Household cleaners aren't exactly the most exciting product for an agency to work on, so this brilliantly simple but exceptionally clever spot for Unilever's Vim caused a minor sensation in 2005, winning a cupboard-full of awards, and establishing an international reputation for its creators, independent Canadian agency Zig and director duo the Perlorian Brothers.
Zig had been launched a few years earlier by Andy Macaulay, Elspeth Lynn and Lorraine Tao. Lorraine Tao: "Elspeth and I had worked on a number of brands for Unilever when we were a creative team at Ammirati & Puris, before we started Zig. They were a fantastic client and we did some work there we were all proud of for Vaseline and Sunlight. Not too long after we started Zig, there was a shake-up in the ranks at Ammirati and Unilever, being a creatively driven client, began looking elsewhere. We were extremely fortunate that after only a few meetings, they decided to give us the Vim account without a pitch. It was our first big account and it gave Zig a growth spurt, but the relationship felt like coming home."
The brief for this particular ad was assigned to what was then one of Zig's up-and-coming creative teams, copywriter Aaron Starkman and art director Stephen Leps. Aaron Starkman: "For some strange reason, it seems all cleaning ads are about happy people smiling, laughing and dancing. That couldn't be further from the awful reality. Fact is, cleaning sucks! And those two words were on the brief. I said to my partner Stephen, am I crazy or this cleaning brief really good? The ads for Vim historically were not very creative so it's not surprising that two senior teams passed on the brief, giving us an amazing opportunity.
"Because the brief was so good, I found it easy to come up with ideas. What also helped was using Vim's main competition, Fantastic spray cleaner. I was attempting to clean caked-on pasta sauce with it, and I said to my creative partner Stephen, "I feel this is hopeless, it's like being in a prison". Funny thing was, the idea for 'Prison Visitor' didn't come right at that moment, I thought of it the next day while jamming in the agency's kitchen area.
"By the time we presented to Unilever, we had five really good ideas. Unilever put three into research. Actually I was hoping another spot called 'Shaking Walls' would be the winner, but consumers picked Vim in the research. And so did the stores."
Unilever didn't need any further persuasion, but there were still a few worries for the agency. Lorraine Tao: "The meeting that sticks out in my mind was for the casting. Through the process of casting the mother, Aaron, Stephen and the Perlorian Brothers had added the word 'baby' to her script. It just made the moment for all of us, but we were all a bit nervous because the script had gone through research unscathed and, usually, adding dialogue to a script that's tested well is a no-no. I went to the meeting with Unilever ready to fall on a sword and take it back out but it turned out not to be a difficult sell and looking back on it, we were over-worrying. I think we all just knew how special the spot was and didn't want to mess it up!"
The ad turned out to be a big hit, lifting Canadian sales of Vim by as much as 20% without any other marketing, and Unilever rolled it out to several other countries. It also stormed the awards circuit, winning a ton of awards including a Gold Lion at Cannes. At the time, it was one of Canada's most awarded ads ever. But possibly the biggest honour of all came from Ellen DeGeneres. She aired the spot for free on her daytime US talk show to an audience of millions of potential customers and called it one her favourite ads of all time. What bigger accolade could you wish for?