GOTHAM REGAINS SOME LOST LUSTER AS CENTER OF U.S. AGENCY CREATIVITY

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New York ain't what it used to be. Its seediness fading, its legendary brusqueness increasingly replaced by a "Howdy, neighbor!" demeanor, it's an oddly more appealing place.

Don't let David Letterman's monologue fantasies fool you-the hookers and strippers are gone from Times Square, nudged out of their flophouses by giant media companies vying for street-level studio space and retailers slugging it out in catty-corner megastores.

For ad creative people it's a different kind of town, too. Long a citadel of big agencies and national brands, the collective shift towards a media-centric, pop culture-obsessed society fueled by an increasingly global economy has given the ad business here a new emphasis.

BIGGER AND BETTER

The leading New York shops are not only bigger than ever but, in a contradiction to conventional wisdom, some contend they're doing better work. Often-cited examples include McCann-Erickson Worldwide for MasterCard International, BBDO Worldwide for Snickers, Lowe & Partners/SMS for the dearly departed Mercedes-Benz of North America, and Ogilvy & Mather for IBM Corp. and American Express Co.

The city's former brat-pack standouts- Deutsch, Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners-have matured. And while the handful of top boutiques are still around, they're being overshadowed by some new kids on the block-hallowed names in the creative community, agencies that once seemed to wear their disregard for New York on their sleeves.

BEING A PLAYER

The reasons that Bartle Bogle Hegarty, Fallon McElligott and Wieden & Kennedy are in Manhattan have been discussed ad infinitum. They're here, sum-med up BBH Chairman John Hegarty, because to be a global agency now means "you have to be a player in the major centers to stay competitive," and those are London, Asia/Pacific and New York.

"Your own corporate culture has to absorb as much as it can from these three places," he said.

While these agencies are soaking up New York's energy, they're also changing it, certainly in the creative ranks. Among the elite junior and senior creatives, the ones whose portfolios can get them in the door at the nation's most vaunted creative shops (many of which, of course, aren't in New York), the city has for years been a second-rate destination. San Francisco was the Big Enchilada, thanks to its combination of top-rate professional opportunities mingled with an appealing lifestyle.

Numerous creatives, however, said the mere presence of BBH, Fallon and Wieden, along with the growth of such creatively focused shops as Berlin, Cameron & Partners and McCann's Amster Yard operation, has changed their opinion of New York. The biggest shift has to do with the perception that creatives now have a broader range of agency options available to them.

"Even if there's only a handful of jobs at these places," said Adam Chasnow, a copywriter at Cliff Freeman & Partners, "people will want to come here so they can end up there."

Viewpoints like this play a big part in the buzz a city can develop in the creative community. The flip side of the equation is an accompanying sense of expectation. "People are watching not just this agency but the entire city," said Jamie Barrett, Wieden & Kennedy's former top creative on Nike who was named creative director of Fallon McElligott's office in New York in December. "In the next year or so, we have to justify the attention we're getting."

READY FOR A REBIRTH?

Whether the work of New York agencies is getting better is tough to pin down, but some see the pieces in place for a creative rebirth.

"New York has gone through a very fallow time creatively," Mr. Hegarty said, "but the city does feel very positive and that will be reflected in the advertising."

In some cases, it's a touch too soon to tell. BBH just produced its first work in the city, a TV campaign for ESPN's Nascar coverage. Fallon's first work produced under Mr. Barrett-campaigns for Georgia-Pacific Co. and Conseco-shows promise.

As for Wieden, its New York office has been working for the past two years largely on ESPN, with a little Calvin Klein tossed in. Last week, Wieden's West Coast headquarters sent a plum along to New York, moving Nike's Jordan Brand assignment here at the client's request.

Despite the lack of consensus on the quality of the work, younger creatives increasingly are regarding the city as a desirable place to live and work, and creative directors at shops large and small are cheered by this.

"This is a really hot city to be in again," said David Page, newly installed chief creative officer of TBWA/

Chiat/Day, who left Goodby, Silverstein & Partners for a chance to work at Ammirati & Puris back in '94. He attributes the heat to the pop-culture capital the city has amassed-a windfall generated largely by the realization New York is once again a bustling center for movies, broadcasting, new media, fashion and publishing.

Like Mr. Page, Ernest Lupinacci sees more behind the renewed interest in the city than just the presence of a new list of hot shops. A former Wieden & Ken-nedy copywriter on ESPN, he left the agency last year to, as he put it, "see what's next."

WHERE IT ALL COMES TOGETHER

Mr. Lupinacci sees the opportunities inherent in the commingling of fashion, film, art and advertising as the key to New York's sense of excitement. "You have to be where all those things come together, and that's either New York, L.A., London or maybe Paris," he noted. "It's not San Francisco or Portland or Seattle or Richmond."

Advertising has always looked to these other fields for inspiration, he said. "But now people outside advertising are savvy to that, too. If you're in a pop-culture backwater and you're not tapped into it, then you're screwed-because not only are your competitors clued into it, your consumers are, too."

Sounds good, right?

"I think Ernest's analysis is very sexy," said Andy Berlin, chairman of Berlin, Cameron & Partners, "but I don't think it's as true in a causal sense. There are lots of different hypotheses available.

"The day Dan Wieden allowed [Wieden Co-Creative Director] Stacy Wall to open an office with [Dan's] name on it was an important day," Mr. Berlin continued. "It was so important to their mystique to not be here. Something had changed. This was more than just indulging Stacy."

Wieden executives declined to be interviewed for this story.

For some, the lure of being in New York and working at one of these shops is too attractive to pass up. Mr. Barrett said despite all the positives about New York right now, if it weren't for the opportunity to work at Fallon he'd likely be in San Francisco or even running his own shop.

BIG OPPORTUNITIES

In addition to the issue of where to work, there's the issue of the kind of work available. Both Mr. Barrett and Ty Montague, New York creative director of BBH, expect their shops are going to be working on big-name brands and dealing with real marketing problems.

Mr. Barrett, who comes from years of working on hip brands such as Nike, is particularly interested in the challenge of doing good work "for clients that aren't used to doing it, or to demanding it."

It's the perfect strategy for building an agency in New York, where the landscape is quite different than in San Francisco or Portland. "By default, the clients here are bigger, and the bigger the client, the more difficult it'll be doing breakthrough work," Mr. Montague said. "Having said that, that's exactly what has to be done."

Not surprisingly, creative directors such as Messrs. Barrett and Montague see a rosy future for New York creative work, thanks in part to their own agencies' presence in the city.

"No one shop can lift a city on its shoulders," said Mr. Montague, who hopes what will occur in New York is what happened out West.

"When there's a critical mass of people who are competing on the basis of the work, it can have a profound effect on the value of an industry, and that's what happened in San Francisco," said Mr. Berlin, whose former agency played a key role in shaping that town as a creative mecca.

LURING BACK THE TALENT

If it can happen in the Big Apple-if the best shops can slug it out on the strength of their ideas and the best creative people feel there's a greater range of options for them than just boutiques or multinational giants-then maybe, Mr. Montague added, "we can begin to pull the talent back that fled to the West Coast."

Longtime New York creatives might shake their heads at the whole discussion; they know the checkered past of Manhattan's carpetbagger agencies. For example, Mr. Page said his main challenge right now at TBWA/Chiat/Day is to restore the New York agency's creative status and establish it as the centerpiece of the TBWA network.

"The jury is still out as to whether agencies like ours can defy the stereotypes and succeed from a business and creative standpoint," Mr. Barrett said. "This is the toughest ad market in the world, and the work ebbs and flows. In the history of agencies that set out to do good work, they've all had their moments, but

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