The Call

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PLAYA DEL REY, CALIF.-It was as if someone had died.

Just after 9 a.m. Pacific time July 12, the phone company called TBWA/Chiat/Day's Tom Carroll with the news: AT&T Wireless was going with Ogilvy.

So ended the biggest-at $400 million-and most closely watched creative review of the year, a review that essentially came down to two of the most respected agencies in the business, TBWA/Chiat/Day here and Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, New York. (AT&T cut incumbent Foote, Cone & Belding, New York, earlier in the day.)

"That's the business we're in," Lee Clow shrugged, surprisingly sanguine moments after receiving the news. He's played the game before, won many times. This time, he lost.

Coincidentally-or serendipitously-Ad Age's editor and West Coast editor had arrived at the agency for a pre-arranged meeting with Messrs. Clow and Carroll just as the call came through. Despite the executives' disappointment-and their need to communicate the news to their employees and corporate bosses-they not only went through with the interview but also allowed the editors to eavesdrop on a morning of mourning.

The late nights and weekends, the debates and discussions, the bursts of inspiration and creativity came down to this one call-answered in a corner office overlooking "Central Park," the sunny, ficus tree-landscaped square at the center of the agency's offices.

After hearing from AT&T's review consultant, TBWA Worldwide Chairman Mr. Clow gathered a half-dozen young colleagues in his own open-air corner office. The sober expression on his face made it clear: The chairman had not received the news he envisioned when the agency began a passionate pitch on which it would spend more than half-a-million dollars and hundreds of human hours.

More was at stake here than $400 million in billings. Agencies up and down the West Coast had been rooting for their rival, since keeping the account in the Pacific time zone would have given a boost to a depressed market. And in an economic climate where an anticipated flood of reviews has stubbornly refused to materialize, the import of every loose piece of business is magnified tenfold.

Mr. Clow realizes the creative pendulum of late has swung away from his beloved Pacific Coast. But he still champions the West as the epicenter of a media revolution, the place where technology, art and entertainment will converge into the communications future.

In this case, TBWA/Chiat/Day didn't lose an account. But neither is it staffing up-Ogilvy is putting 120 people on the account-nor adding a prized brand to its client roster.

"Tonight maybe I'll weep," said one of those closely involved in the pitch, wiping an imaginary tear from his eye.

Half an hour after the decision came down, the theme from "2001: A Space Odyssey" filled the former warehouse that TBWA/Chiat/Day calls home, with its two-story creative "cliff dwellings," an avant-garde portrait of founder Jay Chiat, a Frank Gehry table left over from the failed "virtual office" experiment and a Nissan station wagon with a surf board attached to its roof.

Employees summoned by the music collected around the town square, in this case a basketball court. They were an eclectic group: a pregnant woman in flowing black skirt, her hands supporting her lower back; a well-dressed twenty-something with Asian characters tattooed along the nape of her neck; young male creatives in baggy shorts.

Wireless microphone in hand, Mr. Carroll-as "suit" as it gets at this agency in an open-collar dress shirt and khakis-started the session on a sober note, using the language you might hear in a hospital waiting room. Everyone had done all they could, had done his or her best.

"We got praise all over the place," he said. "At the end of the day, we got nosed out."

He assured the assembled that the pitch "took our game up another notch." He said, "It was the best presentation I've ever been involved in."

The loss was easier to swallow, noted Mr. Carroll, president of the Americas for TBWA Worldwide, because Ogilvy creative leaders Rick Boyko and Steve Hayden both came out of the Chiat/Day office they had just bested. These are "guys who have the same values as us."

Mr. Carroll passed the mike to Mr. Clow, who took center court in a black T-shirt, jeans and flip-flops. "Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose," he said, adding that TBWA/Chiat/Day, where the work rules, had "one hand tied behind our back." AT&T, although praised for a well run, fair pitch, asked for strategic vision but not for creative concepts.

Mr. Clow told the audience, "I hope AT&T gets what they deserve," and he was sincere. This is a great American brand, he said, that should own the wireless category. There was not so much as shuffling of feet among the dozens lining the court, except for Olive, a pug that yelped and was hustled away by her owner.

The chairman thanked employees for their hard work, their dedication. "I'll probably ask you to do it all again," he said. "Soon."

The agency's staffers laughed, applauded and headed back to work. The cycle of the ad business began anew.

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