"I want to develop a commercial directing style in which I don't really have to be there," Mr. Corra said. "Relinquish authorship completely."
He won't relinquish, however, his influence over Gateway's $250 million advertising business. Mr. Corra, a New York commercial director and filmmaker, has upset the ambitions of three huge agencies: Omnicom Group's D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, Los Angeles; Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann-Erickson Worldwide, New York; and Publicis Groupe's Fallon, Minneapolis, as they sought to win, and hold, Gateway.
"I think he tried to undermine the agency in many ways, creatively and in every other way," said Nina DeSesa, chief creative director at McCann-Erickson.
"He was a behind-the-scenes thorn in our sides," said McCann's deputy creative director, Joyce King Thomas. "His self-interests and our self-interests were not converging."
Mr. Corra, 45, did not intend to be so prickly. To hear him tell it, he just fell into the relationship with Gateway. About eight years ago, he met Gateway founder and CEO Ted Waitt in North Sioux City, S.D., then the home of Gateway. The computer company, which had relied on in-house print ads until then, was shooting its first TV spots with its first agency, Interpublic's Carmichael Lynch, Minneapolis.
"Ted wanted to capture the real people in South Dakota," Mr. Corra said. "They couldn't get any directors to shoot out there, everybody wanted to stage it. The only reason I got hired was that I was very happy to just come into a factory and start filming."
Mr. Corra was a protege of the legendary Maysles brothers, David (now deceased) and Albert, the documentary filmmakers who pioneered the technique of unscripted filmmaking, which became known as cinema verite. The Maysles made groundbreaking films including "Gimme Shelter," "Salesman" and "Grey Gardens," but they also shot commercials to pay the rent. Mr. Corra worked with them and then opened his own shop, Corra Films.
Mr. Corra and the pony-tailed 38-year-old Mr. Waitt hit it off right away. "Ted and Henry trusted one another," said Jack Supple, chairman and chief creative officer at Carmichael Lynch. "We were shooting ... people who had disassembled beef cattle and were now disassembling computers. It was cool. Ted liked what Henry did. They just did their thing."
Their thing was very successful. Gateway grew by leaps and decided it needed a global agency. Its $70 million account went into review in 1997 and DMB&B was chosen over WPP Group's J. Walter Thompson, New York.
"Ted wanted DMB&B to work with me but they never did. They never called me," Mr. Corra said. Mr. Corra and DiMassimo Brand Advertising, New York, a small but aggressive shop led by founder Mark DiMassimo, worked on a slew of unscripted TV spots throughout 1998, until Jeff Weitzen, an AT&T executive, was brought in as CEO of Gateway. Mr. Waitt remained chairman, but stepped back from the day-to-day operations and put it in the experienced hands of a corporate executive, which he was not.
Mr. Weitzen quickly moved the entire account to McCann-Erickson, and at Mr. Waitt's insistence, brought Mr. Corra and his shop along. While McCann put out creative work-including a campaign featuring actor Michael J. Fox-Mr. Corra directed his "real people" spots. McCann and Mr. Corra collaborated on one ad with Mr. Waitt and his father, which was scripted by McCann and shot like a documentary. But the arrangement between Mr. Corra and McCann quickly soured.
"Henry's not just a director," Ms. DeSesa said. "He won't go in there and just direct it. He has to change your idea and make it his. There's nothing wrong with that. It's just that the agencies don't want to operate along those lines, because the agency has a vision of what the advertising should be. The director is not supposed to take over."
"I don't think McCann understood what I did," Mr. Corra said. "They are really good at some things. I think the mistake they made with me was thinking they could hire a documentary filmmaker and force me to work in a more conventional fictional way. My philosophy is this: If you can write the concept down on paper, then it's probably not the right idea for Gateway."
The bad news for Gateway hit this January. The company announced a net loss of $94.3 million in the fourth quarter of 2000 and admitted its core PC business was not making money. Mr. Weitzen resigned and Mr. Waitt moved back in as chairman-CEO. Gateway then cut 3,000 jobs. It also decided to move its advertising account again.
Although a review was held with several agencies, the company zeroed in on Fallon. "The reason we were so hopeful that we could establish a relationship is that we deeply understood the folksy Midwestern nature of the company," said Mark Goldstein, chief marketing officer, Fallon Worldwide. "In fact, Ted and his most senior executives on a number of occasions said that the work we showed them was the best they had ever seen." One executive close to the situation, however, said that Fallon's ideas strayed from Gateway's focus on "real people." Again, Mr. Waitt turned to his friend.
"It all comes down to a personal relationship between a visionary executive and an artist who somehow has become the alter ego," said Mr. DiMassimo. "Martin Scorcese has Robert DeNiro. Steve Jobs at Apple has Lee Clow at Chiat/Day. And Ted Waitt has Henry Corra."
Mr. Corra has been working non-stop on Gateway ads. He's directing around the country, filming real employees and customers from New York City's Union Square to a Shriner's Hall in Alabama.
"We are a very humanistic brand," said Brad Williams, Gateway's director of communications. "Our competitors' brands are positioned as much more technology driven, cold, techno, inaccessible wonders of the future. We just believe that the wonders of the future are pretty worthless unless technology is doing something to improve your life today."
This is where Gateway and Mr. Corra differ creatively from big advertising agencies. "The danger of going too folksy is that the computer business is really about high technology," said McCann's Ms. Thomas. "They are a folksy company, but I don't think that's what some people are looking for when they buy a computer. I want to have the latest and the greatest. ... I've got to believe the company is going to provide that as well as some nice people on the other end of the phone."
"There is no Madison Avenue running down the main street of Sioux City," countered Mr. Williams. "Ted is a great marketing mind. He has a point of view that has benefited our advertising and marketing immeasurably over the years. He has defined it."
And although Mr. Corra, who works on a fee basis, may prove less expensive than a large agency, it's his philosophy, rather than his cost, that brings Gateway and Mr. Waitt back again and again.
"When you're just trying to capture reality," said Mr. Waitt, "you don't need scripts, you don't need concepts, you don't need agency overhead. You just shoot, pick the magic moments and put them on the air. Our customers and employees come up with better stuff than you could ever write. And better yet it's real. Henry gets that."
Contributing: Kate MacArthur