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WELCOME TO THE NEXT LEVEL RIDING A WAVE OF NEW BUSINESS AND PRODUCING WHAT SOME BELIEVE IS THEIR BEST WORK EVER, JEFF GOODBY AND RICH SILVERSTEIN CELEBRATE THEIR SUCESS WITH A NEW NAME BUT THE SAME OLD APPROACH. 'THEY HAVEN'T SOLD OUT AND GONE OFF TO SOME TROPICAL ISLAND,' SAYS A FORMER STAFFER. 'THEY STILL GET A HOOT OUT OF ALL THIS'

By Published on .

THE NIGHT BEFORE THE IBM pitch last fall, Jeff Goodby, Rich Silverstein and a handful of account people took an elevator down to a restaurant where they were meeting several IBM executives for dinner. According to Goodby, they were all nervously joking about whether their own relatively low-tech skills would have any adverse effect on their chances to land the account when Silverstein, an unabashed technophobe, made a crack about hoping that he wouldn't be seated next to "some computer geek." Immediately, an unknown voice from the back said, "You should be careful about what you say in elevators." Not only did the voice belong to a computer geek, it belonged to the head geek: Bruce Chaflin, then president of IBM's PC division.

Silverstein, who ended up next to Chaflin anyway, swears there were no hard feelings with him or any of the other IBM executives, adding that the incident had nothing to do with the business going to Merkley Newman Harty. But what if it did? Sure, IBM would have been a great win (albeit short-lived, it now seems) but certainly this agency has had its share of victories lately. In the last two years, the newly renamed Goodby, Silverstein & Partners-the partners being president Colin Probert, director of account planning Jon Steel and director of account management Harold Sogard-seems to have hit its stride. Despite losing the $25 million Carl's Jr. account last year, the shop, which celebrated both its 11th anniversary and revised name in April, has enjoyed a winning streak that has not only tripled its billings to more than $235 million but, thanks to a new crop of acclaimed work, has also cemented its stature as one of the country's smartest agencies.

Since April 1992, when ex-partner Andy Berlin left to become president of DDB/Needham/New York, the agency has snagged several substantial pieces of business: Foster Farms chicken, the California Fluid Milk Processor Advisory Board, Sega of America, Norwegian Cruise Lines, Porsche North America, Unum insurance and a big slice of Pizza Hut; in total more than $90 million. This, of course, is in addition to a client list that already included Isuzu Motors-the agency's largest account at $75 million-as well as The San Francisco Examiner, Royal Viking Cruise Lines and Finlandia vodka.

Clearly this windfall, coming in the wake of Berlin's departure, demonstrates that the shop can prosper without its so-called new-business guru. Nearly a decade after a much heralded spot for the Mill Valley Film Festival put them on the creative map, and after the subsequent accumulation of an impressive array of accolades (including being named Advertising Age's Agency of the Year for 1989), much of the agency's long-term success is due to Goodby and Silverstein's stalwart partnership. By most accounts, Goodby, 42, and Silverstein, 44, still get turned on by what they do, so much so that they've managed in the past five years to build the agency from a relatively offbeat $40 million shop with no high-profile national business to an international creative force and Omnicom's most recent acquisition.

As if to underscore the old cliche that opposites attract, the fast-talking, mercurial Silverstein is tempered by Goodby, his more introspective, pony-tailed counterpart, who explains, "because Rich is more in touch with his gut-level instincts and I tend to overthink things, we meet somewhere in the middle." Partners since the early 1980s when they worked together at Hal Riney & Partners/San Francisco, colleagues believe the secret to their relationship, as former Goodby writer Rob Bagot points out, is that "they're both fanatical about the work. There's none of this 'let's just keep the agency profitable.'*" Now the creative director at Livingston & Co./Seattle, Bagot says, "Jeff and Rich haven't sold out, delegated the work to other people and gone off to some tropical island. They still get a hoot out of all this."

For example, Goodby and Silverstein recently created a character for a Sega commercial that the client hated because they felt it overwhelmed the product. Both partners have trouble even remembering the convoluted plot about an overweight, out-of-work superhero and a bunch of Cadillac-driving criminals, but they crack up just thinking about it. "We always run the risk of putting too much into our work, especially with commercials," Goodby jokes, pointing to Sega as an example. "We tend to add layers and give our spots too many twists and turns."

Yet it's this same tendency, along with the agency's breadth of work, that both partners feel has not only contributed to GS&P's creative strength but helped to set it apart from comparable hot shops like Fallon McElligott and Wieden & Kennedy, agencies noted for their classic and hip styles, respectively. While Silverstein notes that Fallon has "always written the best headlines and created great print, its most visible client is Lee jeans." Similarly, while he and Goodby "have always been jealous of Wieden's work," he also carefully points out, "they didn't do it for Subaru."

By contrast, Goodby's own eclectic oeuvre ranges from the signature elegance of its print to work that is increasingly laced with comedy, youthful attitude and, at times, downright weirdness (even when compared with the wacky comedy it used to employ for The San Francisco Examiner or its affable man-in-the-street humor seen in campaigns for Skippy dog food and Chevy's Mexican restaurants).

For example, the agency's latest Norwegian Cruise Line campaign, which easily matches the grace of its prior work for Finlandia and Royal Viking, includes sexy, Herb Ritts-photographed print ads along with such suggestive visuals as a couple making out on deck and intimate scrolling questions like "Who says you can't make love at 4 in the afternoon?" Switching gears completely-from the sublime to the ridiculous-is the corny Foster Farms campaign that documents the antics of a pair of fugitive chickens driving around in an old beat-up Plymouth, trying to pass themselves off as Foster Farms product. Different still is the clever and highly visual Milk Processors work tagged "Got milk?" which includes a clear favorite among Goodby creatives: a brilliantly executed spot in which a nerdy Alexander Hamilton fanatic gets interrupted while eating a peanut butter sandwich by a radio call-in show that asks him the $10,000 question, "Who shot Alexander Hamilton?" He can't answer, of course, because his mouth is glued shut and he's run out of milk.

The worked helped the agency in its usual spring cleanup at the San Francisco Show, where, along with Hal Riney & Partners, GS&P gathered nearly 50 awards, including two Golds for new client Unum's sassy print; one ad dealing with unemployment showed a photo of a TV along with a tawdry talk show lineup: "Left-handed twin non-smokers, and the men who love them," and "Women who marry their mother's ex-husbands."

The variety notwithstanding, the real strength of the work, according to Silverstein, is that "it's intelligent across-the-board, yet still in touch with mainstream America. We're not trying to make ads that say, 'How smart can I be and still have people get it?' And we'd never build a commercial around a celebrity." Adds Goodby, "Our commercials have depth, so they don't wear out."

Maybe so, but depth is a relative term. In the often dopey world of video game advertising, the agency's dizzying, frequently bizarre array of work has not only helped make the Sega account a valuable showcase, its hip, instinctive Gen-X feel has been instrumental in finally pushing unit sales ahead of Nintendo. The "Welcome to the Next Level" campaign has also helped make the company-along with fashion and apparel giants Nike, Levi's, Guess and the Gap-one of the "coolest" brands, according to a poll of teenagers by the Illinois-based Teen Research Unlimited.

The rawness that some of the best Sega work exhibits stands in sharp contrast to the agency's more finely crafted work for clients like Norwegian Cruise, Isuzu and Porsche-which, it's worth noting, has its critics. Take Porsche, for instance. The debut campaign included several print ads featuring dynamic, in-motion shots of Porsches along with self-probing, stream-of-consciousness copy. Reads one ad, "There is a guy who might just have a better job than you and there's really nothing you can do about it short of flying to Germany and asking for an application to become a test driver for Porsche which makes less sense than just buying one for yourself and testing it in your own sweet time." The TV ads come off as more mainstream, focusing on workers at Porsche's shiny Stuttgart factory. One spot juxtaposes shots of workers examining their bright blue socks and fuschia lipstick with images of cars the same color, while another delivers sincere testimonial shots of Porsche workers lovingly crafting their cars.

Some creatives might agree with Bagot, who says the campaign "has made Porsche more accessible than Fallon" did with its ads. For others, however, it was a letdown; as one San Francisco creative director put it, "By attempting to take the edge off Porsche's arrogance, the work just wasn't passionate enough." Though Goodby explains the campaign was intentionally "gentle" to appeal to a wider range of consumers, the work seems to fall short to anyone expecting something more provocative or edgy.

But not to worry; there's evidence to suggest that the grungy nature of the Sega work is tapping into some inner desire on Goodby's part. Ask him about the agency's debut spots for Pizza Hut and he's likely to get excited about a character called Mr. Pizza Head, a hapless slice who gets thrown around and stepped on a lot in a series of silly commercials directed by Walter Williams (who shot the old "Mr. Bill" shorts on "Saturday Night Live").

In light of Goodby's fondness for this kind of stuff, there have been rumors that there are those on the inside who, overall, don't think the work is of the same caliber as it was in the past, although former staffers like David Fowler dismiss such scuttlebutt as the same "rampant paranoia" that's always existed at the agency. "Creatives have always worried that Goodby was going to turn into just another agency," says Fowler, now executive creative director at Tracy Locke/DDB Needham in Dallas. "The work is every bit as good; it's just that the clientele has grown with them, and now they're facing the realities of clients with big budgets and the fact that we're in a post-recession apocalypse. In the '80s you could build brand imagery; in the '90s there's pressure to move merchandise."

"I've heard that creatives now are referring to the time when I was there as the Golden Age," adds former Goodby art director Tracy Wong, now a partner at Wong Doody in Seattle. "What they don't realize is that when I worked at Goodby we talked about the 'classics' like Mill Valley. People inside an agency don't always have the most objective point of view."

While current Goodby-ites like art director Erich Joiner feel "it's healthy for us to say that we suck once in a while," it's generally not the work that people grumble about; it's what's been described as the agency's "freewheelingness," or, more specifically, its lack of a traffic department. Now with The Stone Group, former staffer Steve Stone describes his experience at the agency as akin to "being at a barbecue where everyone's having a lot of fun," but another former creative notes that "if someone likes the lockstep, buttoned-down approach of a Rubin Postaer or an Ammirati, they won't like Goodby. And if they're looking for a father figure like Dan Wieden, they won't get it there. Jeff and Rich have a more brotherly approach; they'd rather do the work than manage people."

Silverstein acknowledges that the lack of a traffic department (a source of internal confusion that reportedly puts added stress on creatives) has always been a "major bitch" within the agency, and while he's long rebelled against having an "army sergeant" hovering over creatives, he's recently changed his mind because of the agency's increased workload. As for their fraternal style, Silverstein says that while a relatively small percentage of his and Goodby's time is spent actually doing work, the idea of "leading by example" is still thought to be motivating to creatives. Adds Goodby, "If I contribute an idea that's worth one percent of a total campaign, then at least I know I'm not out to pasture."

Modesty aside, creatives like Bagot feel that "because Jeff and Rich were so in tune with the work, they always made you feel that what you contributed was important, whether it was a trade ad, sales video or big-budget commercial." Bagot adds that Silverstein "was like Vince Lombardi, a hands-on coach and a real perfectionist who was always down there in print production with his loupe."

Goodby's strength is a bit less tangible. For Bagot it was his accessibility, the fact that after putting his toddler to bed at 10 p.m., Goodby was willing to whisper advice on the phone about a radio campaign that Bagot was working on. For copywriter Bob Kerstetter, it's his laid-back attitude and quirky idiosyncrasies like the smart-ass notes he passes around the conference room during particularly grueling staff meetings. "Whenever we get down about things, Jeff always says, 'Don't take this so seriously, man.'*"

Not that underneath that mellow facade Goodby doesn't. While awards-often sarcastically referred to as "prizes" by Goodby-are considered an added bonus, as Wong points out, "one the best things about Rich and Jeff is that "they've never been these boutiquey, out-there guys; there's a sound marketing strategy at every juncture for everything they do." According to Dick Gillmore, Isuzu's director of marketing, part of the reason Rodeo sales have tripled since the agency got the business three years ago-apart from the general sales increase in the light trucks category-is that the agency went to great lengths to interview consumers, gauge the marketplace and, with the work, eliminate it's "cheap, low-end reputation."

In addition to Sega and Isuzu, Finlandia's sales are up 30 percent, no small feat in the imported vodka market dominated in recent years by Absolut. The wonders of creative aside, Goodby and Silverstein give much of the credit for successes like these to Jon Steel, a 10-year planning veteran from London's Boase Massimi Pollitt who joined the shop in 1989 and now heads Goodby's five-person account planning department. Silverstein claims it was Steel and his four go-rounds with focus groups that eventually sold the conservative family-run Foster Farms on such a quirky campaign.

In the early days, before Steel's arrival, much of the friendly arm-twisting was relegated to Andy Berlin, whose charismatic and often contentious personality was by all accounts most effective in capturing the imagination of clients. Fowler recalls the time Berlin pulled out a Barbie doll and an empty .38 revolver to better explain a complex creative idea to a client. Though Goodby and Silverstein stay in contact with Berlin, who now heads Berlin Wright Cameron, the issue of their ex-partner is generally considered a closed subject these days, especially now that his name has been taken off the door. The change was long-delayed, initially because Goodby and Silverstein felt it might upset clients, but more recently due to simple foot-dragging. It officially took place on April 15, the same day they opened their doors in 1983. More significant is that Berlin's departure has eliminated the arguments the partners used to have regarding the agency's future, enabling Goodby and Silverstein to concentrate more on new business. Unlike Berlin, who wanted to buy another agency and risk delivering work that Silverstein says "might have been bad for middle America's heads," Silverstein and Goodby talk about growing "organically," which simply means that the partners prefer to grow from within their recently expanded and remodeled Wharf-front offices, now home to more than 150 people-while they'd willingly open regional service offices to meet the demands of a large national client, the creative department would remain in San Francisco.

If there's any uncertainty regarding GS&P's future, it has to do with Goodby himself. While Silverstein, an avid cyclist, professes only a personal goal to win a bike race, there have been plenty of rumors that Goodby's desire to direct would eventually lead him away from the agency, particularly when his three-year contract with Omnicom expires next year. Over the years he's directed quite a few of the agency's spots, and several production executives have predicted he's a good bet to direct full-time eventually. But Goodby won't speculate except to say that "anybody would be crazy to consider themselves a lifer anywhere."

However, he will discuss the agency's future, which includes projects for both the Gap and electronics retailer Good Guys as well as a shared desire with Silverstein "to take on a $100 million client tomorrow.

"I think the idea of, 'Let's see how big we can get before we get bad' institutionalizes an eventual failure," he adds. "We're just not that

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