FROM STEALTH TO SPOTLIGHT BY THE BAY

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When the Howard Gossage Award was presented to Jeff Odiorne at the San Francisco Show in late March, there had to have been more than a few perplexed faces in the crowd.

While the small but vocal contingent from Odiorne's agency, Odiorne Wilde Narraway Groome, erupted with what must have been raucous delight, and some of his former colleagues at better-known shops like Goldberg Moser O'Neill and Hal Riney & Partners must have been pleased to see their ex-mate make good, by and large, says Odiorne, "most people in the room had no idea who I, or for that matter we, were."

So much for introductions.

Described by one admiring local rival as a "stealth agency," OWNG came in second only to perennial show-stopper Goodby, Silverstein & Partners that night, taking home 17 medals at the San Francisco ad community's annual mine is bigger than yours night. In addition to the medals and the presentation of the Gossage Award to Odiorne (named for the legendary Bay area adman, it goes to the copywriter whose work scores the overall highest in the competition), 16 other OWNG entries earned merit distinction.

That the agency has little or no presence in the city, and seemed to come out of nowhere, is hardly surprising, given the circumstances behind the sudden success.

Since opening its doors on April Fools' Day 1994, OWNG has kept an incredibly low profile.

Back then, to the muted trumpets of little or no publicity, two creatives who had teamed at Goldberg Moser O'Neill and Riney opened shop with a handful of staffers working out of a suite of offices in the heart of the city's agency ghetto.

While other start-ups like Butler, Shine & Stern in nearby Sausalito and New York's Ad Store were busy reaping pages of press clippings, the OWNG gang-which includes Odiorne's art director partner Michael Wilde, along with General Manager Andy Narraway and Account Director Harry Groome-was keeping its collective nose to the grindstone, and with good reason: They opened their doors with videogame maker Electronic Arts' $8 million account, a piece of business to which the agency was totally committed, in more ways than one.

In its first eight months in business, working exclusively for Electronic Arts, OWNG cranked out 18 TV spots and more than 30 print ads.

Now that they've just celebrated their first anniversary, these overnight sensations are coming out of their self-imposed exile with the aim of raising their awareness, snaring some new business and getting their work in the awards show books. To do it, they've branded themselves "advertising terrorists," a term actually coined by one of their clients, Don Transeth, VP-sports marketing at Electronic Arts.

Displaying the appropriate marketing moxie, they've even had the phrase trademarked. With last week's chilling events in Oklahoma City-where the word "terrorist" was again a lightning rod for fear and loathing-Narraway says his colleagues believe people in the industry realize their use of the term is in a "very specific fashion, regarding advertising and creative ideas only .... for us, it's just a wordplay on guerrilla."

Putting things more in perspective, Marcus Kemp, senior VP-creative director at Riney and in whose group Odiorne worked, says "they have a good sense of humor, and they like to be a little outrageous, which seems to be a formula for success-and they're self-assured about what they're going to achieve."

Adds Kirk Citron of Citron Haligman Bedecarre, "They're a promising young start-up run by talented creative people. It's an agency to watch."

Of course, one of the first things to watch for is whether OWNG can sprout wings big enough to let it emerge from the shadow of Electronic Arts, which is not only the agency's primary source of revenue, it also provided the partners with a little financial backing that helped them hit the ground running.

In exchange for this unusual arrangement-which Julia Mee, director of marketing communications for Electronic Arts' entertainment division, describes as a "bonus structure" that didn't entail any ownership of the agency-OWNG agreed not to seek any additional clients during its first year of operation and devote itself solely to Electronic Arts.

And while OWNG's client roster is flush with names, most of these accounts, with the possible exception of Steel Reserve Lager, represent either project work, pro bono work or minuscule media billings, if any.

The link between OWNG and Electronic Arts, by all accounts, runs deep. Three of the four partners worked on the videogame marketer's account while it was at Goldberg: Groome handled the account as an account exec before joining Electronic Arts as ad manager to fill in for Mee while she was on maternity leave; Odiorne and Wilde were the creative team that helped Goldberg win the business.

According to both Mee and Transeth, one of the major criteria in selecting Goldberg in that 1992 review was the relationship they would have with the creative people handling the account. Transeth says what they really wanted to see in the pitch was "the people who were going to work on our business every day. We wanted to see the work they had done, and it didn't matter where they had done it."

Odiorne and Wilde were the presenting creatives, and when they sat down with the clients, it must have been kismet. The result was the beginning of a mutual admiration society that both Mee and Transeth have said is as much personal as it is professional.

Goldberg won the account in August, just in time for Odiorne and Wilde to create a campaign to launch the EA Sports line for the Christmas season. The two came up with the position of authenticity that was based on not only a knowledge of sports but a passion as well. Their tag, "If it's in the game, it's in the game," was deceptively obvious, Transeth adds. "It was so simple," he says, "it scared us."

Shortly after the campaign ran, however, it seemed the holiday was over. Odiorne and Wilde left Goldberg by February '93, the former to join Riney, the latter to take a break from the full-time grind to free-lance and ski. Groome stayed on at the agency as a succession of creative teams took turns working on the business.

When asked about his departure, especially from a client with whom he and Wilde had already developed a strong relationship, Odiorne only says that the creative department at Goldberg had lost some people and "didn't have the same magic that it had before." Further, he already had in mind what he wanted to do: After getting fired from his first agency job in Rochester, N.Y., he set a goal of having his own shop by the time he was 30.

While at Riney, he and Wilde did a few free-lance projects for Electronic Arts, during which time the two put together a plan for an agency that would differ from other start-ups in that it was predicated on bowing with a firm piece of business in hand. Neither partner wanted to work out of their apartments, or handle free-lance jobs for other agencies while they tried to get their fledgling shop off the ground.

They approached Electronic Arts casually at first, a move that Transeth initially dismissed as being somewhat similar to people saying they wanted to open a bar. When presented with the partners' business plans, however, they started a process of soul searching that resulted in OWNG being given all the Goldberg business without a review.

(Odiorne and Wilde had by then been joined by Narraway, a garrulous Brit with a dollars-and-sense management background whom they knew mostly as a drinking buddy; Groome, who was still at Electronic Arts when the three made their presentation, reportedly wasn't part of the decision to move the account and only joined the agency after the decision was made.)

The new partners staffed up and threw themselves into their work, leaving for later the chore of crafting an image of the agency where one didn't exist.

The "advertising terrorists" label, if anything, helps give them a sense of self; it's their off-the-wall spin on guerrilla-style ad tactics. This can include anything from slapping outrageous posters on construction sites (for Steel Reserve they're picturing two humping rhinos under the headline "Sex sells") to stenciling ad messages on sidewalks to putting up stickers for Steel Reserve Lager in the toilet stalls of taverns and restrooms.

While Odiorne notes that all of these techniques have been done before, what distinguishes OWNG's version is "the concept of putting them together in a plan that is designed to be hit and run."

It's all part of their desire to be, whenever possible, non-traditional and opportunistic in their thinking. "It's about trying to do stuff that's on the edge, that gets a lot of free media time and gets people talking," says Wilde.

These days, people are talking-about them. While the partners seem a bit peeved that their opening a year ago didn't generate much in terms of press, their performance in the San Francisco Show is already providing them with opportunities to test out their schtick.

In addition to gaining notoriety for the clever, cheeky print work that won medals in the show-much of it for clients with little or no visibility like the Medicine Bow Guest Ranch-there's also work for a local rugby club that was featured prominently in a recent Examiner article.

And the agency has just unrolled its first work for Steel Reserve, a McKenzie River Corp. brand that has being introduced in San Francisco. Susie Smith, brand manager for Steel Reserve, already credits the agency's work for helping the brand gain distribution with tavern owners and restaurateurs reluctant to stock yet another beer.

As a result of their rising profile, says Narraway, the shop is being seriously considered for several new pieces of business, and just won the accounts of Fierra Expressway Airlines, a small regional carrier, and SportsLab, traveling interactive sports entertainment centers backed by Electronic Arts and Capital Cities/ABC.

Adds Odiorne, the agency has plans to pursue a select group of accounts that they feel not only complement their attitude but also lend themselves to the skills the agency has developed working the game category for Electronic Arts. Says Groome: "Right now, we're like muckers in hockey. We go into the corners, we work our asses off and we come out with the puck. Hopefully, we're going to be taking it away from the Wayne Gretzkys of this business."

Especially if that Gretzky happens to be named Goodby.

===================================================================

Jeff Odiorne

Title: Creative director-copywriter

Age: 29

From: Philadelphia

Family: Wife Donna, kid on the way

Lives: San Francisco

College: Bucknell University

Resume: Hutchins/ Y&R, Rochester, N.Y. (1988-89); Lord, Sullivan & Yoder, Columbus, Ohio ('89); Wolf Advertising, Toronto ('89-90); Chiat/Day, Toronto ('90-92); Goldberg Moser O'Neill, San Francisco ('92-93); Hal Riney & Partners ('93-94)

Free time: None

Last movie: "Shallow Grave"

===================================================================

Michael Wilde

Title: Creative director-art director

Age: 30

From: Hendersonville, N.C.

Family: Hope to someday

Lives: San Francisco

College: Atlanta College of Art; Portfolio Center, Atlanta

Resume: Chiat/Day, San Francisco (1987-90); Goldberg Moser O'Neill ('90-92); free-lance ('92-93); Hal Riney & Partners ('93-94)

Free time: Excuse me?

Last movie: "Nobody's Fool"

===================================================================

Harry Groome

Title: Account director

Age: 31

From: Bryn Mawr, Pa.

Family: Single

Lives: San Francisco

College: Hamilton College, Hamilton, N.Y.

Resume: Lord Geller Federico Einstein, New York (1987-89); N W Ayer ('89-92); Goldberg Moser O'Neill ('92-93)

Free time: Keeping up with the Flyers, Eagles and Phillies

Last movie: "The Manchurian Candidate"

=====================================================================

Andy Narraway

Title: General manager

Age: 32

From: Penkridge, U.K.

Family: Wife Lauren

Lives: San Francisco

College: Plymouth Poly, U.K. (Law and Econ)

Resume: Lloyd's of London (1979-82); college and travel ('85-86); UFG Inc., San Francisco ('86-94)

Free time: Yeah, right

Last movie: "How to Get Ahead in Advertising"

=======================================================================Odiorne Wilde Narraway Groome

1045 Sansome St.

San Francisco, Calif. 94111

(415) 658-2800

Formed: April Fools' Day 1994

Principals: Jeff Odiorne, creative director-copywriter; Michael Wilde, creative director-art director; Andy Narraway, general manager; Harry

Groome, account director

Billings: $17 million (capitalized fees)

Clients: EA Sports, Electronic Arts Entertainment, Steel Reserve Lager, Il Fornaio, SF Video, Medicine Bow Guest Ranch, Rainforest Action Network, Blue Light Cafe, Bay Food, Coalition on Homelessness, Golden Gate Rugby Club, SportsLab, Fierra Expressway Airlines

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