Figured it out? Congratulations, David Hale probably has a job for you. In fact, there seem to be lots of people who have jobs for you, based on the number of people who seem to be interested in hiring Hale. The secret is all in the box, as Hale calls the grid o' dots that you may or may not be fumbling with right now. (I know, this isn't one of those problems you win a Fulbright scholarship over, but being a naggingly linear thinker it stumped me, at least.) See, to solve this puzzle you've got to go outside the box to do it-seems simple, but conventional logic suggests that you stay inside the grid when you set to work trying to figure it out.
Then again, sometimes you just gotta break the rules.
Which brings us, in an unconventional way, to red meat. (Stay with me on this, it works out.) We're talking steaks and burgers here-Outback steaks and Burger King burgers. The 44-year-old Hale has had his fill of both, and while we're not privy to his cholesterol numbers, he seems to have hardly tired of the fare. In the case of the former, he's been the ad hoc independent creative director for this fast-growing chain of casual restaurants for the past three years, working first via West & Co. in Tampa and now via McCann/New York. Regarding the latter, Hale got his start in the agency business back in 1976, working as a writer on BK at JWT/New York; later, he was CD on the account when it was at DMB&B, where he guided the "Break the Rules" campaign. The Outback slogan, by the way, takes a somewhat reminiscent tack regarding convention with its slogan, "No rules, just right."
The juxtaposition of Hale's working for accounts both big and small via agencies of correspondingly similar size in capacities both structured and freeform-and in both cases creating campaigns that use nonconformity as their pegs-can be seen as a metaphor for his career, from its megashop origins to its current incarnation as leader of The Resistance, a self-styled band of creative mercenaries that Hale has assembled to do his bidding. Billing himself as the "quintessential outsider in an insider's world," Hale has fashioned The Resistance as a way for big shops and their big clients to, on a project basis, get a taste of the virtual agency approach to solving advertising and marketing problems. He says it's a structure that lets him focus on the work and eschew the meetings, politics and other "bullshit" distractions of working in a big agency-and given the focus so many put on re-engineering these days, The Resistance seems like the right mood for fast times.
Since leaving his CD post at Bozell in Southern California almost three years ago, Hale has devoted much of his energies to "thinking outside the box," an expression popular with his fellow Resistance fighters, and so far he's been able to apply this to a variety of clients and agencies. He's handled numerous projects, some for household names (Disney, Taco Bell, Coke, AT&T and Exxon) and some for names he can't mention. He's also worked for McCann, JWT and Wells Rich Greene, again handling projects that he often can't say much about, but then if you're in the Resistance, exposure can be deadly.
Discussing this work, Hale often tosses out newspeaky expressions like "collapsing the production process into the creative." Later he'll explain that this really means combining the two, transforming your production partners-usually considered more or less vendors, at least as far as big-agency practices seem to reflect-and turning them into collaborators. Indeed, "collaborators" is a term Hale uses a lot. "The idea is to work with the people who work for a living," he says, and by that he doesn't mean plumbers and electricians. He's talking about people whose only measure of accomplishment is the work they produce, not the number of meetings they attend. Often these working-class heroes exist at various times in different worlds, whether they're musicians or filmmakers or illustrators or photographers, and he cites as an example guys like Jim Proimos, a former agency creative (like many of his comrades, Proimos and Hale go way back) who's now a cartoonist, or Tim Newman, the ex-commercials director who has branched out into new media and other fields, or Andy Bush, a fine-art photographer whom Hale has hired to shoot an offbeat outdoor campaign for Exxon.
David Canright is a copywriter at O&M whom Hale hired for freelance work before incorporating himself as The Resistance last year. He was first hired by Hale back in 1990, fresh out of UT, and put to work in the Burger King group at DMB&B. Canright believes Hale is not only passionate about the work he's doing and the way he's working, but also about his feelings towards life in big agencies. "David has talked about doing this for a long time," Canright says, and he knows why. "The problem is that the work itself is on the bottom rung at a lot of big agencies, and everything else is more important-the politics, the meetings, the money, the positioning. Good work often dies for very bad reasons, and I think he just got sick of it," Canright says.
Peter Kim, the former McCann-Erickson vice chairman and head of strategic planning who recently left the agency to start his own firm, Bright Sun Consulting, has worked with Hale on a number of projects, most recently the aforementioned Exxon campaign (he also brought in Hale to work on projects for AT&T and Coke). He first met Hale years ago when both were at JWT. He sees a growing need for outside creative resources like The Resistance. "What David has is an excess of production capacity-that's the ability to produce ideas," says Kim, who views creative boutiques and collectives like The Resistance as little factories. "What they're looking for are orders," and what Kim's been able to do, both at McCann and currently under his own banner, is find commercial projects for Hale's ideas, all geared towards helping companies redefine themselves.
Of course, when outfits like The Resistance start functioning within the confines of a big agency, there can be friction. "It naturally causes conflicts," says Kim, who believes the practice can produce what he calls a "two-tiered hierarchy" that blurs lines between agencies and clients and leads to predictable not-invented-here hostility. Indeed, several Resistance members suggest that this is a problem that Hale has had to face more than once. "The work we'd do would have to be sold through the agency, and something would happen, it would get out of David's control and there would be no one there to shepherd it," says one collaborator. "In the big-agency system you've got to make every meeting and schmooze the client, you've got to schmooze the account people so they'll sell the work. And people would see David as an outsider and a cowboy and they'd tank him."
Even so, Hale's years of working at big shops have left him prepared to deal with these obstacles. "The key talent he brings is a disciplined approach to problem solving, largely as a result of the structures he grew up with," says Gary Langstaff, now head of a strategic consulting firm called Lightbulb Inc., and Hale's former BK ad/marketing client. "David could just as easily work within a more conventional structure if he had to, but his discipline allows him to work within the conventional structures of clients while still delivering for them a sense of unconventional brand differentiation."
Nancy Schneid, VP-marketing at the Tampa-based Outback Steakhouse chain, values another one of Hale's attributes: "He listens," she says, as if finding an agency person who does this well is a bit of a shock. Aside from the fact that Schneid considers Hale as strong a strategic thinker as he is a creative talent, she adds, "David has a phenomenal ability to keep us on the same page."
Hale's belief that he's really a big-agency outsider may come across as disingenuous, but he can back it up: he's dabbled in music for years, singing lead vocals with a blues group, and currently has a number of vaguely defined entertainment projects happening, among them some new-media stuff and a proposed TV show. Yet he's clearly not interested in walking away from the ad business, particularly his affection for big brands. "David likes the challenge of handling big parity products, the kind that need advertising to create some distinguishing image," says Canright. "Anyone can do that for athletic shoes. I think David would love doing something like Huggies."
Disposable diapers over sneakers? Hard to believe, but not all that surprising for those whom Hale is a fellow well met. Says Langstaff, who worked for Wieden & Kennedy during their days in L.A., "David could do well in a culture like that-he's just chosen to do what he does in a different kind of setting. The real challenge is how far the conventional theater will allow him to play, both