The “Army Strong” advertising campaign has its creative muscle in Prince George County.
David Waraksa, who grew up in the county adjacent to Fort Lee, is one of the creative minds behind the Army’s latest effort to hook potential recruits. He is a senior art director at McCann-Erickson, the advertising company contracted to create the campaign.
“I love the campaign and am very proud to have worked on it,” he said. “I’m looking forward to extending the Army Strong idea in many directions.”
Ellen Pruett is also proud that Waraksa worked on the project. She is his mother and a 30-year Department of the Army civilian employed at Fort Lee. Her pride is such that she doesn’t wait for people to ask about her son’s career.
“I am so proud, I’m usually bursting to tell folks all that he has accomplished in his young life,” she said.
Waraksa’s father, Bob, is also a DA employee. There is no doubt that his parents were the force behind his successful career.
“My mother …instilled in me a tireless work ethic,” he said. “And my father…gave me a real competitive streak. Those attributes helped me get where I am today.”
Waraksa’s life in art took flight in high school.
“Throughout high school and college, I designed concert posters for mine and my friends’ garage bands,” he said. “At some point, I realized I could get paid to do that kind of thing! So I majored in mass communications (advertising) at Virginia Commonwealth University.”
The 35-year-old Waraksa earned his degree in 1996. He began working for McCann-Erickson in 2001. As an art director for TV campaigns like Army Strong, Waraksa works with a copywriter to visually and aurally develop a concept.
“If the client chooses our campaign, we hire a TV director and I’m then responsible for working with him or her on how everything ‘looks and feels’ – i.e., casting, location, wardrobe, etc.,” he said. “Once the commercial is shot, I then work on any title or graphics that may be needed for the final ad.”
Waraksa said the look and feel of the dramatic Army Strong campaign was the result of much research.
“The Army Strong concept was a group effort,” he said. “We worked closely with the Army leadership to do lots of research among hundreds of currently and future Soldiers and their parents. We hoped to identify the defining character of the U.S. Army and the motivations of this next generation of Soldiers.”
Defining the character of the Army was no easy task when Waraksa began work on the project a few years ago. Army transformation and other factors made the Army Strong predecessor, “An Army of One,” obsolete and irrelevant.
Furthermore, declining public support for the war in Iraq pulled recruiting numbers down. Waraksa and his team faced the challenge of creating appeal and interest in an institution during its most difficult times.
“We decided that communicating the essential ‘truth’ of the Soldier was the way to go,” he said. “The ‘essential truth’ of the Soldier is that he or she is mentally, emotionally and physically strong, and we felt that the only way to convey that strength was to use real Soldiers in the commercials.”
Hundreds of real Soldiers showed up for the casting calls at Fort Lewis, Wash. and Fort Riley, Kan. Waraksa said no scripts were used for Soldiers appearing in the commercials. To add to the realism, most of the action footage was shot in and around Lewis and Riley.
McCann-Erickson hired director Sam Bayer to present the Soldiers in a way that would connect with target audiences, said Waraksa.
“He’s shot videos for the Rolling Stones, Justin Timberlake, Sheryl Crow and Green Day, as well as commercials for Nike, Coca-Cola and Nissan,” he said. “He’s best known for creating powerful images that retain the ‘humanity’ of the people represented. We wanted to present the Soldier in as human a light as possible – even if what they often do is superhuman.”
The commercials were accentuated with music from one of Hollywood’s top composers, Mark Isham. His film credits include “Crash,” “Men of Honor” and “A River Runs Through It.” Like some of his previous work, the Army Strong piece is boldly dramatic, likened to music found in movies about medieval battles.
“He created a great piece of music that features undertones from the 29-member Soldiers’ Chorus of the U.S. Army Field Band,” said Waraksa. “The music is one of my favorite aspects of the spots.”
The Army Strong campaign began its rollout in November to much anticipation, especially within the Army’s own ranks.
“We tested Army Strong with current and prospective Soldiers, as well as parents of prospective Soldiers – the very kinds of people the Army is working to engage,” said Waraksa. “It tested extremely well in that research, garnering some of the most positive feedback that the Army has seen in years.”
Will that feedback translate to a positive impact on recruiting? Only time will tell. The Army’s recruiting goal is more than 80,000 Soldiers this year and the war in Iraq has faced many challenges. In the meantime, Waraksa said he is working on the second phase of the project.
“I’m looking forward to extending the Army Strong idea in many directions,” he said. “In fact, I’ll be in Florida the month of April to shoot print ads for the ROTC portion of the campaign.
“I feel fortunate to have found a way to give a little back to the great men and women who serve our country.”
Waraksa makes his residence in New York City with his wife, Heather, and bulldog, Penny.