CLOSE TO THE FIRE

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It's not a startup, but it is a creative upstart in a tough market, as Leagas Delaney establishes a footing in San Francisco to relace Adidas in the U.S.

Assorted Leagas Delaney/S.F.Adidas print, and frames from spots starring Donovan Bailey and Troy Aikman. "Our belief is that nobody owns the ideals behind sports," says Brent Hollowell, Adidas director of marketing communications.

In a city known for its high-profile startups, many tracing their roots to local deities Goodby Silverstein and Riney, the opening of the first American office of Leagas Delaney is a distinctly different endeavor.

The much-honored London agency spent a year quietly scouting the U.S. from a satellite office in Portland before opening its doors in San Francisco last March. From there, it can better service German-based Adidas' American headquarters, which is in Beaverton, Ore. It will also share the Patek Philippe watch account with London.

But unlike fellow Brit agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty, which opened a Singapore office in '96 as a service and account outpost intended mainly to distribute creative crafted in the U.K., Leagas is staffing this shop almost entirely with Americans (for instance, the agency's first creative hires are all Yanks who came from Wieden & Kennedy), and it is expected to become an independent agency.

"There's no point making a little British enclave out of it," explains creative director Tim Delaney. "However, we have ways of doing things-attitudes about how advertising works, which we will try to put into practice in the San Francisco office."

But until they've grown accustomed to the American market and business practices, Delaney adds, they're going to be flexible about it. "We have to be pretty humble and realize we have a lot to learn."

The agency seems to be catching on fast. In July, without a formal pitch and without a full-time U.S. creative director (a position that, at presstime, was still vacant), it beat out at least three other contenders for the $5 million Sebastiani Vineyards business, which includes advertising for the Vendange and Talus brands. The win effectively brings the agency's estimated billings to $25 million, $20 million of which is Adidas.

The Sebastiani campaign, which Leagas broke in November, includes two TV spots for the new Talus label, which feature elegant b&w footage directed by Mehdi Norowzian of Joy Films, London. Rich in metaphorical imagery, one spot shows a man savoring a glass of Talus while reminiscing about his boyhood, depicted in fleeting flashbacks: a boy scampers through a shower of leaves, flies a kite and catapults into a pond. The seemingly ordinary tagline, which actually fits in nicely with the poetic feel of the film, is "A full wine for a full life." As lyrical as the TV work may be, the radio for the lower-priced Vendange label is satirical. Each spot features an everyday guy named Vic who tries to kick the mystique out of overpriced wines.

Aside from the agency's London reputation, and the level of the creative staff's various portfolios, Bob Carroll, executive VP-marketing at Sebastiani, says the agency's startup enthusiasm and energy helped win him over. "That's part of what attracted us, to be one of the first in the door with them," says Carroll, who's pleased with the initial round of work they've produced. "Their office is not set up as a lark," he adds. In working closely with Delaney, who supervised creative the first 10 months, Carroll could sense that he took a keen, almost paternal interest in how it was faring.

Even so, the shop faces enormous pressures, partly from American creatives who've long envied the U.K. office's work in awards annuals (some of whom are now members of the current San Francisco staff). But it is also pushing the limit on the number of creative agencies the Bay Area can sustain.

That doesn't seem to fluster Delaney, who explains that compared to London, which is crammed with some 300 ad agencies, San Francisco is a frontier. "We can hold our own," he says. "Maybe a bit better than that. We respect the other agencies, but we're not in awe of them." Delaney says he chose to open in San Francisco over Portland or Seattle because he felt the market for agencies was somehow bigger there, and because of the continued growth of the city's creative community.

So far, local shops seem to be welcoming the new guys in town. Goodby Silverstein & Partners CD Jeff Goodby regards the new agency as a positive force, one that could help improve the level of work citywide. "It's like price fixing," Goodby explains. "It makes it harder for clients to go down the street and get crummy work on the cheap. Minneapolis was like that in the '80s and London has been like that for 10 years-when you go there, you just fall into this milieu of interesting work." When you have places like Black Rocket and Butler Shine & Stern in town, he adds, "I know it amps people up here to do better work."

"I love the fact that great agencies keep opening up here," says co-creative director Michael Rylander, who left Hal Riney to form Witt/Rylander. Rylander says they've attracted clients who came to San Francisco looking for a creative spark.

Which doesn't mean there isn't a robust competitive spirit in this city. "It's sort of like boxing with a best friend," explains former Goodbyite Steve Stone, co-creative director at Black Rocket, a '96 startup. "You want to knock him out, but immediately pick him up and hand him a beer."

The agency's biggest challenge will undoubtedly come from its Portland neighbors, since much of its success hinges on keeping Adidas happy, which means expanding the brand's awareness. While the Adidas name is well known, it's difficult to say whether the brand has managed to develop a strong image via its advertising here in the U.S. The agency estimates that Nike spends 10 times what Adidas does in media, and boasts 30 times the athlete sponsorship deals. Setting up shop here was critical to mounting a significant challenge to Nike in the States, Delaney explains. While Adidas is a mature brand in Europe, in America it's "quite a fledgling company," he says. "Although they've been in the market awhile, they're growing and they have special needs in this market; it would be silly to try to do that from Europe."

So far, the bulk of the agency's U.S.-generated work for the client has consisted of one-off TV spots and print ads covering a wide variety of sports. The "Feet You Wear"cross-trainer campaign that runs internationally will continue to be created and produced in London.

So, what's the underlying theme behind all the Adidas advertising? "Our belief is that nobody owns the ideals behind sports," explains Brent Hollowell, director of marketing communications at Adidas. The strategy comes through subtly and effectively in each ad, but it's most apparent in a recent TV spot starring the Dallas Cowboys' Troy Aikman, which hones pure athleticism. It centers around the fact that Aikman, fed up with the hype at Nike, signed with Adidas. The :30 is shot in b&w and depicts Aikman in practice, as a VO talks about athletes who compete for the love of the game, rather (here you're supposed to read between the lines) than for the glory of the commercial sponsorships, a theme that's been harped on by more than one shoe company before.

Trying to invent something original in the athletic shoe category is tough, and perhaps nobody knows this better than agency creatives who have worked on Nike at one time or another. Leagas' writers Jean Rhode and Scott Wild, art director Darryl McDonald and Warren Eakins, who has served as a more or less acting CD pending the appointment of a full-time creative head, have all worked at Wieden, so they know not only the category but the culture they're up against. "It's hard to come up with an identity for Adidas that Nike hasn't brushed upon," McDonald says.

Adidas' Hollowell is confident about the prospects of the U.S. shop, even with a pending new creative director. "I expect there will be no dropoff in talent or understanding of the brand," he says, explaining how things have already become easier logistically having the office in the same time zone.

Up until now, Delaney has pulled off the seemingly impossible task of playing CD from London; working around the radical time difference, he receives work via modem or fax or a combination of the two, and then reviews it over the phone. "It's simple," he says. "In the end, there are some people who are more mentally removed from their creative departments even though they live in the same building." More important than physical location is a common meeting of the minds, he says. "I think it's about getting good people who think about the work in the same way I do, or the same way the agency does."

While the hunt for a CD continues (explains Delaney, "we're not dragging out feet, we're just being picky"), the shop recently lost its general manager. Jack Rooney, former worldwide ac-count director on Levis's at FCB/San Francisco, and an account manager at Hal Riney & Partners, departed Leagas suddenly last month to become the top advertising and marketing executive at Miller Brewing.

Meanwhile, Delaney has purposefully hired senior creatives because he only has time to handle "big picture-type things," Wild says. "You can't run into his office and say, 'How do you like this typeface?' " Adds McDonald: "It's been extremely cool to work with Tim, but it's been logistically hard. We definitely want a physical leader rather than a spiritual one."

Finding that CD in the States has been Delaney's top priority of late. (Eakins, a likely choice for the job, opted out of the running because he is pursuing directing.) The ideal candidate, Delaney says, is someone who not only can understand the attitudes of the agency and the caliber of work but who also can "intellectually understand those things, rather than do them from an instinctive point of view."

Working without a direct creative head in the agency's early stages has also afforded Rhode, Wild and McDonald ample freedom in an environment stripped free of layers of bureaucracy. "The upstart part is hugely appealing," explains Wild. "It's like working close to the fire, you're there hungry at the threshold."

At the same time, he adds, the agency is large enough that they're not having to talk to the grocery store down the street for business. Looking at the successes of other spinoff offices, Leagas Delaney/San Francisco knows ultimately that its future de-pends on building a domestic client base, something it's busy doing now. And while the local shops aren't feeling threatened yet, time will tell. "I guarantee we'll go after the same thing any minute," says Black Rocket's Stone,

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