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Lead Balloon Ep. 44 - How a Real Life Ad Agency Inspired the Robin Williams Sitcom, "The Crazy Ones"

Life at Leo Burnett served as a constant source of comedic inspiration for John R. Montgomery and Rob Davis.


Every professional communicator has had a day that seems like it came straight out of a TV sitcom.


For Rob Davis and John R. Montgomery, working at the Chicago ad firm Leo Burnett in the early 2000’s, it was a regular occurrence.


In fact, the stories from their time there were so singular, that when they shot a pilot and pitched it to Hollywood, it was picked up and run as a CBS sitcom starring Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Gellar.

From wacky hijinks to high-stakes drama, unbelievable coincidences to larger-than-life personalities, "The Crazy Ones" sourced its comedy from real-life agency anecdotes, amplified by the creative genius of its all-star cast and famed executive producer David E. Kelley.


And Rob and John found themselves on a wild Hollywood ride that would alter the course of both their careers.


In this episode, they tell us what it took to get the project off the ground, what it was like repackaging their professional lives as TV scripts, and how they pitched a new approach to brand integration on television that was years ahead of its time.


Subscribe to the Podcamp Media e-newsletter for more updates on the world of strategic communication.


Transcript:


Dusty Weis:

How many of us working in marketing and PR have flopped down on the couch after a day in the trenches, looked at a colleague or loved one, and blurted out, "God, it was like something out of a TV sitcom"? For Rob Davis and John Montgomery, working at Chicago ad firm Leo Burnett in the early 2000s, it was a regular occurrence. Their careers are full of high jinks, high-stakes drama, and wacky coincidences, like the time a publicity stunt went horribly wrong in Times Square.


John R. Montgomery:

This wind comes in and sweeps through the city. Brown liquid rains down on the crowd below that are all staring at this wonderful spectacular that we've created, and that's a densely populated area.


Dusty Weis:

But the difference between John and Rob and the rest of us is that most of us never got to see their agency war stories acted out on screen by Robin Williams.


Robin Williams:

How are you containing the liquid? Some sort of wind guard or...


The Crazy Ones Archive Footage:

It's raining coffee! Everybody run away!


Bill D'Elia, Josh Groban, John R. Montgomery and Robin Williams on the set of the Crazy Ones

Dusty Weis:

Because for John and Rob, repackaging their stories as a sitcom was more than just idle talk. They self-financed a pilot, pitched it to Hollywood, and ended up helping co-create the 2013 CBS sitcom, The Crazy Ones. And in the process, they honed a new approach to brand integration on television that was years ahead of its time.



Rob Davis:

We ended up calling it connected content. The idea is the brands, they become part of the fabric of the show. They'd become integral to the storyline as opposed to something wedged into the storyline.


Dusty Weis:

I'm Dusty Weis. From Podcamp Media, this is Lead Balloon, a podcast about compelling tales from the world of PR, marketing, and branding told by the well-meaning communications professionals who lived them.


Thanks for tuning in. This is a show where experienced strategic communicators tell the epic stories that define their careers and discuss important trends that are reshaping the industry. We're here every month with a new episode, so make sure to follow us on your favorite podcast app and tell a friend or colleague if you're enjoying yourself.

Rob Davis and Sarah Michelle Gellar

So this television program that was based on the real-life escapades of a Chicago ad man, The Crazy Ones, somehow I missed this one when it was on the air 10 years ago, which is shocking considering that it starred Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Gellar.


But I mean, I had just moved to a new city, started a new career in public relations, and just met my future wife. Plus, that was the heyday of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, and so I kind of had a lot on my plate.


Regardless, now that I know the story of how this show came to be, it's been a lot of fun for me as a strategic communicator to go back and watch these episodes and appreciate just how well it captures life in the agency world. It's a life that lends itself naturally to the sitcom genre.


Rob Davis:

One of my first days running the Kellogg account, somebody started screaming, "Everyone get in the conference room! There's a Fruit Loops emergency," and just to take a step back and think about the absurdity of that phrase, and it was, it was a serious situation we had to deal with, but the absurdity of that phrase and just the way people talk in our industry, it's just nonsense if you take a step back and think about it.


Dusty Weis:

Rob Davis is now the President and CMO of NOVUS Media, the Minneapolis and Chicago-based media planning agency, and along with his old friend and colleague, John Montgomery...


John R. Montgomery:

Your client that day said, "I want you to think outside of the box, but stay in the box."


Dusty Weis:

They traced their ad industry roots back to the years they spent together at the Leo Burnett Agency in Chicago. John, who now works as a television producer, the Founder and President of Montgomery Studios, says, like many of us in the business, there were days when he already felt like he was living in a sitcom.


Brand logos displayed on the set of the Crazy Ones

John R. Montgomery:

We always say it's not rocket science, it's not brain surgery, but we treat it like that and that's what brings absurdity to it. So when you're talking about a Fruit Loops crisis, there's a Chicken McNuggets crisis, we're talking about things that are by nature kind of fun, and yet we treat them with great seriousness and great gravitas.


You're dealing with big personalities and crazy stuff and every day is a huge event. Advertising, I would argue, is one of the last bastions for true characters in any business. They're allowed to exist in a world that's become homogenized. The world's got a sameness to it, but advertising is something that where creatives and characters were allowed to exist.


So I would sit there in meeting after meeting chronicling them. Rob and I know one guy that would do his presentations, and at the end of every presentation, he was so emotional, he'd start crying and-


Rob Davis:

Every time, 100%.


John R. Montgomery:

It wasn't until the fourth or fifth meeting when he was crying, we're like, "Oh, this is... He's turning on the water works."


Rob Davis:

This was his thing, yeah.


John R. Montgomery:

So it was the fun of those kind of characters when you interact with these folks and you just start making note of the different people, the practical jokes, the singer-songwriters, the people that are doing crazy side hustles, like playwrights that would write concurrent with their advertising or people that would go into television, guys that would go off to Second City or Saturday Night Live who would write films. It was a repository for all these kind of fun, crazy, wonderful people.


Dusty Weis:

I've often said that you can't judge somebody in the field of advertising solely by their work. You have to judge them by their side hustles as well because they have the best side hustles.


John R. Montgomery:

Really bright, exceptional people.


Dusty Weis:

But even by ad industry standards, the characters, the stakes and the antics at Leo Burnett were next level. And John recalls a publicity stunt in Times Square that actually served as the inspiration for a plot arc in episode two of The Crazy Ones involving a giant pot of hot coffee pouring over a crowd on a windy day.


John R. Montgomery:

There's an old bar trick where there'd be like an eternally pouring beer. It'll have a pump in the glass and it'll also have a pipe running up covered by the water, so it looks like the bar bottle is levitating. So someone on my team mentioned, "Hey, we should do that with fresh coffee for this one client. It's going to be pouring, always fresh, 24 hours. It's going to be fantastic." So we're going to have this elevated glass over Times Square in New York City, prominently displayed, and we had it all plotted out, we were all ready, but we hadn't accounted for wind.


Dusty Weis:

Right, it works great indoors.


John R. Montgomery:

It's fantastic if it's a bottle at the end of a bar, but outside, this wind comes in and sweeps through the city and it was profound. And of course, it rains down on the crowd below that are all staring at this wonderful spectacular that we've created. The good thing is it was New York, so everybody just kind of brushed the brown liquid off their suits and kept going.


Dusty Weis:

Was it actually coffee? In the TV show, it was actually coffee and it was hot.


John R. Montgomery:

Right.


Dusty Weis:

And so there's this wonderful moment where everybody like screams and runs away in an almost horror movie-esque sort of stampede.


The Crazy Ones Archive Footage:

It's raining coffee! Everybody run!


Dusty Weis:

How much of that was real?


John R. Montgomery:

It's a cold, brown liquid. I don't know whether it was coffee or not, but the fact of the matter is it did rain on Times Square and that's a densely populated area, so people ended up wet and going about their day. No one complained, which was crazy.


So I mean, this is again, the nice thing about New York. Nobody sat there and threw their hands up. It didn't turn into some-


Rob Davis:

It wasn't even the weirdest thing that happened on that day.


John R. Montgomery:

Crazy.


Dusty Weis:

In New York, you're used to getting splashed with a strange fluids.


Rob Davis:

That's right.


Dusty Weis:

Living in this environment day in and day out, most folks will just laugh it off at a happy hour or even just come to expect it at the office, but John and Rob never took it for granted. Playing to their respective strengths, John as a member of the creative team and Rob as a media planner, they jotted down notes, kicked around ideas, and Rob says one day, John finally pulled him aside and said, "We've got to do it."


Rob Davis:

I think he actually approached me initially. We had talked about kind of the craziness of our workplace, and he had concepted this notion that what if we did a show about our jobs, but we do it with real products? There's been so many shows where the brands in the show are fake and it just immediately rings false. So John came to me and he said, "Hey, I think you're really creative for a media guy."


And so with that backhanded compliment... We did share a similar sensibility though. It's his vision, for sure. He's the writer, he's the visionary. I think quickly we sort of found that we had a pretty good symbiotic relationship in that I could help think through what are the implications of having real brands? What are the legal implications? How would this work? This has never kind of been done before. Is there a business model here? How do we get them? Those types of things. And it quickly started snowballing from kind of a side hustle into a real thing.


Dusty Weis:

The business model in particular sticks out to me because in Hollywood, the business model is fairly boilerplate, whether it's a movie, whether it's TV. You've got the studios, they produce the product, they sell it to the distributor, the distributor collects the revenue from streaming services or the advertising if it's a network. But you had a new business model packaged in here. Can you tell me about that?


Rob Davis:

Yeah. I mean, again, the original idea was it's a show about advertising so it's natural that there would be no commercial break. The "advertising," as a consumer sitting at home watching in your living room, it would just be part of the fabric of the show. Brands would be talked about. And so the original idea was that would be the sole funding for the show and it would run 30 minutes straight with no commercial breaks. It didn't quite end up exactly like that. That made every executive we met with head explode.


Dusty Weis:

Too much too soon.


Rob Davis:

It was a little before its time, honestly.


Dusty Weis:

Too radical, yeah.


Rob Davis:

It was. And subsequently, you saw Mad Men work brands into the fabric of the show in a somewhat similar way, but it really was a little bit before its time, quite honestly.


We ended up calling it connected content and that was, I think, a turning point for a lot of the brands we spoke with and the network executives that it's so far beyond product placement. Product placement is just that it's placed, whereas connected content, the idea is the brands, they become part of the fabric of the show. They become integral to the storyline as opposed to something wedged into the storyline.


The Crazy Ones Archive Footage:

You put the snap, crackle, pop in your soul. It only takes one bowl. Rice Krispies.


Robin Williams:

Remember the first time I took you to Mickey D's?


The Crazy Ones Archive Footage:

And I'm caretaker of this year's $10 million Victoria's Secret Fantasy Bra.


I'm sick of getting our asses wiped by Kleenex in the ancillary markets. There is no reason people can't be drying their eyes with Charmin.


John R. Montgomery:

Well, it's 2007. This anticipated DVRs and VOD and even TiVo at the time-


Dusty Weis:

You knew ad skipping was coming. You knew that millennials and whoever followed them were going to slowly disengage further and further from advertising.


John R. Montgomery:

Right. And the Hollywood people do not trust when they want to put brands in a show. They don't like to write to it. It's considered hack. And the brands don't trust the Hollywood people because they know that the Hollywood people don't trust them.


They're at odds with each other. And we wanted to show people that this would actually be a show about people.


I mean, the first thing you've got to be concerned with is the story. Are you really telling a human story? The public's not tuning into a show to see an infomercial or something about widgets; they want to see a relationship, but the background to that relationship are products and brands. You care about your brands, you care about your clients, you care about your products.


So our goal was to lampoon the process, but not the product. So the idea wasn't to treat the product with any less reverence than we treated it at work. We used the brands that we represent just to kind of give it some truth. And so what we did to articulate the show is we filmed a pilot, which I wrote and directed, but had-


Dusty Weis:

And self-financed.


John R. Montgomery:

And self-financed with a lot of help from Rob because we went and got brands to be in the show.


Pilot Footage:

Now dissolve to a clear glass bottle. It begins with clear water and it ends with dear friends.


Miller High Life. Cheers!


Dusty Weis:

Watching the pilot was really fun for me because I understand you recruited actors from Second City to actually sit in and play the characters, so it had that really strong Chicago flavor to it, that taste of improv that played along with it too.


John R. Montgomery:

If I can get improvisational comedians, a lot of times, they'll "Yes, and" with you. So if you give them suggestions, they'll amplify and add to. But I had just these amazing people, David Pasquesi.


David Pasquesi:

Had a multimedia presentation, but you know what we decided to do? We decided to chuck it.


John R. Montgomery:

Joey Slotnik.


Joey Slotnik:

What's up with the camera?


John R. Montgomery:

Maribeth Monroe.


Maribeth Monroe:

How do you know if you had directions or not?


John R. Montgomery:

Brad Morris.


Dusty Weis:

Recognizable faces.


John R. Montgomery:

Recognizable, but phenomenal talent. And we were so lucky to get them and they've been friends, and a lot of times I'd work with them in advertising. You look for people to elevate the material. I mean, so much of what we do in life is a collaborative effort. And as much as you want to take full credit for everything, you get people like Rob or whoever comes to the party, and suddenly they elevate the material and it becomes something more than what you'd conceived of, which is what you wish for.


Dusty Weis:

Once again, a marketer's side hustle pays off.


So with their Second City-tinged pilot in hand, John and Rob had a proof of concept, something that they could sell, but actually selling it would turn out to take a few years.


John R. Montgomery:

There was a financial collapse in the middle there, I believe, and there was also-


Dusty Weis:

Just a little bit of uncertainty.


John R. Montgomery:

And also a writers strike in the middle of that as well. So it took us a while to sell this. But finally, through my manager Mark Teitelbaum, I managed to get in with David Kelley, probably the greatest television writer and also a great movie writer of our day.


Dusty Weis:

We can list off some credits here. Doogie Howser, M.D., Ally McBeal, Chicago Hope, Boston Legal.


John R. Montgomery:

Big Little Lies. I mean, just some amazing television shows, The Undoing, Love and Death. This guy is so formidable and he watched the show and liked it. He said, "I'd watch this every week and you've got a lot to learn," is what he said because he-


Dusty Weis:

Speaking of backhanded compliments.


John R. Montgomery:

Well, yeah. Look, you're flying by the seat of your pants. Hey, I think I can write and direct a television show, but can you really? And what don't you know?


So I was, in many ways, a seasoned because I'd written and directed a lot of commercials, but I was a novice because I didn't know what to do with television. And he's a super genius.


Rob Davis:

And incidentally, before that, we'd been working on this for a while, the concept, and like you said, our side hustle. We'd work it hard on our client business in the day, and it'd kind of get to a point where it's like, "I don't know if this is going to happen. This is..." And John called me out of the blue and he said, "Meet me down in the lobby right now." And I was like, "Why? I'm in the middle of something." And he said, "Because I want to introduce you to David E. Kelley." And I said, "Yeah, right." I thought he was kidding.


So I got down in the lobby, I said, "Son of a bitch. You're David E. Kelley. And he went, "Yeah, yeah." But that was the turning point when I went, "Oh, this might actually work."


Dusty Weis:

Of course, brainstorming with an iconic television producer is one thing, but for John, the gravity of the project really hit home when they started talking about casting actors.


John R. Montgomery:

David actually came on and chatted with me at Leo Burnett at one point, and he looked at me and he said, "You know, there are two people that can play you." And I'm thinking, "Oh, okay. Who?" And he said, "Robin Williams or Bill Murray." And I turned to David and I go, "I don't know that they're gettable."


And David E. Kelley is such a nice, kind-hearted soul that the meanest thing he ever said to me was a look, and the look said, "You'll never get them. You're just a guy, but I'm me."


Rob Davis:

But I'm David E. Kelley.


Dusty Weis:

But I'm David E. Kelley.


John R. Montgomery:

And as a consequence, next thing you know, David was having a conversation with Robin Williams.


Rob Davis:

I mean, it was pretty remarkable. And the day that Robin came to the office once it became official that he was going to take the part, because he essentially is playing a version of John who we're sitting next to here, he wanted to shadow John for the day. And so I think a lot of our colleagues thought, "Oh, this is your nice little side project, sort of pipe dream. You boys have fun." And then John's like, "Here's Robin Williams."


And he spent a good couple of hours at the office, just really talking to people. And of course, it turned into some selfie-taking, but he really wanted to learn how the agency actually worked.

John R. Montgomery and Robin Williams

John R. Montgomery:

It was an amazing day. I picked Robin and his wife, Susan Schneider Williams, up at their hotel. I promptly got lost going to work because I was so nervous. And suddenly from the backseat of my car, I hear an approximation of a GPS. "John, you're such an idiot," like it's Robin being my GPS calling me out for being an idiot. And which, by the way, I am. I mean, I'm lost so much of the time.


From that minute on, it was my first meeting him was when I got lost with him going to work, it was just such a pleasure.


Dusty Weis:

What does it feel like to be told, "We know that you're a character and you've got these great stories to tell, but we think the perfect person to play you is Robin Williams"? Because he is an icon. That is a big, big personality. And to be told, "We want that person to channel you" has to be a little bit humbling.


John R. Montgomery:

It's incredibly humbling. Somebody smarter, more interesting, more dynamic, and significantly funnier than I'll ever be. But of course, that's the fun of turning something from a reality into the fantasy of a television series. You suddenly get somebody that amplifies who you are, adds to it, and much like the Second City folks, elevates the material.


Robin Williams:

In advertising, a hack starts with a lie and then builds the ad. A good ad man starts with the truth and then builds to the lie, so if you dig somewhere deep down then there's still a kernel of truth.


Dusty Weis:

With the iconic Robin Williams on board as star and David E. Kelley producing, it was looking like John and Rob's dream of turning their exploits at Leo Burnett into a TV show might have some legs after all, but The Crazy Ones didn't even have its name yet. It hadn't filled out the rest of the cast to help tell the story, and their process of starting with the truth and building to the lie was just getting started.


So coming up after the break...


John R. Montgomery:

Horse, pony, real unicorn? Answer the question.


Rob Davis:

Why won't you answer the question? I'm the client. I demand you give me a straight answer.


Dusty Weis:

John and Rob begin their new dual lives working for an ad agency by day and consulting for a Hollywood writer's room by night, plus the rise and fall of The Crazy Ones. That's all coming up in a moment here on Lead Balloon.


This is Lead Balloon and I'm Dusty Weis. John Montgomery and Rob Davis were watching their lives at the Leo Burnett ad Agency get reimagined as a TV sitcom, repackaged for a 30-minute primetime slot, and recast with A-list Hollywood talent. Their idea to craft narratives around real-life brands in a fictional ad agency was on track to film a network pilot with Robin Williams cast as a fictionalized version of John himself, and famed producer David E. Kelley at the helm.


But as John noted earlier, nobody wants a show about brands. Storytelling is about relationships, and so they created a fictional daughter for Robin Williams character, a business partner and a co-executive, a role that, when she found out it was being cast opposite the iconic Robin Williams, actress Sarah Michelle Gellar reached out and lobbied for.

John R. Montgomery and Sarah Michelle Gellar

John R. Montgomery:

I mean, people know Sarah, obviously in Cruel Intentions at Buffy the Vampire Slayer and a million different things, people know that she's a fantastic actor and that she's a formidable person. She also was just delightful and she engendered a symbiotic relationship with Robin, kind of a father-daughter relationship, and I think it translated to the screen.


Dusty Weis:

She essentially plays the straight man to Robin Williams's Robin Williams.


John R. Montgomery:

Correct, right.


Robin Williams:

Remember, no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won the war by making some other poor, dumb bastard die for his country.


Sarah Michelle Gellar:

Dad.


Robin Williams:

You know I'm just getting fired up. You know, big speech. Got to get in the zone, be uplifting, inspiring.


Sarah Michelle Gellar:

Are you really nervous about this? I mean, you're a showman. What's the big deal?


John R. Montgomery:

And so it's basically a father that doesn't know if he can do another presentation, win another client, pull another rabbit out of the hat, who's similar to Robin Williams, a guy that just did the best talk show guest appearance in television history, and now he's on another talk show. How is he going to perpetually eternally top himself? What is he going to do? And he kind of stays in the business for a daughter who he loves to bring her along into the industry. And there's something really touching about that.


Sarah Michelle Gellar:

You're not really worried about your legacy, are you?


Robin Williams:

Smoke and mirrors, baby.


Sarah Michelle Gellar:

No. You're awesome and you don't need to sell that.


John R. Montgomery:

And this is very much David E. Kelley's creation. He created that, a symbiotic relationship, and beyond that, a workplace family that ultimately involved Brad Garrett, James Wolk and Hamish Linklater and Amanda Setton, this really great ensemble that worked with Robin, who were all outrageously talented in their own right.


Dusty Weis:

It looked like the kind of show where they were having fun on set even when the cameras weren't rolling, like that much is clear even from the bloopers that are tacked onto the end of the episodes.


Robin Williams:

Booty shake, booty shake.


James Wolk:

More ketchup. Please, more ketchup. You didn't give me enough ketchup.


Robin Williams:

Packets.


Kelly Clarkson:

Oh my God.


Dusty Weis:

But as the production picked up momentum, John found his expertise evermore in demand in that Hollywood writer's room. Executive Producer David E. Kelley had informed his work on shows like The Practice and Boston Legal with his real-life experience having worked as a lawyer in the '80s, but when you watch The Crazy Ones as a professional communicator, you pick up on all these little slices of insider perspective...


Hamish Linklatter:

It's your typical copywriter art guy dynamic. You talk more in the meeting, so you get all the credit.


Dusty Weis:

That make it clear the writing was informed by someone with roots in the ad industry, and Robin Williams' character in the show even had a few of John's characteristic quirks, like his predilection for using a full-fledged gospel choir to back him up in pitch meetings.


Robin Williams:

Give your organ the choir it deserves.


The Crazy Ones Archive Footage:

(Singing)


John R. Montgomery:

It's those moments in life where you just have to laugh, right?


So my first presentation to one of my clients who I love dearly and is a wonderful person and will remain nameless, is on a speakerphone and I'm talking about a promotion that we're doing, and it has to do with Teenie Beanie Babies, which are great, and I'm presenting a storyboard at the time on conference call. So instead of seeing a Beanie Baby under the holiday tree, it's a unicorn, and my presentation is interrupted. "Excuse me, will it be a horse, a pony, or a real unicorn?" And I mute and I go, "What do I say?" "Just keep going."


Okay. So anyway, the kid goes downstairs. "Wait, pardon me. Horse, pony, real unicorn. Answer the question."


Rob Davis:

Why won't you answer the question? I'm the client, I demand you give me a straight answer.


John R. Montgomery:

I, of course, mute it and turn to the room and I say, "What with Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings, they won't let the unicorns out of the enchanted forest."


Rob Davis:

The union rules prohibit it.


John R. Montgomery:

The wood nymphs, elves. So I say, "It'll be a pony with a prosthesis." By the way, next thing I knew, there's Robin Williams on Jimmy Kimmel telling this exact story.


Robin Williams:

And the sponsor actually went, "A real unicorn?" I don't know. What do I say to them? "No, it's a pony with a prosthesis."


John R. Montgomery:

They're just fun moments in life that we'd extrapolate into the show. And by the way, it's so fun to be able to extrapolate your life.


Dusty Weis:

But working a day job in Chicago and consulting on a production in Hollywood quickly began to take a toll on John and Rob.


John R. Montgomery:

Early part of the show, I'd literally fly from my office at Leo Burnett-


Rob Davis:

In Chicago.


John R. Montgomery:

In Chicago, and I'd fly to my fake office on the show.


Rob Davis:

By the way, the set, when you walk on the set, they came to Chicago and they took a high resolution 360-degree photograph from our office. And so when you get on set in Los Angeles on the Fox lot, it was so disorienting because for whatever reason, they swapped a few buildings. And so it was the view out of my office, but the buildings were in the wrong order for some reason. I don't know. And it just-


Dusty Weis:

Probably the framing makes it look better, yeah.


Rob Davis:

The framing, I don't know, but it just was really disorientating. The precision was just uncanny.


Dusty Weis:

That's so cool.


Rob Davis:

Just on the other coast and fake.


John R. Montgomery:

So Rob is working and working.


Rob Davis:

Yeah, that's right. You quit at some point.


Dusty Weis:

Had you departed by that point?


Rob Davis:

Yeah.


Dusty Weis:

Okay.


John R. Montgomery:

Yeah, at one point, I basically had to leave. I was in the writer's room all the time, I was on set all the time, I was EPing the television show, and I was providing material for episodes and stuff. But Rob is sitting there this whole time interacting with different clients, getting them to participate in the shows, and in an unusual way because they effectively abdicated control of marks and brands, and Rob managed to get all those pieces. I mean, it was fantastic.


Dusty Weis:

Having pitched brands on appearing in pieces of entertainment before in the past, and even now in my role hosting this podcast, there can be an awful lot of red tape, an awful lot of hesitation and concern when it comes to how their brand is going to be portrayed. So when you say that you got these brands to sign on and give you carte blanche to just take creative control and do what you're going to do, that must have been an incredible pitch. How did you pitch these brands on the value of being portrayed on this TV show and get them to relinquish that creative control?


Rob Davis:

It was really two things. One, the pilot helped, but then honestly, beyond that, it's just trust. All of the initial brands in the first few episodes were brands I personally worked with, worked on, as did John. Like he said, we passionately believe in these products. When I worked on Allstate, I had multiple cars, house, ring, everything insured with Allstate. I still do actually. And with Kellogg, I went to my parents' house and they had some General Mills series and I poured it down the sink. We fiercely defend the brands in our personal lives. You can't really fake that that. That comes through when you're making a pitch.


Yes, we will have some fun, Robin Williams will improv to some degree. It'll be funny, but we're making fun of the process. We'll never make fun of your brand. And I think honestly, it just came down to trust.


Now on shooting days, there's always some nerves and you have to do a little reassuring, but-


Dusty Weis:

Did they have people on set at the time?


Rob Davis:

Really, I was the representative for the brand so that helped.


Dusty Weis:

Oh, so you were the one going, "Ugh."


Rob Davis:

I said, "I will be on set." I reported back a couple of things that I said, "It's going to be fine, but just so you know."


Kelly Clarkson:

It ain't the meat, it's the motion.


Sarah Michelle Gellar:

This is a sex song.


Robin Williams:

I know. Isn't it fantastic?


Sarah Michelle Gellar:

No. What happened to "You Deserve a Break"?

Mark Teitelbaum, Kelly Clarkson and John R. Montgomery

Dusty Weis:

Rob's delicate brand maneuvering is on prominent display in the CBS pilot of The Crazy Ones in a zany plot featuring a cameo with singer Kelly Clarkson lending some unconventional flare to a McDonald's jingle.


John R. Montgomery:

So in the show, Kelly says, "This is new Kelly and I want to sing about sex." She doesn't want to sing about something wholesome.


Dusty Weis:

She doesn't want to be America's sweetheart anymore.


John R. Montgomery:

Right, she doesn't. I mean, that's the way David E. Kelley wrote it.


Sarah Michelle Gellar:

Dad, where is the pivot?


Robin Williams:

Wait for it.


Sarah Michelle Gellar:

I'm about to watch America's sweetheart orgasm in front of my father.


Kelly Clarkson:

It's the motion. It's the movement that gives it the start. Oh, yeah!


John R. Montgomery:

And so it's pretty fun, and they are trying to pivot her to get her to sing, "You Deserve a Break Today," the classic and evergreen McDonald's song. And they do, they actually manage it. And it was touch and go sometimes because, like Rob said, it involves trust.

I think that the clients like our creativity. I think the clients like our intellect, or at least Rob's, I think the clients have respect for us. But they also know, as Rob said so passionately just a second ago, that we have their best interests in mind. Even when we're a little irreverent, we're not going to cross the line and we're going to try to do the right thing.


I believe it was just the next shoot, or it might have been the shoot after that, was called "Bad Dad."


Rob Davis:

"Bad Dad."


John R. Montgomery:

Which is almost like my own experience teaching my daughter to drive because I was a terrible instructor.


Robin Williams:

You know what we're going to do today, honey?


Sarah Michelle Gellar:

What?


Robin Williams:

Learn to drive.


Sarah Michelle Gellar:

But we're on the interstate.


Robin Williams:

Take the wheel.


Sarah Michelle Gellar:

Dad, did you stop taking your meds?


John R. Montgomery:

But Rob was on set for that, and Allstate was one of the clients.


Rob Davis:

Yeah, the Allstate pitch was the main storyline for the second episode.


Robin Williams:

Because you never know what life is going to throw at you.


Sarah Michelle Gellar:

Ah!


Hamish Linklatter:

Allstate Insurance: protecting you through life's milestones.

Subtle Allstate branding on the set of the Crazy Ones

Rob Davis:

You probably don't even notice, but I made sure all the computers, the fake workers had Allstate spreadsheets and even the characters in the episode care about, they're working hard on, they're paying attention to. And so I tried to take care of the brand and make sure it was represented and in a positive light ultimately.


Dusty Weis:

How did Allstate feel after they watched the show?


Rob Davis:

I think they felt great. They loved, again, it's a real-life moment teaching your daughter, a father teaching daughter to drive. Safe driving is critically important to them. And there was obviously, again, some irreverence in how it was treated, and it was more about the relationship. What was being sort of lampooned was the relationship between the father and the daughter and the brand was about being in good hands and about being safe.


The way that we got there, we had to work them through and hold their hands a little bit, but ultimately, they were very pleased with how it ended up on screen.


Dusty Weis:

Now, I know originally, the idea was that there would be no commercial breaks, that the brands in the show would essentially fund that. That wasn't necessarily how it wound up playing out at CBS. Did the brands have a financial stake in the show or was this pitched more as sort of a partnership?


Rob Davis:

So a little bit of each. Ultimately, it ended up being primarily partnership. We were kind of looking to the next phase about how exactly do we monetize this moving forward?


And before we got to CBS, we actually were very close to a deal with ABC. Again, as John said, it was right before the economic collapse and right before a writers strike. And so for a lot of reasons, it didn't work out, but originally we had debated about, there's a thing in the industry called a time buy where we could actually buy out the space, the time. They don't usually do it in prime time, it's more like a Saturday afternoon infomercial kind of thing, but that was one concept is as producers or folks involved in the show, we could retain any additional revenue stream that comes through. It would be up to us to-


Dusty Weis:

That would've been even more revolutionary in terms of business, yeah.


Rob Davis:

Right. And we were very close on that. And it gets complicated with financing in 2008 when the world collapsed and all those types of things. So we ended up going a slightly more kind of traditional route in terms of the financial model. But again, what ended up on screen was still kind of true to the vision of real brands in a primetime show,


Dusty Weis:

I have to ask you both, what are some of the moments when you look back at the season that The Crazy Ones spent on the air, what are some of the moments of which you are most proud, the moments when you see them on screen, even today, it kind of makes you smile and say, "Man, we were part of something really cool"?


Rob Davis:

Yeah, I think it was the Allstate example I gave because again, I was there, spent quite a bit of time on set.


The other one for me is Kellogg. There's actually a couple of episodes where I ran that account for a number of years, the media planning and buying, and again, very passionate about the brand and the clients. And there's an episode where there's a fourth elf of Snap, Crackle, and Pop that is hallucinated by Robin Williams.


Robin Williams:

What the hell was that?


James Wolk:

Oh, Andrew wanted to introduce a female character. You have three bachelors living alone in a cereal bowl. You know, people talk.

Rob Davis on the set of the Crazy Ones

Rob Davis:

For somebody who spent many years working on their brand, the fact I'm like, "Oh my gosh, I'm watching an invented fourth character," which is a little... It was pushing the boundary a little bit, but it was a hallucination in the episode so it wasn't derogatory in any ways, but it was a sort of sexy female to rival Snap, Crackle, and Pop. And I was sitting at home watching that going, "I can't believe we did this." It was really, really pretty amazing.


John R. Montgomery:

My manager said something really nice to me when I walked on the set the first day. There were 200 people there. He said, "Isn't it kind of nice that there are 200 people here because you had an idea in Chicago?" And I was so touched by that.


So the moments that resonate with me, they're not necessarily even on screen. It's the chance to conceive of something crazy, have people buy into the vision, and Rob bought into the vision for a long time and helped immeasurably, and to be able to share an experience like that and then have it become reality is impossible. And to be working with Robin Williams, arguably the funniest person that you'll ever meet, and also the kindest.


I was at my hotel once. I was going to take the day off, and he said, "Are you coming in today?" And I said, "You know, I was going to take the day off." We'd been together every single day for the last whatever it was, half a year. And he goes, "I miss you." And I'm like, "Well, I'm in the car." I'm in car driving to the one of the coolest people on the planet. Bookended, by the way, with David E. Kelley, the other coolest person on the planet.


And my takeaway is it's so fun to take these life moments and put them on film. It's fun, but the fact that you get a chance to interact with these other people is a gift.


Dusty Weis:

Right, yeah. I wanted to ask you about the name of the show, and of course, that's taken from the famous Apple ad from 1997.


Steve Jobs:

Here's to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers.


Dusty Weis:

Sarah Michelle Gellar's character, even in one of the first episodes, has this monologue where she praises that ad as a source of creative inspiration.


Sarah Michelle Gellar:

This spot, The Crazy Ones, when Apple made it, they didn't even have a product to sell. They were promoting an idea. And so are we.


Dusty Weis:

Safe to say that this is probably a piece of advertising that you admire as well?

John R. Montgomery:


Yes. Again, from David Kelley, actually.


Dusty Weis:

Oh, okay.


John R. Montgomery:

You were even saying that he didn't work in advertising, but David has a million advertising stories too. He's so in tune to people and the world around him, and he collects and curates just amazing stories, and he was always fascinated by that.

John R. Montgomery working on the Crazy Ones set

And in my office at Burnett, at one point when he was visiting, he turns and he goes, "Oh, you're a crazy one." And I said, "What?" He goes, "You're like a crazy one." I go, "Well, that was like Mahatma Gandhi. That was Buckminster Fuller. That was Jim Henson. Those are the real crazy ones. I'm just a guy." And he goes, "Oh, better yet, you're an aspiring crazy one." That's what he said.


But the point being that that kind of came from him and his phenomenal leaps of logic and stuff, so he pulled those elements together.


Dusty Weis:

The Crazy Ones premiered on September 26, 2013 to generally warm reviews, and it was the most viewed series premiere of the year. But as the year went on, ratings fell off. Some behind-the-scenes difficulties arose, and CBS announced in May of 2014 that they were pulling the plug after 22 episodes.


John R. Montgomery:

The math on the show was it was the highest rated of their canceled shows. The issue really wasn't about the cancellation, it's that the viewership, because it was kind of a single-camera show as opposed to a multi-camera show, was unique. So people would tune in to watch the show, and then they were tuning out. It wasn't necessarily part of a programed lineup, so some math had to be done on that.


We were probably a couple phone calls away from changing our stars, but I don't know, but it was a hotly debated topic, and obviously tough for us, but we hadn't placed our swords in their scabbards. We were ready to keep at it.


Rob Davis:

The irony is now, I mean, the ratings it was doing then would blow away anything on the air today.


Dusty Weis:

It would be gangbusters, right? Yeah.


Rob Davis:

And its profile didn't match the shows that proceeded and followed it on CBS. They had a different flavor, and so it just had a kind of different look and feel to it than some of the other shows, and so some viewers got a little confused. And ultimately, they just didn't feel like it fit perfectly in their lineup.


John R. Montgomery:

Also, what Robin wanted for the show, and I think what David wanted for the show, was to do a 30-minute television show with a 60-minute metabolism. So the idea was how can we bring a level of fun and sophistication to the 30-minute format?


I mean, characteristically, a 60-minute show has higher stakes. It'll be a cop show, it'll be a medical show or something like that. This would've, because it's a relationship comedy, lower stakes, but it would've been fun to kind of play out in the way that the classic David E. Kelley shows that you like to watch played out. And by the way, I think that was ahead of its time. Now streaming allows for that kind of format. It exists, but I don't think it existed then. It was new.


Dusty Weis:

Oh, I could see something like this having a much longer runtime in the world of streaming today. And Sarah Michelle Gellar has gone on record and said, "I could have done eight to 10 seasons of this show" because she loved it. She loved every minute.


John R. Montgomery:

We were having so much fun, and we were surrounded by not just talented people, but kind-hearted souls.


Rob Davis:

I was going to say, and I wasn't as involved in the production, but I did get a chance to talk to Sarah at one point, and I said, "Well, what do you like about this?" And she's like, "Obviously, I love working with Robin. That's what drew me." But she's like, "I love we start on time. We start at nine, we end at five. It's like a regular job. I can go home. I can see my kids and have a blast in the meantime. What else could you ask for?"


Dusty Weis:

Reeling from the show's cancellation, what followed three months later was truly crushing.


News Archive Footage:

Comedian Robin Williams was found dead this morning inside his northern California home in what the Sheriff's Department calls an apparent suicide.


A statement from his wife confirming his death alludes to his battle with depression and now we know why.


The outpouring of grief can continued at his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.


It really just shows that somebody can make everybody else happy, but you're really not happy inside. It's really sad.


John R. Montgomery:

He was the nicest, kindest, gentlest soul and the funniest, most talented person on the planet. And much like everybody else, I grew up with watching Robin Williams, whether it's in Awakenings or Good Will Hunting or any of his other roles. I just love the guy. And I don't know how it happened. It's almost a mystery and it's dreamlike, but we became friends. And so-


Dusty Weis:

They say, "Don't meet your heroes," but it seems like in this case...


John R. Montgomery:

Right, in this case, go ahead and meet your hero because he will exceed your expectations.


Dusty Weis:

But it would be months before we came to fully understand the circumstances that led to Williams's death. An examination would reveal that he suffered from Diffuse Lewy Body Dementia, a degenerative brain disease that starts with anxiety, depression, and insomnia, and worsens to include memory loss, paranoia, and even delusions.


John R. Montgomery:

The press had reported all sorts of stuff from different issues. He did not have a substance abuse problem at the end. He was not having psychological issues, there weren't other things. What he had was Lewy Body Dementia.


Dusty Weis:

It's a condition of which Robin's wife, Susan Schneider Williams, took up the mantle to raise awareness in the wake of his death, producing the documentary, Robin's Wish, with the help of John, David E. Kelley, and many of Robin's other friends and colleagues.


Susan Schneider Williams:

In the midst of fear, he wanted to help people be less afraid.


Robin Williams:

The self goes away. Ego, bye-bye. The thing that matters are others. That's what life is about.


John R. Montgomery:

So much of Robin's bringing joy to the world was also trying to remove fear and sadness and pain. And I think the title of the film refers to this idea of addressing something that families have to face head on, and know that there are places to go and people to be helpful out there. But I would encourage you to see her film, Robin's Wish, and also her writings.


Dusty Weis:

It would be pretty easy to let the cancellation of The Crazy Ones and the tragic death of its iconic star overshadow the joy of creating such a production and the talented people that they got to work with. But for Rob, who stayed in the marketing business, and John, who now makes television programming full-time, with the experience 10 years behind them, it's clear that it was a pivotal point in both their careers.


You have both gone on to new challenges in the years since this show was on the air. Rob, you're now the President and CMO of NOVUS Media. And John, you have gone on to produce several other TV shows, Superior Donuts, Mad TV on the CW, and Attention Deficit Theater. How did that time in your lives set the stage for what's come up and followed it now?


Rob Davis:

It's so cliche, but for me, honestly, it's just taught me to dream big. I'm now a part-owner in my own agency or our own agency, and never would even thought that was something that I could do in my lifetime. And part of this process is just you start with, again, a crazy idea, you work toward it, and it doesn't always work out exactly how or when or why you're hoping, but it's got to start with a vision and just a relentless pursuit of what you're going after. And sometimes it works out.


John R. Montgomery:

My first interviews with television shows, I was pretty young, I was working in advertising, offered jobs writing for a couple magazines. I was offered some other smaller TV jobs. I stayed in advertising for a long, long time, and it's never too late to realize your dreams.


It was shocking, but I found myself later in life doing this television show and then allowed to go on and do another television show and another, and another. I've done a bunch of them. The last thing I worked on was Big Shot with John Stamos, which was just a privilege. And you'd mentioned Superior Donuts, which was just a terrific experience. And rebooting Mad TV and Attention Deficit Theater, these are just fun, fun things to work on. And we're not done. We've still got more ideas. The synaptic gaps are still firing.


Dusty Weis:

Well, I have to ask, I mean, being as this new direction for the both of you started as a collaboration between Rob and John, are there any more creative partnerships in the works between the two of you?


John R. Montgomery:

We got stuff.


Rob Davis:

Yeah, we got stuff cooking. Without giving too much away right now, we've been working on a game show, a kind of evolved for the new era, hyper-connected game show that we're excited we've talked to a few folks about and gotten quite a bit of interest. John's the visionary behind the concept, and that's the creative side of it, but also started talking again to brands where there's an interesting, not all of his ideas are advertising or brand-related, but a lot of them are. And so yeah, we've kind of got a whole run of stuff that has this connected content idea that takes form in different forms and that's the new one.


Dusty Weis:

Well, hopefully there is a moment down the road here where we can look back on that one as well and revisit it here on Lead Balloon.


Rob Davis:

Sounds good.


Dusty Weis:

I would imagine that there'll be great stories to tell from that, but I am really glad to hear that the dynamic duo is still churning away.


Guys, it has been an absolute pleasure to talk to you here. Rob Davis, the President and CMO of NOVUS Media, and John Montgomery, the Founder and President of Montgomery Studios. Thank you both so much for joining us here on Lead Balloon.


Rob Davis:

Thanks for having us.


John R. Montgomery:

Thank you, Dusty.


Dusty Weis:

And of course, thank you for listening. If you enjoyed the program, remember that word of mouth is still the best way that we've got to find new listeners and tell a friend about us, will ya? And if you haven't already, give Lead Balloon a follow in your favorite podcast app and find me on LinkedIn for bonus content.


Lead Balloon is produced by Podcamp Media where we provide branded podcast production services for businesses. Our podcast studios are located in the heart of beautiful downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but we work with brands all over North America. Podcampmedia.com is the website.


I was the producer and writer for this episode. Will Henry, our dialogue and story editor. And music for this episode is by Brent Wood, Cast of Characters, Finder Keeper, Ian Kowalski, Jay Cara, Midnight Daydream, Rest, and Shimmer.


So until the next time, folks, thanks for listening. I'm Dusty Weis.



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