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1996 AGENCY OF THE YEAR;(CLIFF FREEMAN) AND PARTNERS

By Published on .

Life has always been a little crazy at Cliff Freeman & Partners, but lately it looks like someone dropped a bomb on the laugh factory. Floors are ripped up, walls are coming down, awards are piled on the floor in the lobby. And everybody seems to have red eyes-especially David Angelo, who is operating at ground zero these days. Angelo, the 35-year-old executive creative director, who joined the agency two years ago, has been putting in ridiculous hours since late spring, when Cliff Freeman & Partners, already riding a hot streak, virtually exploded in a Coca-Cola-fueled frenzy. During the ensuing summer of madness, a bare-bones staff shot more than a dozen commercials in a span of eight weeks. Somehow, between shoots, the agency's triumvirate-Angelo, newly promoted president Arthur Bijur and founder Cliff Freeman-led a ferocious new-business charge that would, by fall, bring in a global Fanta assignment from Coke and a possibly $50 million piece of business from Ameritech. Meanwhile, to make room for all of this growth, it was of course necessary to bring in construction workers and turn CF&P's homey little offices into a miniature Beirut. Angelo sums up the situation: "It's been pretty much insane around here."

But don't expect Angelo-who used to load trucks on the graveyard shift before he went into advertising-to tire out anytime soon. He's been described by one co-worker as "an advertising machine," who, when not putting in late-night and weekend hours at the agency, manages to play on three different softball teams. Angelo exudes a sense of boundless ad-jock enthusiasm, which is partly why Cliff Freeman hired him to fill the void left by Donna Weinheim's move to BBDO. "I could see that David was a different personality from Arthur and myself-there's a lot of obvious energy that comes from him," says Freeman.

The agency, an independent operating unit of Cordiant PLC, will need all of that and more as it begins its 10th year-a year that may determine whether CF&P is ready to join the elite ranks of creative powerhouses like Wieden & Kennedy, Goodby

Silverstein & Partners and Fallon McElligott. Freeman, Bijur and Angelo think they're already playing in that rarefied stratosphere-"We're as good as any of those three," Freeman says without hesitation-and they may

be right. Not only has the business roughly doubled in size in the past year, with billings now well over $200 million, but perhaps more importantly, CF&P has begun to prove to the ad world that it is no one-trick pony

The stereotypes previously associated with the agency-that it could only do pizza (Little Caesars), or that it could only do retail (Little Caesars, Staples, Pep Boys), or that it could only do broad comedy (same three)-are being smashed. And much of the time, Angelo has been the man with the hammer.

From a business standpoint, Angelo helped CF&P suck up more and more Coke this year; in particular, he led the pitch for Coke's fruit flavored Fanta sodas, a global assignment that could prove to be a major breakthrough for the agency when the campaign breaks overseas early next year. And Angelo has also been a key figure in the efforts to win other nonretail business, such as Ameritech, which may eventually supplant Little Caesars as the agency's bread and butter account. By bringing in these diversified accounts, CF&P has begun to demonstrate that it can rise above retail.

At the same time, in his role as executive CD, Angelo has been central to a recent and significant shift in the style of the agency's work. For years, funnyman Freeman and his longtime writing partner Bijur have been promising to show the world that they could also do emotional ads, but it wasn't until Angelo came aboard that this finally began to happen. In CF&P's work in 1995, the familiar sight gags and punchlines associated with Little Caesars and Staples were nowhere to be seen in several of the campaigns that Angelo worked on. Perhaps the most striking was the slightly mystical series of spots for Prodigy, in which the online service was depicted as a fleet of magic buses bringing people of like interests together. Angelo also helped create the harrowing anti-heroin commercial for the Partnership for a Drug-Free America featuring a portrait of "Lenny," one of the most memorably pathetic street-lifers to appear on film since Ratso Rizzo. And Angelo's campaigns for Sauza tequila were rare examples of noteworthy print from an agency associated only with TV; moreover, Sauza's bare-skin visuals showed that CF&P's work could be sexy as well as funny. This year, Angelo's work on Cherry Coke again strikes a different note: A commercial in which a young guy with a shaved head wreaks havoc in a department store by riding on the back of an ostrich is definitely humorous, but in a quirky manner that distinguishes it from CF&P's other comedic spots.

Angelo's creative influence has not gone unnoticed by outsiders. "Cliff Freeman always had that sophisticated broad humor, but it seems like there's a different edge to the work since David arrived there," says Fallon McElligott Berlin chief Andy Berlin, who crossed paths briefly with Angelo at DDB Needham in the early '90s. "I think the spectrum of work is broader now, but still of the same high quality."

Indeed, Angelo's work seems to have meshed well with the existing zany style of the agency; in its ongoing work for Little Caesars, Staples and Pep Boys, CF&P is continuing to maintain its standing as perhaps the funniest shop in the business. "The agency had been so great at doing comedy for so many years," Angelo says. "My challenge coming in here was to not disrupt that, but just to give them something else, an added dimension."

If Angelo has brought a new edge, it's one that can occasionally cause discomfort. In his volatile first two years at CF&P, his aggressive get-ahead style has sometimes

ruffled feathers, and it may have contributed to the mini-soap opera that unfolded earlier this year around the award-winning "Lenny" spot. CF&P took some stinging criticism from the Partnership, which objected to Angelo putting what it claims was an unauthorized version of the spot on the air

on New Year's Eve (just in time to qualify for the awards shows, it's been pointed out). Some at CF&P say Angelo occasionally pushes too hard in his quest for recognition and glory. "David wants to be a star," says one insider. Others say that Angelo places rigorous work demands on the staff, and doesn't have the casual, easygoing charm of Freeman and Bijur. "David tends to crack the whip more," says

a former creative staffer. "The place hasn't been as free or as fun since

he came."

But then again, CF&P had already enjoyed years of fun, pizza and gags; at this point, Freeman and Bijur seem determined to get down to some serious business. And Angelo figures to be a key player in the adult life of this agency. Says one source close to CF&P: "I think Cliff is banking on David to help lead the agency into the future."

Angelo has, in the past, demonstrated that he can heat things up at an agency; what he has yet to prove is that he can sustain it. His advertising career started fast in the early '90s and then cooled a bit, before he got back on track with Freeman. Something of a late bloomer, he comes from working-class roots in San Francisco, where he never had a chance to be an ad brat; while in his 20s, he was a bona fide Teamster (as were his father and brother), loading trucks to pay his bills and putting himself, slowly, through art school. He'd thought about becoming an illustrator, "but when I was hanging out on Telegraph Hill I noticed all my artist friends were starving and selling tie-dyed shirts," he says. Angelo decided to follow a more pragmatic path.

When he finally graduated from the Academy of Art College at age 28, he sent his portfolio to New York, then followed it there. His first full day in town he was hired by DDB Needham, and by his second year there he was working on the New York Lottery campaign with Paul Spencer. "David was like a volcano of ideas," says Spencer of his former partner, with whom he has had an up and down relationship over the years. Together, they produced the "Hey, You Never Know" campaign that hit the awards jackpot and made Angelo and Spencer a prized team. "I couldn't believe all that I was experiencing my first couple of years in the business," says Angelo. Case in point: By 1992, his third year out of school, he was approached by a group of people representing a certain Man From Hope. Angelo and Spencer soon found themselves in the thick of the Clinton presidential ad campaign.

But if Angelo quickly established that he was a hot talent, it also became clear that he was a restless soul. In 1992,

he jumped from DDB Needham to Chiat/Day/New York; his sudden departure even caught Spencer off guard. Angelo's explanation: "I needed a new challenge." What he got instead was a rough time working on Reebok. "It was like my tour in Vietnam," he says.

He quickly moved on again in '93, this time heading back out west for a stint at Team One. But again, it didn't last. After Angelo helped launch a new Lexus line, he found himself feeling "burnt out and frustrated," he says. "On Lexus, I felt like I'd been working twice as hard as in the past, for work that wasn't as good." By 1994 he was on his way out the door at Team One, and maybe out of advertising, too. "I was pretty frustrated with the business at that point," he says. And that was when Cliff Freeman called.

Freeman had been sent Angelo's book by a headhunter; he looked at it and saw the future of his agency. Following the defection to BBDO by Weinheim-who, along with Freeman and Bijur, is closely associated with the madcap style of Little Caesars-Freeman says he wasn't looking for a Weinheim clone. "I think we were ready for someone new and a little different," he says. "Arthur and I have been together 14 years, so maybe we were insulated in a way." Freeman saw in Angelo more of an art director's sensibilities (Freeman and Bijur are both writers), more of an emphasis on print, and a variety of tones, ranging from humorous to emotional.

Angelo's print portfolio particularly impressed Freeman, who felt that the agency needed to become stronger in that area. Almost as soon as he came aboard, Angelo began to address that. His Sauza "Body Shots" campaign featured dramatic close-ups of naked body parts upon which were placed wedges of lime, little piles of salt and shot glasses of tequila. In suggesting that perhaps the best chaser for tequila was sex, the ads were anything but subtle, and they took some predictable flack for being too sexy, or sexist, or both. But the visually delectable ads did put CF&P on the print map, and the campaign has since evolved in other interesting directions. The current "Life is Harsh" series is lighter and more playful, as in the ad featuring a single-toothed fellow who, we're told, has one cavity.

While beefing up CF&P's print, Angelo's biggest impact probably came with his work on the Prodigy commercials. Perhaps the best of the spots, "Fly Fishing," had a surreal, Fellini-esque feel to it, with its scenes of a fisherman wandering lost through city streets, an opera house, and a stock exchange before being united with a busload of rod and reel soulmates. But the campaign, directed by Tony Kaye, was more than just visually arresting; the neat chatroom/bus analogy almost managed to make online chat groups seem like something communal, en-riching and comforting-rather than the waste of time many think they are. However, soon after the spots won a number of top awards, including a One Show Gold Pencil, CF&P stepped off the Prodigy bus. The struggling client "had no real budget, and they just weren't moving forward," says Freeman. "For a brief moment, I think the campaign lifted spirits in that company-but then reality struck, and the reality was that they just didn't have a good enough product."

Nevertheless, Freeman says the Prodigy work represented a turning point for the agency. "The tone of it was different for us-it was big and emotional," he says. Freeman subsequently began showing the Prodigy spots in new-business pitches, as evidence that CF&P could do more than humor.

Similarly, a new pro bono spot for the New York City Department of Health recently completed by Angelo takes a purely emotional approach. Promoting the always hot topic of condom use, the cinema verite spot features snippets of interviews with urban teens optimistically predicting where they'll be 10 years from now; the point, of course, is that many of these kids may not be around that long if they don't take care of themselves. The theme feels a little too familiar, and the teens don't come alive the way "Lenny" did, but the campaign nevertheless has a gritty, honest feeling to it.

Angelo hasn't been entirely humorless in his work at CF&P. Partnered with Bijur, his first spot for Coke-promoting the large 2-liter bottle-featured hordes of cup-carrying thirsty kids from around the globe who converge on the refrigerator of a mom with a big bottle of Coke. This spot perhaps typifies the agency's ongoing stylistic transition from nutty to cute humor, with a more human feel. It ran only once, during the Olympics; afterwards, Freeman called Coke marketing chief Sergio Zyman. "I said to him, 'If you liked that, why don't you give us something else,' " Freeman says. The Cherry Coke assignment followed, with Angelo's ostrich rider, and that led to Fanta. Though Fanta is a minor player in the U.S. soft drink market, it's popular in a number of foreign countries; CF&P's task is to build on that popularity, while also making a new splash in America. Angelo won't discuss it, but word is that the campaign will try to make Fanta a badge of youthful individuality. Freeman says simply: "It's going to be an eye opener."

At present, Freeman has divided the agency so that Bijur oversees much of the funny stuff-Pep Boys, Staples, Little Caesars-while Angelo supervises Cherry Coke, Sauza, the pro bono work, and the upcoming Fanta campaign. In some cases, Bijur and Angelo work together, on Little Caesars and on TCG, a New York-based phone company for which they produced a commercial in which a man, exultant to be free from his old phone company, cranks up opera music on his car radio and then stands up in the driver's seat as he speeds down the highway. The TCG spot is another example of purposely unfunny Freeman work; it bears a closer resemblance to Prodigy than anything else, without being nearly as memorable.

Some at the agency believe that Bijur and Angelo are destined to butt heads, if they haven't already. But for now, both insist that they're getting along fine with each other, and Freeman notes that "the three of us work really well together." As for life among those working beneath them, there seems to be a sense of excitement tempered by exhaustion. The agency is clearly understaffed and overworked-up until recently, the creative department still consisted of just 13 people. Last summer, in particular, "Everyone thought the place was going to im-plode," says Freeman.

But that's always been somewhat true of the agency; Freeman likes to run a lean ship, which means that people work hard but also get to be involved in the production of many spots. "I don't think there's anyplace else where I could have gotten as much work produced as here," says art director Greg Bell, 27, who has put about 35 commercials on his reel in less than five years at the agency. Creatives also praise the communal environment that has long existed at the agency: "There was always the sense there that you were at a friend's house, and everybody was working on everything together," says one former staffer.

Some are concerned that this bohemian spirit may be in jeopardy as the agency continues to grow and reshape itself. For example, Freeman recently hired his first full-time planner, and "strategic planning is now incorporated into everything we do," says Bijur. "We always used research, but a lot of it was instinct-we were flying a little bit by the seat of the pants in the old days."

There are also concerns that the family atmosphere may vanish as the agency brings in a pack of new people to work on Ameritech and Coke, and as the more aggressive Angelo continues to exert influence. Not that everyone minds that: Some, such as Bell, say they're ready for this new mature stage in CF&P's existence. "I think since David got here, the atmosphere has changed in that there's been a more intense focus on expanding our style and getting new business," he says. "But I welcome that. There was a boutique feel around here before, but now it feels like we're beyond that."

For his part, Angelo thinks CF&P can hold onto some of that old spirit as long as everyone shares the philosophy that the work matters most. "Right now, everybody here shares that," he says. "It's the first time I've experienced that at an agency. I think that's why I feel very comfortable here right now."

If others happen to feel slightly less comfortable there now, Angelo feels, then maybe they just haven't grown up with the agency. "If people say that I'm intense, my response is just that I care about the work and I care about making this agency the best it can be," he says. "I demand a lot of myself-sometimes too much-and I expect the same from people that work for me. Basically, I'm here

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