BEHIND MCCANN'S INTERNATIONAL FORCE OF AGENTS CREATEURS; OUT OF THE COLD: THE TINKER-LIKE AMSTER YARD IS READY TO BRING ITS OVERSEAS AD FLAIR TO THE U.S.

By Published on .

Jeff Weiss just might be the reincarnation of Jack Tinker.

Both are -- or, in the case of the late Mr. Tinker, were -- art directors. Both began their careers outside New York. Both came out of large, mainstream agencies. Most curiously, both ended up running creatively focused offshoots of McCann-Erickson that were, at their respective times, unique.

A mere 34 years and a couple of blocks in Manhattan separate the two.

Mr. Weiss, 45, is the current creative director and spiritual leader of McCann Amster Yard -- Amster Yard for short -- formed by McCann-Erickson Worldwide CEO John Dooner in 1994. Mr. Tinker, who died in 1985, was the creative force behind the storied Jack Tinker & Partners, formed by McCann's -- and Interpublic Group of Cos.' -- legendary leader Marion Harper Jr. in 1960.

While adfolk with long memories might consider comparisons of the two heretical, the similarities are striking -- and there are more of them. Both set up shop in unorthodox spaces: Tinker in a hotel; Amster Yard in a brownstone. Both cloaked themselves in mystery.

SECRET OPERATIVES

"Mr. Tinker and his colleagues regard themselves as operatives of a supersecret creative service, working as a kind of Rand Corp. of the advertising business" Advertising Age wrote in a 1963 story on that agency.

Compare that with a comment from Charles Hall, former creative director of Spike/ DDB, New York, who free-lanced at Amster Yard's East Side location in 1997.

"The agency felt like something out of a James Bond film. It had this aura," he said.

As opposed to Tinker, which was set up to be a creative think tank staffed by senior people focused on clients' problems, the circumstances driving Mr. Dooner were different.

Amster Yard was born of his belief that multinational brands could benefit from a breed of creative person disinclined to work for a large, multinational agency. And he found such a person in Mr. Weiss, the former creative director and partner in what was then Margeotes/Fertitta & Weiss, New York, a small, hot agency.

Mr. Weiss was a hipster at heart, a passionate former West Coast graphic designer-turned-adman whose work often reflected a heightened sense of style, fashion and irreverence.

Now, Amster Yard is about to try to emulate Tinker's trajectory and pursue clients other than those already in the McCann network.

TRANSFORMATION

With that, the shop will transform itself from a mysterious McCann offshoot whose work mostly appears overseas to more-or-less standalone status in the U.S. agency market.

This expansive process is already under way: the agency has moved downtown, to a sprawling space on Sixth Avenue in SoHo, and brought in Tim Arnold, a former account executive with D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles and J. Walter Thompson Co. who has experience on international brands, as president.

From its original band of six, the agency now has more than 40 people on staff, and handles brands that spend a combined $150 million. Recent assignments include project work for Dewar's scotch whisky and General Motors Corp.

In addition, the shop recently won Bacardi-Martini's USA's Bombay gin account and expanded its international duties for Bacardi rum as well as Interbrew's Stella Artois beer.

In Europe, the shop's work for Martini & Rossi, with its suave, ultra-cool "Martini Man" character -- he's just like the old Silva Thins man, only he gets more chicks -- is Amster Yard's creative equivalent of Tinker's work for Alka-Seltzer: a home-run campaign, wildly popular with consumers, the client and the media.

But while that work has put the agency on the map, or at least part of it, here at home the shop continues to operate as a virtual unknown outside the creative community. The goal is to change that perception.

HOPES OF SUCCESS

"McCann wants us to succeed, and to do that we have to get the kinds of clients that we work for internationally but based in the U.S.," Mr. Weiss said.

Messrs. Arnold and Weiss hope to turn Amster Yard into what they have called a "global boutique," an agency with a boutique mentality and style -- close contact with top management on the client side, coupled with riveting attention to the work -- but a global bent to its campaigns and its roster of brands.

How the agency got to this point is a somewhat roundabout tale.

Mr. Weiss was brought to McCann five years ago, to work on Coca-Cola, by former Chief Strategic Officer Peter Kim, with whom he had worked at JWT.

But the times were changing. It was the post-Creative Artists Agency era and, according to Mr. Weiss, Mr. Dooner believed younger, more entrepreneurial CEOs were going to have a major impact on the ad business, particularly in their choice of agency resources.

As Coca-Cola presaged, other big brands were starting to break up their old-line agency relationships and parcel out work to boutiques. Where did a big multinational like McCann fit in?

"I think in the beginning, John knew that the future called for people like me to be able to work for people like him," Mr. Weiss said.

To do so, Mr. Weiss would need to create a separate entity as did Mr. Tinker, a place with its own identity and culture. With Mr. Dooner footing the bill, Mr. Weiss and a merry band of five set up shop.

As befits Mr Weiss' design background, the place had a distinctive stamp, with dark wood paneling and frosted glass on the office doors -- a look that suggested more Dashiell Hammett than Maxwell Dane. There Mr. Weiss surrounded himself with creatives he had worked with previously, either at Margeotes or JWT, and set about the ill-defined task of figuring out what they were going to do.

ORIGINAL IDEA: SWAT TEAM

According to Mr. Weiss, Mr. Kim wanted Amster Yard to function as a SWAT team, maintain " 'creative pods' around the world and use McCann as a distribution means." But there were problems inherent in that strategy.

"It implied that all you needed the pods for was to create. But you can't do breakthrough work without a relationship built on trust," he said.

In the early going, Mr. Weiss recalled, they were often brought in at the last moment, and found themselves "asking people who didn't know us to jump off bridges with us."

It led to frustration, and that took its toll on the staff.

Meanwhile, the entire effort was met with skepticism from the mainstream agency.

"Advertising is very proprietary, in terms of people belonging to their accounts," explained copywriter Lori Korchek, now an associate creative director at DDB Worldwide, New York, and one of the six original Yardarms.

"There were egos involved, and that was unfortunate but perfectly natural. A lot of creative people at McCann probably felt that they didn't need our help, they were doing just fine," she said.

A PLANNING INSIGHT

If anything helped legitimize the shop it was its work on Martini & Rossi, a longtime McCann client that had put its brand in review. Within months of its founding, Amster Yard was brought in by Michael Sennott, McCann's vice chairman for Europe. The resulting campaign came out of the insights of Lee Daley, an account exec-turned-planner working under Mr. Kim and assigned to Amster Yard.

Mr. Daley, now director of planning for McCann in Europe, turned to Martini's emotional heritage as the drink of the jet-set '60s, particularly those prototypical Eurotrashers found on the French Riviera. He and Mr. Weiss uncovered what everyone would later consider the sadly misplaced soul of the brand, and they found it just in time -- before lounge culture, the Rat Pack and salutations like "Baby!" would make a stellar, mid-'90s comeback.

The Martini Man, noted Roger Collins, global brand director for Martini & Rossi in Europe, perfectly anticipated the "funky expression of the '60s that made 'Austin Powers' a hit."

FINDING THE LIGHT

The Martini work did more than legitimize the shop; it showed the agency's people the light. Amster Yard's forte would increasingly become tied to ferreting out some fundamental but obscured aspect of a brand, as though the planners, creatives and the product itself had all undergone an intensive bout of past-life regression therapy.

Said Mr. Weiss: "I think we've gotten away from product and brand attributes to brand myths and cultures. What we do now is create worlds for brands to live in."

Mostly, these worlds are places of attitudes, dreams and values. It's ephemeral stuff, but so far clients seem happy with it.

Indeed, the Martini success led to other opportunities, all based abroad. McCann's Brussels office hooked up Amster Yard with Stella Artois; and former Coca-Cola marketing executive Sergio Zyman, for whom the shop had done work on Coca-Cola's Georgia coffee brand in Japan, suggested Amster Yard to Cerveceria Montezuma, on whose board he sits.

The shop pitched against Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis, and TBWA/Chiat/Day, for the Mexican brewer's Sol brand and won the assignment in Mexico and the U.S.

Amster Yard's ability to create mostly visual ads that tend to cross borders easily was born of necessity.

"We didn't know the language; we couldn't rely on headlines," Mr. Weiss said. "We had to create communications that would work in all cultures. We were forced to dumb down and find some truth about the brand."

For McCann's part, it now wants to see where this latest experiment will go if it's truly unshackled.

"What they do is deeper and broader than their competitive set of agencies," Mr. Sennott claimed.

How will the agency fare as it seeks to expand? Mike Bade, who left Amster Yard last year to become a commercial director, feels the agency is positioned better now than ever before.

"There's always been a state of internal confusion about what they are, but they're much less confused now than they ever were," he said.

FUNCTIONAL PRODUCTS?

Mr. Collins believes the shop will have no problems dealing with categories such as fragrances or entertainment, "where the added value is high." But when treading into more functional product categories, it's not whether the agency can do it but whether it's interested in doing it.

"Jeff gets very emotionally committed" to the brands he works on, Mr. Collins said, "perhaps more so than any creative person I've ever worked with. He personally may face a challenge in getting excited [about some products]. But he

In this article:
Most Popular