The "E*Trade baby" became one of the iconic marketing campaigns of the late 2000s. First unveiled in January 2008 during the Super Bowl, it carried E*Trade through the global financial crisis that erupted a few months later and then beyond into what would turn out to be a extraordinary seven-year run. Here's the original spot from 2008 - known as 'Whoa!' - and 'Wings', a sequel from the following year, post-credit crunch.
Nick Utton was E*Trade's chief marketing officer. "In September 2007 we were looking at which advertising campaign we might run in the following year's Super Bowl," he said. "E*Trade happened to be going through a very tricky patch at that point in time because we had to declare some loan loss provisions on our mortgage book. It was important to maintain awareness with customers so we made the decision to spend more money on advertising to make sure that E*Trade stayed front and centre. Out of sight means out of mind, and consumers want to be reassured. And there's also the logic flow that consumers have, 'Well, if they're running on the Super Bowl, they must be a healthy company.' So we really pushed the agency, we said 'Whatever advertising we run, if it's running on the Super Bowl, it has to be outstanding. It has to break through the clutter and connect; and more importantly it has to ensure that millions of consumers become more interested in the E*Trade proposition'."
Grey's new chief creative officer Tor Myhren had recently joined the agency from Leo Burnett's Detroit office. "The year before I had done the first Super Bowl spot of my whole career, and it was a complete flop," he said. "It was largely blamed for our agency losing Cadillac. So all of a sudden it was like 'Ok here we go again. I've gotta make it right this time'. So personally there was a lot of pressure on this spot." Grey initially came up with a concept showing real people communicating directly with the audience as if over a webcam, talking about how E*Trade helped them make better investing decisions and choices. They put several scripts into testing, including one which happened to feature a talking baby. That was the one that got the best results from the focus groups.
Myhren: "When we first created the baby, we had no idea if it was the dumbest thing we'd ever done or if it was genius. I was terrified. I had just come to New York, and this is my big chance and it's a talking baby, which had been done a million times. It was scary." Utton: "They came back with the idea of having a baby saying, 'Look, if I can do it, you can do it.' It had the humour we wanted but it also had a very very practical message. When I saw the initial testing results, I loved it. What I didn't know, what none of us knew, was how big the baby would become..."
The idea is one thing; making it work on camera is another altogether. Myhren: "The first thing we did was go out and we shot a lot of babies. But out of 100 babies that we shot there was really only one that was usable, just this one baby, this amazing baby." They filmed him sitting in his high chair, acting up for the camera; but of course he couldn't voice the lines, so a different four-old was filmed for the mouth movements, which were then digitally overlaid onto the main baby. Comedian Pete Holmes provided the actual voiceover. The fact that the results were shaky and raw only seemed to add to the effect. Myhren: "It was all about the humour... we were, like, 'Let's not worry about the craft; in fact let's go almost anti-craft'. It was totally by the seat of our pants." The first spot came out so well, that after Utton saw it, he decided to buy another Super Bowl spot, giving Grey just three weeks to devise a completely new script (this one featured a creepy clown), shoot it and edit it. Then it was a question of waiting to see the reaction...
Myhren: "There's nothing more intense than sitting watching a Super Bowl with all your friends and you know that your spot is going to be coming up. '*I* think this is funny... but who knows if *America* is gonna think it's funny.' But the minute it hit, the text messages were blowing up, everyone was messaging, calling, 'Oh my God! I saw it! It's amazing'..." It was almost certainly the most popular ad of the whole Super Bowl, and the following day, E*Trade registered more new accounts than it had on any other day in the company's history. The effect on Grey's reputation was also dramatic, finally putting to bed those old snipes of 'Grey by name, grey by nature'. "We won a lot of business based on the success of the E*Trade baby," said Myhren.
The campaign was a huge hit for the next seven years. Over that time, the original baby was replaced a couple of times, and he also gained a few onscreen friends. But nothing lasts forever, and gradually the formula got harder and harder to build upon. There was also a big shake-up in E*Trade's management team following another run of disappointing financial results. In 2013, new CEO Paul Idzik decided that the company needed to be more scientific in its marketing. Nick Utton was replaced, and the account was put into review. Grey declined to defend, and eventually the business was awarded to Ogilvy. A final ad was filmed by Ogilvy in which the E*Trade baby quits because he's been saddled with a new sidekick, a talking cat named Beanie. "The baby was a wonderful iconic expression of what we were," said new marketing chief Liza Landsman. "But we want something that better reflects our present and where we are going." But, boy, was it fun while it lasted...