Lunch With Sal DeVito

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To look at him, you'd never know Sal DeVito was such a troublemaker. Arriving at Barolo, one of his SoHo restaurant haunts, DeVito is soft-spoken and polite to the waiter, careful about ordering a low-salt entree, and restrained in assessing the fortunes of his agency, DeVito/Verdi, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary. In short, DeVito seems like a sweet guy. So how come his ads have ticked off New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani; flipped the bird to the general public on behalf of Daffy's stores; belched in the face of America for Ecampus.com; and driven a bunch of mental health officials crazy and a gang of fruitcake-makers nuts? (We won't even mention that billboard for Timeout New York with the headline, "Welcome to New York. Now get out.") Pleasant as he may be in person, put a copy pad in front of DeVito and he turns into a classic New York in-your-face ad guy.

WB The current economy has been brutal to smaller independent agencies. How is it affecting you?

SD So far we're still pretty cool. But I know it's out there, because a lot of my friends are out of work. And you can just feel it. A lot of my SVA students from last year - most of them, in fact - haven't gotten a job yet. So I think it's one of the worst times ever. But I've been through it before, you know. In the '70s recession, I got laid off from Ted Bates and I was out of work for eight months. I started to think I'd never get back into it. I pumped gas on Long Island for $2 an hour. The whole time I kept saying to myself, "I know I can do it, I just need a shot." Finally a headhunter called and Ketchum hired me.

WB You worked at several big agencies before getting into the smaller creative ones, right?

SD After Ketchum, it was Y&R, then a bunch of other agencies. It took me about 14 years to get to a really good agency. And believe me, I was trying, every day. It really sucked. I always wanted to work at Scali or Carl Ally in those days, and there I was at Y&R. And I would show an ad to some CD there and he'd say, "We can't do that - you know, this place isn't Scali." And I'd be thinking, "OK, you're saying this ad belongs at Scali and I'm not there and you're reminding me of that. Why don't you just rub it in." That kind of thing went on for years. I feel like I didn't really get into advertising until 1986. For me, Levine Huntley was the first time I got into the business that I actually wanted to be in.

WB What got you into teaching at SVA?

SD I think one reason is that I had a lot of things to say, and if I couldn't say it on the job, I wanted to tell someone how I felt. I hated most of the goddamn ads I was doing back then. I knew what kind of work I wanted to be doing, stuff that would move people. So I talked about that with my students, and got out a lot of frustration, and I critiqued my own work. I was very tough on myself.

WB What's the main idea that you try to get across to ad students?

SD Believe it or not, I'm still one of the guys that actually wants to sell the product. I ask these kids, "What kind of advertising do you want to do?" And they give me these one-word answers like, "Funny - I want to do funny advertising." That's not the answer I'm looking for. You want to sell an idea or product and make sure the message is heard. But there's a certain silliness in advertising now, and it's contagious, especially among younger people. The other big misconception is that a lot of kids are looking to put together a quick book - and off of that they think they're gonna get a great job at a top agency and make a lot of money. And that's not how it works. There's only a few people that are destined to be the special ones - and those are the people that are very hungry, and they're good, and they also open up their minds and say, "Teach me, I want to learn it all."

WB Does teaching become a way to recruit?

SD I never went into it for that reason. But when I started out with DeVito/Verdi, I brought three SVA students with me. I paid them very little - I think it was a veal parmagiana a week. And it was just me and those students that produced the work that put the agency on the map our first year - for Daffy's, Solgar, Empire chicken. That group eventually moved on to other agencies, but other students I taught are working with me now. And the rest are working against me.

WB Why'd you decide to join Follis/Verdi, a relatively unknown startup, back in '91?

SD I just wanted a shot at being a creative director after leaving Levine. I wanted a shot at being the man. At the time, I was interviewed by a reporter who asked what I wanted to do, and I said, "I'd like to start my own agency if I can find an account guy with brains and balls." They printed "brains and guts." And when that article came out, Ellis Verdi was the only guy who called. He got me drunk and talked me into it.

WB Is it rare to find an account guy with "brains and balls"?

SD Let's put it this way: There are a lot of agencies out there that have account guys who don't even understand the creative part of what we do, they think it's just about kissing the client's ass. But Ellis has a good creative feel - he's a little bit of a frustrated creative, I think. Bob Jeffrey is another guy like that, and I tried to go into business with him years ago. These are guys who understand that it's about the work. When I started working with Ellis, we were presenting work for the South Street Seaport, and the first group of people loved it, second group loved it, and finally they bring in a third group of people - and they start rewriting all the boards, you know, "What if we did this line with that visual?" I looked at Ellis and said, "Let's go. Let's just pack up and go." And he was like, "Umm . . . all right." So I knew I'd found an account guy with brains and balls. As it turned out, the client called us back in a few days and we sold them the ads. Of course, we had no way of knowing they would call back. But our feeling was, if we were going to make a name for ourselves, we had to get the right work out.

WB Do you tend to be confrontational with clients when it comes to selling work?

SD Actually, I'm a very polite guy. And I try to keep an open mind. I learned a lesson a long time ago, when a client asked me to change something and I was resistant. And then I changed it and it was better. So now I'll always at least try it. But if an idea is not right, I won't go along with it, and I'll be very honest with the client about that. A client can't make you do bad advertising. All they can do is kill good advertising. But as long as you keep coming back with something else, you can wear them down. That's better than giving up and walking away. Especially in the current environment, you don't want to throw away any client that has possibilities. And you don't want to make Grey Advertising any richer than they are already.

WB DeVito/Verdi has this reputation for being a very tough-talking New York agency. Is that the way you see yourself?

SD I think if you look at all our work, there's a lot of range, including emotional stuff like our pro-choice work. But yes, some people think we're just guys who do outrageous, irreverent stuff. I'm from Brooklyn and Ellis is also from New York, so there's that. But part of it stems from the campaigns we were doing early on - the Timeout New York campaign really pushed the New York voice, because it made sense. When we said the magazine is a lot like the average New Yorker - it will tell you where you can go and what you can do with yourself - that was a line, but it's also exactly what the magazine does. And Daffy's was very New York in tone, also.

WB Daffy's really took an aggressive tone, like the ad with the shirt making an obscene gesture. Did you get much flak on that?

SD Not too bad on that one, but we did another one with a straitjacket, where the line was, "If you're paying over $100 for a dress shirt, may we suggest a jacket to go with it?" And the alliance for the mentally ill picketed the agency. At an awards show, they handed me a little pamphlet that said "DeVito/Verdi is a loser." Actually we won 12 Addys that night. But you never know what's offensive advertising. We did an ad that showed a fruitcake being thrown out, and we got letters from a company in the Midwest that makes fruitcakes, and they wanted an apology. I couldn't believe it - a fruitcake!

WB You really ticked off Rudy Giuliani with the New York ad that called the magazine, "The only good thing in New York that Mayor Giuliani hasn't taken credit for." Did you expect him to react that way?

SD First of all, I like Giuliani a lot. I think he's been a great mayor. I was surprised when I heard he was upset about that ad. But you know, he made that ad much bigger than it was by calling attention to it. And that's what the client needed - they'd said to us, "Just get us some attention, please," and they didn't have a big budget, so they wanted press coverage. I didn't think the ad would get that much attention. And then he called the Transit Authority and said, "This is the Mayor, take that ad off the buses." You can't do that! So it went to court, he lost, and we put 'em back up. But meanwhile, it was in every newspaper.

WB Speaking of politicians with big, potentially abrasive personalities, what about dealing with Hillary Clinton on the Senate campaign?

SD She has a side to her that's fun. When we were showing her the work, she was cracking jokes - that's what I liked about her. But it was tough working on that campaign. If you think there's a lot of politics in advertising, imagine what it's like in politics. It started out OK with Hillary, but then we had to present to consultants who could kill and change and adjust it, and they all give you polls and numbers . . . and that was difficult. Lots and lots of good work got killed. But we tried everything.

WB Ever figure out what it is about her that drives so many people up the wall?

SD No, we didn't try to deal with that. I just wanted to expand on her positives and tell people things they didn't know about her - to show how smart a person she is, some of the good things she's done. And she won, and now time will tell if that stuff is true.

WB Would you do a political campaign again?

SD If Giuliani ran for governor, I'd love to do that.

WB Why hasn't DeVito/Verdi launched one of those "entertainment" divisions, like other agencies?

SD I think the reason agencies are doing that is because they don't have a good creative division, so they're trying to compensate by opening up other divisions. It's like when you hear them talk about "interactive" all the time. "Hey, everybody, we're doing interactive, are you doing interactive?" And my response is no, not all that much, actually we're doing these things called commercials. A lot of times, people are just talking about the new thing as a way to try to get themselves in the game. But the core of this business is still going to be the guys with big ideas. That's what I think, anyway. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

WB But those buzzwords work pretty well on clients, don't they?

SD Yeah, sometimes. The clients certainly hear more of this bullshit than anyone else. Some are more savvy than others. But the real problem is that a lot of agencies use this stuff as a substitute for giving clients good work. Why is that? Maybe they can't do good work, or maybe they can't do it in time. Maybe they just don't want to do it, because they think it's easier to push through work the client is expecting. Any agency can give the client what they ask for. We try to give a client what they want - but never give them what they expect.

SAL DEVITO

Education

SUNY/Farmingdale, majored in advertising art. Graduated School of Visual Arts, 1971

EXPERIENCE

Early to mid-1970s:

Designed matchbook covers

First ad job with Conahay & Lion

Laid off from Ted Bates in 1974

Gas station attendant, Texaco ($2 an hour)

Ketchum/New York

Late `70s/ early `80s

Young & Rubicam; Wells Rich Greene; Slater Hanft Martin; Penchina Selkowitz; Chiat/Day/New York, HDM (won Cannes Gold for Peugeot)

Started teaching at SVA in 1980

Mid- to late `80s

Associate Creative Director, Levine Huntley Schmidt & Beaver, New York

1991 to present

Co-founder, creative director, DeVito/Verdi, New York (originally Follis/Verdi)

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