As Economy Picks Up, Big-Name Agency Talent Takes to the Exits

Entrepreneurial Bug Bites Graf, Who Leaves Saatchi; Others Depart JWT, Wieden, Vigilante

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NEW YORK ( -- Brand-name talent decamping from big agencies to set up their own shops might be yet another sign of the economy climbing back from the bottom. At the very least, it's an indication that a number of A-listers are finding the confidence to leave the holding-company model and all its trappings behind.

In resigning to Saatchi & Saatchi CEO Kevin Roberts last week, Gerry Graf became the next in a growing list of high-profile agency executives ditching day jobs at Big Apple shops. He joins JWT's two top North American leaders, Ty Montague and Rosemarie Ryan, who announced their intention to launch a new marketing venture later this year; Wieden & Kennedy New York's co-executive creative director, Todd Waterbury, who left to start his own firm; and Larry Woodard, a 25-year agency veteran and CEO of Publicis' Vigilante Advertising who is putting up his own shingle under the name Graham Stanley Advertising.

It's a marked change from even a few months ago. "There seems to be an uptick in the economy and a more positive attitude" about business, said Lisa Colantuono, managing partner at consultancy AAR Partners. "Eight to 10 months ago, the last thing anybody wanted to do was to go start their own agency ... instead it was 'Sit still and hope I can keep a job.'"

Now, however, people seem ready to make big changes. "After such a brutal year, people are questioning the whole system, and wondering if they really want to work for a big company," said Anne-Marie Marcus, founder-CEO of recruiting firm Marcus St. Jean, in New York.

The reason Mr. Graf -- known for award-winning work for brands such as Skittles and for last year's viral smash for JC Penney, "Beware of the Dog House" -- gave for his exit from the Publicis Groupe agency was simple: "It's time to move on."

Idea man
He described the venture, slated to open this summer after his contract period with Saatchi expires in July, as a creatively led company that will be part traditional advertising and a mix of digital content and newer platforms. "There is a huge market for creative ideas," Mr. Graf said. "Advertising is just part of that market. I believe nowadays, the most creative idea will bring the most success. Luckily, I know a lot of people who can help me create and sell those ideas."

Mr. Roberts, in a statement, was kind about Mr. Graf's departure from the shop where he began his ad career and boomeranged back in January 2008 after moving through Omnicom Group shops BBDO, Goodby Silverstein & Partners and TBWA/Chiat/Day. "He is a brilliant man and a good friend. ... We are sure he will make a huge impact in the broader creative space he wants to work in."

While Mr. Graf's exit came suddenly (agency staffers were informed by e-mail after the news was confirmed by several press reports) it's only the latest in a string of similar moves as the economy perks up, such as the exit of Mr. Montague, Ms. Ryan and Mr. Waterbury.

And expect more.

Ms. Marcus noted that there's a precedent in the ad world for this sort of shakeup in the wake of an economic downturn. "If you look at the industry historically, this always happens after a bad year," she said. "And it seems that once it starts, it's contagious."

Leaving the nest
Case in point: 25-year agency vet Mr. Woodard, probably best known for orchestrating the Oprah car giveaway in 2004, announced the formation of his own agency, a 100%-minority-owned firm. It launched last week with 10 staffers and clients including Cox Communications and Heart and Soul Magazine.

The reaction he got from Publicis was "shock and awe," Mr. Woodard said, because "nobody thought I would walk away from the brand that I created." In his view, he and other executives are fleeing larger agencies not only to hang their own shingle, but to hang it someplace smaller after the harsh realities of business at a big conglomerate has come into view.

"Holding companies are something you always knew that wouldn't work in a tough economy; it's got two masters: the stock, and clients. How can you service your clients business when you are being asked to cut corners?"

He added: "Now is not the time to be conservative. Everything has changed in our business. Ad agencies aren't necessarily C-suite partners anymore, procurement has us looking at pennies and the growth of mobile, social has encroached on our business."

Whether the departing executives will find greener pastures going it alone remains to be seen. "If they set themselves up as a direct competitor to what a Saatchi or McCann does -- we don't need more agencies that do the same," said Ms. Colantuono.

"It's a very, very difficult thing to open a new agency in the U.S. and especially in New York," said Ms. Marcus. But "it keeps the industry vibrant."

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