LOWE ON HI

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In a business where image is everything, Lee Garfinkel and Lowe & Partners/SMS are obeying their thirst.

No street noise rises through the windows, and there's no yelling and screaming outside Lee Garfinkel's comfy corner office. Still, I'm worried that I'll have to ask the black-box experts at the National Transportation Safety Board to help me transcribe the tape.

That's because Garfinkel, Lowe & Partners/SMS's 42-year-old co-chairman and chief creative officer, must have the softest voice of any adman I've ever talked to. He's a curious mix: self-effacing, maddeningly soft-spoken, a more gentle demeanor than Alan Alda at his most puppy-dogish moments. And yet, this is a former kid from da Bronx who grew up in the rough-'n'-tumble world of New York ad agencies, home of blustery, loud-mouthed, oversized egos, often lacking the talent to match. Compared to some big-agency creative directors these days, Garfinkel comes across as a city version of an aw-shucks kind of guy. But he may be more Jimmy Stewart than Gary Cooper -- more savvy than merely laconic, more calculating than he lets on. And perhaps with just a bit more of an ego than is evident at first.

Of course, a touch of hubris may well be expected here. Garfinkel's success in reshaping Lowe & Partners, a job he took on five years ago, is hard to dispute. Neither was the necessity of the task. Lowe was, as Garfinkel recalls, "just a sleepy place, an agency that you didn't know what work they did."

The Bronx Blues

That Garfinkel would get a crack at all at turning a major agency's creative efforts around was perhaps not written in the stars. A Queens College communications grad with no contacts in advertising, he sent out resumes blindly to ad agencies and production companies in the late '70s. "I just wanted to get out of the Bronx," he says. Someone in the business suggested that he put together a portfolio, so he did; he bought all the advertising books he could find and spent days in his parents' Bronx house working on his book, taking breaks to go jogging or watch late-night reruns of "The Twilight Zone." That determination was rewarded in 1978 with a job at a small agency called James Neal Harvey, famous at the time for having the VW bus account (DDB was handling the rest of the business). A stint at Levine Huntley Schmidt & Beaver followed.

It was there that Garfinkel's star began to ascend, mostly on the strength of Subaru work that almost always bore a comic twist. When that agency lost the account, Garfinkel moved to BBDO, where he spent three years working on Pepsi, creating the Shady Acres spot in which oldsters grooved with Pepsi while frat boys snoozed with Coke.

Next stop, Lowe. In October of 1992, when he joined, Garfinkel found an agency that was cobbled together of less then stellar parts. From its beginnings as the workaday Marschalk, through its transformation into Lowe Marschalk and then its commingling with the smaller Lowe Tucker Metcalf into Lowe & Partners in '89, the shop simply didn't rate a listing in Manhattan's creative register.

So why did he take the job, against the advice of friends who were sure he was about to commit professional hara kiri? Garfinkel says he thought the agency wasn't so big that mere inertia would prevent it from changing course. He was also swayed by the persuasive Frank Lowe, head of The Lowe Group, who promised Garfinkel considerable leeway in retooling the amorphous shop. Perhaps most importantly, Garfinkel felt the agency had some accounts that had been ignored, and a group of creative people on staff "who had a lot of potential that no one had helped them reach."

One handicap was that "I couldn't show the agency reel to new business prospects," he recalls of his early days. Instead -- and you gotta like a guy with this much chutzpah -- he'd show them his reel, insisting this was the kind of work he wanted to do at Lowe.

Rebirth and Resources

If selling clients on a not-yet realized creative rebirth seems like a stretch, it was only one of Garfinkel's worries. He was also trying to meld the holdovers from Lowe & Partners, the newly-arrived Scali contingent (Lowe merged with Scali McCabe Sloves in late 1993), and the hires he had brought in on his own. Much of his time was spent figuring out who was good and who wasn't; which clients were happy and which were about to bolt.

Seems he figured it out pretty well. Says writer Tom Thomas, a co-founder of Angotti Thomas Hedge who began freelancing at Lowe in early '94, "What Lee has done is one of these rare instances where someone has come in and, without the [people] resources you need to build a creative agency, has done it. But just as important is the culture that nurtures creatives. They had some talent there, but not the culture." Thomas eventually spent three years on staff before leaving last summer to pursue a personal writing project. "Now the work is fought for, and there's a sense, in every department, that the quality of the work is what's driving this agency," he says. "That was not the case before."

The perception of Lowe & Partners' previously ho-hum creative output started changing for the better in the fall of '93, a year after Garfinkel's arrival. For the new Lowe, winning the Diet Coke pitch that year proved something of a turnaround, a transition marking a renaissance of the creative work along with a taste for getting new business. The agency, which claims total U.S. billings of $750 million for 1997, has enjoyed an extended winning streak in wooing prospective clients. But Garfinkel says there are accounts Lowe wouldn't touch: he's referring to clients who don't "appreciate the benefits of good advertising." It's not about short-term business, he insists. "The wrong client may help us billings-wise, but it can bring the whole agency down."

Most of Lowe's accounts are relatively new to the agency. Club Med, Oral-B, Eddie Bauer, Sun Microsystems, Major League Baseball, Denny's Restaurants, KMPG Peat Marwick and Sony Electronics have all come aboard since 1995. Lowe opened an office in San Francisco last year to service the Sun and Eddie Bauer accounts.

In another coup, 43-year-old Gary Goldsmith and his account-side partner, Bob Jeffrey, 44, joined in November of '96, when they agreed that Lowe would acquire their New York hot shop, Goldsmith/Jeffrey. More on that later.

Scorecard

So how's Lowe doing? It's in surprisingly good shape, say other creative directors at big agencies who know how hard it can be to nudge such a shop's usually risk-averse big clients toward better work. "I think the things they've done on Mercedes have been fantastic, and I'm impressed that they could sell that work through the dealer network," says O&M/New York's co-president Rick Boyko. Andy Berlin, chairman of Berlin Cameron & Partners, is equally impressed: "Lee was able to partner successfully with some large clients that have really tough problems. He has built an impressive, first-rank creative department, and he's done it the hard way, from the ground up, not through free agency. It's very commendable."

Time for an up-close look.

The campaign for Courtyard by Marriott is funny and offbeat, with its video vignettes of people screwing up in public, ostensibly because they didn't get a decent night's sleep.

The global Sony TV campaign, on which Garfinkel and Goldsmith were partners, uses goofy stock footage and title cards to link the brand's equipment offerings with its music and movie software, revealing a deft blend of Goldsmith's trademark minimalism and Garfinkel's classic comic style. (The agency's Sony relationship has been the topic of speculation since last December's resignation of Sony Electronics president Carl Yankowski, who'd handpicked the agency.)

The Braun "Chef of the Future" Honeymooners spot, created by an all-female team, is an example of borrowed interest for once making complete sense. (Ralph Kramden's Handy Kitchen Helper -- which, in the original episode, he is attempting to demonstrate on live TV while petrified with stage fright -- is digitally replaced with a Braun hand-held mixer.)

The agency's Denny's campaign, with its smooth-talking, smart-aleck spokesman, is funny enough to make you forget about the company's past problems with race discrimination, much less the quality of its food.

Lowe's Sprite work builds easily off its nose-thumbing "Image is Nothing" platform of anti-advertising ads. Sprite's wicked "Jooky" spot was one of the best soda commercials of 1997. Other Sprite standouts have lampooned Eurotrash chic and Hollywood superficiality, while one of the most striking spots, "Turbo," featured three trash-talking black guys playing street hoops who turn out to be spoiled, classically trained thespians as soon as the camera stops rolling.

Mercedes Bends

And then there's Mercedes, Lowe's flagship account and biggest client. Print and commercials have both snared a steady stream of prizes, including Gold and Bronze Lions. The campaign has, perhaps more importantly, propelled the brand to record sales (helped along by a soaring Dow and general economic good times). In 1995, Lowe started making it clear that the car was not your father's, uh, Mercedes, kicking off a remarkable brand makeover by slapping Janis Joplin's "Oh Lord won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz" over understated footage of a rolling sedan. Cynical? Dubious, even? It's in the eye of the beholder. Some boomers were understandably outraged, while others were moved to write hefty checks in order to satisfy the sudden Joplin-inspired craving for speed, status and safety.

Lowe has not exactly achieved creative infallibility. Take Diet Coke, the agency's first big win under Garfinkel. He is publicly proud of it, but somehow the work seems a bit anemic, falling just short of the best Diet Coke spot the agency did early on, "Bobsled." (It's the one in which the bobsled team is seen in slo-mo slurping cans of Diet Coke as they flash down the chute.)

On a more positive note, Gary Goldsmith's arrival heralded a new emphasis on print at the agency. The Sony campaign that he supervised has all the elegant, balanced touches of the best Goldsmith/Jeffrey work. Lowe has also done a good job with its Mercedes print; and its upcoming KMPG campaign and the new Sun work are both print-driven.

That Goldsmith and Jeffrey joined Lowe was a good thing for Lee Garfinkel's sanity. "Here I was, getting home at 10 and 11 at night, and the work was getting better but I was dying," Garfinkel recalls of his first years at the agency. Thus was born the search for a creative partner. "I had to get a guy who's as good as me, if not better," Garfinkel says, "someone I liked who knows what it means to have real responsibilities, and that meant I had to find a guy who's got his own agency."

Enter a well-known dynamic duo. Colleagues at DDB and Chiat/Day, Jeffrey and Goldsmith opened their own shop in 1987 and spent the next decade building a stellar creative reputation for such clients as EDS, Crain's New York Business and J.P. Morgan, while simultaneously trying to find a way to reach what Jeffrey called "critical mass" in terms of size. They'd turned down every offer to sell, until Garfinkel and Marvin Sloves, who by then had forged a strong working relationship, came calling.

Paradoxically, Goldsmith and Jeffrey saw folding their small, independent shop into a much larger multinational agency as a chance to enter a more entrepreneurial situation, one in which they'd have considerably more resources at their disposal than they'd had at G/J.

Priority Seating

While it was a tough decision to fold their tent and move to Lowe, Goldsmith says, "the priority was to do great work, visible work, and be attached to an agency that I thought could really be a big player." By most accounts, it was a good gamble. Goldsmith, named executive VP-deputy creative director, quickly teamed with Garfinkel on the aforementioned Sony TV campaign, while managing director Jeffrey -- also an exec VP -- played a key role in the Sun Microsystems win and the subsequent setting up of the San Francisco office.

Reports of two captains on one ship, duking it out on the bridge, could not be confirmed. Goldsmith and Garfinkel claim to have a loose, almost ad hoc division of account responsibilities. Garfinkel takes the lead on Mercedes and Sprite, Goldsmith on Sony. Often, they say, they both try to look at work before it goes out the door.

Overall, though, the creative environment is largely shaped by Garfinkel's personality. He's a self-confessed workaholic who nonetheless likes to keep things collegial around the office, and who could sometimes be seen wandering the hallways strumming his guitar. Given his laid-back personal style -- with his neatly trimmed beard and jeans, he looks like he's more at home on a movie set than in a boardroom -- he makes an interesting counterpoint to the more buttoned-down Goldsmith, who was often seen at One Club events in a pin-striped suit.

Perhaps the keenest perspective on what Garfinkel has meant to the agency comes from Lowe's 64-year-old co-chairman Marvin Sloves, whose career seems to have been rejuvenated since the merger four-plus years ago. "This has been one of the most satisfying periods of my life," he says, adding, "not many people have had a chance to do this twice." The former partner of industry legends Ed McCabe and Sam Scali has a lot of faith in Garfinkel. "I wouldn't have partnered with a guy like Lee at this point in my career if I didn't think he was going to make history. I'd bet my money on it."

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