Advertising's Higher Ground

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In a time when agencies are contracting and circling the wagons, Rick Boyko, chief creative officer at Ogilvy & Mather/New York, continues to experiment with new ventures. Boyko - who, in the past few years, launched Ogilvy's well-regarded Young Guns creative mentoring program while also establishing The Syndicate, an unconventional network linking Ogilvy to a handful of independent creative hot shops - has debuted a new chapter this month, with the publication of a lush coffee table book titled Brotherhood. Produced under Boyko's direction and printed by Ogilvy client American Express, the book brings together dozens of world-class photographers and the author Frank McCourt, all focused on one subject: the New York firehouses affected by the September 11 tragedy (proceeds from sales of the $30 book go to families of lost firefighters). As Boyko sees it, the book is more than just an exercise in public service for Ogilvy; it's an attempt to flex new creative muscles and to elevate advertising to a higher ground.

WB You had a particularly interesting experience in the days after September 11, right?

RB At the time I was in Las Vegas for a brewery convention with our Miller client, along with three other Ogilvy people. After we heard about the attack, we spent the rest of morning trying to get a rental car, and found one in Phoenix. Then we drove back to New York in two-and-a-half days in a Mercury Grand Marquis, listening to the radio, trying to get news. Every time we'd stop to eat or whatever, there was this amazing outpouring of emotion as soon as people found out we were from New York - their eyes would just well up. And the most interesting thing was the makeshift patriotic signs we saw along the road, in restaurants and shops, everywhere. At the time we never thought about this as an idea. Then, a few days after we got back to New York, Miller called us and said, "We have all this air time to fill on the football games next week - what should we run?" After hanging up the phone, the same four of us that had been in the car together decided we should just take what we saw on that trip, all the makeshift signs around the country, and make it a spot. That was on a Tuesday, and we sold the idea to them on Wednesday, started shooting on Thursday and covered several cities across the country during the next couple of days. We got the film on the next Tuesday, edited on Wednesday, satellited it to the client, who approved it, on Thursday - and it was on the air on Saturday. That's the fastest turnaround I've ever done on a filmed spot.

WB There are mixed opinions on whether ads responding specifically to the crisis were a good idea.

RB Well, of course, with that kind of advertising, you walk a very thin line - in terms of whether it may seem like you're trying to take advantage of a bad situation. But I think that spot worked. What I like about it was that it just held up a mirror to what we were seeing all around us at the time - so it wasn't about us preaching or selling. On the other hand, some people criticized the car ads that introduced zero-percent financing. I didn't have a problem with those ads myself - they were trying to get people to spend money, to get the economy back on track. And they had to promote a zero rate, so there had to be some sell to the ads. But I think some people were bothered by the fact that the ads still sold sheet metal - they still had those car shots at the end.

WB How do you assess the health of the ad business right now?

RB Well, the immediate aftermath of September 11 actually kept us and some other agencies pretty busy, because advertisers had a lot of short-term needs, responding to the situation. But long-term, people are cutting budgets, and everybody's pulling back. One of the things I'm concerned about right now is whether the industry can keep young people coming in- at a time when they may be getting discouraged about this business. But we need them, they're the lifeblood. They're the ones who will work their butts off and push the boundaries.

WB Will you have to scale back the Young Guns mentoring program?

RB We can't afford not to keep that program going. So far, I've been able to keep the six slots we've had for the past few years - I don't know how successful I'll be next year in bringing six more young people in. But there's no question about the success of the program. This year's group has been able to step in and take over their own account, for Perrier, and the campaign they did has gotten acclaim. It took a while for the program to work - at first, people in the agency would tend to give these kids the crap jobs to work on, but now people respect them. And it's raised our awareness level in ad schools - when I used to go to ad schools a couple of years ago, kids didn't think of Ogilvy at all.

WB Did it also take a while for The Syndicate program to get rolling, and how's that doing now?

RB When we first started working with those outside agencies, there was some hesitancy internally, in terms of, "Why should we use these guys?" When you try to do something different like that, there's always a natural resistance you have to overcome. Now the program is in its fourth year, and people in the agency come to me and say, "We need The Syndicate for this job." And we've gotten to know the strengths of each of these agencies in The Syndicate, so now we know which people would be best for certain jobs.

WB Let's talk about the Brotherhood book - where'd this idea come from?

RB After that drive back to New York, that Saturday I was with my daughter, walking all around the city, seeing the pictures of the missing people, the signs, candles, messages in chalk on cement. It was heartbreaking, but there was also something more to it - it felt like art to me. Particularly at the firehouses, you saw these incredible sidewalk shrines and memorials - it felt as if they'd sprouted out of the cement, spontaneously. As Frank McCourt said in the book's intro, people needed someplace to lay their grief. I felt like someone should be documenting these memorials, and over the next couple of days I thought about a photo book and started discussing it with people at the agency. And within four days we had lined up 38 photographers, including people like Albert Watson and Mark Seliger. Eventually, that number grew to 63 - every time we turned around, another great photographer, like Mary Ellen Mark, would be contacting us asking to get involved.

WB In terms of tactical approach, was this like tackling a major ad campaign?

RB We had account management, art buying and creative people working on it, and I was creative director - so it was similar to doing a campaign. It was also kind of like a new-business pitch in terms of the time pressures. I was worried - naively - that the shrines might all be gone in a few days, if it rained. So we wanted to get all the shooting done right away. We gathered all the photographers in the Ogilvy building on a Saturday morning and served them bagels and coffee. We wanted to give the photographers a lot of freedom, but we instructed them to document the firehouse memorials in a photojournalistic way - in other words, if a memorial had pictures duct-taped to the wall, that was more interesting to me than seeing everything carefully arranged by a photographer. We needed each photographer to cover certain firehouses - the ones that had lost firemen in the disaster - so we said, "You take these two houses, and you take those two." And then we sent them out, en masse. They brought back 10,000 images, and then we started editing.

WB How did you get American Express on board?

RB Initially, we thought we'd try to get a number of clients, maybe Kodak and others, to get involved and defray the costs. But as soon as we started the project, I talked to John Hayes at American Express - he just happened to be the first client I called - and he said, "I'd like to try to make this our project, because we lost people and lost our building there."

WB Does this project have larger ramifications for Ogilvy, in terms of opening a new creative door for the agency?

RB I think the lesson here for all agencies is that we have at our command great gifts - not just the talent of creative people, but also the resources of our clients. And we don't utilize that as much as we should. When I showed the book to Joe Pytka, he said, "It actually makes you feel proud to be in advertising." In some ways, this is the best project I've been associated with in my career, because it feels like something that will last. From now on, each year I'd like for the agency to be able to do something that is more lasting, and that uses our skills in better ways. I know we have pro bono ads that we do as an industry, but we really should try to go beyond that - there's more we can do than just another PSA that goes to the Ad Council and maybe runs at 3 in the morning.

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