Imagine an ad agency dedicated to creating identities for brand icons and creating compelling stories about these critters that delivers big business. What you imagined is actually very real: this is Danger Pigeon Studios, a two-year-old "character agency” owned and operated by ad vet Pat Giles and his wife, writer Amy Giles.
For a blog devoted to icons, we couldn’t have dreamed of a better agency to profile! We recently chatted with Pat and Amy for a behind-the-scenes look at what it means to work on these classic characters, the adventures of travelling to Canada with the Pillsbury Doughboy, and what they love about the term “character.”
AW: It’s the million dollar question — why mascots? Was there a turning point in opening up an ad agency that was strictly mascot-friendly?
PG: Well, Amy is a writer and I’m an animator. I started out working on several animated series and Amy was in marketing for publishing. When I started working in advertising, it was for animated brand characters like Lucky the Leprechaun and the Trix Rabbit. I’d always worked with assigned writing partners, but Amy was my secret weapon. Since we are married, we’d dissect stories and character motivations and storylines over dinner and breakfast. I started my first independent agency in 2010 (Pat-Man Studios), thinking that the focus needed to be on “youth,” since specialty agencies seemed to be organized around demographics. It wasn’t until about a year into our new agency (Danger Pigeon) when we realized that every one of our clients came to us for character-based experiences, whether it was gaming, web-series or TV campaigns. Hence, the character agency!
AG: On the phrase “mascot,” which we know you use affectionately, is a word we try to avoid. This is partly because it signals to “serious” marketers something unserious, or an “easy” tactic.
PG: We prefer the term “brand character,” because to our clients these characters are responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars in business, in some cases. This is why we set up our shop this way; the only people that treat brand characters seriously are the people that have them on their brands. To people outside of advertising, these characters are like celebrities.
AW: Pat, before Danger Pigeon, you worked at Saatchi & Saatchi for creative on campaigns surrounding huge characters. I'd like to know what it has been like to work on the following icons...
“This may be the brand character that convinced us most about why a specialty agency is needed. We worked with a cross-functional team of packaging/digital/TV to create the new brand logo, and along the way created the definitive guide to the history of the Giant. It was a great experience and taught us that brand characters are not just “kid-stuff.”
“These guys are personal favorites. I have a real emotional connection to them from childhood. When my character designs were used on the packaging between 2005-2009 or so, I felt like no other career milestone would ever top that. My dream is to make a stop-motion Halloween special featuring these characters, so if anyone is listening…”
“What a unique character for so many reasons, but he is also the perfect ‘brand avatar,’ appearing on more than cereal. I helped to introduce the Silly Rabbit to China and India. My team and I created the very first animated shorts featuring the Rabbit and a cast of new Rabbits I designed. Since ‘Trix are for kids,’ we let kids help us write the shorts.”
Lucky the Leprechaun
“I was hired at Saatchi many years ago by Dave Shea and Jacques Dufour. These guys led this brand for many years, and Jacques had been doing so from since 1968-2005, basically my entire lifetime. I felt like it was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me. When I was walking home the first week on the job, I looked up and a shooting star zipped by overhead in the night sky. (There’s a shooting star charm in every bowl, by the way.) I felt like it perfectly captured how lucky I felt to work on that brand.”
The Pillsbury Doughboy
“Similar to the Giant, we ‘wrote the book’ on who this little guy is and what motivates him. Fun story, when I was traveling to Canada I was pulled off the customs line and questioned by Canadian border agents because they did not believe me when I told them I was there to make a Doughboy commercial.
‘Are you the Doughboy?’ The agent asked firmly. Luckily, they let me go. But then leaving the country, the US border agent turned out to be a Doughboy enthusiast, and despite the huge line behind me, he quizzed me for 5 minutes about it. He’d been desperate to find a rare Doughboy cookie jar that had a sound chip in it.”
Sonny the Cuckoo Bird
“He is such a unique character in advertising: Keep that product of yours away from me, because it’s too good. He was Crazy Eddie before Crazy Eddie ever shouted about stereos. I’m a big fan of the stuff done in the sixties for this brand because it was always sophisticated and funny. I always tried to evoke that era in my work on this brand.”
Buzz the Bee
“Every spot we made for this brand was designed to be a little action adventure film. We worked with animation legends at Laika to create them. The stories from those spots were extended into a full-length video game activated by a code on the box. We also had a huge breakthrough where we made the very first augmented reality cereal box that turned the box into the game controller.”
AW: Let’s talk more about these character guidebooks. Without giving too much away, what could one expect to find inside these books?
PG: Character Guides are a unique offering of our agency, and they owe a lot from our experience in entertainment. The books are definitely full of imagery, both historical and new, and can run to 40 plus pages. But they are primarily strategic documents that are designed to help marketers and partner agencies create a starting point for working with a character. For example, there are certain things that Mickey Mouse just would not do, and it’s not a bad thing to know what those things are. Part of the power of a branded character is the relationship to the consumer, and relationships are based on trust and consistency. When a brand works “out of character,” it can have a very negative effect on a brand’s success. It doesn’t mean characters evolve and experience new things, they don’t remain static, but Mickey Mouse doesn’t wake up one day and act differently. That’s how a character guide can help. Character guides can make sense of that evolution.”
AW: Characters are essentially celebrities in the ad industry, so we gotta know — what’s it really like to work with them?
PG: My favorite part of working with brand characters has to be the voice actors. We’ve gotten to become friends with them, and since many of them are also comedians it can make for very funny sessions. Guys like Larry Kenney and Russell Horton had been doing the voices of these characters since I was watching cartoons in my pajamas myself. I would always approach these sessions like a fan that had to suppress my nerd instincts and try to be professional. Even though I may have been writing and drawing these characters, at least 50% of them was provided by the voice actor, and it was like working with an actual real-life celebrity for me. We actually just recorded a session for a new Sesame Street project, and you get chills hearing a character come to life through the actor for the first time. It is always the most fun part of any project.
AW: Give us a glimpse at what a typical day at Danger Pigeon Studios looks like.
PG: Since we have a few things going on at different stages, and animation is such a time-consuming process, we could be at a different point on several projects on any given day. This week was pretty interesting because we had a few cool things going on. We are developing an animated series with OddBot (based in Pasadena), and just had a great story session with them, and we are rebuilding the main character from scratch. We are in script stage for a web-series, so Amy is on the frontline for that part.
AG: I’ve been writing and re-writing each script to get the pace right, and really try to hone in on the characters in each line. Since this project is for preschoolers, some strict curriculum guidelines have to be met, but that helps us sharpen the stories, too.
PG: And while Amy is writing, Jonathan Royce and I are literally “character building,” figuring out all of the movements and expressions for the characters. Jonathan is our Creative Director on the project, and he actually builds the characters out of felt. We photograph them from every angle and then rebuild the characters digitally. Then when the scripts are approved we will move into storyboards and animatics.
AW: What's the toughest — and best — thing about running an agency that is character-driven?
PG: Like any agency, new business is probably the hardest, particularly because of people’s preconceptions about brand characters. I think once people at other agencies and brands see the benefit of this specialty this will get easier.
AG: The best thing is the actual work. There’s a lot of giggling. We are very serious about not being serious.
AW: Lately, it seems like brand icons are disappearing from commercials. Do you think there’s a place for these legacy mascots in the future?
PG: For characters that have been around awhile, I definitely think that brands are under pressure to be “new” and don’t think of their brand characters as being able to deliver on that. Mr. Clean just disproved that theory in a funny Super Bowl spot, KFC is doing wild stuff with Colonel Sanders, and Spuds McKenzie appeared in maybe the greatest spot he’s ever been in. In all those cases they are doing stuff that is new and interesting, but are still “in character” for them.
AG: We’ve also been in a new golden age for brand characters, too. The Geico Gecko, The Aflac Duck, Flo from Progressive. Smokey the Bear’s new campaign is pretty good, and now has some political significance with the "Alt Park Service."
AW: We’re dying to know — who are your favorite icons and/or dream clients?
AG: I want to bring Mr. Bubble back. I miss him. Morris the Cat was always a favorite of mine as a kid. And the Morton Salt Girl—I think she has some great stories to tell!
PG: Since Kellogg was always a competitor, I could only dream of working on “Snap, Crackle and Pop,” so they’d be on my list. M&M’s is another brand that I’ve been jealous of for a long time. They really treat those characters like celebrities. I’m also dying to bring back “The Cavity Creeps” from Crest toothpaste. I have an idea for a graphic novel/animated series featuring those characters. They need to come back!
Feel like asking more character questions? Tweet Danger Pigeon @DangerPigeonLLC on Twitter!