‘We’ve been blessed, in that every day is a day when we get to open doors that haven’t been opened, and try to find new horizons and mountains to climb and obstacles to conquer,’ says Griffin. He adds,’it’s all done with the goal of bringing joy and freshness and excitement and a smile to a kid’s face. To make them happy, make them learn, make them grow, make them more exciting human beings. We get to do that.’

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