The Little (14-Person) Agency That Could

Ad Documentary "Art & Copy" Reminds Us We All Start Small

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Bart Cleveland
Bart Cleveland
It started with three people and a dream. They dreamed of doing things their way. They didn't plan to change the industry or the culture. They just wanted to be the best they could be. And in making the dream come true, an industry grew up.

The agency was Doyle Dane Bernbach. Think about it: An agency that now has thousands of employees all over the world started out like many of us, as a small agency.

The film "Art & Copy," a documentary directed by Doug Pray and produced by The One Club, recently was screened here for a large audience of advertising professionals who work for small agencies. (That's the only kind we have in Albuquerque.) The audience applauded loudly when the final credits rolled up the screen. They were cheering the revolution of our industry, a revolution sparked by a small agency. A 14-person agency that wanted to do something better than what was being done. That agency was the reason I wanted to enter advertising. My greatest thrill was walking the halls of DDB and meeting John Noble, one of the writers who had created those wonderful Volkswagen ads I watched when I was a kid.

"Art & Copy" is an important reminder that we small agencies have a responsibility to this industry. We must be the revolutionaries. Revolutionaries who break off the barnacles that attach themselves to our industry and weigh it down. Why is this our responsibility? Look at those that have done so in the past. They all started the next revolution of our industry as small agencies: DDB, ChiatDay, Goodby Silverstein, Wieden & Kennedy, Fallon McElligott Rice, Crispin Porter & Bogusky -- the list goes on and on. We cannot deny who changes this industry for the better.

"Art & Copy" shows us those early days of revolutionaries like Bill Bernbach, George Lois and Mary Wells, and traces the west-coast wildfire Jay Chiat and Lee Clow started in the early '70s. Howard Gossage is not mentioned, sadly, but Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein are, who followed his lead, as are Dan Wieden, David Kennedy and Hal Riney.

I was in heaven watching this movie. Here were the heroes of my youth! These were the ones who walked the walk, put their money where their mouth was and made no apologies for not doing business as usual. And look what happened to these little agencies: They became huge, and still account for much of our industry's greatest work.

Where will the next big-little agency like DDB come from? Who knows. It could come from anywhere, because there are people with a passion for our industry all over the country. Someone will change the paradigm. Someone will upset the apple cart. While most will see the obstacles and quit, when others surrender, a small group of people will strike out on their own and try something new. And they will change the industry again. And our descendants will thank them as we've thanked our heroes.

On the film's website, Mr. Pray states his intentions for the film: "Ultimately, I hope 'Art & Copy' inspires artists and writers to strive to make more meaningful, more entertaining or more socially uplifting ads." I believe he's accomplished that goal. Perhaps it will spur another small agency to start another Golden Age. Let's give it our best shot.

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