Talk about your double-entendre taglines. Berlin's detractors, of which there has never been a shortage in the ad business, might interpret that as a kind of Freudian admission by one of advertising's great overachievers. Indeed, Berlin does seem to have been somewhat stuck in place for the past few years, almost since he came to New York from San Francisco. But of course, that's not what Berlin meant. He was simply observing that there was no way a guy on a mere two wheels could win a head-on collision with a presence as formidable as his. After all, Berlin had already been blindsided by a four-wheeler named Volkswagen not long ago, yet here he was, still standing.
In fact, the 45-year-old Berlin isn't just standing these days; if you look closely, you can see a bit of the old swagger coming back. After a year of quietly rising from the ashes of Berlin Cameron Doyle, which shut down after the loss of the Volkswagen account last year, the reborn Berlin is now beginning to talk about his new agency, Fallon McElligott Berlin, with the kind of confidence that is his trademark. "We're building something here," he says, from the agency's offices in Manhattan's flatiron district, where Berlin is occupying the onetime New York digs of Chiat/Day. "We're off the edge and moving toward becoming something bigger, something interesting."
Is this just the latest hype from Berlin, a man who has been known to generate significant buzz around new ventures that haven't always panned out? Perhaps, but there are some differences this time around that may make Berlin's new agency worth watching. With FMB, Berlin has aligned himself with one of the hottest agencies in America right now-quite a contrast from his earlier New York experiences working within and without DDB Needham, a stagnant behemoth in need of a savior. And this time, Berlin isn't dependent on a single volatile client that can blow him out of the water, as VW did ("I won't make that mistake again," he says), but he is instead building the new agency from the ground up with a smattering of project work for various brands. In recent weeks, two new clients, Bankers Trust and Prudential Money Management, have joined an account roster that includes some impressive names-Ralston-Purina, Coca-Cola, Nikon, Conde Nast. The projects for these clients tend to be small ones-a campaign for Fresca here, a spot for Ralston's Tidy Scoop cat litter there-but Berlin claims the one-year-old agency's annual revenues (he prefers to talk revenues as opposed to billings) have already climbed to between $7 million and $10 million. And as people who know him will tell you, once the charismatic Berlin has his foot in the door with a client, anything is possible.
But what may be most intriguing about the young FMB is the agency's early work-and Berlin's role in creating it. Commercials for Fresca, Tidy Scoop, the NBA and The Washington Post are at times uneven, but the overall reel, short as it is, is conceptually interesting. Some spots even bear a slight resemblance to the work of Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein, without necessarily hitting that agency's high levels. If there is a hint of Goodby in parts of the FMB reel, it may be because Berlin has, to some extent, returned to his creative roots at the budding agency-as he has found himself coaching and coddling a very young staff of talented creatives headed by FMB's newly-appointed creative director, Izzy DeBellis, 32.
Though Berlin had moved away from the creative side at GBS, deferring to the talents of Goodby and Silverstein, "this is a different situation here," he says. "There's a need for me to get involved with the work, and to be a teacher." Creatives within the agency say Berlin's influence so far has been significant. "He has brought a real knowledge of film to all of our work," says DeBellis. Jason Peterson, an art director who is considered one of FMB's rising creative stars, says of Berlin: "I think he gets a bum deal in terms of people's perceptions that he wasn't a creative force at Goodby. Andy is one of the few guys in advertising who understands how good work gets done. Whether or not he's writing it himself, good work always seems to happen around him."
The brain trust at Fallon McElligott apparently shared that view about Berlin. "We saw him as a tremendous opportunity to bring the Fallon McElligott brand name into the New York market," says Bill Westbrook, the Minneapolis agency's president and executive creative director. Westbrook and FM chairman Pat Fallon were so eager to hook up with Berlin that they took him out to dinner in a New York restaurant the very next day after VW fired Berlin Cameron Doyle. From Berlin's perspective, FM was an ideal partner-offering a strong name, a great creative rep and solid expertise in account management, "which was an area I knew I needed help in," says Berlin. Best of all, FM did not want to run the office as an outpost-"the feeling was that it should be a separate, independent company," says Westbrook-and so granted full autonomy to a gleeful Berlin, who now had a fresh chance to realize his long-held dream of opening a version of GBS in New York.
There has been some crossover from the Midwest, though: Since FMB opened, a couple of Minnesotans have come aboard, including creatives Steve Soblad and Sally Hogshead; FMB turns to Minneapolis for help with media buying; and Pat Fallon has advised Berlin on setting up account systems within the agency, and has also joined Berlin on a couple of new-business pitches. But for the most part, Berlin says, there's been very little exchange between the two shops. Westbrook agrees: "We wish each other good luck, but we're separate." In fact, when Westbrook hired a couple of New York creative directors recently, he set them up in FMB's space but made it clear that they'd be reporting to Minneapolis, not to Berlin.
Berlin and his troops seem to like it that way. "We want to develop our own culture, rather than just being an offshoot of another agency," says DeBellis, who worked at Wieden & Kennedy before joining Berlin. Indeed, if FM is seen as a classic creative agency, FMB wants to be more contemporary, more cutting edge. "I think the character of this agency is that it's very homegrown and young, and very much in touch with the current cultural experience-kind of like Wieden & Kennedy in its early days," says Berlin.
That assessment may just be Berlin's bluster talking. With a total staff of about 40 and a creative department that numbers just eight, FMB hasn't even filled the cubicles on the single floor it occupies on Fifth Ave. As for the work, perhaps the best commercials on the agency's reel are the NBA spots in which Bill Murray deadpans an announcement that he's giving up show business for pro basketball-a campaign was created before FMB even existed,*Z
back at Berlin's previous agency. (Currently, FMB has a new campaign for NBA licensed products in the works).
The Tidy Scoop and Fresca commercials seem to be a more reliable indicator of the agency's emerging style, which tends toward quirky characters and linear one-act stories. In one of two Tidy Scoop spots, a guy enters his girlfriend's apartment, takes a deep whiff, doesn't detect that telltale litterbox aroma and starts in on how glad he is that she's decided to get rid of her cat, which he couldn't stand anyway. Of course, the next thing he hears is the cat's meowing. Both spots have the kind of strong casting, creative camera angles and atmospheric look of GSP's "Got Milk?" spots-though it doesn't quite deliver a similarly clever payoff at the end.
The Fresca spots, meanwhile, are very subtle plays on the concept of how people perceive themselves in this increasingly trendy world. Both feature "wannabe" characters who order the soft drink apparently to imitate or impress a nearby attractive person; unfortunately, both are denied the drink by servers who see what's going on and refuse to play along ("How about a beef jerky instead?" suggests a smilingly condescending deli counterman in one spot).
aul Spencer, a copywriter who worked with Berlin Cameron Doyle and now freelances, believes FMB's work shows great promise-"You can see that there's solid thinking behind each commercial," he says, crediting FMB's well-regarded planner, Ewen Cameron-but he also thinks the agency is still finding its voice. "Some of the work may be smart enough but not funny enough," he says. "It looks like the kind of work that's at a stage just before it gets very interesting."
Berlin acknowledges that the agency is still finding its way creatively, which seems to be particularly true in print. As DeBellis points out, most startup agencies initially do more print than TV, but the opposite has been true at FMB, which came out of the starting blocks doing Fresca spots. But the agency has begun to produce more print work in recent months. The most impressive is the agency's new print campaign for BMW motorcycles, which features striking blurred images of speeding bikers, accompanied by pithy heads ("Apathy is a dominant gene. Mutate."). Less noteworthy is a soon to break campaign for the National Symphony Orchestra, which seems to have little consistency from one ad to the next, and relies on some rather uninspired analogies (one ad features a plastic flower, and suggests that it's not as good as the real thing "because it's not alive").
The agency will be unveiling several new print campaigns in coming weeks, including work for Nikon sunglasses and Conde Nast magazines, as well as for Prudential and Bankers Trust. "We're going to be flexing our muscles in print," says DeBellis. "We don't want to get pegged as a one-dimensional agency." But Scott Burns, a Goodby alumnus who worked at Berlin Wright Cameron before moving back out west, thinks FMB may need additional talent in this area; "Andy doesn't know art direction, and I think that with John Doyle [the designer who briefly partnered with Berlin to form Berlin Cameron Doyle] gone, they need someone with a strong sense of design," he says. Peterson disagrees, noting that "we have art directors here who've done print elsewhere and have the skills." But Peterson does acknowledge that "Andy is more of a TV guy than a print guy."
hat may be news to those in the ad industry for whom Berlin's public image is based more on his outspoken personality than on his work. He is keenly aware of this, and he believes the perception works against him. "It's a problem when you are being defined by something other than your work," he says. But if that's a problem, it is at least partly of Berlin's own making; in Berlin's latter years at Goodby Berlin & Silverstein, he was, by his own admission, less involved with the agency's creative work as he became the agency's chief spokesman, new business honcho and resident conquer-the-world expansionist.
Over time, it began to seem as if Berlin had never really been a creative guy at GBS at all, but insiders recall that he was actually a very gifted copywriter during the early years of the agency. "His writing had a wonderfully dark, irreverent sense of humor," says Burns. Former GBS creative director Steve Stone concurs, and cites, as a typical example of the Berlin style, an ad for Supercuts with two dead people conversing about the fact that one's hair continues to grow after death. "That was the kind of bizarre sensibility he had," says Stone.
Stone believes that even though Berlin was talented, he was not content being a writer. "I think it wasn't enough for him," says Stone. "He needed to be bigger than that." But Berlin himself says that he moved away from writing partly because he felt he was working in the imposing shadow of Jeff Goodby. "I was the second writer in a writer-writer-art director partnership," he says. "I didn't want to compete with Jeff. I wanted to have an area that was about my own entrepreneurship."
So Berlin turned his creative energies to mapping out a strategy for the agency's growth, and also became a highly visible spokesman. "I tended to be the most visible of the three of us because of my ambitiousness for the agency-and Rich and Jeff allowed that to happen because it was good for the agency," Berlin explains. But while playing the front man made Berlin a "face" in the industry, it probably didn't do much to enhance his image as a man of substance. When Berlin was profiled in The New Yorker in 1993, the perception that he was a self-promoter grew stronger. Berlin says the article bred a surprising level of resentment among others in the ad business. "That story changed my life," he says. "I think a lot of people wondered, 'Why did this magazine write an article about him as being symbolic of what's going on in advertising? What did he do to deserve that?' "
It didn't help matters when, after his departure for DDB Needham in 1992, his former agency reeled off one big account win after another, while also producing some of its best creative work ever. Berlin, meanwhile, encountered rough waters at DDB Needham, then at his short-lived spinoff agency. Some believe this reversal of fortune had a profound effect on his psyche. Says one former Berlin co-worker, "It seems now like he really wants to prove something to the guys back in San Francisco."
For his part, Berlin insists that he has no regrets and no hard feelings about his departure. "Of course, when you leave a place like that you're going to miss it," Berlin says. "You miss the people. You miss the fact that we never disagreed about work-we disagreed about other things, but not the work. You miss the emotional rewards of conventional success." But, he adds, "that doesn't mean I regret having left. I didn't want to keep doing the same thing-I wanted to try new challenges. If I was still there, I'd still be the second writer in the three-man team. I felt like the agency didn't need me anymore."
It may be that Berlin had to get away from Jeff Goodby-whom Berlin considers to be about the best writer on the planet-before he could feel comfortable as a writer and creative director once again. In any case, he says he's comfortable in that role now. He occasionally tinkers with copy on his computer (though he leaves most of the writing to others; "I think it's a sign of insecurity when a creative director takes all the good writing assignments for himself," he says). He doesn't claim authorship of any of the FMB ads, but he has been involved in much of the creative brainstorming for the work, and he oversees creative development on all new-business pitches. One creative who has worked with Berlin in New York describes him as "not so much a generator of ideas as an arbiter of taste." Berlin is said to have good instincts for spotting the big idea when it's presented to him, then helping to shape it in filmic terms. "He thinks in film," says DeBellis. "He can show you how an idea gets translated from concept to film."
Perhaps Berlin's greatest strength, some say, is that he can articulate ideas to a client, and build support for them. "When he walks into a client meeting, it's magic," says Peterson. Spencer describes Berlin as a master of the metaphor. "He can sit with a client and understand intuitively what the issues are-and then he'll come up with that metaphor that gets them really excited," he says. It doesn't hurt that Berlin has a knack for becoming best buds with clients, who seem to respond to his brawny persona and his incessant flow of ideas and opinions. Clients such as Conde Nast's Steve Florio and NBA commissioner David Stern seem to consider Berlin not just an adman, but an all-around adviser and confidant: "He assists on all kinds of creative concepts, positioning, new strategies-a lot more than ad campaigns," says Stern, who adds: "A 15-minute creative session with Andy Berlin is an inspiring experience."
Berlin's charm can go a long way, but ultimately the success of FMB will depend on whether he can marshal great creative talent on his own. The feeling among DeBellis, Peterson and others within the agency is that FMB is on the cusp of doing the kind of work that will establish it as a hot new creative force in New York. That sense of anticipation can be found among outsiders, too: "If they keep on their current path, I think they may begin to hit creative home runs," says Spencer. James Hitchcock, who left FMB last year to join TBWA Chiat/Day, says there's a buzz building about FMB: "Headhunters are saying it is going to be a hot place," he says.
Moreover, the agency will have to prove that it can stand alone and win new business. A number of names on FMB's client roster-Coke, Prudential, BMW, Nikon-also are on FM's roster. In some cases, FMB had to pitch the business anyway, but in other cases, as with Coke, Berlin was brought directly into the client fold by Pat Fallon.
Berlin is, as ever, optimistic about the future, predicting 30 to 50 percent growth each year for his agency. He and his staff have been busy pitching ("We're spending a lot more time pitching than producing," says copywriter Glenn Porter, somewhat ruefully). Berlin hints at some potential new-business wins that are just around the corner. "There are things happening that I can't talk about yet," he says, with that cagey Berlin smile. And he's also looking to bring in a couple of young hotshot creatives who will help propel the creative work to the next level. "We do have to improve the quality of the work," he