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Watch out, this one's coming out of left field. Our runner-up for Agency of the Year is . . . not an agency at all.

After producing a number of breakthrough commercials in the past year, the Gap's San Francisco-based in-house creative group -- long known for its signature black-and-white print advertising portraits -- has now established itself as a force to be reckoned with in TV. With bare-bones, white-background art direction and sparse copywriting, Gap commercials use starkness to stand out.

Adding to the distinctiveness is the company's offbeat and eclectic choice of stars (ranging from retro rappers Run DMC to indie actor William H. Macy to adolescent blues guitarist Kenny Wayne Sheperd). The seemingly unrehearsed style of many of the commercials contributes to their character. And it doesn't hurt that the advertiser seems to have a knack for coming up with infectious tunes, particularly in the "Khaki Swing" commercial, set to Louis Prima's "Jump, Jive and Wail." The latter spot probably represented The Gap's finest moment in '98: It had the impact of a Super Bowl blockbuster commercial, though it didn't debut until spring. Dreamed up in a restaurant by Gap CD Lisa Prisko, and directed by Matthew Rolston (who added the stop-action freezes on the dancers in mid-swing), the spot created "pandemonium" at Gap headquarters the first time it was screened for 700 staffers, says Gap marketing director Michael McCadden. "We knew right then we had something big."

McCadden and the press-shy Prisko, who've been teamed together for the past two years, lead an in-house ad department that operates in a casual, fly-by-the-seat-of-the-khakis style. "We go on instinct," says McCadden. Of the company's quirky casting choices, he cracks: "It's highly scientific -- we cast people we like." And forget about scripts: For the brand's "Easy Fit" and "Original" campaigns, stars were invited to appear and then told to basically do what they like once the camera started rolling. The resulting impromptu bits -- such as actor Macy walking on the set, putting a harmonica to his lips and riffing -- have an air of spontaneity about them. It seems the only thing calculated in the ads is all that whiteness. McCadden says it "is symbolic of the Gap, which pares down everything that's unnecessary. And it makes the people really pop off the screen."

So why doesn't the Gap use an agency? "If you were in my shoes, would you bring in an agency?" McCadden asks. He says there are several advantages to flying solo. "We have a very short chain of command, and so we probably spend less time presenting than anyone else," he says. "We have no vested interest other than the brand doing well -- which is something that can get clouded in client/agency relationships. And there's something about being able to do the whole advertising process without any outside interference that is liberating." Still, McCadden resists being held up as an in-house advertising model for other companies to follow. "I think most companies need an agency." His situation is unusual because "I inherited a very talented in-house group. I've been at other companies, and I've never been in this situation before."

Working without an agency has its disadvantages, though. "There's no one to

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