BACK TO THE FUTURE: TBWA CHIAT/DAY EXPLORES THE QUESTION, HOW BIG DO YOU HAVE TO GET BEFORE YOU GET GREAT AGAIN?

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No one is quite sure how TBWA Chiat/Day managed to go back to the future. Maybe Lee Clow, the agency's 54-year-old bearded guru of a creative chief, borrowed some sort of Hollywood time machine from Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks studio, located next door to the agency's new digs. Or perhaps someone's just been playing tricks with the calendars.

But somehow, 1997 became 1984 all over again for Chiat/Day. Just as before, the agency is a lightning rod for industry debate, particularly with its campaigns for Nissan and ABC. Just as before, the overall TBWA Chiat/Day reel -- which also includes work for Apple, Taco Bell, Sony Playstation, Infiniti, Energizer and the Weather Channel -- is one of the strongest in advertising right now. (Not everybody loves all of it, but as Merkley Newman Harty creative director and Chiat veteran Marty Cooke observes, "No matter what people may think about each particular execution, their work has once again tapped into the zeigeist -- and everybody's talking about it.") Just as before, Lee Clow has lately found himself conducting high-adrenaline shorts-and-sandals meetings with Steve Jobs, Apple's ageless boy wonder, as the two plot ways to rock the world with the new Apple ad campaign. And just as before, the agency is walking, and sometimes teetering, on its own high wire, as it tries to deal with explosive growth (having almost doubled in size in the last two years, with billings now at $900 million), while simultaneously attempting to put out fires among uneasy clients.

But how did the resurrection of Clow and TBWA Chiat/Day come about? After all, reincarnation and deja vu may be routine stuff in Southern California, but creative comebacks don't happen very often in advertising -- and almost never after a merger, as is the case with TBWA Chiat/Day. The resurrection is all the more stunning because just a few years ago, many people in the ad business were ready to write off the agency, which was, at the time, financially troubled, internally divided and creatively unfocused.

Moreover, Chiat/Day had lost prestige by the early 1990s, having been eclipsed by advertising's new triumvirate of creative leaders: Wieden & Kennedy, Goodby Silverstein & Partners and Fallon McElligott. The agency was rarely mentioned in the same breath with those three, which bothered Clow. "I didn't like having to use other agencies as a benchmark for us, after we'd been the benchmark for so long," he says. Clow recalls a particularly frustrating moment of a few years ago, when he was attending an industry function with Jeff Goodby. "He was introduced to the audience as 'the creative director of the '90s,' " says Clow, "and I was introduced as 'the creative director of the '80s.' As if my time had come and gone. That kind of rubbed salt in the wound."

It wasn't as if Clow, or Chiat/Day, had ever stopped trying to be a top creative agency. "We've always been in the game," says creative director Rob Siltanen, an eight-year veteran who has been a central figure in the agency's revival. "Even during our worst years, we always had the Energizer Bunny or something interesting going on here. But we were only doing good work in small pockets, not across the board."

Clow believes that by the early '90s, after failed global acquisition strategies of the previous go-go decade had taken their toll, the agency was weighed down by mundane financial concerns. "We had all of this debt," he says, "and then we slammed into the '90s recession."

Blunting The Edge

Those day-to-day survival anxieties began to "take the edge off our attitude," he says. "We didn't go into each project shooting for the moon." That's because the agency, which had seen Reebok and American Express walk out, couldn't afford to lose any more clients. Some of the staff subconsciously felt they needed to play it safe. "And when the people at the agency believe you're scared," Clow says, "you can say all you want about creativity, but it falls on deaf ears."

As is so often the case in troubled times, there was plenty of internal dissent. "There were a lot of shouting matches," recalls Bob Kuperman, the agency's chief executive, who continues to share some of the creative burden with Clow, while also attending increasingly to new-business efforts. Disagreements over the work erupted, over staff compensation -- even over furniture, or the lack thereof. While the agency's work languished, founder Jay Chiat began to trumpet the "virtual office" as the new hallmark of Chiat/Day -- which didn't sit particularly well with Clow and other creatives, many of whom saw the whole virtual office episode as a gimmick and a justification for downsizing. (The agency has backed away from the experiment in the last two years.)

Some say Clow himself was distracted during this period. "Lee was disincentivized," says one industry source who knows Clow well. "He was spending his time going out on a boat, and he wasn't really involved in the work."

Omnicom Lets U.B.U.

Plagued by all of those problems, Clow and Kuperman were receptive to the idea of being acquired by Omnicom in early 1995. (Omnicom merged TBWA and Chiat/Day in the summer of that year.) Both men were aware of the risks of being swallowed by a larger company, but they also saw that Goodby Silverstein had maintained its independent spirit and creative edge after a merger with the same firm. Jay Chiat, on the other hand, wanted the agency to remain independent, and it caused a rift between Chiat and Clow. "We picked this option, and it wasn't his favorite option," says Clow. "He said to us, 'Whatever you guys want to do, go ahead and do it.' But he said it in a little bit of an angry way. He was kind of mad that we wanted to do this." Chiat subsequently sold his stake in the agency to Omnicom, and retired.

But Chiat's departure only added to the agency's image problems. There was the sense that without its charismatic founder, Chiat/Day would never be the same; some press articles at the time of the merger sounded almost like obituaries. "There was a lot of talk about, 'The end of Chiat/Day as we know it,' " says Clow. "People may have had a less- than-clear understanding of the agency culture, and my role in it."

In fact, the merger revitalized the Venice office. While the New York arm had to contend with the difficulties of actually dovetailing its staff and operations with those of TBWA, Clow and the Californians suffered no such disruptions. (The New York office is showing signs of revitalization under creative director Eric McClellan; the third U.S. branch, in St. Louis, was recently shut down). In some ways, the Venice operation reaped the benefits of the merger -- an influx of money and global resources -- without the difficulties. "The merger freed us from all those money problems and worries that had held us down," says Clow. "People didn't understand it at the time, but the merger, from our point of view, was seen as a strategy to get back to our soul."

Clow had determined at the outset that in the post-merger environment, he had no intention of becoming a corporation guy. "Flying from office to office, laying on of hands -- that's a crock of shit," he says. "The most important thing I can do is come in here every day and try to raise the creative bar at our main office." Freed from some of the management duties by Kuperman in L.A. and Bill Tragos in New York, he became even more involved in the work. "I stopped worrying about bills and started to feel my job was to get up in the morning and do good ads," he says.

Supporting Clow was a small core team of creative directors that included Siltanen, Jerry Gentile, Chuck Bennett and Clay Williams. While he's hands-off in some ways, Clow remains much closer to the work than most chief creative officers: "He sees everything," says Williams. "We have total access to him. And the coolest thing about Lee is that he gets so excited about good ideas."

With Clow determined to flex the agency's creative muscles once again, he saw an early opportunity shortly after the merger: Gentile's creative group, working on a small campaign for California Sunkist pistachio nuts, came up with an inspired series of vignettes featuring oddball Californians going through bizarre rituals, accompanied by the tagline: "The best nuts come from California." But there was pressure from the client and the agency planning department to pull back and try a more conventional strategy. "We started saying, 'What should we change?' " says Kuperman. "Then Lee and I looked at each other and said, 'What are we doing? This kind of campaign is what we're in advertising for!' It was a catharsis." Kuperman adds: "I basically told the client, 'Take this campaign or we're out of here.' " The campaign won awards, but more importantly, it sent a signal that the agency was beginning to overcome its early-'90s fear of flying.

Energizing Nissan

The real breakthrough came shortly thereafter, as the agency breathed new life into the Nissan brand. It began when the then-president of Nissan U.S.A., Bob Thomas, asked Clow how Nissan could make its commercials as popular and memorable as Chiat/Day's most famous creations -- Apple's "1984" and the Energizer Bunny. Clow told him that Nissan would have to be willing to break new ground in the car category because, as Clow explained, "People hate car ads." To which Thomas responded: "Well, why don't we change that?" Says Clow: "It was like a perfect moment in advertising."

After Thomas gave the agency the green light to do just about anything, what resulted was the most talked-about commercial of 1996, "Toys," and an overall campaign featuring the mysterious Zelig-like Mr. K character, which has continued to inject liveliness into the automotive ad category in 1997. Jeff Goodby believes that the Nissan campaign raised the bar in car advertising. "It is exuberant and free-thinking," he says. "The agency deserves tremendous credit for getting a client to change direction the way Nissan did."

Siltanen notes the Nissan campaign was the key to the agency's turnaround, because it provided a rare Nike-like opportunity to take a creative risk with a major account. Moreover, the attention garnered by the Nissan campaign soon had people knocking on TBWA Chiat/Day's door. The Taco Bell account came in without a pitch -- Siltanen attributes that directly to the Nissan campaign (though the client also liked the agency's earlier work for Jack-in-the-Box). Then ABC TV came aboard. The big winning streak culminated with this past summer's stunning announcement that Clow and his agency were going to be reunited with their most famous former client, Apple.

With so many new clients coming aboard, and others, such as Nissan, kicking into high gear, 1997 became the acid test for Clow's post-merger creative team. The Venice shop delivered a body of work that is arguably the best -- or at least, the most noteworthy -- to be produced by any agency this year. For Nissan, the agency evolved the Mr. K branding campaign to the product level, with the Altima launch -- and managed to maintain much of the campaign's liveliness, if not its quirkiness (the "Farmer" spot, in which a staid farmer cuts loose with his new Nissan, more closely resembles conventional car advertising, but it has proven to be nearly as popular with viewers as "Toys," says Siltanen). Meanwhile, for ABC, the agency broke the mold in network TV advertising with its ironic championing of the other great American pastime: watching the tube. It may have been the most widely-discussed ad campaign of the past year.

And now people are buzzing about the "Think Different" ads for Apple, a warm-and-fuzzy salute to freethinkers and independent spirits from Gandhi to Muhammed Ali. The arresting commercials may serve to remind people that Apple does stand for something. "Think Different is a terrific positioning for Apple," says Rick Boyko, the creative head at Ogilvy & Mather/New York, which handles the IBM account.

The agency's campaigns for Taco Bell and the Weather Channel may not be as newsworthy, but they know how to have fun. Taco Bell's journeys inside hungry stomachs are diverting and well-directed by Kinka Usher, the "Toys" man. And for the Weather Channel, the agency's creation of a Cheers-like bar inhabited by weather nuts achieves the near-impossible -- it talks about the weather without being boring.

Polar Extremes

Which is not to say that everyone is crazy about all of this work. One of the most interesting qualities of the new work coming out of TBWA Chiat/Day is that it is oddly polarizing -- people either defend it to the death, or they question its very right to exist. As Marty Cooke points out, that may be part of its power. "Being polarizing certainly is a way to get talked about," he says. The debate started with the Nissan campaign, which almost immediately began taking heat because the car company's sales didn't go up. The ABC campaign, meanwhile, has been chided for being overly cynical. The "Think Different" campaign is guilty of appropriating dead heroes as endorsers. (One competing creative director questions the wisdom of a computer campaign that looks to the past instead of the future: "What does Gandhi have to do with Apple?" he wonders.) As for the Weather Channel's alternate-universe approach, it's easy to detect a slightly derivative whiff of the ESPN SportsCenter campaign.

At the agency, some were mystified to see their work become the object of so much criticism. "We don't go out and try to do anything controversial," says Siltanen. "It's not like we're dealing with sex, violence or race. A lot of the controversy seems to revolve around the fact that we do interesting, likable advertising. What's wrong with that?"

Indeed, Clow has suddenly become a kind of poster boy for the "entertainment" camp in the ongoing industry debate about whether ads that favor pure entertainment over product-based salespitches are actually effective at selling. It is an old argument, but somehow the Nissan campaign -- with its brand commercials that dared to focus on something other than sheet metal -- rekindled it.

Mr. K's Pit Bull

"This idea about Nissan -- that everybody loves the ads, but they don't sell cars -- has become a pit bull on our leg," says Kuperman. Both he and Clow insist that the campaign's results were judged prematurely and unfairly, considering that Nissan had no new cars to attract consumers at the time the ads started running. Clow also sees what almost amounts to an industry conspiracy: "I think there's an infrastructure that wants to knock this kind of advertising out," he says. "It goes back to '1984' -- the day after we ran that, everybody was calling it irresponsible."

The agency has often obliged the people who were waiting for it to slip up. Its ups have invariably been followed by downs, and some wonder whether the latest surge will last. "The first campaign Chiat/Day does for anybody is always amazing," says one top creative director. "The problem is that they're not necessarily consistent down the line."

In that regard, certainly the Nissan campaign is worth scrutinizing, now that the agency has lost its primary liaison and kindred spirit, Bob Thomas, who resigned from Nissan this fall. Clow believes that doesn't mean his shop's biggest account is in jeopardy. "The people at Nissan and the dealers insist that they love the campaign," he reports. Siltanen, who is the creative director on Nissan, adds: "It was kind of scary when Bob Thomas left. But we recently showed them new work and they were ecstatic -- guys were high-fiving each other in the room." However, both Siltanen and Clow acknowledge that Nissan is now looking for more work that actually drives traffic at the dealer level: "I think they felt that the product ads were slighted, so they'll get more of that from us," says Clow.

At the same time, the agency is rolling the dice with Apple, a company that will need something of a miracle if it is to return to its once-lofty status. Clow knows very well what could happen: After expanding to meet the demands and needs of Apple's new big push, the plug may be pulled quickly if Apple's fortunes don't improve. And advertising alone is clearly not the answer: "It's way down the list in terms of things that have been wrong with Apple," says Clow.

Still, these are risk-taking times at the newly rejuvenated TBWA Chiat/Day, and Clow and Kuperman are feeling adventurous. Besides, how could they refuse this opportunity to revisit past glory? "This brand is a piece of the agency's history," says Clow. Adds Kuperman: "Sure we're taking a risk with Apple. But we

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