The “comfortable” agency? More like comfortably ahead.

You’ve got to hand it to agency McGarry Bowen. They just keep winning business. After reeling in a big piece of the Sears account a couple weeks ago they followed it up this week by catching all of Burger King.

Not to kill the fishing metaphor but this monstrous haul is no fluke. McGarry Bowen has been on a winning streak for years. Maybe even since their inception in 2002. According to Wikipedia, in 2008 MB was the largest independent advertising agency in New York. Clearly, those numbers will have to be revised.

The paint was hardly dry in its Chicago office (2007), when they began pulling in account after account, namely from Kraft Foods and often at the expense neighboring agencies, including mine. It seemed they were winning new business every week, and this during the height of the recession.

What gives? Was this seemingly innocuous babe born of the devil? Not likely. Lord knows there’s nothing naughty about their work. Even their relatively edgy “Don’t be Mayo” campaign for Miracle Whip was pretty straightforward when you got right down to it: vignettes, music, supers. Old school.

And indeed principals, John McGarry (Chief Executive Officer), Gordon Bowen, (Chief Creative Officer) and Stewart Owen (Chief Strategic Officer) are as old school as they come: Y & R guys from New York. In addition, many on the management team in Chicago grew up where I did, at Leo Burnett. All these guys are old enough to remember The Brady Bunch and the ads than ran on it. Who said advertising is a young man’s game?


John McGarry: “Dag Nabbit, I’m good!”

So, what’s their secret? I know CEO’s from every agency in America are dying to find out. I’ve heard some theories, one being that the founders are totally committed to relationship and brand building, notions that most every other firm considers antiquated and even trite. Are they? Here’s what the inimitable George Parker had to say about it on his controversial and popular blog, Adscam/The Horror:

“Perhaps all the fucktards out there (aka Big Dumb Agencies) pontificating about how they are social douchnozzeling and friending, tweeting, liking, whatever, should wake up and realize that having gone around the track a few times on all this communicator – conversationnozzle – shit… What they (clients) really need is a fucking ADVERTISING AGENCY!”

For the entire new century the hippest agency on earth has been Crispin, Porter & Bogusky. And rightly so. Their winning streak of both business and creative awards was unsurpassed. (I even called them the Doyle Dane Bernbach of our time.) Until now. Whether I was right or wrong, CP&B lost the Burger King account to McGarry Bowen.

Does this signify a changing of the guard? If ever two agencies were polar opposites it’s these two. Avi Dan, in a piece for Forbes, stated,

“maybe post-recession clients are not in a gambling mood. McGarryBowen is the ultimate safe choice. Sort of the advertising version of “Nobody ever got fired for hiring IBM.”

I’m not going to editorialize; I admire both agencies. But I’m pretty sure only one of them is hiring right now. My take: MB and CP&B balance each other out. Like yin and yang. Maybe shops versed in both schools are where it’s at, places like Goodby and Wieden.


“I’m your favorite campaign.”

My opinion, the best advertising of 2010 is the “Mayhem” campaign for Allstate. Yes, I once worked at Leo Burnett but that just makes me happier and prouder making this choice. Besides, I like to think of myself as an early adapter to this campaign. Back in June I applauded the introduction of “Mayhem” even when others didn’t.

The others were wrong. Actor Dean Winters and his “Mayhem” character have already ensconced themselves into popular culture. And unlike other popular advertising characters (Can you say ‘Flo’ from Progressive?), Mayhem is smartly written and deftly produced. Some eight or ten spots later, not only does the campaign have legs but the work is getting better and better. Have you seen the holiday commercial? It’s hysterical.

I know there have been more famous marketing creations in 2010. Early on, Old Spice and Nike knocked campaigns out of the park. But those brands moved on. Mayhem, on the other hand, keeps on wreaking havoc, making it a big, enduring idea. The others, however brilliant, were one-offs. A solo homerun, no matter how far it’s hit, is still a one-point affair. (Granted, advertisers like Nike and Old Spice have demonstrated they are very capable of hitting numerous solo homeruns! As of this writing AOR for both brands, Wieden & Kennedy was deservedly selected agency of the year by Adweek.)

My one quibble: no Mayhem on Allstate’s website. Nor could I find any digital work highlighting Mayhem. But maybe that’s not such a bad thing. After all, Mayhem is what prompts us to buy insurance not where we go to buy it. Still, if the campaign wants to become the penultimate case study they’re going to want/need some digital credentials.

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Ah, the moment of creation…

Adweek.com has a 3-minute video featuring Dan Wieden discussing the creation of one of the world’s most famous tag lines: Just Do It. I don’t even have to name the agency or client. We know this, and so much more, from only those three words. My personal favorite tag line: “Nothing runs like a Deere.” However, I fully recognize the transformative, culture-changing power of Nike’s call to action versus the quieter declaration of performance by John Deere.

Unlike a lot of creative directors, I adore taglines. Like to think of them. Like seeing them on the page. The two most famous examples associated with me are polar opposites. They are the “Curiously Strong” mints for Altoids and “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.”

What’s interesting about Dan’s story is how isolated the moment of creation really was. The night before his agency’s first big creative presentation to Nike, Wieden feared none of the commercials they’d prepared hung together. He wanted a thought that spoke to novice and pro athletes alike. In 20 minutes, he crafted a tagline to unify the campaigns. Unbelievably, Wieden credits convicted killer, Gary Gilmore’s infamous last words to his executioner as inspiration: “Let’s do it,” he’d said before being shot by the firing squad.

I’m willing to bet there’s a robust case study supporting “Just do It” crediting planning, research, insights and a raft of other people, places and things behind that famous mantra. Altoids had a doozy even though it was for the most part retrofitted.

Fact is some of the most inspired creations are made in a vacuum. This holds true for all arts, including persuasive communication. Dan doesn’t mention cohorts or proprietary tools during his moment of creation. We gather it was a birth based on necessity (tie up a campaign), fear (big meeting) and intuition (speak to novice and pro).

One could argue the latter point was based on a collaboratively gleaned insight, perhaps from the agency’s planners. Only problem back then planning was not part of American advertising.

Just like Nike’s rogue founder, Phil Knight, who sold prototype running shoes from the back of his car, Dan Wieden acted alone. For that matter, so did Gilmore but I digress.

I’m not against teamwork. Far from it. I’m proud of the camaraderie at our agency. But I do have to call bullshit on agencies that take credit for one person’s intuition. It happens all the time and it has always bugged me. When the creative muse comes to us in the shower, we are likely alone.

Leo Burnett rhapsodized about the “lonely man,” working late, pen to paper, inhaling one Marlborough after another, until he’d gotten something. That figure still exists, though he or she is probably smoke-free!

Adweek videos -Dan Weiden

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