Reality Catches Up With Pat Fallon

'This Is Certainly Not How I Would Script It'

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The name Fallon still sits over the door of an ad agency, but as the shop fights to avoid the fate that befell such storied names as Bates and D'Arcy, its founder has been reduced to being little more than the third initial in a new mini-holding company.
Pat Fallon, the larger-than-life creative who sparked an ad revolution in the 1980s with groundbreaking campaigns such as Rolling Stone's "Perception/Reality," was shifted into an emeritus role last week in a restructuring by parent Publicis Groupe that leaves his namesake shop reporting to Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide CEO Kevin Roberts. While Fallon remains independent of Saatchi & Saatchi, the two will sit together in a mini-holding company run by Mr. Roberts and called SSF.

Effective in January, the famously combative Mr. Fallon departs from a day-to-day role (he insists his presence will still be felt in the building) at the Minneapolis shop, which is struggling to survive. Two of its highest-profile accounts -- Citibank and United Airlines -- departed this year, the agency's new-business trends are woeful, and the leadership of its vaunted creative department has been in and out of flux for years.

"This is certainly not how I would script it," 62-year-old Mr. Fallon said in an interview last week, during which he explained that, as a single parent, he wants to spend more time with his children. "I'd like it to be with the trajectory going wild, but it isn't doing that."

Expected move
The trajectory is, of course, doing quite the opposite, which is why a major move at Fallon was expected by many in the industry. After losing those two signature clients, it's still looking for a successor car account to BMW, which departed in 2005 after a decade of mostly acclaimed work. Fallon's largest remaining accounts are Nestlé/Purina, Travelers Insurance, Sony and Holiday Inn.

Publicis' move groups the struggling shop with the Paris holding company's hottest commodities, Saatchi and Mr. Roberts, whose "Lovemarks" approach to brand building has helped that agency snare accounts such as JC Penney and Wendy's without reviews in recent months.

It wasn't long ago, of course, that Mr. Fallon's "Juicing the Orange" mantra was winning over would-be clients with its promise of smart, innovative and well-produced advertising, such as the widely hailed BMW Films, the elegant, long-running "Live Richly" campaign for Citi and the adventures of durable denim shiller Buddy Lee -- all widely hailed work done earlier this decade for clients Fallon no longer has.

That comparison isn't lost on Mr. Fallon. "Kevin has 'Lovemarked' his way into clients," he said. "We've been saying that we'd rather outsmart the competition than outspend them for 26 years, but we've never taken the time and energy to promote it the way Kevin has. He's turned it into a new-business machine, and you have to tip your hat to that."

Admiration
Creatives around the industry said the occasion of Mr. Fallon stepping out of a day-to-day role at Fallon was worth commemorating.

"Anybody who ever wanted to do anything good creatively ought to care about Fallon," said Marty Orzio, chief creative officer at BBDO Energy, Chicago. "Fallon has been a creative beacon, and you just hope that, with Pat stepping aside, that doesn't change."

Mr. Roberts indicates it won't. "Pat is one of those iconoclastic figures in advertising they don't make any more," he said. "We want to continue to work with Pat so we can stay true to Fallon's principles as we take the agency into the future."

Mr. Fallon said he blames himself for a series of unsuccessful hires in the creative department. Following the surprise departure of his onetime protégé, David Lubars, to BBDO in 2004, Mr. Fallon hired Paul Silburn as creative chief, and then fired him a year later. Kerry Feuerman replaced Mr. Silburn and left after 13 months.

Creative leadership
Earlier this summer, Mr. Fallon tapped Strawberry Frog's Al Kelly for the top creative post. "I finally got something right," he said. "We haven't had the right creative leadership, and that has an effect on a creative agency like this."

The next challenge is reversing a brutal new-business drought that has somehow seen an agency that did some of the most lauded auto work ever on BMW go two years without a U.S. auto account. One of the freshest disappointments there was a loss in the final round in the battle for creative chores on Volvo.

"We will get a car, we will get a major financial [account], and we would get an airline except that we're in it to make a profit, and you can't do that with airlines anymore," he said, sounding less and less like an "emeritus" anything. "I'm not going to be on the sidelines. I'm there if they need me."

His new title, of course, seems to suggest otherwise.

"I don't care what the organizational chart says," said Chuck Porter of Crispin Porter & Bogusky, a lifelong friend of Mr. Fallon and the founder of the agency many see as having dethroned Fallon as the boundary-pushing creative boutique of the moment. "Pat doesn't report to anyone."
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