SPIKE DDB PURSUES PATH TO MAINSTREAM: IN BLACK & WHITE: AMID CRITICISMS FROM BLACK AND GENERAL SHOPS ALIKE, SPIKE LEE'S AGENCY ABANDONS URBAN MARKETING NICHE

By Published on .

If you want to know what Charles Hall and Jeff Marshall are up against at Spike DDB, consider some of the phone calls Mr. Hall has received -- like the one from a young creative person who wanted to send in his book. "He said, `Um, do you guys hire white people over there?"' Mr. Hall explained, laughing.

It might sound funny, but the question speaks volumes about the perceptions this agency has faced since opening its doors just under a year and a half ago. Although it was initially positioned as a hip urban marketing resource, Spike DDB abandoned that approach with the arrival last November of Mr. Hall, its 34-year-old creative director, and the hiring in March of 31-year-old Mr. Marshall, account director.

REPOSITIONED AS BOUTIQUE

Now, the agency is trying to reposition itself as a mainstream creative boutique, a controversial and risky shift in strategy that at least one of the shop's founding executives thinks is a mistake.

From its much-hyped inception, Spike DDB has struggled to establish an identity and forge a creative culture. As an agency headed by a prominent African-American filmmaker, the shop was an instant curiosity.

But Spike Lee has relatively scant advertising experience, and the shop quickly was attacked by black-owned agencies that challenged its urban marketing skills and privately was dismissed by mainstream (and almost exclusively white) agency executives who doubted its celebrity CEO really knew anything about developing ad strategies.

IDENTITY CRISIS

Now the question of Spike DDB's identity is being challenged again as the agency starts to pursue mainstream accounts and projects.

The driving force behind this strategic rebirth is Mr. Hall, an award-winning copywriter who has never worked at a minority agency in his entire career. Neither has Mr. Marshall, for that matter, who joined from Arnell Group.

Together, these dynamic young hustlers -- the name Mr. Hall worked under when he did his own creative projects -- aim to turn Spike DDB into DDB Needham Worldwide's version of McCann-Erickson Worldwide's ultra-cool boutique, Amster Yard.

They've got a ways to go. Despite all the attention, Spike DDB's work has remained almost invisible. Indeed, critics have questioned Mr. Lee's commitment to the shop as well as his ability to devote to it the ungodly hours most start-up agencies demand.

UNCERTAIN EXPECTATIONS

What sort of expectations did Mr. Lee think he would face when he started?

"I think there were a lot of people scratching their heads," he said. "There was interest, but I don't know if I would use the word expectation, because I don't think people knew what to expect."

For the most part, they expected funky, hip-hop campaigns infused with street cred and designed to bring a touch of the 'hood to Main Street advertisers.

And for a while they saw that -- the agency created a print and TV campaign for athletic shoe retailer the Finish Line that was understated and cool, featuring a diverse cast of kids playing street football. It was a project assignment won largely because of Mr. Lee's perceived insights about the urban scene and the belief that styles and trends originating there eventually spread to middle America.

That was before Messrs. Hall and Marshall arrived. Mr. Hall's hiring sparked a personnel overhaul that saw the departure of Mark Robinson, a former UniWorld Group account supervisor who was managing director; he left in January to start a company that markets African-American-related apparel and collectibles.

Also departing were Colin Costello and Geoff Edwards, the creative team from DDB Needham's Chicago office initially billed as Mr. Lee's co-creative directors.

GETTING IT TOGETHER

After the turnover, Messrs. Hall and Marshall believe they're getting things together. The agency, with 12 employees, recently moved from temporary space in the New York offices of Griffin Bacal to an airy third-floor office in DDB Needham's Madison Avenue headquarters. OK, so it's not TriBeCa, but they're making do.

Black and white Ken and Barbie dolls are pinned to the wall and hip-hop music floats through the air. Under the agency's logo is a motto, "On the truth and soul tip," a nod to "Putney Swope," Robert Downey's 1969 cult classic film about an ad agency taken over by a black man.

And, of course, there's the mantra, written by Mr. Hall and painted on the wall in the reception area where it can't be missed. While other agencies opt for simple inspirational sayings, like "Reach for the stars," the Spike DDB message is bold and challenging: "Feel things that have not been felt . . . Learn things that have not been taught . . . Fight things that have not been fought." It closes with this clincher: "Create things that will blow your fuckin' mind."

While Mr. Lee's personality infuses the agency, Mr. Hall's vision is driving it. He has solid creative credentials, having started in the Saatchi & Saatchi training program before moving on to stints at Margeotes Fertitta & Weiss, Mad Dogs & Englishmen, BBDO Worldwide and the New York and Venice, Calif., offices of what is now TBWA Chiat/Day. In his last Chiat/Day post, he was creative director on Nissan Motor Corp. USA's luxury Infiniti brand, reporting to creative boss Lee Clow.

INTRODUCED BY JAY CHIAT

Messrs. Lee and Hall were introduced several years ago by legendary adman Jay Chiat. Shortly after, the director tried to lure Mr. Hall out of advertising, but Mr. Hall felt the timing wasn't right. Mr. Hall also talked to Mr. Lee about joining Spike DDB before it opened but was turned off by the urban marketing thrust.

Urban marketing is "a euphemism for black," Mr. Hall said. "Urban marketing implies taking a smaller slice of the pie, and I'm trained to take the whole pie."

"We're trained to pitch business, and partner with clients," added Mr. Marshall, "not to accept secondary status."

Mr. Lee now says the plan all along was to broaden the agency's base, using the urban marketing positioning to differentiate itself at the beginning.

"We felt that initially, out of the box, it would get us the right buzz," Mr. Lee said. "We knew all along that we weren't going to stay there. Once we were established and [had] done some work, we could branch out."

"People were going to pigeonhole us as a black agency anyway. That's a reality," he added. "But it was never the strategy that we were not going to evolve from that."

DISAGREEING OVER CHANGE

Although Mr. Robinson says his exit was planned in advance and he had only agreed to devote a year to the start-up, he clearly disagreed with the agency's new approach.

"That was something that Charles lobbied for when he came on board," said Mr. Robinson of the strategic switch. "It was not part of our long-term plan for the agency."

Asked if he thought the change will further complicate the agency's struggle to establish an identity, he paused before answering, "It's been a difficult road for Spike DDB. The transition didn't make it any easier. I don't know if it's made it any harder.

"As a marketer, one needs to have a credible point of differentiation. Urban marketing gave them that. To just say, `We're a hot creative shop,' there's a couple dozen other agencies that do that, too."

TIRED OF HAVING TO FIT IN

Messrs. Hall and Marshall said they saw in Spike DDB a unique opportunity to convert an agency majority-owned by an African-American (DDB Needham has a 49% stake) into a general-market shop.

"This was a battle that needed to be fought, and needed to be won," Mr. Hall said.

"I was tired, extremely tired, of having to fit in," he said, referring to what it's like to be one of the only blacks in an agency creative department.

He also grew weary of what he calls "Negro phobia," noting, "I got tired of fighting the battle for black people to be in commercials for anything other than basketball. It was always a struggle, even for companies that were supposed to be open-minded."

There are other battles Messrs. Hall and Marshall hope to fight. Both want Spike DDB to serve as an inspiration for young blacks to get into the ad agency business.

"Charles is probably the highest-ranking black creative in a mainstream agency," said Jeff Weiss, exec VP-creative director at Amster Yard and Mr. Hall's former creative director at Margeotes. "He can't get away from that. It lays a huge responsibility at his feet."

BUILDING A CLIENT LIST

As the agency moves away from its urban marketing stance, it's beginning to develop a client list that better reflects what Mr. Hall hopes the agency will become.

The agency has produced an edgy, stylish TV campaign on a project basis for New Era, makers of official Major League Baseball team caps. The spots feature a roster of journeymen or rookie ball players, all of whom recite lines like, "Proud to play for the league minimum." The tag is, "Proud to play in a New Era."

While it does serve as agency of record for haircare marketer Soft Sheen Products, the shop may now be in danger of being labeled as a sports marketing specialist, particularly on the heels of the critical and commercial success of Mr. Lee's newest film, "He Got Game," which deals with the pressures on a high school basketball phenomenon.

The agency did a spot for the Miami Heat (archrivals of Mr. Lee's beloved New York Knicks), and has done work for Fox Sports. For pro hockey's Stanley Cup playoffs, the agency created a humorous campaign starring '70s TV star Flip Wilson reprising his Rev. Leroy character.

The irony of a black-owned agency doing promos for what is the most lily white of pro sports is not lost on Mr. Lee or on Fox.

"We didn't hire him because of any expertise in urban marketing," said Neal Tiles, Fox Sports' senior VP-marketing. Fox wanted "to glean some of that cachet of the NBA for hockey. It didn't matter whether the audience was black, white or whatever."

Essentially, they wanted Spike DDB to make hockey cool.

SINK OR SWIM

While the work is improving and the client list is starting to become more diverse, the agency still faces challenges.

For one, it's clearly going to have to sink or swim on its own since the expected influx of work from existing DDB Needham clients looking for an urban perspective never materialized.

Mr. Lee said the shop has pitched in creatively on DDB Needham's Anheuser-Busch, McDonald's Corp. and State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. accounts, but so far no work has been produced.

"They are a resource for us, and we hope they'll be more of one," said Ray Gillette, president of integrated services for DDB Needham and a member of Spike DDB's board.

Is he satisfied with the shop's progress? "Maybe not, but we are on target," he said.

$22 MIL IN BILLINGS

The agency's revenue picture is unclear. Mr. Hall said DDB Needham is giving the shop time to build, but Mr. Robinson indicated the initial financial arrangement with DDB Needham proved burdensome and had to be revised. The shop's billings are estimated at $22 million.

Those familiar with the operation said the agency has yet to make money, and that DDB Needham put pressure on the shop early on to return profits.

Mr. Hall said it "would be unrealistic" to expect the agency to be profitable in such a short period.

Finances aside, Mr. Hall believes the agency will prove itself to be "among the elite creative agencies" once it develops a strong client list and the industry becomes familiar with its work. He's not alone in this forecast.

Mr. Hall is "one of the really imaginative creative thinkers that I've ever worked with," said Mr. Clow. "And if he's thinking along with Spike, this is going to be very interesting."

"It's going to be easy for them to change, if they haven't already," said Mr. Tiles of Fox Sports, who worked with Wieden & Kennedy in his previous job at ESPN. "They just need to spend some time in the marketplace and build on their client list . . . They're poised for success."

In this article:
Most Popular