Steff interviewed
“And then when I was nine…”
Steff Panel
“I was told I’d be the only bald guy.”

The New York Festivals International Advertising Awards launched its World Tour showcasing the World’s Best Advertising™ in Chicago on Tuesday, July 21, 2009. Yours truly spent a better part of the day participating in the festival -first as a panelist during an afternoon discussion and later as an audience member during the actual ceremony.

Personally speaking, there were three highlights: the panel discussion, actually winning an award, and the Lifetime Achievement accolade given to famed commercial director, Joe Sedelmaier.

Let’s start with the Sedelmaier prize. If you’re in advertising and ignorant about whom this man is shame on you! Do some digging. In the eighties, Sedelmaier was widely considered to be the premiere director of funny. His fast talking Fed Ex guy and Clara Peller’s “Where’s the beef?” commercial for Wendy’s are icons of the form. There were others: a “Russian Fashion show” mocking the brutal sameness of fast food, a Southern Airlines commercial depicting coach class as a Jewish ghetto. Many of these can be found online. I’ve attached one below.

As was acknowledged by Sedalmaier’s son, JJ and guest presenter, Bob Garfield from AdAge, the thing Joe did better than anyone was finding and using REAL people. Very real people. Often older and comically unattractive, Joe’s cattle call was welcome respite from the very beautiful and mostly fake actors representing most advertising during the glitzy Reagan era. When I started at Leo Burnett, everyone –and I mean everyone- wrote (or tried to write) in the brutally funny style that Joe Sedalmaeir made famous. Good to see him being recognized.

The panel discussion, entitled “Is craft dead?” was about whether or not the aesthetic quality of creativity suffered given the influence of social media, the recession and other mitigating factors. Internet wag, Alan Wolk moderated the group. Other panelists included the Chief Creative Officer of Element 79, Dennis Ryan and Tribal DDB’s Managing Director, David Hernandez. We covered a wide range of topics, including viral videos impact on TV commercials, crowd sourcing (good or evil?) and even the Zappos RFP fiasco. I hope the audience got as much out of it as I did.

After the discussion, panelists were interviewed for a segment on WCIU TV’s “First Business.” If you’re surfing channels next Saturday morning, try not to hurl your Cheerios.

Euro RSCG Chicago took home a Silver medal for Valspar paints. This integrated campaign continues to be our creative front-runner at my agency. Bravo team!

Had fun visiting with the many Burnett people attending the ceremony. My beloved, old agency won a handful of prizes, including a much-deserved medal for Hallmark Card’s “Brother of the Bride.” I adore this commercial and, frankly, the entire long-running campaign. Hallmark and Burnett have been making these beautiful long-form stories for decades. If craft is dying elsewhere it’s alive and well here:

The many other winners can be found on their website: New York Festivals

Finally, a special shout out goes to NYF’s Gayle Mandel. Lovely woman, the green ensemble she donned for the ceremony was damn near worth the price of admission!

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In early 2001, I became Chief Creative Officer of a hybrid agency at Leo Burnett called LBWorks. About that time Element 79 began their new agency a few blocks away. Having this in common, I instantly viewed them as competition, two horses in a race. A race to what, I now wonder: more accounts, more awards, more billings? Ego can be a ridiculous thing.

In any event, there we were: options in a town not hard up for more. I think LBWorks began with about 50 or-so people and I imagine E79 did so as well. They had one acclaimed client (Gatorade) and so did we: Altoids. DDB and Omnicom backed E79. LBWorks had Burnett and Publicis. Like I said, lots in common.

We came off the blocks quicker, pulling in four new accounts in less than a year: Lexmark, Earthlink, Storagetek and Gateway. (Two years later LBWorks had a champagne supernova and the dream was over. Undone by our own success. it’s a good story but not for here.)

Slower to grow, Element 79 hung around, always doing exemplary work on Gatorade, gradually picking up business, and eventually becoming a real player in its own right. Creatively, only Nike had a better tagline in the category than Gatorade’s “Is it in you?” E79 possessed a potent offence, run by charismatic Chief Creative Officer, Dennis Ryan.

Not long ago, they beat my current agency, Euro RSCG, in a lengthy, emotionally draining shootout for Harris Bank. We busted our butts on that one and I was positive we’d won. And I was wrong. Element 79 had been a worthy nemesis.

Until, perhaps, now. With flagship Gatorade gone and all of Quaker leaving, it doesn’t look good. Ironically, they still have Harris Bank but you don’t have to be an accountant to know what that bills. Not enough. Not enough to feed the engines that fuel a mid-sized advertising agency like Element 79.

Maybe Element 79 has an ace no one knows about. Will Omnicom aid its wounded sentry? More likely, they will absorb the remaining troops, probably into DDB. And, of course, there will be casualties. The rumors are already out there. But if the end is near, let me be the first to offer salutations: You came. You conquered. You will be remembered well.

Which is better than most. Take the place I work at now. It’s previous incarnation (Euro RSCG Tatham Partners) ingloriously imploded, leaving dark stains in an all but empty building. Very messy.

The fate of Element 79, should it be time to talk of fate, will not be as gruesome. The epilogue favors a sequel, not a finale.