"That's the kind of credo that Pete and I live by," says Herstek, explaining the goals he and partner/co-CD Pete Favat embraced when they took charge of Houston Effler & Partners' creative department in 1992 (the pair became agency partners the following year). With experience gleaned from 12 agencies between them, Herstek says, they've formed some pretty solid opinions on how agency creative departments should be run. "Our goal," he says, "as impossible as it might be, is to create a perfect agency. I think it all stems from being fair, being kind, believing in your people and equally spreading around the jobs that are a pain in the ass."
While perfection may indeed be unattainable, Herstek and Favat, who oversee a creative department of nearly 40, have clearly worked some magic in Boston; the agency has doubled in size since their arrival, now billing roughly $140 million, and this onetime stodgy retail shop has done a "creative 180," as Favat puts it.
Of course, you don't cover ground like this without the right kicks, and Herstek, 41, and Favat, 34, wear Converse, an edge-scuffing account that followed the two when they left Ingalls Quinn & Johnson three years ago to take control of Houston's creative department. The flashy Converse business has also helped to attract invitations to pitches, like VW, which they vied for and lost to local rival Arnold Lawner Fortuna & Cabot earlier this year; on the flip side, it did lead to work for the TNT cable channel and NEC, the latter shared with the agency's New York sibling Houston Effler Hampel Stefanides. They've also just won Bertucci's, a local Italian restaurant chain, and they've retained the Massachusetts Department of Tourism account.
The Converse work also demonstrates how the agency takes "dangerous ideas seriously," as Herstek notes, a necessity, considering that Reebok and Nike each spend roughly five times as many media dollars in a year. "We have to make a little more noise," says Peter Blacklow, assistant category manager/basketball at Converse. It's not just money, he points out; "Nike has a horde of top athlete endorsers. We obviously have fewer resources and have to make the best use of them."
Hence, the Charlotte Hornets' Larry Johnson doing transvestite shtick as a character called Grandmama is a bit off the beaten court, even for hoops hype, and Converse's animated spots are certifiably insane. When Shannon Wheeler's Too Much Coffee Man uses an All Star as a coffee filter, it's grounds for committal; likewise, when Danny Antonucci's Lupo the Butcher makes a lo-top by cleaving a hi-top, we're definitely creeping off the scale. The Converse React cross trainer was launched as the Psycho Trainer, and there's even an animated spot in which a murderous lunatic named Chainsaw Bob visits Foot Locker.
If Converse shows off the agency's agility with aberrant attention getters, then its acclaimed "The Truth" antismoking campaign for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, which has won Gold at the One Show and Cannes and was Best of Show at Boston's '95 Hatch Awards, demonstrates how it tackles hard-hitting topics with head-on grimness-in this case, b&w footage of real people laying on the nasty facts about tobacco companies with documentary-style impact. Believe it or not, the agency has found a way to give even a life-and-death client like this a comic side: in one spot, a talking camel walks up to a microphone to announce that he's never smoked a cigarette in his life.
Meanwhile, the agency's retail work, which is still 30 percent of its billings, along with business like Lechmere catalog stores and the local Midas account, is starting to show signs of Conversationalism. The agency won Hatch Best of Show last year with a TV campaign for the Stop 'n' Save supermarket chain that features a loony, lonely guy named Ed who soliloquizes in the aisles while handling products like they were stage props.
So the weirdness is spreading. "We didn't want to be a one-trick pony," says Herstek of their reputation for Converse craziness. Understandable, but how did Herstek and Favat, two creative guys with a penchant for grunge, ever find their way to Houston Effler? It all happened because Doug Houston was fond of Grandmama. A former New York copywriter, Houston started an agency out of his Wellesley, Mass., farmhouse in 1986, bringing on the heavy retail client Bay Banks a year later. He was shopping for a CD in 1992 to boost his sagging creative department when he noticed the "Grandmama" campaign. "I thought it was the best thing on TV," Houston says. An acquaintance and fan of Favat's, Houston adds, "the minute that campaign broke, I knew I wanted to renew that relationship."
Even though they were Ingalls' main team on Converse, Herstek and Favat were feeling stifled there, they say, and they began talking to Houston, who had hired Mark Richardson, a Converse account exec at Ingalls. A few months later, Herstek and Favat came on board; the client followed a few days later.
While the partners claim they were ready to leave Converse behind, Favat admits that one of the deterrents to opening their own agency was that a small shop couldn't accommodate a sneaker client. "We did it assuming this $22 million account was not coming with us," Herstek says of their departure from Ingalls. "Doug just believed in our ability to pick up new business and change the character of this little retail agency." But the fact that Converse was tied to them wasn't a huge surprise. "We'd endeared ourselves with the marketing people over there, who'd been struggling for a long time to come up with a consistent campaign that had some legs," Favat explains. Suddenly the agency had doubled in size, and Herstek and Favat were CDs. Their brash style at first irritated some in Boston; their house ad in the Boston Ad Club Directory boasted: "Despised, envied and feared. Houston Effler & Partners."
"We invited a little bit of abuse on ourselves," admits Herstek. "Some people were offended by that. We thought, Who cares? We were just having fun. But suddenly there was a whole gang of people who we were responsible for. We had to keep giving them work, and that work had to keep getting better."
When the agency resigned the time-intensive Bay Banks account in 1991 to pursue more branded accounts, it signaled a conscious effort to shift the balance away from retail. But art director David Gardiner, who admits he was initially reluctant to join the agency because of its awards-free meat-and-potatoes reputation, believes that while the quality of the work is better, its retail heritage and accompanying fast-paced culture still thrive. "A certain type of person succeeds here," Gardiner says, referring to the work flow.
For instance, working on accounts ranging from NEC to the Museum of Science to Public Health, Todd Riddle, now an ACD at Leonard Monahan, says he and former partner Mark Nardi, now at Pagano Schenck & Kay, churned out 32 awards show-eligible ads in a year. He attributes this to a hands-off senior creative management style that streamlines the bureaucracy.
Moreover, the way Herstek and Favat "are able to work together from different ends of the spectrum makes them that much more believable from the client's standpoint," says Blacklow, who used to report to them as an HEHF account planner. While Herstek is more prone to favor campaigns that make great strategic sense, "Pete has the attitude of an 18-year-old, and I think he's is more in tune with what kids would find cool."
All of which explains why the Public Health campaign closely adheres to a strictly defined strategy, says Richard Earle, ad consultant for the department, who vouches that smoking has declined 15 percent in the state in the two and a half years since HEHF gained the account. "We've set up the notion of a movement, and then one by one gave people a reason to quit smoking," explains Herstek, noting that re- search inspired most of the spots.
And while the agency is blessed with clients whose work makes nifty awards show entries, there isn't the typical handful of names swiping all the honors. "They don't hog all the credit," says Riddle. "Pete said to me once, 'I don't care if I ever win an award again, as long as the agency does well, as long as everyone else wins awards. That's where I get my kicks.' He means that, and I think that shows his comfort level in the job."
Favat may simply have had his fill of collecting statues. A New Jersey native, he was fresh out of the School of Visual Arts and working as an art director at Lintas when he won a Gold Clio on the first commercial he ever produced, a spot for Friskies Buffet in which costumed birds waddled by cats who couldn't get their faces out of their dishes.
He quickly moved up to the Diet Coke campaign, but a few years later, as he was contemplating a move to Los Angeles to try his hand at directing, he was enticed to come to Boston to work at Ingalls on Converse and the Institute of Contemporary Art, a small but creatively fulfilling account.
Herstek grew up in Cleveland and studied journalism at the University of Oregon. After working at Cole & Weber in Portland, he headed East for stints at several shops in Washington D.C. and New York.
"One of the reasons I think I'm in this business is because I disliked advertising so much," says Favat, who's anti-style effort to make the work "cooler or more entertaining" is highlighted in an early All Stars spot he co-directed called "Ugly," in which a collection of grungy tattooed and pierced real people (before they were ubiquitous) show up in a collaged background of ripped paper. It was the time when the Old Milwaukee Swedish Bikini Team was invading, Favat explains, "so I wanted to go the opposite way, putting really rough looking people in there." The copy, written by Herstek, mirrors the duo's mutual disdain for trite lifestyle ads. "There's a growing sense of strength in our collective ugliness," rasps the streetwise brute of a narrator, who concludes, "We don't have perfect airbrushed bodies and we don't want 'em. The point is not to be beautiful, but to be yourself."
In other early Converse spots, directed by Favat, a cute brunette gets a Converse tattoo inked on her behind as her jeans are bunched around her All Stars, or a guy water skis in All Stars to "MTV Sports"-type rock.
Lately, the grunge element has given way to the wild animated spots, many culled from the credits of the acclaimed Spike and Mike's Sick & Twisted Animation Festival, and print ads like those featuring cool high school girls being their bitchin' selves. "The client deserves a personality," says Herstek. "Advertising tends to get generic when you talk to whole demographics."
As the agency grows, its reach is extending, Herstek says; now he's gunning for a soft drink, beer or car account. Favat says he'd like to do some more directing. As the agency begins to attract bigger clients, it's also becoming a bit of a creative revolving door; five senior level creatives whose names dotted the '95 Hatch book have now moved on to other agencies, for personal and professional reasons. "When you're good you can expect to be raided," Houston says matter of factly.
Herstek and Favat's unusually close relationship with Converse also mandates they not stray too far from the account, limiting the amount of work others can do on it. Mike Wilson, a writer at Merkley Newman Harty, says he left because he and then art director partner Mickey Paxton, who's now at J. Walter Thompson/New York, wanted to broaden their portfolios; in two years they'd concentrated almost exclusively on Converse basketball shoes, first having to convince the client of their ability. "How many basketball commercials can you do?" Wilson asks. "It was a ton of fun, but, career wise, I didn't feel like I could have an all-basketball shoe book."
But, he adds, "I'm afraid that's the most fun I'll ever have in advertising."