They did. And the big players listened.
The New York agency founded in 1997 as Berlin Cameron & Partners with a staff of five operating out of loaned office space today boasts $700 million in billings, fueled by a stellar 2003. Berlin Cameron/Red Cell-now part of WPP Group, the world's No. 3 ad organization- handles marketing messages in North America for arguably the world's best-known brand,Coca-Cola Classic. But it's also in the past year brought home agency-of-record assignments from pharmaceutical giant Pfizer for allergy medication Zyrtec worth an estimated $74 million; cellular service provider Boost Mobile (estimated $50 million) and Dean Foods' White Wave Silk soy milk (estimated $5 million), following a competition with three of the U.S.' top creative shops.
Berlin Cameron has, moreover, built its creative, strategic and scrappy reputation beyond the outsized personality of its founders.With its influx of new business, within the past 12 months it's hired some significant senior talent, including President Bill Grogan, former director of Coke brands at Interpublic, and Vice Chairman Jon Steel. Their addition helped convinced prospective marketer partners there was a deeper talent reserve than the two principals.
For its rare combination of new-business savvy, strategic insight, creative prowess and big personality, Berlin Cameron is Advertising Age's U.S. Agency of the Year.
Still, Messrs. Berlin and Cameron agree that 2003's success wouldn't have been possible without the financial and operational resources provided by Berlin Cameron's parent, WPP Group, which acquired the agency in December 2001 and added the shop to its Red Cell network.
"We had to be part of WPP to look right, to be believably trustworthy to deal with these enormous marketing institutions," says Mr. Berlin, 53, who holds the titles of chairman at Berlin Cameron/Red Cell and co-CEO of the Red Cell network. Mr. Cameron, 39, is CEO of New York-based Berlin Cameron.
New business is one measure of success. Last February, Berlin Cameron wrested Coca-Cola's $250 million North American Coke Classic business from Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann-Erickson Worldwide.
Avi Dan, Berlin Cameron's director of new business, credits Mr. Berlin for understanding clients' "hidden agendas"-those unspoken, often cultural issues marketers must grapple with inside their own organizations to get campaigns and marketing ideas approved.
EXPANDING DOWN UNDER
But talent in winning accounts is only half the equation necessary for success; there's also the ability to satisfy and grow with existing clients. Tidy Cat, a brand of Nestle Purina PetCare Co.'s Golden Products division, expanded beyond North America in 2003 and entered Australia using TV spots from Berlin Cameron, Tidy Cat's agency since 1997. Golden Products President Bob Watt credits the shop with helping Tidy Cat increase its market share to 34% from 26%.
"There is a genuine, deep passion on the agency's part for our success," he says. "They are smart people who speak their minds."
Berlin Cameron deliberately keeps its ratio of staff to client billings small. Mr. Berlin, who has had his name on six agency monikers and who headed Omnicom Group's DDB Needham, New York, from 1992-93, says, "Having run a big agency, I know that there's a rather small percentage of people in any agency who are critical determinants of its future. It doesn't take droves of people to solve marketing problems-it takes good people."
The agency is short on secretaries and multitiered account management. "Andy runs lean-and-mean operations," says a former employee. "He doesn't buy into fat offices or teams of assistants running around after him. He's a roll-up-his-sleeves kind of guy."
That hands-on accessibility "made a big difference to me in terms of the quality of the [agency] team, and their experience and maturity as marketing and advertising executives," says Steve Heyer, Coca-Cola's president-chief operating officer, the man behind the Coke Classic shift to Berlin in 2003.
The brand was awarded after Berlin Cameron won kudos on assignments for Coca-Cola Co.'s Dasani, Mello Yello and several other of the soft-drink giant's smaller brands.
Creative leadership is split between Co-Creative Directors Jason Peterson and Izzy DeBellis. "The brain trust has gotten larger," notes Mr. DeBellis, a founding partner. "For a while, everyone did everything. Ewen was the planner who became CEO who also writes ads."
Mr. Peterson says the agency's approach to pitches isn't fancy-no storyboards, no reels. "We're not necessarily slick with presentations. We are just good problem solvers with no bullshit."
He says the agency spends a lot of time producing approved ideas. One of the key elements of the "Real" campaign for Coke, for instance, was to shoot real people in their own clothes in their own homes with their own real friends. "It is that kind of detail that was important to us," Mr. Peterson says.
As the agency grows, both its founders are deliberately institutionalizing that cross-disciplinary ethic, and hiring what they call "integrated individuals"-people who thrive while stretching beyond their training.
"It's been nice to be made to feel uncomfortable," says Mr. Steel, who joined Berlin Cameron in September. A novelist and 10-year veteran of Omnicom's Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco, Mr. Steel led the agency's successful pitches for Zyrtec and White Wave Silk. "In the past, I've always and only been responsible for strategy."
In its current iteration, which includes Advertising Age as a client, Berlin Cameron came into being after Mr. Berlin split with former partner Pat Fallon, with whom he'd created Fallon McElligott Berlin in 1995. In need of a new home for his staff and clients, Mr. Berlin made some phone calls. One to Conde Nast Publications CEO Steve Florio, a friend and former client, delivered: Mr. Florio needed a campaign. The two men hammered out a swap. Carpenters and electricians were called in over a weekend, and Berlin Cameron & Partners opened its doors at 350 Madison Ave. on a Monday morning in late 1997. "The agency has risen and fallen a few times," says Mr. DeBellis. "At its core is a tenacity, and somehow we stayed alive."
Before linking up with Mr. Fallon, Mr. Berlin ran Berlin Cameron Doyle, spun off in 1993 as Berlin Wright & Cameron from DDB Needham. Mr. Berlin ran DDB Needham as president for 15 months prior to heading Berlin Wright & Cameron; he moved to New York in 1992 from San Francisco, where he was a partner in Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein.
As important as tenacity in Berlin Cameron's success is collaboration. For Mr. Cameron, an account planner by training, incorporating other resources comes easily: "I've always been interested in what I call `natural' advertising-that is, the influences in music and popular culture on brands."
He astutely understands how to capitalize on it. When Cadillac hired Berlin Cameron to launch its Escalade sport-utility vehicle, Mr. Cameron recognized its appeal in the hip-hop world, and recommended the automaker embrace that popularity and position the SUV as sexy and hip-a smart move.
For Coke, Mr. Cameron last year helped engineer an alliance between the marketer, Creative Artists Agency and Universal Music Group connecting the "Real" campaign to the American Music Awards. This included a music video that was edited into a 90-second commercial.
"The way Andy and Ewen built the agency is more and more relevant to clients today. They manage their approach to clients' business by giving clients access to their partners," says Lee Daley, co-CEO with Mr. Berlin of WPP's Red Cell network, which has 60 operating units in 35 markets.
Sustaining momentum, rather than being a fleeting fashion, is the next challenge. Berlin Cameron "has a very strong team," says Martin Sorrell, chief executive of WPP Group. "They have to ... capitalize on what they've got, and not become arrogant or complacent."
2001 Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide
2000 Goodby, Silverstein & Partners
1999 McCann-Erickson Worldwide