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Creativity Rules: Harmon Brothers on developing powerful marketing campaigns

Imagine you’re part of an ad agency. The client wants what everyone wants: increased market share, higher revenues, greater brand awareness, etc. But the client doesn’t offer the same kind of products most companies do. As in not at all. As in a stool used to make defecating easier. Or how about a spray that makes it so your $%!# actually doesn’t stink? What do you and the creative team do when the client leaves and the silence settles in? What do you come up with to achieve all those magical marketing initiatives?

Well, if you’re part of Harmon Brothers, your proposed video script includes lines like this (to be delivered in delicate, dulcet tones by an oh-so-proper British beauty): “You would not believe the mother lode I just dropped. And that’s how I like to keep it, leaving not a trace that I was here, let alone that I just birthed a creamy behemoth from my cavernous bowels.”

Squatty PottyOr you pitch a YouTube video featuring an over-the-top Prince Charming standing next to an animatronic unicorn in the act of pooping out rainbow-colored soft-serve ice cream. Mr. Charming explains the biomechanics of proper bowel movements with phrases like, “Maybe you’re sore from squeezing out solid globs of rocky road. The Squatty Potty gives a smooth stream of froyo that glides like a virgin swan … Truly a footstool fit for a constipated king.”

Of course, exactly the campaigns you were thinking of, right?

Well they’re not what most ad agencies are thinking, and that’s why Harmon Brothers is now one of the most sought-out agencies in the nation. With its internationally popular videos for clients like Poo Pourri, Squatty Potty, Purple and Fiber Fix, Harmon Brothers is officially on the global advertising map. “We probably turn away 100 leads for every client we accept. We’re in a fortunate position to pick and choose the cream of the crop,” says Benton Crane, managing director of the Provo-based firm.

In the three years since opening its doors, Harmon Brothers (led by, yes, four brothers: Jeffrey, Neal, Daniel and Theron), Crane says the company has learned a lot about what it takes to create irresistible advertising that captures the attention of the masses and produces a solid ROI (like Squatty Potty’s 66 million views in four months and 600 percent increase in online sales).

PurpleStart the conversation

Crane says it’s important to start the conversation in a way that engages people. Sometimes it’s just about finding the right creative angle, like with Purple’s mattress video—presented by a dead-pan Goldilocks dropping raw eggs onto a variety of mattresses. And sometimes it’s downright difficult, as in opening the dialog about Poo Pourri’s bathroom odor spray.

“With Poo Pourri the challenge was, ‘How do we talk about something like farts and poo?’ It’s such an awkward conversation. The only way to make that palatable was to take the one person least likely to ever hear talking about that, the type of character you would expect to see in a Jane Austen movie. We put her in scenarios where she’s using potty humor to explain a real problem and presenting a great solution. Because it’s OK for her to talk that way, then it’s OK for you and I to talk that way.”

Believe in what you’re doing

When Harmon Brothers first pitched the prince-and-pooping-unicorn concept to Squatty Potty, it didn’t go so well. “The one person who caught the vision was Bobby Edwards, their CEO. But everyone around him told him it was a terrible idea—that included his parents (also his partners and co-founders). They all told him it was crazy terrible, that he should not go down that path,” says Crane.

Squatty Potty walked away from the project for a few months before coming back to the agency. But there were still plenty of skeptics.  “When we produced the campaign, all the way up until that video launched, people were nervous. They worried whether we were hitting the right notes, if we had crossed the line from funny to crass,” says Crane. “Then the campaign launched, and within days it was a smash hit. It’s since gone on to win many awards. Bobby got the validation in the end, but we realize it took some courage on his part.”

Sometimes second guessing is good

Crane says another lesson learned is that it’s OK to question things, on everything from potential clients to campaign tactics. “We had a startup approach us for a video on a new app. We produced the campaign, but they weren’t able to get the product off the ground. We learned a valuable lesson from that,” says Crane. “When we evaluate potential clients, we look at whether they’re in the ‘nail it’ phase (still trying to figure out their product) or the ‘scale it’ phase (they have it figured out, they just need to blow it up). We only consider clients in the ‘scale it’ phase now.”

He says the agency has also gotten good at critiquing its concepts before they go out the door, saying, “We see if people are cringing or smiling—sometimes we see we’ve taken it too far and have to pull back.”

For advertising that works, for videos that go viral, Crane summarizes the Harmon Brothers’ strategy: the key is to take on projects the agency is passionate about and to let creativity be the number one rule.