By Published on .

If you're going to start an ad agency, especially one born in controversy, taking as its first client a brand competing with a deep-pocketed giant and, simultaneously, trying to achieve what few have done before successfully, maybe it helps to have MacGyver on your side.

You remember Angus MacGyver. As played by Richard Dean Anderson in the TV series, MacGyver was a mysterious special agent who, wielding not much more than a pocket knife, could get himself out of just about any jam.

Back before he defected from Portland, Ore.-based Wieden & Kennedy, creatives who worked with Larry Frey dubbed him MacGyver.

"He's one of those guys who can build a car from scratch," said Hank Perlman, a former W&K copywriter and now a commercial director. "Larry could do anything."

These days, Mr. Frey's mechanical inclinations, as well as those of his less dexterous partners, are being tested. An award-winning art director and creative director who spent 10 years at Wieden, Mr. Frey is one of three former employees of that shop who founded an agency called 180 in Amsterdam a year ago this month.


With Adidas-Solomon AG as its main client, the 26-person shop has set as its goal world-class creative that crosses borders for multinational clients.

The going will clearly be tough. For all their credentials as part of the Wieden/Nike axis, they'll still have to sink or swim on the strength of their current contributions to Adidas, an account they share with lead agency Leagas Delaney, London and San Francisco.

They'll also be competing not only with the big multinational agency networks but also the increasingly global aspirations of shops Fallon McElligott, Bartle Bogle Hegarty and, of course, Wieden & Kennedy itself.

The 180 partners' focus is clearly on the future, though for now they can't completely escape the past. The circumstances of their founding dismayed many agency people in the U.S.

Chris Mendola, then management supervisor on Nike in Wieden's Amsterdam office, and Alex Melvin, strategic planning director, were accused of planning to pitch Adidas while still on the payroll. They apparently exchanged internal e-mails about it. As a result, the two were fired in the summer of 1998 -- a move they said gave them the impetus to actually bid for a piece of Adidas' global account, reported to be in the $200 million range.

Mr. Frey joined them shortly after they were dismissed, a development that further upset people at Wieden. It didn't help that Mr. Frey was evasive about his plans and denied to several friends that he was talking to the pair when, in fact, he was. During that time Mr. Frey had resigned from Wieden, where he was helping run the Tokyo office, to pursue a career as a commercial director in New York; he also intended to do creative work on a free-lance basis.

The 180 creative challenge is heightened by the fact that, for the most part, the agency has produced little Adidas work seen in the U.S. or abroad. It has kept a relatively low profile, but 180 is looking to do a 180 when it comes to visibility.


The agency has produced a TV spot for Canon's sponsorship of a European soccer league; it produced a trade print ad campaign for MTV; it has gotten into a couple of encouraging pitches, one of which it lost -- for a Swatch assignment -- and another it's waiting to hear about -- for a French videogame marketer.

In addition to Messrs. Frey, Melvin and Mendola, 180 has as a partner Guy Hayward, another ex-Wieden account-sider who left the agency two years ago to join Octagon Worldwide, the sports marketing arm of Interpublic Group of Cos.

Mr. Melvin, 41, and Mr. Hayward, 35, are British, while Mr. Mendola, 33, and Mr. Frey, 45, are two of the three Americans that work at 180. In their efforts to create an agency that can work around the world, they've staffed 180 with a mixing bowl of nationalities and cultures.

Basing the agency in Amsterdam was no accident. The partners see the city as being more "European" than London, as having what Mr. Frey called "a great creative vibe" and a vibrant advertising community as well as being well located for European clients.

As for the key people, they have solid experience in the athletic footwear and apparel category. Mr. Mendola worked at what was then Chiat/Day, New York, on Reebok International before joining Wieden in early '92, while former agency insiders said Mr. Melvin was a highly respected and valued planner who played a key role in developing Wieden's hub-and-spoke system of service offices in Europe. And then there's MacGyver.


"What sets Larry apart is that he's a complete package," said Jamie Barrett, a former creative partner of Mr. Frey's at Wieden who's now creative director at Fallon McElligott, New York. "He could have been a writer, he's directed ads and he's a great manager."

Born in Seattle, Mr. Frey started his agency career at N.W. Ayer & Son's Chicago office in 1981, by which time he had been a junior high school art teacher in Washington state, a carpenter in Los Angeles and a journeyman machinist and welder in Alaska. He went from Ayer to Ogilvy & Mather's Chicago office, then on to Seattle and a job at Borders, Perrin & Norrander before joining Wieden & Kennedy in 1988.

During his years at Wieden, Mr. Frey worked on numerous campaigns for Nike and ESPN but is perhaps best known for the TV spots he did with Stacy Wall for Black Star beer, in which an entire fictional history of the brand was created for the advertising.

He also worked on the Michael Jordan-starring "Frozen moment" spot for Nike and ESPN's campaign with singer Robert Goulet for its NCAA basketball coverage.


Mr. Frey and his partners saw the chance to pitch Adidas as a means to achieve different goals. All were drawn to the sports category, and were intrigued by the prospects of having their own shop. But they were not trying to replicate what they did with Nike at Wieden, Mr. Melvin noted.

Actually, for Mr. Frey it was the chance to try and convey the Adidas story in a different creative style than that used by Wieden for Nike. There was the different tone of the companies themselves.

"Nike is clearly a more judgmental brand than Adidas," Mr. Frey said. In the land of the swoosh, "you're either good or you suck."

Mr. Frey cited the ad headlined "You don't win silver, you lose gold" from the 1996 Olympics ad campaign as a classic Nike position.

"I like it a lot, but it doesn't leave a lot of room for people that just want to run a couple of days a week," he said.


"The fundamental difference of the brands is that Adidas was built from the ground up in a very grass-roots way," Mr. Melvin said, "while Nike was built from the top down" with its heavy emphasis on major celebrity athletes such as Mr. Jordan, Andre Agassi and soccer star Reynaldo giving it credibility.

"If the brands start out from such polar opposites, then this isn't so much about doing it over than it is about finding a different pitch from the same category," he noted.

Mr. Frey also intends to use 180 as a launching pad for other creative pursuits. The agency has set up a film division called 360 to produce longer-format pieces of communication, and is setting up arms to handle interactive work and design.

For him, the choice to turn his back on Wieden was voluntary, as opposed to his partners, who found little choice but to start up their own gig after losing their jobs. He said one reason he did it was because he felt frustrated by Wieden's unwillingness to allow him to direct on the side while still working for the agency. He also believed that once he did leave to direct full time, he would automatically become persona non grata in Portland.

"Once you walk out the door, they tend to cut you off," he said of his former shop. "You're either on the bus or off."

Reaction to the forcible ejection from that bus of his two partners was definitely mixed. While Europeans didn't seem to get what all the fuss was about, in the U.S. it leaned toward shock and outrage that these upstarts could do such a thing to so principled an adman as Wieden President Dan Wieden.


"These guys were overseas, minding the store," said Ernest Lupinacci, a former Wieden copywriter. "It was like they were having an affair."

But to others, there was more to the situation -- it was more layered, more complicated. A combination of factors seemed to be at work.

A growing sense of disenchantment with how Wieden's top managers in Portland were running the business -- coupled with tense relationships with two of its most important clients, Nike and Microsoft Corp. -- contributed to making the Wieden & Kennedy of 1998 a different place than the agency of years before, several agency insiders contended.

Mr. Mendola was circumspect in discussing his and Mr. Melvin's travails, and declined to discuss any aspects of their split, citing an agreement he'd made with his former employer. But he did deny that he and Mr. Melvin worked on a pitch for Adidas -- nor did they contact the marketer -- while at Wieden.

"There's no way you could create a pitch while working 14 hours a day," he pointed out.

Mr. Melvin added that he and his partners had oddly benefited from the split.

"We wouldn't be here today if it hadn't blown up," he said. "I'd probably still be working at Wieden & Kennedy."

Certainly the prospect of switching allegiances from Nike to Adidas had its appeal -- Adidas is seen as a brand on the rise, while Nike has had more than its share of problems in key markets -- but it was made more attractive by the presence of Neil Simpson as global ad director.

Mr. Simpson had worked with Wieden's Portland and Amsterdam offices while he was with Coca-Cola Co.


The client executive said that the two shops, 180 and Leagas, operate on an "open door, roundtable" policy, and that he tries to "take the dynamic tension there is between agencies on our roster and use it in a positive, not a negative way."

He doesn't pit agencies against one another on the same assignment, Mr. Simpson pointed out, although he added: "The only rule is that if you don't crack it in the allotted time, I'm free to give it to the other shop."

His goal, he stressed, is to keep the agencies "focused on our brand, not on stealing the business from the other agency."

Mr. Simpson acknowledged that 180 has not actually produced much advertising in its first year on the account. He cited the long lead time the client traditionally has for new campaigns, and said that a lot of the work 180 shot this past summer will break in 2000.


Mr. Simpson reiterated that the hiring of 180 -- which beat out Casadevall, Pedreno & Partners, Madrid; BMP DDB and Circus, both London; and BDDP, Paris -- was meant to be an additional resource for Adidas, not a replacement for Leagas, which handles the business from its London and San Francisco offices. He wanted to make sure he retained Leagas' loyalty.

"They've played a big part in Adidas' recent success," he said.

Also, Mr. Simpson noted, he was not looking for a traditional, multinational agency solution; he wanted "something young and flexible that could be easily added on to the structure we have here." It was easy for 180 to fit in with Leagas.

"They added another dimension. They were so new, they didn't have any culture of their own," he said.

About 180's creative capabilities, Mr. Simpson said that one of its strengths is that "when you think of their output, you don't always think of traditional advertising. They come up with a communications response and it might not be a TV package."

He said this was reflected not just in how the agency partners approach the business, but in how they've staffed the agency with an eclectic group of talent, including designers and, in one instance, a novelist.

"And it's just what I'm looking for," he added. "The traditional media are steadily going to be dying over the next 10 years."

So far, the visible 180 work includes one TV spot that is a haunting pastiche of images of regular folks and star athletes in action. It uses an overlapping editing style and introspective lines of on-screen type set to a lyrical music score to urge viewers to find whatever fulfillment they can from sports.


Vince Engel, a longtime colleague of Mr. Frey's who is now exec VP-creative director of Lowe & Partners/SMS, San Francisco, said the key for 180's growth prospects will be "to let what they've got evolve and not try to be like some other agency.

"Wieden & Kennedy became [the success] it did not by any grand design," he added. "It was a bunch of individuals linked by a common goal, and these guys should keep [180] as loose as that."

But not too loose.

"There has to be some competitive feeling on the part of these guys to want to beat Nike and to beat their old agency," said Jerry Cronin, another former Wieden creative director who left to start his own shop, Bayless/Cronin, in

Most Popular
In this article: