So it was a little surprising when this copywriter, who seemed to relish a freelancer's closeness to the work, announced in July that he was becoming exec VP-creative director at Boston's HHCC. Not that people couldn't have seen it coming. For over a year he'd been freelancing there, producing awards-bound pro bono posters for SNAP (Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests), print for Sony and a new John Hancock Financial Services TV campaign, which replaced the long-running "Real Life, Real Answers" commercials.
With a career built mostly on print, the chance to create national TV for the likes of John Hancock "seemed like the kind of thing I could wrap my head around," Schenck says. But he's quick to add, "I love print, and that's one thing I'm trying to raise the level of excellence here."
Schenck's hiring is part of a reorganization at Hill Holliday; he and art director Jamie Mambro are heading up a group that handles Hancock, Coopers & Lybrand, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and the Boston Ballet, while an award-winning team from Houston Herstek Favat, Dave Gardiner and Mike Sheehan, are taking on the other half of the agency's accounts. "Everybody remembers Hill Holliday from the '80s for the Hancock work," Schenck says. "I think in the next year, a lot of noise will again be rumbling out of Boston."
The Hancock spots already seem to be turning heads, winning 1996 Best of Show at New England's Best of Broadcasting Awards. The Tony Kaye-directed campaign, which played heavily during the Olympics, marks a sharp departure from the docudrama-styled spots of the earlier work. These grimly poetic b&w spots, driven by low-key type, Sigourney Weaver's voiceover and music by Mark Knopfler, address some of the same financial quandaries with a direct, unsentimental tone and the updated tag: "Insurance for the unexpected. Investments for the opportunities."
(r)¯On the heels of the old campaign, which had been a frequent award-winner since the mid-'80s, says Schenck, "it was a little unnerving to say, 'Here's the new Hancock.' That was a little awesome." His pro bono work, which isn't for the obvious charities, Ý20
Reel Life ó20 can also be awesome. Collaborating with John Doyle in 1993, he wrote the copy for a print campaign for the National Association for Atomic Veterans, which took the government to task for its treatment of the thousands of soldiers and sailors who were ordered to observe thermonuclear blasts-they were treated as human guinea pigs-in what amounted to a vast conspiracy for which Washington took no responsibility. And a recent poster campaign for SNAP (see Creativity June, page 6) has surely angered some Catholics by its aggressive attacks on ordained child molesters.
"It's almost like Ernie specializes in obscure charities," jokes Woody Kay, creative director at PSK, now located in Boston. More seriously, he adds, "I've always been amazed what a quick study Ernie is. He can take a very esoteric subject and boil it down to its essence; the real strength of that is that it doesn't come across as superficial. He has a way of making things ring with authenticity."
Sometimes, as in the SNAP campaign, Schenck says, "You expect to get a lot of flak. I think that's a good thing. It can only help raise awareness of the whole issue. And if that's the way we do it, that's fine by me."
If it wasn't for a magazine article, Schenck might be muckraking from another profession. A native of Providence, he was a senior at the University of Rhode Island, majoring in English and psychology, when he read a Newsweek story about the advertising creative revolution on Madison Avenue. "All I know is that the pictures in the article were of these young guys with long hair, beards and Mickey Mouse t-shirts, getting paid obscene amounts of money to write humorous lines all day," Schenck exclaims, "and that sounded great to me."
After working at Horton, Church & Goff, a small Rhode Island agency, for eight years, he left to a join a just opened Leonard Monahan Saabye (now Leonard/Monahan), eventually rising to be a senior VP. In 1986, he co-founded Pagano Schenck & Kay. But after three and half years of running his own agency, Schenck says he realized he didn't want to deal with the hassles of management anymore. "It was dragging me away increasingly from the craft and that's not where I wanted to be," he says.
So he began working closely with John Doyle and hit an awards streak, all in print, for clients like Aquiva mineral water, Amnesty International, the Atomic Veterans and Dunham boots. Perhaps Schenck is best known for his long copy ads. With a few adroit literary techniques, he's able to "pull someone through exhaustive copy," explains John Doyle, who's now a consultant at Hal Riney/San Francisco. For instance, one Atomic Veteran poster has the block print headline: "In 1946, it left Petty Officer Oscar Rosen speechless. Five years later, it left him sterile." And then, instead of Rosen's story, the copy begins with: "It falls through the darkness. Swept down the warm currents of the woman's fallopian tubes. The egg is alive. The egg waits." It then flows into copy where the reader discovers how Rosen and others were exposed to radiation that left them sterile. "I don't know how many writers would take you down that path," Doyle says.
Speaking of long copy, Schenck is working on a novel, which he describes as an action thriller, that may be published later this year. His fictional bent is another reason why he says he agonized for over a year whether to join Hill Holliday. "I came to a crossroads where I had to make the decision to bite the bullet, jump in and help run the place. I figure I'll give advertising another half-dozen years." After that, he says he'd like to be a full-time novelist. "But who knows?" says Schenck. "It's a hard nut to crack."
Schenck allows that he's an exception in this creative field for having stayed so involved with the work for this long. "This business is odd in that way," he says. "We are groomed our whole careers to believe that you have to be young, and you reach this magic age and you wake up one day and say, 'Ohmigod, I'm not creative anymore; I can't write!' Well, it doesn't happen that way.
"If you're just beginning your career," Schenck counsels people stuck in agencies with dull work and dull clients, "leave. Get out. Do whatever you need to do. You'll die there. If you want to be good and if you want to learn, you have to watch and listen; you have to be around a lot of excellent work every day."
Not only are the awards books not enough, he says, he's dismayed by the amount of emulation, to put it politely, that goes on in the business. "People look at each other's work for ideas, inspiration, whatever, and I think that's fine. But our job is to be creative and original, not to do this year's incarnation of last year's winners. It's dangerous to do truly original work. Because if it's truly original, either the world will love it and it'll be a huge winner because it's not like anything else, or the world will hate it-because it's not like