Now a part of McBride's team at FCB/San Francisco, Treacy has a clearer idea of the person behind that enthusiastic voice. He's fearless: "I think my portfolio scared a lot of creative directors, and Chuck embraced it," she says. And the fact that the 33-year-old McBride had zero experience as a CD was also a big plus; rather than being jaded by the politics of agency management, she adds, "he's fresh off the assembly line of being a copywriter and completely focused on the integrity of the work." Treacy is one of five creatives that McBride helped recruit into the Levi's group. Her art director partner, Leslie Ali, left Moffatt/Rosenthal in Portland, where she'd produced some funny Oregon Lottery spots. Art director Eric King and writer Eric Silver came from Nike and ESPN work at Wieden & Kennedy, and copywriter Steve Morris jumped shop from Citron Haligman Bedecarre. The people he's surrounded himself with shows his commitment to edgy work, Treacy says, adding, "Chuck would kick us in the ass if we showed him anything that looked like anything else."
Being a creative director wasn't even on the radar screen when McBride joined FCB as a writer a year ago. Up till then, he'd spent his career bouncing between creative hot shops, most recently spending two years at Goodby Silverstein & Partners, working on Isuzu (the "Toy Store" spot) and "Got Milk?" spots like the notorious "Aaron Burr," among others.
So what attracted him to FCB? "Jeans!" blurts McBride. Without leaving San Francisco, where he's settled with his wife and son, it seemed like the ultimate opportunity: "This brand was like, Jesus Christ, look at this brand! This is a world class brand sitting right here." And with the recent changing of the guard, McBride saw an open door for change. The agency had lost its longtime creative director, the late Mike Koelker, and Paul Wolfe had assumed leadership in 1995, initiating the Levi's "501 Reasons" campaign, a conceptual departure from the previous visually-driven work on the account. "There were a lot of rumors running around about the account" at that time, McBride says, and just as he came on board, Wolfe, overwhelmed by the amount of creative he was overseeing, began searching for a creative director for Levi's. Only a month into his arrival, McBride discovered the title dangling in front of him. "He impressed me immediately with his zeal and creativity," says Wolfe. "He was here and it just seemed inevitable. It wasn't a conventional choice. He didn't have all those years of experience running major accounts, but he had the drive and dedication."
Surprised, but up for the challenge, McBride is still adjusting to the big-agency environment. "It's very alien to me," he says. "Sometimes it's hard to understand some of the business aspects of what this agency does. Overall, I keep my concentration on a small part of it." Up till now, almost every agency McBride had worked at had a father figure, whose unspoken spirit or style guided it. "Here, you can really tell it's an agency." But thanks to FCB's special relationship with Levi's, he says, he almost sees his unit as a quasi-boutique within the agency. "It's strange, there's this thin membrane that exists within Levi's and Foote Cone," McBride muses. "I think that's really what carries this agency's soul. And I think that's still why you can find magic left in the work, because it doesn't ring of a big agency, it rings with a boutique approach to the business."
So just how much small-shop style has McBride instilled on the Levi's brand in the last year? The evolution of the "Reasons Why" campaign and the Wide Leg campaign are good indications. In the revamping of "Reasons," McBride explains that they tried to create print ads that would be valued like trading cards. Each ad was mythological in tone, rather than referring to product attributes. "People unbutton them with their eyes," reads one headline, laid over a closeup of an eye. McBride pushes it even further with the Wide work, teaming with art directors Sean Mullens and Antonio Navas, which employs the theme, "It's wide open" to talk to the 18-24 set. In one spot, a pair of hip and gorgeous twentysomething strangers eye each other in an elevator. Suddenly the Muzak version of "I Think I Love You" blasts into the original soundtrack, as they see their love affair, marriage and childbirth flashing before their eyes, like an epic in fast forward. Just as their child arrives screaming into the world, they snap from the spell and exit embarrassed into the lobby, leaving without exchanging a word.
Another spot is a cross between an "E.R." spoof and a Monty Python musical. When a crash victim is rushed into an emergency room, he pushes away his gas mask and begins singing, to the tempo of his heart monitor, the tune "Tainted Love." Soon the doctors and nurses chime in, dancing around the operating table and throwing one big antiseptic party. The campaign has a "reckless abandon that rings true with the kids we're talking to," McBride says, adding quickly, "a
very strategic reckless abandon. We wanted something that was, 'Wow! That was pretty wild.' "
"There is no formula of work that he's looking for," explains Eric King. "Silver and I are not afraid to show him something completely insane." But the funny thing about it is that McBride's work isn't insane. It takes chances, but it's exacting. "He was hardly off the mark," recalls Tom Cordner, creative director at Team One Advertising, who gave McBride his first crack at national TV working on Lexus in the early '90s. While it was fresh and original, McBride's work "always had some deep meaning and foundation in it." And the Wide work is no exception. The creative team graphed the daunting life decisions that this age group faced as they graduated from college and searched for jobs. "They're sitting on this flange, the total cusp of what-I'm-going-to-do-with-the-rest-of-my-life," McBride says, explaining that it could be the most paralyzing or liberating time in their lives. "We wanted to get into that space and encourage them to jump. Your jeans are wide, your life is wide, and so is the campaign." And people bought it. In focus groups, according to McBride, kids repeated the strategy in their own words.
"I said a long time ago, this guy has creative director written all over him," Cordner says. "He can make up his mind easily; he doesn't waffle."
"I always knew he'd be a star in the business," concurs Mike Mazza, a Saatchi & Saatchi creative director who worked with McBride at Goodby and Team One. "I think where he really shines is in broadcast, with his ability to execute the idea and bring it to life in a fresh way."
Starting out, however, advertising didn't seem such an obvious choice for McBride. Born in Louisville, Ky., he grew up in Southern California, attending the University of San Diego, and taking a local creative course to prep his ad skills. But getting a job in advertising wasn't easy. He moved to Los Angeles in 1987 and fixed up apartments for seven months before his photography experience helped him get hired at BBDO/Los Angeles as a print producer. All he can remember is producing hundreds of dull ads for Sizzler and Northrop. So he assembled a book, and in the process, he started writing headlines. "I chose the writer aspect by sheer gravity," he says. "It was something that seemed to come naturally. Looking back I find little distinction between the two in the end." But even with a book, he came up short trying to secure a writer's job at BBDO or anywhere else in L.A. "I remember Steve Hayden looking at my book and saying, 'This is real nice, you'll have no problem finding a job,' " McBride says, chuckling. So he headed back to San Diego to take a job at Franklin & Associates. In '91, after Franklin had lost a few accounts, he moved to Team One, where he cut his first teeth on TV, and worked till '93, when he got a call from Wieden & Kennedy to work on Subaru. His stint in W&K's Philadelphia office lasted till late that year, when the agency lost the account. He moved back to California and took a job at Goodby.
And now as McBride and his group prepare for a general branding campaign, his enthusiasm never seems to wane. He's just finished a batch of radio spots for Levi's shorts, which feature angst-ridden rock singers whose lyrics suddenly turn cheery when they slip on the product, never altering their tormented voices. "It's like someone screaming at you, except they're telling you about daffodils and butterflies," he says. Even the retail side of his job, which takes up half the workload, gets him revved. "Every assignment on this brand is a plum," McBride insists. "Clothes is one of the last bastions of complete self-indulgence in terms of what it feeds our psyches. Normally, something you'd throw $40 at would be pretty disposable, but not jeans, man. You've got something that you're going to have around for awhile and has ultimately been the canvas on which youth has painted itself. Name one kid who doesn't own a