Two years into the creative directorship of David Lubars, BBDO/West has moved beyond its core curriculum to hang some cool smaller accounts under the Apple tree. And a good thing, too, as there are some arborists who worry that one day the tree may fall
IT'S LATE ON A FRIDAY AFTERNOON AND THE BIGGEST concern among several BBDO staffers seems to be whether there are any cookies left at the front desk. But the day is "still in diapers" for David Lubars, BBDO West's tireless president/creative director. As he conducts a tour of the agency's recently revamped West Los Angeles offices, the energetic 36 year old shows off BBDO's new look, an open-air industrial design reminiscent of the old Chiat/Day digs in Venice: waist-high partitions, cement floors, conspicuous blackboards and an exposed ceiling bathed in natural light. Of course, this being the '90s, there are specially designed lumbar chairs in the conference room, and much of what Lubars calls his "fun factory" is constructed of recycled materials.
It's a PC facelift that Lubars hopes will not only acknowledge BBDO as a "cool space where brains can bump up against each other in every department," as he puts it, but, more importantly, one that will keep his "team of manic zealots" on the kind of creative roll that has earned the $260 million agency more than its share of awards lately.
This effort at boosting the office's creative zeitgeist is aimed not only at the $80 million flagship Apple Computer account but at clients a fraction of that size, such as Pioneer Electronics, which has so far been the big awards winner for the agency this past year. Grabbing the most trophies-a Gold and the Grand Clio and a Belding Bowl-was a cheap b&w spot consisting mostly of old stock footage and one word of dialogue-"sorry"-uttered by freelance copywriter and aspiring actor Bob Rice; also winning a Gold Clio was a corresponding print ad that featured a shot of a miserable mutt with his head and ears stuck out a car window.
The work the agency has been cranking out in the past year is in sharp contrast to what was being delivered by the pre-Lubars BBDO, an office that had continually struggled to shake its lackluster retail reputation and one that, in fact, initially allowed now-departed chairman and CEO Steve Hayden to run the Apple business under a separate umbrella called BBDO Slightly Further West. In the 1980s, particularly prior to winning the Apple account in 1986, the agency's most visible pieces of business were Hughes supermarkets and Sizzler restaurants, both of which churned out the kind of staid tabletop work typical of their categories. "There's nothing wrong with '$3-a-pound-until-Friday' kind of advertising," Lubars notes, "but it's not much in terms of brand building."
Since then the agency is a changed place, and certainly the arrival of both Apple and Hayden (who worked on the account when it was at Chiat/Day) are largely responsible. In recent years, however, Hayden had begun to be looked upon not merely as a head chef but as a kind of an elder statesmen, a role that staffers, even Hayden himself, hints may have been partly due to administrative burnout. Bringing Lubars on as creative director in November '93 afforded Hayden the time to actually work on a couple of Apple campaigns; more importantly, Lubars' focus on new business and creative growth was intended to inject life into an agency that even now wrestles with its retail demons. At this year's Belding awards, the shop even ran a tellingly self-effacing ad in the program that said, "Now will you forgive us for those Sizzler ads?" And while Hayden believes that his departure for Ogilvy & Mather earlier this year to take on global branding responsibilities for IBM "may have come along a year too early" to allow for a smooth management transition, he adds that Lubars "has managed not only to dial in on Apple, he's proven that BBDO West is not a one-account agency."
Certainly the agency's awards show performance is beginning to reflect that. Among the more notable efforts this year was a Silver Clio-winning campaign from Glendale Federal Savings, an uncharacteristically offbeat (for this client, at least) series of spots tagged, "Most banks are happier to see your money than they are to see you." In one commercial, a pair of bank employees turns into a ficus tree and a bear rug, respectively, to avoid servicing a customer. Not to exclude BBDO's core account completely, Apple has been a winner as well, primarily with its Powerbook "Contrasts" print campaign. Besides being a Kelly finalist, the "What's on your Powerbook" look at famous people won a Silver Clio and a Belding for an ad spotlighting musician Henry Rollins and Imago Records president Terry Ellis.
The creative momentum is especially impressive considering the number of high-profile defections since Lubars' arrival. Aside from Hayden, former general manager Jim Ward and associate creative director Chris Wall left for Wieden & Kennedy and Mi- crosoft, while Wall's former partner, Susan Westre, has been reunited with Hayden, joining Ogilvy & Mather/Paris to work on IBM.
But, creative brain drain aside, recent BBDO/West work is perhaps more notable because it represents relatively small, non-tech business that most people-including Lubars before he arrived-weren't even aware the agency had as clients. Now, its sudden visibility as something other than the Apple Agency is a testament to Lubars' mission to not "have any creepy, weird cousins hiding in the closet." He adds, using the sort of hardbody analogy appropriate only in Southern California, "We don't want to be an agency with only a great face. We want to be like Fabio."
And while there may be no weight room incorporated into its new agey work space, Lubars has definitely beefed up his creative department with young hires like AD/ACD Rob Palmer, a former Bomb Factory employee known for his cool collaborations with Mark Fenske on Rhino Records and Sebastian hair products. He also raided other big-name agencies for talent, adding art director Denise Crandall (Team One), copywriter Dennis Lim (Rubin Postaer & Associates), copywriter Kathy Hepinstall (Stein Robaire Helm), art director Richard Mirabelli (Chiat/Day/Toronto), copywriter Harold Einstein (Cliff Freeman & Partners) and copywriter Steve Skibba (Livingston & Company), who recently left for Cliff Freeman.
Members of this twentysomething cadre have been largely responsible for showing off BBDO's quirkier side: Palmer and Hepinstall, for example, teamed on Pioneer's recent "Road Kill Diaries" print campaign, a wryly amusing series of dead-critter confessions: "Sat on the road cleaning fur. Heard a car coming. Great speakers. Bad brakes." The pair is also responsible for an equally strange spot for Ortho lawn products; directed by Palmer and featuring his ex-boss' VO, the spot shows a pair of illicit lovers in a garden who are exposed by the surrounding flowers. And in new spots for Glendale Federal, Skibba and AD Steve Kimura take a more design-driven tack with a series of b&w type-only commercials directed by graphic designer guru David Carson. In one, such lines as "Being ignored," "Long lines," and "Being put on hold," roll on the screen, while in the background a whip cracks and a guy repeats that old favorite from boot camp, "Please, sir, may I have another?"
While all this other work was blossoming, the agency has continued to create advertising for Apple that builds on a strong brand strategy, even if the client itself seems at times a little confused about where it's going. At the heart of all Apple advertising is the consistent illustration of its advantages in user-friendliness when compared to Windows and DOS systems. Particularly memorable is a fairly recent campaign that featured hapless businessmen (in one ad they're seen having a panic attack in a diner after losing their presentation) huddled over manuals trying to work with Windows applications. More recent spots evoke the same idea, but in a more homespun manner; in one, parents struggle to get their PC up and running on Christmas Eve; in another, Dad fails to successfully load a CD-ROM about dinosaurs, prompting junior to head over to the neighbors' Mac.
Despite all the recent hype surrounding Windows 95, the perpetual rumors that Apple has its feelers out for a new agency and recent admissions by Apple's top officers that the company has had a particularly rocky quarter, Allen Olivo, Apple's director of advertising, claims none of it will change their relationship or the advertising. As for the latest buzz that Apple should consider merging with IBM or Motorola-as suggested in two New York Times articles published last month-Lubars will only make the collective statement that "when you work in a volatile category, you get used to the rumors."
Olivo admits that the Apple work may have temporarily "lost its way, attempting to be all things to all people," referring to its efforts to position itself as a business computer a few years back, but he says that now it has gotten back on track by targeting its core market of education, graphics arts, consumers, and small-business owners. For example, a new spot shows a couple running a small business on a Mac in their living room; just as the husband takes a client's call, we hear a shower running: "She's in a meeting right now," he says, glancing towards the bathroom.
Lubars says Apple work takes two basic approaches: one is demonstrating what you can do with the world's easiest to use computer, the other is to "spread truth" about Windows. Two new spots illustrate these themes neatly: in one, a young boy is awakened by his Mac, which plays a goofy QuickTime movie full of graphics, animation and video clips meant to get him out of bed. The other, a new spot titled "Crowd Control," is a direct attack on Windows 95. In it, a hapless executive, apologizing that he's just loaded a new operating program and he's having a little trouble with it, struggles to get his presentation to run on his laptop while an auditorium of impatient colleagues stews. As they start shouting bits of advice from the gallery ("try typing SYS.EXE") one finally yells, "Hey, get a Mac."
Commenting on the re-energized BBDO, Palmer admits that coming from The Bomb Factory his preconceived notion of the agency was one of a "large sterile dentist's office," but that Lubars dispelled that, mostly "by making good on his promises. He set out to bring all the work up to the level of Apple and he's done that; he promised me I'd be able to direct and he's made good on that, too." "Every agency has its own rhythm," adds Einstein. "At some, the energy is gone, at others you know they'll never hit the energy phase and then there are places like Goodby that have really hit their stride. Here, there's this feeling that the office and everyone in it are coiled springs about to be released."
Especially Lubars, whose own energy comes across most in his youthful evangelism for advertising in general. Using two of his favorite adjectives, he explains that though the Apple work was "awesome, killer," he needed to "blast the culture a bit, flatten the place out and change the structure of how creativity works."
Translated, this means that part of the agency's redesign involved the firing of more than 20 staffers. In part, the cutbacks were the result of losing both Sizzler restaurants and Blue Cross/Blue Shield insurance, some $30 million in billings, right around the time of Lubars' hiring, though others who weren't, in Lubars' words, "totally psyched" about his egalitarian ideas were also cut loose. "The only requirement for working here is that you have to put a good idea down on a piece of paper," he explains, "whether you're a creative director or an administrative assistant."
Oddly enough, Lubars wasn't interested the first time Hayden attempted to recruit him in 1992. At the time, he and his partners at Leonard Monahan Lubars, Bruce Leonard and Tom Monahan, planned to open a Los Angeles branch of their Providence agency, which they'd put on the national map with award-winning work for Keds and Polaroid. The plan was a condition of Lubars' return from Chiat/Day/Venice (a Providence native, his joining Leonard Monahan was something of a homecoming for him), where he'd worked as a copywriter in the '80s; when it was dropped, he says he became more open to the idea of moving back to Los Angeles. Besides, using two other favorite adjectives, he also saw the opportunity to work with some pretty "hip, happening" bosses and at an agency with more of a national reputation.
Those New York-based bosses-BBDO chairman Phil Dusenberry and CEO Allen Rosenshine-seem equally enamored of Lubars; Dusenberry is confident he's "no longer operating in Steve's shadow." Indeed, in addition to his new crop of creatives, in the last year Lubars has revitalized the account management side of things as well by hiring Tom Hollerbach, formerly with Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, as director of brand services, and Tom Hanft, formerly with Goldberg Moser O'Neill, as Apple account director.
But despite the agency's momentum, there are those who think that Lubars has his work cut out for him, especially when it comes to new business. The agency has picked up a number of accounts in the last year, the larger being Ortho lawn care products at $13 million, Kal Kan's Sheba cat food at $15 million and Real Value housewares at $10 million. Nevertheless, BBDO recently lost out to Goodby in the hotly contested Starbucks coffee pitch, a loss that Lubars seemed to take personally. How much did he want the business? So much that when BBDO wasn't initially invited to pitch, he and a group of creatives videotaped themselves spending a day training at the local Starbucks and then sent the tape to company executives in Seattle, who put the agency on the list.
"Winning awards is great, but you can't grow the office with Glendale Federal," notes former staffer Chris Wall, "and then there's the question of how long the agency will be able to hold onto Apple." A client notoriously difficult even in the best of times, Wall feels that these days the agency is particularly vulnerable because the account has lost so many of its senior people. As he explains, "This younger generation may have proven it can generate good work, but how good are they at developing relationships with clients like Apple?"
Those relationships are hard to build under the best of circumstances, according to former Apple art director Jason Stinsmuehlen, now at Ammirati & Puris/Lintas. But besides its notoriously tedious approval process, Stinsmuehlen says that it was management turnover at Apple and BBDO that really took its toll on morale. "Steve Hayden and John Sculley had the archetypal agency-client relationship," he recalls. "With both of them gone, you didn't feel that Apple had any real allegiance to BBDO; they'd jump ship if given the opportunity."
Careful not to be specific, Lubars will say only that "if disaster struck, the agency would survive." His more immediate concern is "finding a coveted brand, a high-profile anything that wants to do great work. I don't care if it's cosmetics or motor oil.We still have a lot of work to do to establish ourselves," Lubars admits, but, he adds, "it's been a totally intense year and we're really rockin'."