It is the lastest annoyingly memorable advertising meme worming its way into the minds of the public. The advert begins with a close-up of a spinning wheel. A voice-over, apparently intoned by US actor Morgan Freeman, chimes in with folksy platitudes. Except a camera pull-back reveals that it isn't Freeman intoning Southern wisdom after all. It's a pasty 35-year-old unknown impressionist from Cleveland. This is the world of "More Than Freeman" – commercial barbarism or creative genius, depending on your perspective.
Until New Year's Day, when these adverts for More Than insurance premiered, the impressionist Josh Robert Thompson was best known for making a 2003 prank phone call in his native California. His new-found ubiquity is down to a relatively unknown advertising agency, VCCP, the same brains behind the vastly successful talking meerkat Aleksandr Orlov. Orlov's autobiography reached number one in The Sunday Times Bestseller Chart over Christmas, and meerkat lovers have also downloaded his iPhone app, bought his ringtone, and followed him on Twitter.
Needless to say VCCP hope More Than will do for the insurers what their furry Russian did for comparethemarket.com. VCCP, which celebrates 10 years in the business next year and is launching itself into new offices around the world, is much less famous than its contemporaries.
"It's well known in the advertising industry but not outside, but that's not surprising," said Lord Tim Bell, whose PR firm Chime Communications bought VCCP in 2005. "Who has heard of law firms or accountancy companies? In the 1980s it was all about slogans and catchphrases and humour. Now, advertising is about creating the concept of a visual narrative. More Than Freeman, like the meerkat, is a picture story. We have a strong ethos of believing creative work is an event in its own right."
The company was founded in 2001 by partners Charles Vallance, Rooney Carruthers, Adrian Coleman and Ian Priest, four advertising executives working at other major agencies. According to Coleman, all of them lived in Wandsworth, "were approaching 40" and sat around one of their kitchen tables to cement their vision. "We thought, let's go for it," said Coleman. "We were very fortunate our first pitch was for 02."
They won the work; their rebranding vision gave the phone network its blue associations and dreamed up its famous bubbles motif; and later involved rebranding the Millennium Dome as The 02. Lord Bell describes the advertising planner Vallance as "a very intellectually sound, serious guy", while Coleman is a "man of business who is much liked".
The company now has a staff of 300, and occupies open-plan offices in Westminster where "break-out" spaces abound. Here clients are invited to work in the offices alongside advertising staff and the company offers its teams a "dream-catcher" scheme. In this, every year a staff member gets to "act out a dream"; past efforts have included six months off work and the creation of a fashion show.
Coleman says the More Than campaign, overseen by VCCP's direct marketing arm SFW, was dreamed up in a conventional brainstorming session. "Morgan Freeman has all the right values for the brand but we wanted a slight twist," he said. "We were researching a number of different options and we came across Thompson. He hit the button."
The executive said Freeman had granted his permission for the advert. He did not reveal whether the actor had been paid for the privilege, but said the campaign had a budget in the millions, not unusual for a campaign of this scale. "I am not interested in an advert, I am interested in a headline," added Coleman. "If you can create a story you can tell through different media then you have something interesting."
But the More Than campaign still needs to prove itself if it's to compete with the meerkat. "VCCP's brilliant at bringing all the old siloed creative disciplines, from digital to PR, into a unified offer to clients," said Claire Beale, editor of advertising trade title Campaign. "And no-one would deny the absolute triumph of the agency's comparethemarket work. But VCCP has an undistinguished creative reputation and it really needs to work on that if it's to prove that the Meerkat campaign is not a one-hit wonder."
Industry insiders believe the More Than campaign deserves "half a thumbs up" but is unlikely to win awards. Try telling that to Bell.
"The key is, you have to love advertising," he added. "If you understand how to capture the imagination and embrace modern technology in the same way as more traditional means of advertising then you'll be successful."
More than just a voice
Josh Robert Thompson, character actor and voice-over artist, was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1975.
According to his official Facebook fan page, he is best known as the voice of chat-show host Craig Ferguson's robot skeleton sidekick, Geoff Peterson, on the US TV channel CBS's The Late Late Show. Here, he has made regular appearances for nearly four seasons.
The actor specialises in impressions of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Robert De Niro, and Morgan Freeman, though a quick perusal of YouTube reveals the last impression to undoubtedly be his strongest. In 2003, during the Californian elections, Thompson duped a Fox News television host into believing he was Schwarzenegger, who had announced his intention to stand for governor. The prank caught the attention of US "shock-jock" Howard Stern, who invited Thompson on his show. While there, the comedian also managed to use his Schwarzenegger impression to fool MSNBC host Joe Scarborough and Star Trek actor George Takei.
Since then, the actor has become a mainstay of the US chat show circuit. He has also voiced characters on US animation series Family Guy, narrated the 2010 film Yogi Bear, and lent his talents to a number of video games.