After Years Away, Gerry Graf Returns to the Heaven and Hell of Making a Super Bowl Ad

Man behind the E*Trade monkey now tackles Go Daddy

Headshot of Tim Nudd

Gerry Graf has made more than his share of Super Bowl commercials over the years while working at agencies like Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, BBDO and Saatchi & Saatchi.

He's been away from the game for half a decade while building his boutique, Barton F. Graf 9000, into a not-so-little creative powerhouse. But now he's back, as Barton F. Graf is handling one of the most notorious Super Bowl advertisers of all: Go Daddy.

We chatted with Graf on Thursday about the high and lows of making Super Bowl ads, and how you always care what the viewer thinks more than you want to.

It's been a few years since you worked on a Super Bowl spot.

Yeah, I think it's been five or six years. The last time I was on was with Miller High Life [in 2009], when I was at Saatchi.

Have you missed being on the game? The whole circus around it, and the pressure?

Nope. Not at all. I did not miss it at all. And it's silly pressure, too. All these millions of dollars invested, and it's like this has to be the best spot in the world, and you have to score high on all these stupid polls where retired schoolteachers from Arizona are voting for USA Today. It's just a lot of unnecessary pressure.

Does it affect your ability to do good work in that situation?

Not the ability to do good work, but it's always a fight to sell good work. Usually throughout the year you're trying to break through and do something new and different that stands out and gets noticed. And the Super Bowl always feels like a popularity contest. It's like if you look at the movies that win the Academy Awards and then the ones that win the People's Choice Awards—the quality is a little dumbed down.

How many Super Bowl spots have you worked on total?

A lot. I don't know, maybe 10?

Is it a different experience every time, depending on the client, your agency colleagues, the brief?

It's usually the same experience. The first thing is that you can't really sell too hard or be too specific, I feel, on the Super Bowl. You're mostly talking on the high brand level. What is Bud Light saying about its beer? Nothing. It's just, "People like to party with Bud Light." Or with Doritos, it's, "They taste good." That's the most that people say. "They taste so good that you'll walk through a glass door." I like playing in the specifics of things, but in the Super Bowl you have to be more high-minded.

And then every single time, somebody at the agency or client says, "This has to be great." Which always makes me laugh. And I'll say out loud to them, "Oh, good! OK, this one has to be great. Can you tell the ones that don't have to be great throughout the year? Because I'll go home at 6 o'clock when I'm working on those." And then you have people who say, "This has to be big." And I don't even know what that means.

Also, there are always more people who are decision makers. It's always, always a battle not to get your idea dumbed down or made a little more safe. There's a lot more fighting to keep the integrity of the idea solid.

Do you have a favorite Super Bowl ad you've done?

I have two. My favorite was the Miller High Life one-second ad. It really kind of made fun of everybody else who was doing these big, ridiculous spots and spending $3 million for 30 seconds. It was really dead on the strategy of Miller High Life, too, being about blue-collar values. It came out right in the middle of the recession, so we could be topical at the same time, posing the question of, "In these times, who has $3 million to waste on a stupid commercial?" And then we had a really good time with the media people trying to figure out how to buy one second. Which you can't. You can get five seconds, and we faded in and faded out. It was a blast.

That was a regional spot, right? Because A-B has the exclusive rights to national beer marketing on the game.

Yeah, we bought 60 percent of the country through local markets. We were the little rebels. We snuck in the back door. And we had a nice PR coup. We premiered the one-second ad on The Tonight Show the Thursday before the game. Everybody made their salary that year.

And your second favorite Super Bowl ad?

The monkey's always going to be special to me, too. The E*Trade monkey—again, in a much more low-fi way, referencing the ridiculousness of the whole thing.

You and I hung out at Mackenzie Cutler on the night of the 2003 Super Bowl, where your "Desert Island" spot for FedEx aired. You were pretty nervous that night.

[Laughs] Yeah. You want to pretend that if you think it's great, it's great—and what other people think doesn't matter. But it does.

So, you'll probably be nervous this year too, with Go Daddy.

Yeah. I will. I'll try to stop myself from going online and seeing all the comments and stuff. But that'll last for, I don't know, half an hour.

So, what can you tell us about the Go Daddy spot?

Just what's already been out there. We made a conscious decision not to do the babes and that kind of thing. And they've been [transitioning] for the past two years a little bit. Before, I think everybody knew Go Daddy, but they didn't know what Go Daddy did. Oh, it's Danica Patrick's car sponsor. Oh, it's the girl with the T-shirt. The past two years, I think they've been doing good stuff.

Bar Refaeli making out with the nerd guy—that was one of my favorites when that came out. It didn't make the top 10 of anything, but I thought that was nice and smart, because they did something in your face that explained what they did. We wanted to continue that. And we're playing with Super Bowl clichés. There seems to be five puppy ads every year. So, we're going to go hang out and play in that area.

I assume we shouldn't expect quite as sappy of an ending as Budweiser.

Yeah, it's not going to be sappy. And it really ties directly into Go Daddy and gets a little more specific than most Super Bowl spots into what the company actually does.

@nudd Tim Nudd is a former creative editor of Adweek.