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How Harvey Keitel's Winston Wolfe was almost offed by Direct Line before first campaign

Cafe | TV Advert | Direct Line

For the last four years, Direct Line’s advertising has been fronted by Harvey Keitel’s gangster and fixer Winston Wolfe – a character he brought to life in Quentin Tarantino’s Oscar-winning masterpiece Pulp Fiction back in 1994. But it can now be revealed that the campaign was almost killed off before it even began.

Despite the success the campaign has enjoyed over the years, it turns out Keitel might never have appeared at all if the company’s chief executive had followed his initial instincts over the idea.

At the Advertising Association's Lead conference in Edinburgh, the first time the organisation had held an event north of the border in 80 years, Direct Line's managing director of marketing and digital, Mark Evans, told the story of how the campaign originated.

Setting the scene for why there was a need for a new brand push, Evans explained that the insurance market had become extremely commoditised and the rise of price comparison websites meant that people were more focused on the cheapest offer and which cuddly toy they would receive rather than the most appropriate package. It was time to go back to basics and become customer-centric once again.

The initial idea for using Wolfe came in a lift during an ideas meeting with agency Saatchi & Saatchi. One of those present mentioned that the idea of becoming a company which would fix things for people sounded just like that guy from Pulp Fiction who solves the problem of hitmen, Vincent and Jules, after they shoot Marv in the head in the back of their car, leaving blood everywhere. Cue the cool customer, Winston Wolfe, who cleans up their mess.

The idea stuck.

“It’s been described as a brave choice to choose a gangster to represent one of the least trusted industries in the world,” laughed Evans, who went on to admit that his chief executive at the time, Paul Geddes, strongly considered dropping the whole idea.

As Evans relayed it: “Three weeks before we were on air, we were at the advertising agency and after lunch, the chief executive asks can we go for a walk?

"So, we walk around the agency block and he says, ‘Are you sure about this? Harvey is kind of old and we are in insurance and we have had issues with celebrities over the years. I’m not sure. And if there is any reason why we shouldn’t do this, then that will be ok. And if we have to write it off and go to the board, it’ll be fine… and in fact, if we ended up not doing it, I would respect you more.’

“So this was the moment where I had to make a choice."

Evans said he asked his boss to trust him, and he did.

“He has since said it was one of the best decisions he made and to his credit, he would have had a very different tenure had he not made that call because I would not be standing here, and there would not be a Direct Line group and there probably would not be much of Direct Line left. So, thank you to him for taking that leap of faith but things could have been very different – the lesson being, be brave in the moments that matter.”

Asked about Quentin Tarantino’s reaction, Evans explained that the director and actor had “an interesting relationship” and that the Tarantino was not enthusiastic.

 “This whole thing culminated in Tarantino, Harvey Keitel at the Cannes Film festival debating the virtues of doing car insurance advertising in the UK. Lo and behold, common sense prevailed, and the rest is history,” Evans revealed without sounding entirely convincing. “He also gets the same commercial deal as Harvey Keitel which probably helps as well.”

The campaign continues to run, with the character of Winston Wolfe appearing whenever Direct Line has a new offer to advertise. 

Featured by The Drum

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