Folk from GEICO, The Martin Agency and World War Seven director David Shafei speak to LBB’s Addison Capper about a multi-month campaign that came to a head during the pregame show on CBS
In the midst of Super Bowl Sunday's pregame show on CBS, GEICO aired four instalments of a 15-minute documentary about a bona fide advertising legend: the GEICO Gecko.
Arriving on US screens in 1999 as part of a campaign by long-time GEICO partners The Martin Agency, the Gecko is one of the country's most well-known brand mascots, and viewers can now get a peek behind the curtain of its 'upbringing' and journey to becoming the legend that he is in 'Legend of the Lizard'. Visually, the Gecko has been created and fine-tuned by the artists at Framestore (though we're not sure this part made it into its upbringing story).
The campaign began rolling out way back in December, when a two-minute spot called 'The Nightmare' launched. Then in January, a teaser for the upcoming documentary dropped as part of a spot called 'Commercial Cuddles' in which another GEICO mascot, the Caveman, is surprised to discover that he's merely a commentator and not the focal point.
The full documentary, which launched late last week, and all six of the spots, were directed by World War Seven's David Shafei.
To get the full story, LBB's Addison Capper speaks with Gary Aurand, senior director, brand and creative at GEICO, The Martin Agency’s Ryan Raab (creative director), Graham Unterberger, (creative director, copywriter), Dustin Dodd (creative director, art director), as well as director David Shafei.
The Legend of the Lizard
LBB> To kick things off, can you give us a bit of the history of the Geico caveman, and its importance for the brand?
Gary Aurand, GEICO> For decades, our creative marketing team at GEICO, along with our long-time agency partners at The Martin Agency, have created and developed some of the most well-known, respected and trusted brand mascots of any company in so many creative ways: 20 non-consecutive years with the Caveman and 25 years with the Gecko. The Gecko was first introduced in 1999, originally planned as a short-lived mnemonic device to help audiences remember the name GEICO. Like his counterpart, the Caveman, he was initially frustrated by the association, but quickly embraced the opportunity to be an advertising icon and with it the chance to spread sage insurance wisdom nationwide. The Caveman entered the story five years later in 2004, originally as a boom mic operator for a news studio. When the news anchor made a flippant comment about geico.com being so easy a Caveman could do it, the angsty personification of ease, as we know him today, was born. While the Caveman has made some guest appearances on select GEICO commercials since his first appearance two decades ago, this is the first time their stories intersect.
Ryan Raab, Martin Agency> This was well before our time on the brand, but we have been told that in 2004 GEICO wanted to promote their .com presence. At the time, there was a general consumer perception that getting an insurance quote online might actually be more difficult. It was a clear brief that led to a simple creative twist: ‘GEICO.com is so easy a caveman could do it, and what if cavemen were still around?’ Apparently, folks were a little nervous about how the idea would go over because it struck such a different comedic tone, but obviously, the Caveman broke through and from there it was about capitalising on the momentum. And incidentally, that work inspired all of us to go into advertising, so it’s very exciting to pick up the cave-torch.
LBB> What was the starting point when developing the Super Bowl campaign? What informed the decision to lean into the caveman's popularity and bring him back as a character?
Gary Aurand, GEICO> Bringing back the Caveman has been a part of many conversations over the years, but we always wanted to wait for the right opportunity to do so. Research continues to show us that the Gecko and Caveman are two of the most recognisable brand mascots in advertising, and when the idea to delve into the backstory of the Gecko started to take shape, we thought this was a great time to reintroduce a familiar, albeit hairy face. But this is more than just advertising on Super Bowl Sunday. This is a multi-month campaign that began on December 23rd and is a story that offers a lot of opportunity well beyond. I am not going to give away what we have planned, but I am excited for the fun surprises we have on the horizon that are sure to delight viewers.
LBB> You aired four spots during the pregame - why was committing to that undertaking important for the brand?
Ryan Raab, Martin Agency> Once we landed on the concept, a few instalments felt right. Most documentaries tell a story across a few chapters. We wanted to do the same, with four spots that tell one story while the world is watching.
Gary Aurand, GEICO> Our team wanted to create a unique experience for viewers on one of the biggest days in advertising by producing a 15-minute documentary about the Gecko. In the documentary, we introduce viewers to Gecko’s teachers, his auntie, co-workers, best friend, and even learn some of his trade secrets. And you also hear from the Caveman too, who has lots of thoughts on the Gecko phenomenon.
While we couldn’t broadcast the full 15-minute documentary on CBS, we are excited to air an abridged version in four parts, premiering four separate 30-second spots during the CBS Super Bowl pre-show. And viewers can watch the full documentary on YouTube and TikTok.
However, as mentioned, this is more than just Super Bowl Sunday. We began re-introducing the Caveman back on December 23rd in a two-minute spot ‘The Nightmare’. This was our longest ad ever broadcast on television and it definitely took viewers by surprise.
Then on January 13th, we dropped our Legend of the Lizard teaser in ‘Commercial Cuddles’. During this ad, the Caveman’s evening of cuddles with his wife Tina and football is interrupted by a trailer for the GEICO documentary which turns out to be about a different GEICO celebrity – the Gecko. He was clearly triggered and upset, and the Caveman vented his complaints about the documentary.
Fast forward to today, and we have introduced the full documentary. However, the campaign won’t end this week since we have more to come in 2024.
LBB> To me, there are two key things at play with the campaign: the caveman's use in the build-up and his general annoyance with how he is portrayed, and then the gecko's role in the actual documentary. Was there a part that came first? Please tell us more about the early creative process in general!
Graham Unterberger and Dustin Dodd, Martin Agency> The whole thing started with ‘Legend of the Lizard’. Yes, we wanted to paint an intimate portrait of the Gecko. But it couldn’t be a brand puff piece. We needed to expose all sides of our insurance celebrity, and that required a contrasting perspective. Enter Caveman. He never worked for GEICO, but has caught strays from them for years, so giving a forum to air his gripes gave us a way to temper the Gecko’s greatness.
And, off the record? The Caveman only has beef with GEICO. Not the Gecko. They’ve only met in passing at the executive lounge in a Midwest airport. See, Gecko’s always been focused on helping people find the right coverage with GEICO, while the Caveman fills his days helping in other ways… like finding rescue dogs their ‘furever’ homes. Which you’ll learn more about in the doc.
LBB> What was the challenge like of crafting four spots that all needed to seamlessly feed into each other across the Super Bowl broadcast?
Graham Unterberger and Dustin Dodd, Martin Agency> Most biopics follow a similar narrative arc. You start with the young prodigy. Not yet the giant they’ll become, but also not normal either. Then the very thing that makes them different helps them stand out in their chosen field. They start to blossom. Find success, fame even. Until something happens, someone takes a shot, some event brings them crashing down. But this is America. And the only thing we love more than insurance commercials are redemption narratives. That’s when the hero comes back stronger. So, we basically ripped off that structure.
Like any good documentary, an incredible amount of footage was left on the cutting room floor. Maybe it’ll make the director’s cut on the DVD if people still buy those.
LBB> With that in mind, with so many different elements of the campaign at play, how important is it for each of them to be able to stand up on their own?
Graham Unterberger and Dustin Dodd, Martin Agency> We’d be idiots if we thought anyone but our moms and the esteemed judges of Cannes would follow the entire story from start to finish. So, each piece HAD to work in isolation. We wanted people to enjoy Caveman’s comeback whether they watched the doc or not. But also wanted to reward the GEICO diehards with a little dopamine hits along the way.
LBB> What was the writing process like for a documentary about a fictional being?
Graham Unterberger and Dustin Dodd, Martin Agency> We started with the 30-second films and strove to make those as tight as possible, because that’s what 99.9999 (repeating of course) % of the viewing public would see. And we wrote a lot of them. Exploring themes like love, loss, and insurance. But only once we had our ‘core four’ and the characters they contained did we start to think about longer forms.
From there, David Shafei had the sadistic idea to create discussion guides for each character. So, we burned many billable hours creating backstories, side-narratives, and hidden motivations for everyone featured in the doc. It felt like an insane amount of work at the time, but almost every joke we now hold near and dear to our dark advertising hearts came directly out of that process.
LBB> Why was David Shafei the right director to bring all of this to life?
Graham Unterberger and Dustin Dodd, Martin Agency> Because he gave us the most shoot days for the least amount of money… But also because his work is honestly hilarious. Honest in that he treats characters like real people, builds real worlds around them, then revels in the awkward realness that makes humans (and in this case reptiles with human voices) the fallible creatures we are. And hilarious because all that realness is in service of really funny bits. He brought so many builds to this story, it wouldn’t be the same without him. It also wouldn’t have Gecko-conners either.
Ryan Raab, Martin Agency> 100%. We started with the premise ‘What if we made a sports doc about the Gecko’ and with his help, it became 1500% weirder, more deeply silly, and strangely touching. His treatment felt new, so smart, and like a bit of a tonal tightrope. So of course, we had to do it.
LBB> David, why was this campaign something you were keen to help bring to life?
David Shafei, director> Well, because the Gecko is an advertising legend. It was an honour even to be asked to treat on the campaign. Then, when I got on the first call with the creatives Ryan Rabb, Graham Unterberger, Dustin Dodd, and the agency producer Maggie Weisharr, I wanted to be involved with the project even more. They had put so much thought into it and cared so much about work; I knew I had to be a part of it.
LBB> There are a lot of elements - two teaser spots, four actual Super Bowl ads, a CBS pregame integration, and a 15-minute documentary. Can you give us some background into how you gradually built out all of these elements to seamlessly work together? What was the process like and why are all of these elements so important? And, David, what was your starting point from a production standpoint?
Graham Unterberger and Dustin Dodd, Martin Agency> We’d love to say this baby was born fully formed. But in reality, the process was like unwrapping one of those paper party balls. Each layer we peeled away unveiled a new surprise. Sometimes we found a balanced insurance-themed breakfast! Other times it was ‘Hey, NBC has these two two-minute time slots, any way we can create a Caveman backstory that also teases the full documentary?’. But once the world was established it was incredibly fun finding ways to link all the pieces together.
Ryan Raab, Martin Agency> We initially baulked at the concept of a long form film as well. We’ve all seen so many long-form films that don’t merit the time it takes to watch them. But once we saw David Shafei’s vision for the concept, and the depth to which he helped us build this world, it felt like a missed opportunity not to make one. I mean, there’s a whole film in the Gecko cosplayers alone.
David, director> From my perspective, the biggest thing was capturing enough interesting, funny stuff to give the documentary the breadth it needed. Often, with commercial campaigns, we just don’t have enough time. Working with the Martin team and Geico was great because they embraced the idea of doing more and going longer. With the help of the team at World War Seven and my incredible producer, Michael Mitchell, we created a production that was actually nimble - functioning more like a documentary than a large-budget commercial and shooting a lot more than what was originally scoped. This approach requires a lot of trust from both the agency and the client, and I am so grateful to Martin and Geico for letting us go for it.
LBB> When it came to the look and feel of everything, what was your main inspiration, and how did you ensure it was holistic across everything?
David, director> It was about nailing the look and feel of a feature docuseries, and the Netflix ‘Arnold’ series was a big inspiration. We shot with [DOP] Polly Morgan and a team accustomed to massive projects, and they embraced it - and even the production became almost a method approach. If we wouldn’t shoot something that way for a doc series, we wouldn’t use those tools. Production-wise, we needed to be lean and smart, setting some parameters on how we shoot because those limitations are what really create the feel. We just kept asking ourselves what a doc would do. Except our ‘doc’ had much better catering.
LBB> How was Jeff Daniels Phillips to work with? Was it more about letting him assume his role, or was it a hands-on relationship?
David, director> Working with Jeff was incredible. He is such a gifted actor who brings so much thought and preparation to this character. He’s been doing it for decades and understands it better than anyone. I looked to him to keep the Caveman the Cavemen. I was surprised to learn how much the actual caveman makeup informs the performance. Jeff describes it as like ‘acting through a sleeping bag’ due to the prosthetics dampening expressions. He developed a method of emphasising larger movements to convey the character’s internal workings, which naturally felt very caveman-like. And yet, despite that, Jeff still manages to deliver an absurdly tender and sensitive performance—the guy is magic.
The Nightmare - December release
Commercial Cuddles - January release
LBB> What was the casting process like for the documentary and other elements?
David, director> The casting process was wonderful and is one of my favourite parts. Working closely with the casting director, Bill Bailey, it all came down to finding actors who could create a world, a backstory, and effortlessly dive into their fake memories with the Gecko but always with an undeniable naturalism and verisimilitude. Across all of it, there was a baseline of sincerity and love. The belief in the Gecko meant something to them, and the more it meant to the actors, the funnier it got on screen.
LBB> There’s an interesting play when it comes to the comedy - it’s quite subtle in the way the story is told. How did you tow that line as director?
David, director> For me, it comes down to really investing in the concept - committing to it as if the Gecko was real and that he had touched all these people’s lives. It sounds silly, but it becomes a performance for me - when directing/interviewing the actors - I try to stay in character as the doc director who sincerely wants to know what makes the Gecko tick. That really helps to set a tone. And, of course, we have to shoot a lot, trying all sorts of jokes and ways in, and continue to write as we go. Graham, Dustin, and the rest of the team at Martin provided so much incredible backstory that we could build off and take in all sorts of directions. And finally, a lot of it comes together in the edit. I’ve been working closely with Nick Divers at Cabin for a while now. With Chris Kelly’s help, Nick kept it all in line. It’s always a balance, but when done right, it leads to my favourite kind of work, where viewers aren’t quite sure what they’re watching. They feel like the person on screen is having an emotional experience while talking about the Gecko. I love that moment.
LBB> What were some other important things you had to consider and think about when making these films?
David, director> One of the biggest things going into this was that I knew the least about the Gecko out of anyone on the project. Martin and Geico have spent so much time developing who the Gecko is and what he stands for. They knew him better than I did, making me somewhat of an outsider. Throughout the process, I wanted to be super respectful of their perspectives and opinions. The same went for how I worked with Framestore, who have done incredible work creating the Gecko over the years. Coming into this with the least amount of knowledge was actually helpful because I could assume the role of an actual documentarian. I asked many questions and always wanted to stay open to their perspectives, knowing I was standing on the shoulders of Gecko giants.
LBB> Graham, Dustin and Ryan, what was the production process like for so many different film elements?
Graham Unterberger and Dustin Dodd, Martin Agency> Collaborative, comedic, and very rarely chaotic. But maybe our producers feel differently? David and World War Seven were so on top of their game it made iteration easy. All the important details were locked down early, so when it came time to shoot, we had ample time to sit in situations and mine for gold.
And having David direct all pieces of the LOTL microverse, from Caveman prequels through the doc itself, ensured we had a consistent tone and all-around great time throughout.
Ryan Raab, Martin Agency> Bless our amazing clients, account and production team, especially Yoon Ko and Maggie Weishaar. Every other day, we’d have some offbeat opportunity or build and, to their infinite credit, the response was always ‘We’ll figure out how to pull that off’. And Dustin and Graham didn’t sleep for about five months.
LBB> How does such an extensive marketing undertaking feed into GEICO’s wider goals for the year ahead?
Gary Aurand, GEICO> One of the keys to our success over the decades has been valuing our audiences' time to ensure any advertising interruption is worth their while. Legend of the Lizard – and all of our advertising for that matter – is very much in line with that philosophical approach in terms of creating engaging storytelling and content.
For decades, our strongest and most authentic embodiment of the GEICO brand continues to be our well-known mascots. That will continue throughout 2024 as viewers will continue to see more of these beloved characters. So stay tuned.
LBB> What were the trickiest components and how did you overcome them?
David, director> There were specific requirements for the VFX process to ensure Framestore had what they needed and had the time to do their best work. But the trickiest and most fun was creating the discrete pieces of Gecko memorabilia and personal history. Going to someone’s house to talk about the Gecko meant we needed to see evidence of him in their lives – this required a lot from our art department. Our production designer, Melissa Meyers, and her team absolutely killed it. We made Gecko murals, mugs, bronze statues, custom costumes, sneakers, scores of photos and awards, tiny little baby Gecko quilts, and more. I could go on, but you should just watch LOTL and see for yourself.
Graham Unterberger and Dustin Dodd, Martin Agency> The Caveman’s prosthetic leg hair. It took four hours to apply and stopped at his ankles. But our creative motto is “Nothing tops socks and Birkenstocks”. So, we lucked out.