An ad for Zipper Head, a local clothing store for the tattoo and nose ring set, grabbed the national spotlight in early '93 when it featured Manson's photo and the copy: "Everyone has the occasional urge to go wild and do something completely outrageous. When you fight this urge, it builds up within you until one day you snap."
It was picked up by the national press and HBO even wanted to use it in a series on serial killers. "It was like, holy shit!" exclaims Grasse. "What have we done?"
Indeed, they lost so much indignant local business, his wife and fellow creative director Emma Hagen, 26, explains, that they stopped trying to fit in with their fellow Brotherly Lovers and forged into areas that better suited their style: music, fashion and entertainment. "It marked a turning point," Hagen says. "We said, 'Screw this uptight, proper town!'"
Even as the Zipper Head campaign, which went on to cast Jeffrey Dahmer, the sneer that made Milwaukee famous, in another ad, swept the local awards shows-yes, this "uptight town" saw fit to bestow 30 Philadelphia Art Directors Club awards on Gyro-the agency began to chase more national clients, proffering their trademark attitude, a mix of outrageousness and sophomoric humor somewhat reminiscent of the early days of Kirshenbaum & Bond. For instance, a recent Gap parody campaign for Oaktree, a men's clothier, features an ad headlined: "Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Mao Tse-Tung and Qaddafi wore khakis."
Grasse has been busy panning for national new business, positioning Gyro as a spunky little shop with its finger on Gen-X's G spot-the staff is exclusively under 30, Grasse claims, at least until his next birthday later this month-and he's gotten some impressive results. They've set their sights mainly on entertainment and fashion clients, categories of which Grasse says, "I really want the business and will do anything to get it."
For Hanes' new E.G. Smith line of socks and tights, a print project assigned to Gyro (Saatchi & Saatchi/New York handles the regular hosiery line) will feature, among other things, a contortionist wearing a sock on his head. Anheuser-Busch recently sidestepped DMB&B/St. Louis, which is in the process of churning out a slew of youth-oriented Bud spots directed by David Fincher, and handed Gyro a brief "to make Bud cool again," Grasse says. A-B is presently testing six alternative spots, which Grasse describes as the filmic equivalent of a page of RayGun, directed by Satellite Films' 23-year-old Doug Aitken. Gyro has also caught the attention of MTV, Mademoiselle magazine and Union Bay clothing (the Union Bay work is a milder version of the Oaktree campaign). "All of a sudden we're getting into bigger places," Grasse says, his eyes widening.
Three years ago Gyro moved to a stately bank in Philadelphia's historic district, which is a little like dressing Henry Rollins in a Brooks Brothers suit. Inside, Macintoshes fill teller windows, a safe overflows with raucous ad reprints, dogs bark from the basement and billings are estimated at $13 million, though Gyro operates on a creative-only fee basis. While Grasse shares the creative helm with Hagen, overseeing a staff of designers and freelance writers, many of whom he recruits from big New York agencies, it's his hyperbolic personality that dominates many of Gyro's aggressive self-promotions: in a recent escapade they plastered stickers around Philadelphia bearing their logo and the moniker "Conceptual engineers." Another set of posters proclaimed, "Don't try to define us. We'll define ourselves."
And that they do, although whether anyone is interested or not is another story. For example, last year Gyro issued a press release with the headline "Award shows suck" that declared that after "sweeping the local shows for three years," the agency would boycott all shows and use the entry fee funds for self-promotion. Grasse claims this strategy has paid off, bringing in $1.5 million in new business and putting them in five national pitches. Other Gyro promos have taken the form of a videocassette disguised as a slab of meat, wrapped in brown packing paper, or a cardboard ring-bound photo-essay entitled "Youth," a parody of Madonna's "Sex," which was later adapted into an MTV promo.
As one might imagine, while its national reputation may be on the rise, its local rep has soured. Grasse admits that he's gotten himself in over his head in Philly. "I had a big mouth for awhile," he says. "I would say things too loud and this town doesn't like that." At the Art Directors Club Awards last year, Grasse heckled Lonny Strum, the president of Earle Palmer Brown, in front of the entire audience. Grasse and Hagen describe the local ad community as an old-boys network, making for a "vicious, jealous and nasty" work environment. Chuck Moore, now an art director at TAG, a small New York agency, worked at Gyro for a nine-month stint fresh from the University of Delaware in '93. He says Grasse "likes to piss people off. That's just his nature. In a way it's meant to get attention for the client, but it always seems to get attention for Gyro as well."
"We got hate mail for not entering the awards shows," Grasse says proudly. And when Hagen and Grasse posed in Philadelphia magazine's swimsuit issue last year, each wearing the other's bathing suit, they claim a rival took the photo to one of their clients and asked if these were the kind of people they wanted creating their ads, a jab that apparently lost Gyro some of their local accounts. But not to worry. "I know how to compete in Philadelphia," Grasse says with a dismissive wave. "I can say everyone else pretty much creatively sucks." Going up against their larger local competitors, Hagen contends they've won every time.
Ever since they landed their first national retail accounts they've set their sights well beyond the region, which is one of the reasons it's so puzzling that they're still in Philly. For that matter, why'd they ever locate there in the first place? "It seemed like there was a real gap in the market," explains Grasse, who grew up in a town just outside the city and feels a loyalty to the place where his father started his own printing company at age 21. "I thought it would be nice to do something great in town. Nothing good has come out of here for awhile."
After getting an advertising degree at Syracuse University, Grasse briefly took a copywriting job at Young & Rubicam/New York, where he had interned throughout college. He says that on the advice of John Doig, who told him he would rot if he stayed at Y&R, he spent the next year and a half at the tiny New Zealand outpost of Saatchi & Saatchi/Auckland, where he met Hagen, a native New Zealander who'd just finished an architecture degree and was art directing at the agency. Grasse and Hagen came to the states and worked for small Florida agencies before getting married in '89. They moved to Philadelphia a year later and founded Gyro, short for gyroscope. "We didn't want to have a stuffy image like a bank," Grasse says ironically, given their current office environs. "We don't bill like one and we don't want to sound like one." These "conceptual engineers" number about a dozen, with Hagen and Grasse doubling as account execs when necessary.
Grasse's experience abroad and his unhappy stints at big agencies-he complains of a hellish two weeks when he returned from New Zealand and worked at Wells Rich Greene, where they matched him with an 80-year-old art director who drooled-help explain Grasse's aversion to mainstream advertising.
Four years ago, though, Gyro more closely resembled a traditional agency, with its first clients bordering on the conservative, including Wee Three Records, a U.K. Record chain, and Van Heusen shirts, for which they created everything from the shirt labels to the ads. Early work that garnered some attention included a promo for Comedy Central, directed by Crossroads Films' Mark Pellington, in which a mime is interrogated by a band of hoodlums, underscored by the punchline, "A mime is a terrible thing to waste." Another early Gyro promo spot for the local CBS affiliate's broadcast of "Geraldo" takes place in the show's waiting room, filled with every type of fringe character, from hooded Klansmen to transvestites and Nazis, all of whom are rejected by the talent booker because they're not controversial enough.
While there was a time when Grasse would put something as funky on his reel as a baked bean spot that stars a farting can (it actually attracted business from Comedy Central), the Gyro reel these days is fairly well-polished. Besides the mime spot, an MTV promo features a man blathering about how much he loves Barry Manilow's "Pina Colada" song. "What's your problem, man?" he whines, "the Pina Colada song was a great song." As he begins to sing the tune, the camera pulls back and it turns out his head is in a guillotine. An HBO promo features a fat guy standing in a field of falling TV sets. An arrestingly ridiculous PSA for Do Something, a volunteer group for young people, features a kid who'd like to loan his brain out to people in need; we see various recipients smiling as they hold a hunk of gray matter in their hands.
The first batch of Oaktree spots, directed by Satellite Films' Nick Egan, were themed, "Just because you shop in a mall doesn't mean you have to dress like it," and based around pseudo-rebellious fashion statements borrowed from the companion print campaign, such as "The party responsible for creating shiny polyester warmup suits should be given a root canal without novocaine." Then there's the rad 'nad tack: "Wear the right clothes and no one will wonder why your nickname is Chief Little Nuts." Current Oaktree commercials, directed by HSI's Samuel Bayer, are simply themed "We've changed our clothes. Shouldn't you?" and feature your basic multiculti tribe of streetwise clothescolts bouncing around to cool music.
A Zipper Head spot directed by Grasse himself revels in a collection of urban freaks, shot on a bare white set, as a middle-aged VO yells: "I am not what you would call a civilized man!" An "Eraserhead"-inspired track, which sounds like a recording from a fatal rocket liftoff, complements the disturbing tone and the stark tag, "Zipper Head: extreme clothing."
On the print side, a strange '70s-bashing campaign for Robert Stock shirts assembles photographs against bright primary colors, all overlaid with copy that tells stories of people who were killed or stricken with strange ailments-a computer salesman's pants zipper takes a bolt of lightning on the golf course, for example, and the poor dude is rendered sterile-before they had a chance to wear Robert Stock shirts. "What are you waiting for," goes the slogan. (While at first glance this may seem to be run of the mill Gen-X idiocy, consider a new Mercedes-Benz ad from Lowe/SMS that pictures the front end of an S-Class status machine and the headline, "Don't die wondering.") Print from the Do Something campaign falls in the raw art direction vein: a typewritten story of a girl who campaigned to clean up Miami beaches is framed with colorful narrative photos from the project, all taped down and arranged in a rough comp style.
After the Zipper Head shakeup, Gyro began honing its youth marketing expertise, art directing and creating rock and rap videos for RCA, EMI and Profile Records, including a clip for ZZ Top.
At the same time, doors began to open at places like Conde Nast, for which it created post cards and ads for Mademoiselle magazine. Publisher Julie Lewit-Nirenberg says they chose Gyro after admiring the MTV promos on its reel. "We looked for an agency with people in their 20s who understand that Generation X is nothing more than media hype," she says. "They seemed to have a serious understanding of the marketing platform- and that puts them in a serious league."
"I hate clever ads," Grasse told the Philadelphia Daily News in a Gen-X marketing story in which he describes honest advertising, like the intentionally low-tech Oaktree spots, or the fun but nonetheless direct campaign for Chrysler's Neon, as the best way to reach young consumers. "This group wants something true and real, like Classic Coke," he said. Commercials that aim for broad audiences fail with "hokey" punchlines, he believes.
While Gyro is basking in its current national exposure, it also says it wants to lure back some local clients such as Bachman, the snack foods company located in nearby Reading, where they recently won some work. They also handle Freda Meat, a luncheon meats company, Channel 10, for which they just wrapped some rather straightforward "Geraldo" promos, and the Pennsylvania Ballet, for which they produce fairly conservative brochures.
Yet Grasse is also exploring venues outside advertising, mainly an anti-political correctness quarterly magazine called Rob Roy, which will be edited by Jeff Fox, creator of a 'zine called Die, Evan Dando, Die. Excerpting stories from many Gen-X 'zines, the first issue will include audacious features such as "One for the Road: The Lost Art of the Drunk Drive" and "Corpse Watch2000" which predicts famous personalities likely to croak by the end of the century, all interspersed with a Bikini -style soft-core porn centerfold.
The question remains: can Gyro continue to reinvent itself beyond the X factor? The youth emphasis is "not that important to us," Hagen says. But Grasse protests, "It is important to us," to which Hagen replies, "It's not that we believe in youth. It's that you do what you know."
"I want to get to the point where instead of being influenced by something like RayGun, I want people to say, 'That looks like Gyro,'" Grasse adds. "Sometimes we feel like we should hold back, but now the feeling is, just screw it. Let's do what we think is right, and that's the kind of work that we want to be known