Agency of the Year: Goodby, Silverstein & Partners

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It's California Street, not Abbey Road, and the maestros at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners are practicing their craft amid the discordant sounds of a business driven by accountants' dictates and central distribution mechanisms and at a time when dot-com advertising has tainted the term "creative."

Given a two-week window, the shop rebooted the floundering Hewlett-Packard Co. brand with an integrated campaign centered on the humble garage in which the company was founded and the simple tag, "Invent."

Click here for examples of Goodby creative.

In less than two years, the San Francisco-based Omnicom Group agency helped build E-Trade Securities into one of the most powerful online financial services brands. In telephone services, the agency developed a breakthrough campaign for SBC Communications' Pacific Bell. And since 1993, Goodby has gotten milk, no question mark needed.

For these campaigns, for its overall creative reel last year and for many years before that, and for building a corporate structure to ensure its craft endures, Goodby is Advertising Age's U.S. Agency of the Year for 2000.

"They are the best agency in the world," says Andy Berlin, chairman of New York shop Berlin, Cameron & Partners and a founder of Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein, which in 1989 became the first San Francisco operation to win the Agency of the Year honor.

"I envy [their creative] greedily, and I don't really know how they could have kept that up for that long," says Mr. Berlin, who left in 1992.

Not only has the agency maintained the quality of the creative, admirers note, but its work also has been successful for large companies with complicated business challenges, not just flashy spots for cable sports programming or for here today, gone tomorrow dot-coms.

Bob Kerstetter, a principal of San Francisco-based Black Rocket who was Goodby's No. 48 employee, called the agency "the Tony Gwynn of the ad f***ers," referring to the San Diego Padres' star hitter known for his consistency at the plate.

"They offer [clients] about as close to a guarantee of good work and good strategic thinking as you are going to get," he says.

Barrie Hedge, chairman of the San Francisco office of Interpublic Group 0f Cos.' McCann-Erickson Worldwide, says time after time when he sees a spot he loves on TV, "sure enough, it's Goodby. They don't make many mistakes."

THREE-YEAR STREAK

Goodby's 2000 creative achievements were the culmination of a win streak totaling $629 million over three years. It started in 1998 when the agency picked up Dow Jones & Co.'s The Wall Street Journal and Pacific Bell. In 1999, it added two of the more successful dot-com brands, E-Trade and eBay. Then it added its most important account east of the Mississippi River, Discover Financial Services. Last year, Goodby won Sirius Satellite Radio's account, gnawing its largest chunk out of the Big Apple's hometown clientele.

During that time, Goodby Silverstein also greatly expanded its HP business, long a disparate group of individual operations, each division marching to its own marketing. Goodby's opportunity arose in the summer of 1999 when Carly Fiorina, with a reputation for marketing smarts at Lucent Technologies, took over as CEO of HP.

"I was mesmerized by her clarity," says Rich Silverstein, co-chairman. Not only that, she wore expensive Italian designer clothing. "Had you ever seen Armani at HP? She had style."

HP LOGO REDONE

The agency began by retooling the HP logo it inherited after a redesign-along with a tagline "Expanding possibilities"-from Landor Associates, a San Francisco branding consultancy that is part of WPP Group's Young & Rubicam. The "Invent" campaign, aimed at HP's own employees as much as Wall Street and consumers, placed Ms. Fiorina in some ads as a tip to the cognoscenti.

One print ad invented "10 rules of the garage," such as, "Know when to work alone and when to work together," which has become something of a corporate Bible. The campaign, which included an Internet effort, was followed by commercials backing Amazon.com's use of HP technology.

"They helped us find our soul. They helped us get to a simple, pure idea behind our brand that galvanizes everyone," says Alison Johnson, VP-brand strategy and communications. The unifying theme aided the company in moving "from a thousand microphones to one megaphone," she says.

Overall, the HP transformation "is the highlight so far of my career," says Mr. Silverstein.

Apparently, the HP campaign was an easier sell than other agency work. Gerry Graf, now executive creative director at Goodby sibling Omnicom shop BBDO Worldwide, New York, says E-Trade executives balked at producing a proposed spot for the 2000 Super Bowl when they heard the concept: a monkey lip-synchs to "La Cucaracha" followed by text: "Well, we just wasted 2 million bucks. What are you doing with your money?"

Mr. Silverstein offered to pay for the shoot himself just to show the effectiveness of the spot, potentially taking $100,000 out of pocket, Mr. Graf estimates. "They'll do anything for great creative," he says.

The client ultimately trusted the agency; the spot ran and received critical acclaim; and the monkey returned in a different E-Trade spot created for the 2001 Super Bowl.

LEADERSHIP ROLE

"They played a significant leadership role in creating one of the great brands in recent history and in a relatively short time," says Jerry Gramaglia, E-Trade president-chief operating officer. "These guys keep the faith-that it's the ideas and the advertising that makes the difference-and it does." Although some spots have "fallen flat," his trust in Mr. Silverstein allows Mr. Gramaglia to give the agency "leeway" in the creative.

"Rich [Silverstein] is clear about things and how he feels. He doesn't make excuses, doesn't rationalize. Rich is the first to say, 'It's not our best work.' "

At the same time it worked on dot-com brands, Goodby generated enduring creative for its groundbreaking "Got Milk?" campaign with new spots such as one showing an ant getting squashed as it tries to get milk to its fellow insects.

Discover is being repositioned from its lowbrow image into a hip one for the "smarter" consumer. The campaign features a dad who realizes it's better to spend a little more by buying a beagle instead of a hyena.

For SBC Communications' Pacific Bell's offering, the agency went up against competitors offering cable line access with a documentary-style campaign for the fictitious Laurel Lane, a once lovely community now plagued by neighbors shouting "Web Hog" and "Log Off," the work of new Co-Creative Director Paul Venables.

In the tradition of the craft as practiced in San Francisco, Goodby went beyond its outdoor campaign for The Wall Street Journal by digging into the Journal's bread and butter direct-response advertising.

The agency created a series of spots that spoofed direct ads by noting under the offer, subscribers will get individual letters of stories for as little as a fraction of a penny.

PREPARING FOR THE FUTURE

Still, Goodby did more than produce another year of strong creative. It also took steps to position its organization for its next stage with the two founders handing over day-to-day creative responsibilities to Steve Simpson, creative director, instrumental in the HP work, and Mr. Venables.

"I don't want to be what the [National Football League's San Francisco] 49ers have become-the dynasty is over," says Mr. Silverstein. "People can fall on their face now. I hope they don't, but they can," he adds.

The agency nevertheless may be finding itself up against the challenge posed by Jay Chiat, namely how big can they get before they get bad.

One of the agency's strengths-or weaknesses-is a churn among employee ranks, particularly apparent after the co-creative directors were named. Goodby Silverstein likens its management philosophy to that of a Major League Baseball club, juggling the lineup as the bench allows but not becoming too attached to individual players.

"The company can't be stagnant-there has to be a constant ebb and flow of people and clients," says Mr. Silverstein.

At the highest levels, Goodby Silverstein's management traditionally has been based on a redundancy, which has insured a reliable and diverse creative product, starting with the original partners dividing up accounts and now mirrored on the account management and planning side.

Some critics note the agency has yet to embrace new media in a big way. The partners, however, are proud of some things they did not do in 2000 in light of the soft economy, especially the decision to forgo a Web advertising unit and instead integrate the discipline into the creative group. The partners also are pleased they put off plans to expand to New York and to other cities.

SIMILARITIES ARISE

Amid the plethora of work coming out of the shop, some recent spots for different clients take similar tacks, one pair spoofing pharmaceutical advertising and a second pair focused on hospital emergency rooms.

For E-Trade, the pharmaceutical spoof touted a fake company's "Nozulla" allergy product, which "causes the condition known as 'hot dog fingers,' " among other ailments, and showed a trader selling the company stock. For TiVo, retired 49er superstars Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott discussed "Itch Stopper Plus," a supposed cure for masculine itching. Viewers then were advised TiVo would allow them to skip commercials.

The 2000 Super Bowl had an E-Trade spot showing a man going into an emergency room with "money coming out the 'wazoo.' " Later in the year, Discover had a man going into the emergency room, using his card, and enjoying the fact he will get money back after he is revived from a heart attack.

Mr. Silverstein says the parallel ads occurred because different groups in the agency are not always aware of what others are doing. "As long as we're first, we don't mind," E-Trade's Mr. Gramaglia says.

Survey a number of Goodby Silverstein alumni about the shop's creative these days, and more than a few are lukewarm.

"I'm just not that knocked out that much anymore," says one creative now running a competing shop. Another says he always thinks they "have lost it" but then sees a couple of spots he really likes.

Black Rocket's Mr. Kerstetter, who cut his creative teeth under what he calls Mr. Goodby's creative soul spiked with Mr. Silverstein's caffeine, says the business nevertheless owes the pair a debt.

"Goodby's not afraid to go places, even dangerous places," he said. "It would be a much different business without them."

Copyright January 2001, Crain Communications Inc.

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