Brian Bacino and Steve Fong of Foote, Cone & Belding, San Francisco, had pretty much decided on a director for a commercial-"Pool Boy"-that was to be a centerpiece of client Levi Strauss & Co.'s 1996 "501 reasons" campaign. The director was about to go on vacation, and had to be signed immediately.
Paul Wolfe, agency exec VP-executive creative director, thought better of the choice, so he took Mr. Bacino and Mr. Fong for a long walk-not along a beautiful beach but on a downtrodden street.
"It was almost like talking with a son-you don't say 'don't' but 'think hard'," says Mr. Wolfe.
The gentle persuasion worked, resulting in the team's selection of another director, Tarsem, for the spot, a critically acclaimed mini-film. "An extraordinary choice" by the two creatives, notes Mr. Wolfe, adding: "I didn't dictate. I opened up the process."
For its exceptional, often rule-breaking creative work, especially for various Levi's brands, Foote, Cone & Belding in San Francisco has been named Advertising Age's U.S. Agency of the Year for 1996.
"They're hitting home runs," says Steve Goldstein, VP-marketing and research for Levi Strauss. "The Wide Leg campaign is the most celebrated work that's been done for us in many years."
The selection marks the first time the award has been given to a single office of a large national agency. FCB's San Francisco, Chicago and New York offices have-at least until the appointment last year of U.S. CEO Brendan Ryan-operated more as three independent agencies.
The San Francisco office's $700 million in '96 billings trails the Chicago ($842 million) and New York ($1.1 billion) operations, though that still makes it one of the two largest agencies on the West Coast.
BOLAND LEADS CHARGE
Advertising involves "doing work that touches consumers and resonates there and cuts through the clutter and connects in a very smart way," says San Francisco President-CEO Jack Boland. "I would consider our work to be smart work."
He adds: "It's all about creativity. At the end of the day, that's what clients are looking for."
GOODBY RIGHT UP THERE
There is a bright creative light emanating from the West Coast, particularly the city by the Bay.
Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco, came in a close second to FCB for keeping the California Milk Processors Board's "Got Milk?" ads fresh, for launching humorous campaigns for Polaroid Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co., and for creating strong print ads for, among others, Umbro soccer equipment-work that helped the agency pick up a piece of the coveted Nike account this year.
Actually, it was from Goodby that FCB in mid-'96 hired Senior VP-Group Creative Director Chuck McBride, who's credited with the breakthrough "Doctors" and "Elevator Fantasy" TV spots for Levi's Wide Leg Jeans. Those energy-filled, risk-taking com-mercials were among the year's best and put FCB over the top.
Perhaps one of its most powerful spots, "New Orleans," never made it to TV because of concern over scenes involving an African-American boy tap-dancing on a street corner. The commercial tells the tale of a voodoo priestess enlisted to take revenge on an unfaithful lover. Her attempt to skewer him is thwarted by the metal on his button-fly jeans-yet another reason to buy 501s.
LEVI'S 25% OF BILLINGS
Levi Strauss, a client representing about 25% of total billings, also got from FCB an enhancement to its already successful "Nice Pants" campaign for Dockers with "Vive la France" and ads launching the Slates brand of dress slacks, an effort that included the sly and suggestive "Mango Tango" spot.
The agency's creative streak isn't limited to Levi Strauss; it shows breadth as well as strength. FCB's TV campaign for online search engine Excite featured a polyhedron with retro photos and was set to Jimi Hendrix's "Are You Experienced?" For Janus Funds, FCB's eye-catching creative took investing down to the simple concept of encouraging consumers to save $50 a month. For Coors Brewing Co.'s original Coors beer, "Rattlin' Jack" sends a rattlesnake packing and leaves his cowboy friend shaken.
"We're partners, and we seek their counsel," says Kevin Kotecki, VP-brand marketing at Coors, who credited FCB's efforts-through promotions and point-of-sale materials-with helping in its relaunch of the original brand, in decline for many years.
"FCB's strong leadership has contributed significantly to the relaunch-the advertising has been a strong part of the success story to date," Mr. Kotecki says.
The depth of its creative was evident also in work for Pillsbury's Toaster Strudel in a typically uninspired package-goods category. In a TV spot, a boy keeps throwing his uneaten rival brand into the trunk of his mother's car. The vehicle drives off amid a ground-scraping flurry of sparks.
"I like the balance of the agency," says a prominent national agency consultant. "They do nice work beyond Levi's. They've got some world-class talent."
TROUBLES ALONG THE WAY
The San Francisco agency's creative journey has not been an easy one.
Creative Director Mike Koel-ker, whose 1980s "501 blues" advertising made him an industry legend, went to the doctor with a cough one day in 1995 and never returned, dying of cancer within a few months.
But prior to his illness, the office had begun to encounter dissent among the talented pool of creatives he had assembled. Levi Strauss, one of the most loyal of clients, was becoming unhappy with Dockers work at the time.
The shop also was reeling from 1994's loss of the bells, as it came to be known-Taco Bell moved its business following a five-year run and Pacific Bell had to move when FCB's New York office picked up AT&T Corp. (although San Fran-cisco retains the $20 million Yellow Pages business).
BOLAND CAUSED A STIR
Meanwhile, Mr. Boland, the office's longtime chief financial officer, had ascended to the general manager's post. That caused an-other stir; some seasoned creatives thought of him as a "just an accountant."
Mr. Boland brought in Mr. Wolfe from Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG to shore up creative management. But shortly afterward, Mr. Koelker died, and the New Yorker's style rankled many longtime creatives, especially those mourning their now-fallen leader.
Also, the new management team had a different idea of how the agency was to be run, overseeing creative and interjecting itself into the process.
"Everybody here is in the ad business," Mr. Boland says, "either creating good work, supporting good work or celebrating good work."
Still, the shop was accustomed to a different operating system.
"We were a guru-based culture" under Mr. Koelker, says Jeff Iorillo, senior VP-group creative director. Now "we all have to be our own guru."
Says another creative who weathered the period: "Everyone rushed to judgment the first year. There was a period when we were completely lost. I don't know how the hell we did it."
But they did. The team managed to stabilize the solid structure of creative talent Mr. Koelker had assembled-among them Mr. Iorillo, Claude Jacques, Tim Price, Corey Stolberg, David Hunter and Mike Leonard-and began to add new creatives into the fold, including Arthur Vibert and Messrs. McBride, Fong and Bacino. All of them are senior VP-group creative directors, and more than a dozen talented yet less-senior copywriters and art directors were recruited as well.
The agency is "building a creative mecca," says Mr. Wolfe. "The more talent that comes here, the more and more magnetic it will become.
"I realized the culture here needed a lot of finesse and suggesting, rather than dictating," he adds. "It's a little less efficient and causes more wear and tear, but at the end of the day you become judged by something that you wouldn't have done yourself."
Mr. Boland restructured the office, dismantling a number of fiefdoms and consolidating technology, direct marketing, design and promotion so the agency could pitch and win business as a team. He also put together a new-business team, which the agency lacked.
"We spent 1996 developing a targeted list of clients we want to work with," says Mr. Boland, who adds: "Levi's is the best client in the world. They are the first to recognize we need to be [expanding our client base] beyond them."
More importantly, Mr. Boland established a strong account planning group under Senior VP-Director of Planning Kevin Dundas, whose discipline of a one-page brief and a one-line proposition for creative was first applied to Levi Strauss and will soon cover all agency clients.
At one point, Mr. Dundas dispensed with focus groups and gave young people representing the Levi's Wide Leg target market a disposable camera and told them to have a party over the weekend. The "It's Wide Open" theme evolved from an insight gleaned from that.
LAST YEAR STARTED WITH LOSS
Last year didn't start out as a stellar year. One of the agency's biggest account hits came as '96 was dawning, when FCB and parent True North Communications decided to cast their lot with S.C. Johnson & Son, leading to the departure of $65 million in billings for Clorox Co., an account held since 1925.
During the year, however, Mr. Boland and his team regained all of the lost billings, through a combination of increased ad spending from existing clients and the addition of a number of smaller accounts.
FCB ended '95 with billings of about $620 million, including Clorox. Following that departure, FCB went on to pick up Excite, about $8 million; Goldwin Golf, $8 million also; ICG Communications, a Denver-based telecommunications company spending about $10 million; Keds Corp., with about $10 million in spending for its kids' shoes; Netcom, $8 million; sports marketing for Powerfood Inc.'s Powerbar, around $3 million; Seagate Technology, $15 million; ChemTrak, a marketer of medical diagnostic kits, $6 million; and Sutter Home Winery's promotion business, estimated at $4 million.
(So far in '97, the office has won Fox Sports Net, about $20 million, counting promo time on Fox TV; Autodesk, a software company spending $10 million to $12 million; Amazon.com, a cyber bookseller; and Aames Financial Corp., at $20 million to $25 millon.)
And, importantly, the agency was assisted in the rebuilding by the $40 million Wide Leg effort and new Slates, a launch put at from $15 million to $20 million.
That, of course, reiterates the strength of FCB's tight relationship with Levi's, a client since 1930.
"They have a deep knowledge of the client and product, a deep knowledge of the essence of the brand, a deep knowledge of retail relationships and a deep