In Conversation with Susan Credle on Helping Create Allstate’s Mayhem Spokesperson

On Tuesday June 7th, the American Advertising Awards hailed the finest creative agencies and students in the nation in its annual presentation. For the second year in a row, Leo Burnett Chicago took home the Best of Show Gold ADDY award. This year, the award was presented in recognition for Allstate Insurance’s “Mayhem” campaign about a social savvy burglar who serves as a warning that posting on social media may expose you to  – wait for it – mayhem.

Since the launch of the ubiquitous spokesperson in 2010, Allstate agents have been protecting people everywhere from “Mayhem” like hit-and-runs, acts of nature, dead batteries, fender benders, and literally anything else you can think of that could use car insurance. But aside from his antics, what do we really know about Mayhem as an icon?

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Susan Credle, Global Chief Creative Officer at FCB and former Chief Creative Officer at Leo Burnett Chicago, who helped create the character with several members of the LB team. Credle shared with me why she was initially hesitant about the idea, how actor Dean Winters caught their eye for the role, and his character evolution from Mr. Mayhem to Manipulative Mayhem to simply… Mayhem.

AW: Where did the idea and name for Mayhem come from? Did anyone serve as his real life inspiration or was he created from somewhere else entirely?

SC: The Mayhem idea for Allstate was inspired by the competition. There were certain insurance companies that were reducing the conversation down to price and we needed to redefine “value.” While at Allstate, Mark LaNeve, the CMO at the time, had a very interesting fact that he shared with Rich Stoddart [CEO of Leo Burnett Worldwide] and me: 40% of drivers on the road were underinsured for everyday accidents. If one were buying purely on price, he or she might be at risk.

That truth allowed us to have a story around price. Why wouldn’t people want to be confident that they were covered for those accidents waiting around the corner? And boy, there seemed to be a lot of crazy things that could go wrong day to day.

When the creatives first presented the idea to me, the name was Mr. Mayhem. I believe when it was shown to the client, they suggested just using “Mayhem.” It was a good suggestion. We were intrigued by that word because we didn’t see it being used. It felt like it was a word we could own. And it would definitely be a strong asset in search.

AW: This kind of campaign is a ballsy – but insanely clever – move for an insurance company. Was it tough to pitch Allstate on it or did they embrace it from the start?

SC: Early on, Rich and I floated the idea by Mark who reacted positively to it. And when the baked idea was presented to Lisa Cochrane [Allstate’s former SVP Marketing] and her team, they championed it immediately. We put the scripts in front of some focus groups to check for big issues and the groups also engaged with the idea. That gave us a lot of confidence. I also have to admit that Geico had set a new tone in insurance that opened the door to tone in the category.

AW: How did you land on Dean Winters for the role?

SC: I probably was the person who was the most hesitant about the idea. Personification of every-day disasters could be really good or really bad. It would all come down to the casting. The team brought me their top three choices and I had an immediate gut reaction – this is going to be terrible.

The truth was we needed an amazing actor to pull this off. The young copywriter, Matt Miller, who had written the scripts said, “Well, when I was writing them, I sort of had Dean Winters in my head.”

We called the agent. Set up an audition. Fell on the floor laughing. And we were on our way. There was one other amazing actor in the running. I remember the client said, “Casting is a creative decision, not strategic. We will go with the agency’s choice.” The creative team and the director, Phil Morrison, really felt that Dean had a brilliant mix of dark and light. They were right.

AW: When you’re creating a character like Mayhem, there are a lot of fine lines to tread for how he will and won’t behave. Is there any situation Mayhem wouldn’t be caught in to stay faithful to his persona?

SC: Early on, we all learned the boundaries of the Mayhem character. At first, we went a bit too edgy and made him menacing sometimes. The public’s reaction to those pieces of creative was negative and I respect the client who said we won’t pull the campaign but we will adjust the creative. We found Mayhem worked best when he represented innocent accidents. Manipulative Mayhem was not a good idea. Mayhem represents the everyday sh*t that happens, or that could happen, not the out of the ordinary.

AW: What has been your favorite Mayhem commercial to date?

SC: My favorite Mayhem idea was for the Sugar Bowl. To educate people about the risk of over-sharing on social media, we found a couple that shared that they were going to the Sugar Bowl. Mayhem “pretended” to break into their home and sell all of their things during the game. It was terrific use of the TV media buy Allstate had in the Sugar Bowl. It was a fun PR stunt, but also an important message about the risks of oversharing information through social media.

I also love the simplicity of the Mayhem spot in which he plays a toddler in the backseat of a car being obnoxious. Then there’s the jealous teenager in the pink SUV, the Christmas tree, the deer, the GPS, the mobile phone between the seats. When Mayhem launched on Twitter, he got the fail whale by sending too many whale tweets.  The team has had a brilliant time taking Mayhem across social platforms.

AW: We’re going into the six-year anniversary of Mayhem’s success for Allstate and he’s still a huge hit with audiences. What do you think the future holds for this character?

SC: As I have moved back to NYC to join FCB Global [as Global Chief Creative Officer] and left the Mayhem legacy in incredibly capable hands, my hope is that I continue to see creative work starring Mayhem. To be a part of a campaign that has lasted six years is an honor. I hope the end of Mayhem comes to the real world before it comes to Allstate’s beloved character.


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