Fewer, Better-Cared-for Clients: A Radical Idea From Buenos Aires

A Former McCann Star Leaves the Multinational to Start His Own Shop

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Here comes Papon Ricciarelli, all relaxed and smiling, walking the halls of the 18th-century building Palacio Alcoorta in midtown Buenos Aires, where he has located his new agency.

The hand-crafted columns, halls and staircases, the swimming pool and the view to some of the gardens of the city's most expensive houses are a big change from the scenario he had a few months ago, when he was working as chief creative officer and CEO of the local branch of McCann Erickson.

He went to McCann in mid-2005, with the project of creating what he and his former partner Chavo D'Emilio called "La agencia de la gente," or "The people's agency." They succeeded in creating a new approach for the place, and things went well for a while: creativity flourished, local accounts came in, and multinational clients seemed happy. But somehow along the way things changed, and Papon felt, he says, it was time for a change.

So he left and formed his own agency, called Don.

I asked Papon why he left. "I chose to go away from the multinational that I was directing to make something totally different. Always I had more clients than those I could really serve there; and this company has a model of few better-cared-for clients. Today, I would not recommend any client to be in an agency that does not have an owner, because the commitment is different. In many ways, advertisers have evolved more than agencies."

It's a strange name, Don, and I wondered why he'd chosen it. The article "Don" in Spanish is used as a formula for respect before pronouncing a name. It's one thing to say, "Here's Mr. John Doe," another to say "Don John Doe." The "Don" before the name calls for respect, and recognition.

And on its business cards, e-mail addresses come with the "don" before the name.

Another suspicion is the name has been chosen in honor of the most famous "Don" in world history: Don Vito Corleone, the "Godfather" himself.

But that is not the case, says Papon. "The agency is born of the certainty that persons, the objects and the brands possess a gift; our team will have the talent -- and the time -- to listen, to deal, to think and to elaborate ideas that manage to extract this gift into the light," he says.

The Spanish word for "gift" (as in a blessing) is also "don."

Clients seem to be responding. So far, Don has nailed the accounts of Cablevision Group (TV and ISP), Reebok, Olympikus, Ryder, Kimberly Clark and Vitart France. Two of them at least were his clients at his former agency, and followed Papon to his new endeavour. "I didn't choose McCann, I chose him," one of them told me over lunch a year ago, when his account was in review.

"The model of current communication does not work and is exhausted," says Papon, "because [people] don't want to listen to the monologue of the brands, who don't want to converse with them from equal to equal."

That's what Don is all about, he says: starting a conversation between brands and the people.

"Here's a clue of what happens when brands and people stop conversing," he said showing the New York Times front page with a picture of a religious mass given for GM, Ford and Chrysler on it.

"The philosophy of the company is to work together with the client to understand his business so much as he does. Without a chief in New York, the chiefs of Don are the brands."

No disrespect to the Big Apple and its inhabitants. Don't take him wrong. It's only that after three years in a multinational agency, he seems still a bit shocked by the experience.

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