Funny he should mention a comedian probably best known for his commercials. It's so easy to see advertising, in the last-gasp days of the :30, as the lowest rung of the entertainment ladder, possibly discounting the WB. Does Merkin view it that way? "No, I don't. In fact, that hurts my feelings. I have too much respect for what we do. I think at worst advertising merely pretends to reflect pop culture; at best it adds an influence, it shapes it. But I don't want to be one of those guys who's going to talk about the convergence of advertising and entertainment and pretend to know exactly what that entails. I'd rather put my head down, get some work done and try to make stuff happen. When I see new agencies predicting the death of Madison Avenue, I think, well, they've kind of missed the point. Great creative shops have an opportunity to lead by example and help the industry as a whole find a better way of doing things." Moreover, "I don't have a problem with TV commercials so much as the programming," he adds. "That's where the greatest improvements need to be made. Reality TV certainly hasn't been helping, although there are shows that, if they're culturally relevant and have such a powerful impact on people, who's to say it's not art? Shows like Survivor and For Love or Money-I just wonder how the history books will write about such things."
Well, as long we're taking the long view here, let's get Merkin's religion out of the way. He volunteers early on that he's an orthodox Jew. "When I started in the business, I hesitated to tell people because I didn't want it to get in the way," he explains. "These days, I inject it into conversation pretty early. It's my way of letting people know, 'Yes, I've got this other thing, now can we move on and talk about the work?' " Right. But it doesn't really seem to be some other thing. The delicious irony of this father of three, the guy who made the Virgin Mobile "Nude" campaign-a woman standing in the street stark naked, her breasts block-pixed, a blister-packed cellphone covering her genitals-going home early on Fridays to light the Sabbath candles is straight out of Philip Roth. But Merkin shrugs it off as no biggie. "I wouldn't consider myself a very religious person," he protests. "It's just something I aspire to." So there's never a struggle between God and Mammon? "Who?" It turns out he's never heard of Mammon. Another guy who lives in obscurity compared to Carrot Top!
Raised in an orthodox family in upstate New York, Merkin was an obsessive notebook doodler who had a vague notion of becoming a comic book artist till he went to the Parsons School of Design. "I took a real liking to design, but it didn't take a real liking to me. I just didn't get it. I worked for a long time without really connecting conceptually. Then one day the proverbial lightbulb went off in my head; I suddenly realized it was all about concepts, about ideas. I know it sounds strange, but communicating an idea from my head to paper was almost a revelation. Since then, my direction has been pretty clear. But even though I could concept, I found I was still a shitty designer. I didn't even know that advertising was an option till my senior year. And then I discovered I was a decent art director but a better writer."
His first job was at now defunct AC&R, where he "was fired for creative differences," he recalls. "Which was a great thing. Had I stayed there, my career might've been a real mess. It was a big agency, and I wasn't getting the kind of training I needed." A few months later he landed a job at Grace & Rothschild, "and that was the best ad school that anyone can ask for." The late Roy Grace, one of the Golden Age gods of DDB, "had incredibly high standards and an old-fashioned take on art direction mixed with a very fresh, progressive sense of concept. Working for Roy, you didn't need the industry's approval. If you had Roy's approval, that was enough." But it was mainly a print gig for Merkin, who says he produced only two spots in three years. He "had the itch," and he went to Hampel Stefanides for 18 months, where he did an acclaimed print campaign for the Post Office. "I managed to tap into what little talent I had as an art director." Then it was on to a GCD job at Crispin Porter + Bogusky in Miami, which had already developed quite a reputation, where Merkin scored repeatedly with great work for, among others, Truth, Giro, Mini and Ikea, including the trophy-magnet "Lamp" spot. "There was something going on at Crispin that was magical," he recalls. "I just wanted to be there." While too young to be a mentor per se, in retrospect CD Alex Bogusky "has such powerful charisma he had a major influence on me. While Roy and Diane [Rothschild} taught me the craft, Alex took it to a whole other level. He made me better. You know the way they say you can only deal with the talent that you have? I think Alex has the power to make people more talented." But Merkin "left to find myself and to see what I was capable of." So it was back to New York and on to Cliff Freeman & Partners to be an ACD. "I'd always wanted to work for Cliff. I tried to go there just before I went to Crispin, but it turned out I got the call four years later." He wasn't there for very long, "and it wasn't the greatest time to be there, but I did spend some time with Cliff, and for that I'm thankful. He's absolutely a mentor. "
Merkin joined Fallon a year ago, and now he's a mentor. A lot of distinctive work has been produced for Virgin, Starbucks, Sobe, Brawny and others in that time, with Virgin clearly the standout, the kind of enlightened client creatives kill for. As for the notorious "Nude" campaign, "Yes, it was incredibly disarming," says Merkin. "It definitely wasn't for everyone, and that was our intention from the start. With a pay-as-you-go phone, you don't want an abundance of these adult users who use it only for emergencies. The profits come from continual usage, so we're targeting the people who use the phones most, and that's kids. They have no problem with nudity at all." The origins of the nude concept, interestingly, go back to when Richard Branson launched Virgin Mobile and appeared at a press conference in a nude bodysuit "holding the phone package over his package," as Merkin puts it. "So it wasn't a tough sell at all." Based on the Branson stunt, "we came back with a way to do it that was-I wouldn't dare say tasteful, but there was a lot of thought that went into the execution."As for the oddly edgy Virgin "Religion" campaign, Merkin pooh-poohs its controversial aspects. "Faux religious figures have been used in advertising before. I think the difference is we weren't using them for comedy but for endorsements." Yeah, that's the controversial part. "But the notion comes out of the brand promise, 'The gift with nothing to hide,' " he insists. "We handled it in a very respectful way. We didn't treat the religious figures as the enemy or the foil. We were poking fun at the big telcoms. I told my rabbi about the spots-he laaaughed . . . " We're surprised his rabbi wasn't asked to be in a commercial. "Don't think it hadn't crossed my mind."
So what about Merkin's rise, as insular as it may be? Isn't he getting further and further away from hands-on work? "Never," he claims. "I'm actually closer to all of it now. The minute I take my hands off the work is when I'll go into a deep, frightening depression. It's the nature of my job that I can't work on everything, but I still enjoy concepting and spending time with the teams. I think the best part of my job is when they let me sit down and concept with them. I have a fairly young bunch of art directors and copywriters and I want this place to be full of future creative directors. And I believe it is." His shining lights include writers Marty Senn, Pierre Lipton and Scott Cooney; ADs Molly Sheahan, Justin Gignac and Jerome Marucci; and ACD Wayne Best. "Overall, the office is about the same size as when I started, but the creative department has doubled in size. It no longer has the outpost feel it had when I got here. We now have a full creative staff and client roster all our own. That's exciting. But the connection to Minneapolis runs pretty deep around here. Minneapolis is the spiritual home of the Fallon network and it always will be." But what about David Lubars leaving the CCO throne at Fallon for BBDO? Does this open up new horizons for Merkin? In a word, no. New York is his domain and will remain so, and he's just fine with that. "I've found the perfect partner in [president] Anne Bologna; we're happy working together, and the rest of the agency can see that. Creatively, we want the same things. We both leave at the end of the day feeling good about what we accomplished, and we come in every morning feeling completely unsatisfied."
Not to mention the gnawing emptiness that comes with being virtually unknown compared to Carrot Top.