Sunday, October 23, 2016
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Broadway ad agency SpotCo shows how campaigns are born
This image released by Rizzoli shows "On Broadway: From 'Rent' to Revolution," celebrating advertising agency SpotCo’s theater campaigns is out later this month. It contains personal anecdotes from theater stars, never-released ads, behind-the-scenes stories and tales of how the campaigns were executed. (Rizzoli via AP)
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If you close your eyes and think of a really special Broadway show, there's a good chance an image born at SpotCo will pop up.

That's the advertising agency behind two decades of memorable campaigns, from the gritty logo for "Rent" to the black-and-white photos of slinky dancers in fishnets for "Chicago," to Lin-Manuel Miranda's silhouette for "Hamilton."

A new book celebrating SpotCo's 20 years of campaigns is out this month but it's far more than a collection of sleek Broadway posters destined for the coffee table.

"On Broadway: From Rent to Revolution," published by Rizzoli, has personal anecdotes from theater stars, never-released ads, behind-the-scenes stories and tales of how the campaigns were executed.

Readers will learn that Nicole Kidman agreed to have her jeans digitally removed for "The Blue Room" ads; how a SpotCo employee's pet rabbit ended up in an Easter campaign for "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels"; and the time a taxi was covered in fur to promote "Avenue Q."

"We were trying to make a book that was beyond Broadway aficionado," said Spotco founder Drew Hodges, who wrote and compiled it. "We really tried to make a book that you could just hand to someone, they could open up on any page and be like, 'Oh, this is interesting.'"

Some of those who wrote anecdotes include Miranda, John Leguizamo, Berry Gordy, Alison Bechdel, Mark Ruffalo, Patrick Stewart, Bernadette Peters, Joel Grey, Harvey Fierstein, Sting, Dolly Parton, Neil LaBute and Cherry Jones.

The book, edited by Garth Wingfield, has an introduction by humorist David Sedaris, who reveals his interesting connection to SpotCo: He used to clean the company's offices once a week in the early 1990s.

The book itself reflects SpotCo's ethic of making an emotional connection with its visual work. "That's really what we're almost always trying to do: just get the feeling right," said Hodges.

Hodges, who came to theater advertising after devising strategies for Swatch watches, MTV and rock 'n' roll albums, quickly realized that Broadway has special demands.

Until word of mouth takes over, ad campaigns have to entice patrons to be willing to pay high ticket prices for something they may know very little about. Less, he found out, is often more when it comes to ads.

"Telling people the plot is not a great way to get them in," said Hodges. "And if you say everything, you can also say it wrong. Whereas, if you actually pull it back a bit, you're more likely to get all the pieces right."

In addition to packing an emotional punch, Hodges' campaigns have devised a short, clear reason why anyone would see their shows. He calls it The Event.

"If I'm in an elevator and I say to you, 'You've got to go see this show!' And you say, 'Why?' Whatever I say next is The Event," he said. "It can be very simple. It can be, 'Because Hugh Jackman is amazing!' It doesn't have to be complicated.'"

All of his staff's skills were needed in 2006 when "The Drowsy Chaperone" came around. It was a gloriously inventive show but had possibly the worst title in stage history.

"Even explaining what a drowsy chaperone was is part of the problem that we had to solve," Hodges said. "But the bigger problem did seem to be: How are we going to get people to understand that the wit of this show is really why you want to go?"

The answer was humor and full honesty. One SpotCo ad read: "Sometimes you can just tell by the title that a show is going to be amazing. This is not one of those times."

"I came to realize that you can't tell someone something's funny and not be funny," said Hodges. "Then I learned that that was true for everything: If it's going to be scary, like 'The Pillowman,' then your thing has to be scary. If it's going to be sexy, then your thing has to be sexy. That's your credibility."

Not all the book is a victory lap. Hodges writes about his frustration over the campaign for "Lucky Guy," which eventually used an awkward photo of Tom Hanks' head floating above New York.

But Hodges can find the impact of his work everywhere. He recently watched with delight in the movie "Deadpool" when star Ryan Reynolds in one scene pulled on a T-shirt with the unmistakable logo from "Rent."

"It flipped me out. It became enough of a cultural touchstone that it says something," he said. "People take it and turn into something so much more iconic."