The assignment was a throwaway: Shoot a rah-rah video for Barkley's biggest client — Sonic Drive-In. The feel-good film would be propaganda for the Oklahoma City-based fast-food chain's 2002 convention of owners and vendors.
The Kansas City advertising agency dumped the project on the creative team of Matt McKay and Pat Piper.
Aw, man, McKay thought. He would rather have worked on almost anything else.
The agency had been pairing McKay and Piper since their first day, in 1998. Before then, their lives ran parallel but never intersected. In Omaha, Nebraska, they had worked for rival agencies before moving to Kansas City.
The video would premiere on a giant projection screen at the summer 2002 Las Vegas convention and likely never be seen again. The project had one caveat: The suits at Sonic wanted the admen to emphasize how quirky menu items such as corndogs, tater tots, pancakes on a stick and cherry limeades made Sonic better than the kings of the drive-thru: McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's.
McKay and Piper didn't want to do the typical convention bit: a montage of clips from the previous year's commercials or a "sales were great this year" cop-out video.
"We could have taken the easy way out and done your average sales video," says McKay, who, at 38, is a year older than Piper. "But if we would have taken the easy way out, we wouldn't have ended up with what we have."
McKay and Piper grabbed a video camera and darted for the drive-thrus in McKay's Volvo S80 or Piper's Ford Taurus. The idea was simple: Annoy the competitors' fast-food foot soldiers by asking for menu items offered only by Sonic. McKay and Piper took turns baiting the fry jockeys. Whoever drove usually assumed the mischievous lead, with the passenger covertly filming the banter with a handheld camera, usually concealed under one leg or under the seat. Sometimes their producer, Charlie DeCoursey, rode along. Mostly, they winged it. Piper felt like they were reliving their days of high school high jinks.
Most workers had a "quit messing with me" attitude. The first golden moment came when a Burger King worker asked the guys, "Why don't you just go to Sonic?"
Piper and McKay compiled the footage for the convention. After it was shown, word came back: It was a highlight. McKay and Piper were relieved to return to real work.
The next summer, Piper and McKay made up one of several creative teams working on a campaign for Sonic's new breakfast menu. They busted their asses trying to come up with ideas. Sonic wasn't biting.
McKay and Piper were in an office, brainstorming with Brad Scott, a Barkley creative director. Scott suggested bringing back the hidden-camera video. "Why don't we make that the campaign to pitch for breakfast?" Scott suggested.
Everyone laughed, but they loved the idea. So did Piper and McKay's boss, Brian Brooker, then an executive creative director.
McKay and Piper went back out and shot about a half-dozen spots, cut the footage into commercials and presented them to Sonic. Shooting a commercial before a pitch meeting is unusual — most ideas are pitched on storyboards. But McKay and Piper shot cheaply, recording on video rather than film.
McKay and Piper presented the video to Sonic's president, Pattye Moore.
"We just walked in and pushed Play," McKay says.
Moore loved the video.
"This is going to be big," Brooker told them.
Piper says his first thought was, Oh, God, what are we going to do now?
"They were a little iffy at first," McKay says of Sonic, "because it's a completely different approach to advertising. I hate to say it, but I think we were even more iffy on it than Sonic."