Granger in Effect

Tony Granger came all the way from South Africa to turn Bozell around. So far, he's earned a lot more than frequent flier miles.

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Granger: "Clients don't give a shit about awards and this and that and the other. All they are interested in is business targets. That's what we believe in. Great creative backed by intellect produces those targets."
Far be it for Creativity to disagree with Sally Hogshead, the newly anointed Oracle of Venice Beach, since she wrote "Radical Careering" in these pages last month, but we believe there is at least one creative director who is disproving the received wisdom that you cannot turn a big, dinosaur agency around. Admittedly, many have failed, and more are currently doing so. However, there is a bundle of South African energy and intensity called Tony Granger who is having a remarkable impact on one of the least sexy agencies in America, Bozell/New York.

Tony who? We will forgive you for not knowing. Granger himself is used to it. But in South Africa, he was the creative director of the creative agency, TBWA Hunt Lascaris, the first agency on the African continent to earn itself an international reputation for first-class creative work. His better-known work internationally includes BMW's "Mouse," which won a Gold at Cannes in 1992; Bic's "Infinity"; Reach for A Dream's "Sam"; and Playtex Wonderbra's "Feet" -- all of which won Cannes Gold too. He has no fewer than 29 Lions to his credit!

Granger joined Bozell on March 1, 2001, and this summer, the agency was the most successful U.S. agency in Cannes, and third in the world. Last month at the Newspaper Association's Athena Awards in New York, Bozell cleaned up, capturing the $100,000 Grand Prize for its "Makes Sense of Our Times" New York Times campaign and a Silver Athena for its Datek work. Just as important, everyone there was talking about the agency. While the job is - as Granger would be the first to admit -- anything but finished, there is definitely something going on down in Manhattan's sleepy former toy district, and agency CEO Tom Bernardin's gamble in reaching out to South Africa is beginning to look inspired.

So, behind the trademark black T-shirt and jeans and cropped hair, who is this excitable and passionate human dynamo, and how did he get here? Johannesburg, says Granger, is actually very similar to New York: "It has a pioneer spirit about it. You can dream as big as you want. I had been 14 years at the best agency in South Africa, bar none. The possibility of starting an agency in South Africa didn't really appeal to me. And I have always wanted to live in New York. So that's why I left. South Africa's a fabulous country. The work's great. But what the hell. Life is short -- I was 42, and who knows?"

Once he put his book about, Granger was pleasantly surprised to receive offers on both sides of the Atlantic, deciding finally on New York over London because he and his wife, Claire, had always wanted to live in what he describes as "the center of the universe." But Bozell was not his only New York offer. Why there? Much as Granger and Bernardin protest otherwise, and much as Granger's predecessor as ECD, Brent Bouchez, had begun the job, it was an agency in need of some need of a transfusion of oomph. "Bozell used to be this huge company worldwide," answers Granger. "And it kind of got whittled away to make FCB stronger so it could be acquired. When I got to the U.S., my headhunter suggested I see Tom Bernardin at Bozell. I said, 'Bozell, are they still around?' Tom had been involved with a lot of great Jeep work before, stuff that I would put on the walls and say, 'Fuck, guys, look at this!' Tom had a vision that he could evolve Bozell into a creatively-driven and creative department-driven agency. He showed me the reel and I thought, Shit, these guys have fantastic clients: Bank of America, The New York Times . . . the reel was really not that bad. Then you look at the potential, a billion-dollar agency from five clients -- no car account, no fashion account, no airline . . .The potential is there to quadruple it if you wanted it."

To be blunt, however, many a more famous creative director than Granger has gone into a lackluster agency with a brief to turn it around, only to fail miserably. Why on Earth should he think he would do any better? There is also a list of overseas creative directors who have failed in the U.S. marketplace.

Granger did a lot of research into turnarounds. (You can tell that he is torn between acknowledging there is the turnaround that the outside world sees at Bozell, and being politically correct about his predecessor and what he inherited.) He says he believes most fail because the agency doesn't actually want to do it. You can turn around the creative department almost anywhere, he says, but if it is chained to the ground with "huge ankle chains," it won't fly. "This really is a collaboration," he continues. "Tom believes in great creative work, I believe in great creative work. We believe in the effectiveness of great creative. Bank of America's mortgage takeup rate went up 50 percent year on year; Verizon takeup is up 34 percent. It's not all down to advertising, but advertising works. It works!" He says this with typical and refreshing passion. "You have the power to change people's behavior but you can't do that by doing the same thing everyone else does."

He is on a roll now: "We stand for a couple of things. We stand for absolute simplicity in our communications. It's good to stand for something. It's good to stand up for the power of great creative advertising, to believe in simplicity, to say we believe in collaboration. The danger a lot of agencies face is that they have a kind of upset in their internal equilibrium. The agencies that are really great and amazing are those that have some kind of balance. You need a balance. There are agencies that are too creative department-led where the insight is sometimes lacking. There are agencies that are account men-dominated that are full of boring work. The real magic comes in when there's a balance."

Which is all well and good, but what did he actually do that was so different? Is there anything practical beyond slimming down the size of the department (partly through economic necessity) and introducing group creative directors in a flatter structure? In his own words, "shitting himself" on day one, he laid out his book and reel so that everyone in the agency could see who he was and what he had done. Then he looked at all of theirs. "We don't have any really formal reviews, but the account people and planners here involve the creatives at an early stage," he says. "It used to be very silo'd, too: you shouldn't be thinking about that piece of business for example. It's not necessarily wrong, it's just not me. It goes against what we offer our clients. I brought in an assistant art director program, too, training them, growing them and then spinning them off into teams. I wanted to have lots of energy in the creative department. It requires lots of control. It's harder than managing silos, because they run automatically. Nothing in the creative mind should be automatic."

Granger was naive, too. He was surprised how little the department knew about advertising in the rest of the world. "America is so big, so powerful and spends so much money that there isn't so much knowledge of the exterior world as I thought there would be," he admits candidly. "They do now! You need to know about Brazil, why is South Africa so great, why do British guys consistently do such brilliant work? Why is Amsterdam flaring with creativity? You know, the world is shrinking to the size of a grape. If you don't know what's going on, you'll die. Clients are so global now."

The biggest change he introduced was to not review any work that was finished. He wanted an end to long lines of hopeful creatives outside his door. He says ideas have to work "as a doodle. I can't get over how you can break up departments into departments. How can you not be allowed to come up with great ideas for your clients?" he asks, wide-eyed. "Why not have the idea from the account man? Why not have a planner write the headline? Why should the creative department be the domain of great advertising? Break all that shit down. Iforce collaboration," he adds with passion. "I encourage planners to walk into the creative guys' offices. I have a place called the kitchen counter here. It has the latest, best books we have in. Most of the time it also has work doodles. It is really brave of a creative person to expose stuff like that, rather than only show it finished. The first thing we do after an edit is to bring it back and show it to everyone and ask them what they think. Juniors too."

All interesting enough, but what made him think that sleepy old Bozell wanted to change? What did he see there that maybe others did not? His answer is that he viewed the agency as a billion-dollar startup. It's rare to find an agency of its size, he argues, with so many category gaps open to it. At which point, it must be noted that there has not been the desired huge influx of new business. Yet. At least with the help of the new new-business director, Ruth Ayres, the agency is suddenly on pitch lists. But there are not that many around to get on just now. So Granger has focused on the existing clients with the intensity that is his MO. He argues that Bouchez had already got the television work in order. This is headed by the hugely successful Verizon "Can You Hear Me Now?" campaign; Milk's "Got Chocolate Milk?"; and the Bank of America mortgage campaigns (Bank of America is currently in the midst of a "winner takes all" review). And there is new, nice work from Excedrin.

But it is on the print side of the business where he has had the most impact to date. Print, says Granger, is easier to change more quickly -- particularly as Bozell has its own in-house print facility. The first sign of progress was on Duncan Hines cakes, work that others in the agency say created an immediate buzz because it was so different in such a dull category. "That's really the culmination of collaboration," Granger says. "The planners really dug for that, finding out what makes cooking your own so special. The answer was you put a little bit of yourself into it: 'Create your own' is a planner's line."

Then came work for Datek, Milk and -- perhaps most notably -- The New York Times, the campaign that cleaned up at the Athenas. Very different brands, but there is a tangible philosophy behind the work. "We have a fundamental belief that people do not read print advertising any more," argues Granger. "You don't spend time doing that. Gone are the days when consumers waited with bated breath to read your ads. Give me the message, let me get in and out very quickly. Don't bury the message in the third or fourth paragraph, because he ain't gonna get there.

"I use the analogy of mining" he says, animated again. "You are either very lucky and you hit gold quickly, or you have to keep mining. The guys sweated blood on this New York Times stuff," he says of the latest NYT campaign. "They kept coming up with ideas and I just keep sending it back, sending it back. It's difficult, it's really, really difficult. I get enormously excited when I see a great idea. There is nothing better. There are a million excuses as to why an ad is mediocre: bad brief, bad account guy, bad client, bad creative, bad product category, bad economy, etc., etc. Everyone involved blames everyone involved. And the saddest thing of all is that the consumer doesn't notice the ad anyway. It's much harder to come up with a great idea. It takes more time. It's harder to create and it's normally harder to sell."

It's rare to meet anyone in the business, let alone a creative director, who conveys such passion for his client's brands. It's also rare to meet a creative of any rank who is as obsessed with the effectiveness of his work. Granger is constantly throwing out figures in support of his arguments, his work. "It's all about getting the proof," he says, standing up to pace about as he talks. "It's all about the work that produces results. Clients don't give a shit about awards and this and that and the other. All they are interested in is business targets. That's what we believe in. Great creative backed by intellect produces those targets. The great thing about it is that you have to spend less on the work because the media works for you. That's all it is. That kind of stuff happens to win awards."

He points to "Can You Hear Me Now?" as an example. I ask how deliberate the plan was. Did he know this was going to be a national catchphrase? "That was part of the media plan," he flashes back. "We used PR hand-in-hand with the advertising. The trick is to break into the culture. There was that slot on Jay Leno: one with Ariel Sharon asking George Bush, 'Can you hear me now?' It's hard to do it with anything. It's harder to do it with a print campaign, he says. "The Milk campaign has better recall than Coke or Pepsi. It started out as a print campaign and then we shaved 40 percent out of the budget and put it into PR. This is nothing new; it's not that I have brought it with me. It's just very focused. Look at the Milk stuff. You know how much we pay these celebrities? $25,000. They want to be in these advertisements! Elton John gets $25,000. Chocolate milk has enjoyed an increase in sales of 15 percent year on year," and it was also an Effie winner.

"This Verizon stuff," he goes on. "When we first did the V-sign stuff it took us from 0 to 98 percent prompted recall in 12 months. When we did 'Can You Hear Me Now?' sales went up 34 percent. A 34 percent increase in that size of market -- that's phenomenal!"

As you can probably tell, Granger is one of those few people in advertising currently who appears to be having any fun. He is certainly stimulating to talk to -- although I will spare you his analogy between Big Bang theory and the current advertising downturn. Has it all been a bed of roses though? What is the biggest difference between South Africa and here? His toughest times, he says, were when he arrived and spent three months without his wife and three children. On a personal level, he didn't think that fitting into the culture would be as traumatic. He says that he thought it would be like going to Durban! I resist the temptation to point out the obvious differences between Johannesburg and Westport, Conn. From an advertising perspective, Granger says, a South African agency produces more product because the media saturation rate has a far lower threshold than America. "Decisions are so much bigger here," he explains. "Things just take more time to get through, and the constant danger is that we lose our spontaneity. In my mind, a great idea should feel spontaneous, but incredibly well thought-through. The biggest thing I learned at Hunt Lascaris was courage. The courage to have a distinct point of view, and the courage to follow one's instinct."

So, that's Tony Granger, jumping up and down to show me the work on the walls he is so proud of, thumping the table with passionate emphasis, excitedly spewing out his clients' sales growth figures. He knows he has only just begun his job. He knows that the next task is to translate the improved work into new business. He knows that Cannes was nice primarily because it raises Bozell's profile both with potential employees and with clients who have "started to knock on our door."

That's Tony Granger, who admits he gets "very bored very quickly," and who may well end up flat on his face. But it seems doubtful. Most of all because he is not afraid to try. As he says, with his parting shot: "A faint heart never won a fair maiden. Life's too short to be ordinary."

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