20 Agencies to Watch

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When Parker Channon and Bob Duncan decided to open an agency together, in 1990, they may have seemed an unlikely pair to anchor an aspiring hot shop. In the team of two copywriters, Duncan is a former rock musician, music writer and managing editor of Creem. Channon, by contrast, was an account coordinator with no prior creative experience until creative director Duncan gave him a shot as a copywriter while the two were at FCB/San Francisco. When Duncan left FCB to freelance, he and Channon decided to go for broke and launch a San Francisco shop of their own. They worked out of Duncan's garage in the beginning, formulating a typical tiny-shop organizational model that excluded account management and media planning. "When you start an agency, you want to tear all those structures down," says Channon, 36, of their early bare-bones years. "Then, after a while, you realize the power of the whole agency increases the power of the work."

That realization became painfully apparent in 1998, during a pitch for videogame work. Duncan/Channon had been doing creative for SimCity; when SimCity's parent company was bought by Electronic Arts (EA), the agency was kept on to handle the title and eventually invited to pitch for a larger chunk of EA's business. "We spent a month or two on the pitch, really threw ourselves into it," remembers Duncan, 48. "By all accounts from everyone inside EA, we smoked them all creatively and everything seemed to go great. Then they gave it to Bozell based on the fact that we didn't have media in-house. We said, `That's it, we're going to make the agency big enough, get media, get more serious strategists and upgrade the account department.' Now we have all those things and we have the same great creative if not better."

The agency's print portfolio is clearly its ace in the hole, and the quality of the print can be substantially credited to Anne Elisco Lemme, art director/ACD, who arrived three and a half years ago to relieve the team of writers of its art burden. "Right away, they respected what I said and allowed me to build the art department," says Lemme of her two bosses. Not that the writers have no visual sense; "The great thing about them as writers is that they can really think visually," she says. "They have strong opinions but they'll give me the benefit of the doubt." Lemme's fine-arts background has clearly left its mark on the agency's design-oriented print. Work for Live365.com, for instance, is modeled after conspiracy theory pamphlets, the kind that are handed out by paranoid schizophrenics on the street - complete with multiple exclamation points, random underlined words and unlikely cognitive leaps. "Nail biting, slouching, `close' dancing - these are all things you can quit. Live365.com is not. Pretty soon you'll be skipping work. Kids will be playing hooky. And who's that sitting in your Barca-lounger? Why it's Saddam Hussein!" Posters for EA's Fighter Legends cleverly use Air Force lingo, like "Foxtrot Uniform Charlie Kilo India November Alpha," to demonstrate the strong language inspired by the realistic fighting.

Small Screen Green

More recently, Duncan/Channon has made strides toward expanding its broadcast reel with clients like Eidos Interactive, the videogame developer that built Tomb Raider's Lara Croft. One spot for the company's Sydney2000 game features the warm-up for a swim competition, full of sleek Nordic men with wedge-like torsos - and a guy named Kenny Dunkel, short, soft and ill at ease. In the real world, Kenny wouldn't make it past the qualifying round, but videogames are the great equalizer, and underdeveloped Kenny only needs a strong thumb to beat the Swedes for the title when he does it via Eidos. Elsewhere on the reel, a spot for the California Coastal Commission that touts a beach clean-up day features a toothless old man who wanders along the sand picking up trash until something catches his eye. He reaches down, takes it in his hand and appears to be eating it. Then he turns to the camera and gives a big denture-white grin. "You never know what you'll find," says the cheerful voiceover.

With clients like Eidos, music website Riffage.com, Pacific Bell and staffing service SkillsVillage, the agency's billings were up to about $36 million last year. Last month, the $6 million Clos du Bois wine account was added, with television work in the offing; even in this economic downturn, the mood at Duncan/Channon is distinctly upbeat.

"We have very high standards but it's without all the Mickey Mouse political bullshit," says Duncan of his spiffed-up, full-service shop. "It sounds self-serving when I say it, but I like coming to work."

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