Ex-Burnett creative veteran contemplates second act

What does one do for a second act in advertising?  It’s always a tough question.  Made even more so when one’s first act produced what may be the single best TV commercial from any Chicago ad agency since the new century began.

Still that’s the question ad maven Tim Pontarelli is mulling.   And he isn’t rushing blindly to find an answer.  He left Leo Burnett/Chicago in November of 2010, a little more than a year after the arrival of Susan Credle as the agency’s chief creative officer.

By that point, Pontarelli was, to say the least, a Burnett veteran, having spent more than two decades at the shop and risen to executive creative director — the rung on the job ladder just below chief creative officer.

Over the course of his long tenure, Pontarelli touched many of  Burnett’s most high-profile clients, including Procter & Gamble, Delta Airlines, United Airlines, Petsmart, Kellogg’s and Allstate.

But surely his most important and lasting contributions to Burnett came from his work on Hallmark Cards, one of the agency’s oldest and most beloved accounts.

Pontarelli’s “Hooper” an all-time classic

It was for Hallmark that Pontarelli came up with the commercial we referenced at the top of this column.  The spot is called “Hooper.”  It is a superb example of a type of TV commercial that has tragically gone out of style.  And if the ad world isn’t careful, the kind of unforgettable spot that “Hooper” represents could — heaven help us — face extinction.

In a generous two minutes “Hooper” tells the immensely resonant story of a reunion between a college professor named Foley and his former student Beth Hooper.  She has heard he is about to retire, and she has returned years later to his office — exquisitely lit by golden sunbeams — to let him know the impact he had on her life.

Sounds like standard-issue stuff, perhaps.  But thanks to Pontarelli, who crafted the script, and gifted director Joe Pytka, “Hooper”  is far from ho-hum. We know that for sure when the professor — most unexpectedly — asks Hooper where she stands on bonsai trees.

That deliciously oddball inquiry leads us to the moment when the former student pulls a card (Hallmark of course) from her purse. The professor can’t find his eyeglasses, so Hooper begins to read from the card, which talks about what happens when seeds are planted, and people bloom.

 The card’s sentiment is sweet enough, but the real emotional and dramatic payoff in the spot’ comes only in the final seconds when the professor asks his former student what profession she ultimately pursued.  After a gloriously pregnant pause that allows viewers a moment to brace themselves, Hooper reveals she has become a teacher.

Like all great stories, “Hooper” keeps us wondering and waiting eagerly to see how this brilliantly-observed slice of life unfolds.

And because “Hooper” is so universal (haven’t we all been indelibly affected by at least one person in our lives?) and so beautifully crafted, it will remain embedded in the memories of those lucky enough to see it long after all the clutter that is most TV advertising today.

Worries things will worsen before they improve

 “Hooper” debuted in 2002, but it still haunts Pontarelli perhaps more than anything else he has done. Why? Because, as he told us in an interview, he worries deeply and daily about the future of advertising — a craft that once reveled in its ability to tell stories.  

Pontarelli is no fool.  As advertising has become more and more about the digital arena, he sees less and less of a focus on storytelling. “Everything is happening much faster now,” said Pontarelli. “There’s no time to zero in on  quality — on the story.”

And he worries things will get worse before there is any possibility of a turn around. “Nobody is getting trained to tell stories in advertising anymore,” said Pontarelli. “It’s no longer the craft it once was,” he added.

But he believes eventually the reality of the television business and the DVR will force a change, if nothing else does.  “People have to be given a reason to watch a TV commercial, and quality and good storytelling are what people really want and remember, whether they realize it or not,” Pontarelli explained.

Pontarelli doesn’t regret taking time away from the trenches.  Besides when he left, Burnett had endured a long new business drought, and there were no indications it was about to get better.  “Things seemed to be slowing down, and it was time to get out and stretch,” said the ex-Burnetter.

Ex-Burnetter telling stories as a freelancer

Pontarelli is still contemplating exactly what that second act should be as he observes the swirling sea of change in the ad business and the perilous state of storytelling.

Over the past months however, he has kept a hand in the business as a freelancer — doing some short films for a Hallmark unit, as well as scripts for a national jewelry chain that wanted some sweet, romantic vignettes from its ad agency for a series of 30-second spots.

“They reached out to me because they couldn’t find anyone in the shop’s creative unit who knew how to tell stories,” noted Pontarelli.

They certainly found their man in Pontarelli.

To see the Hallmark’s “Hooper” spot, click here.

Contact Lewis Lazare at LewisL3@aol.com.