An advertising agency. Charlie and Stan started an honest-to-God, by-all-appearances-thriving advertising agency.
"I mean, Charlie . . ." I was stumbling over my question, not wanting to insult the man who undergirded the Wells, Rich, Greene legend. "You're . . ." Almost 61. "You're . . ." Financially well off. "You . . ." Already went through the megamerger wars. "You're . . ." Fit as a Polo model. "You . . ." Could easily retire. "So," I repeated, "why are you doing this?"
The chairman of Moss/Dragoti thankfully took no offense. "I dunno how my contemporaries in the business, guys my age, would see this," he conceded. "But in a big agency, you're a slave. A slave to the agency, a slave to your clients. This" -- he glanced around at the promotional materials for Hertz and the History Channel and the sleek A/V deck, and leaned slightly toward the morning buzz emanating from the halls outside -- "is a more pure situation. We get to concentrate on doing good work. In a big agency, you can't control it. I can't control this, either. But at least my hands are on."
These are the literary hands that, from the moment Mary Wells Lawrence opened her gonzo shop in 1966, Midasized a nation's mufflers, made quality Job One for Ford and loved New York. For years, on and off, in and out, they partnered with the eyes of Stan Dragoti. Bred as an art director at Young & Rubicam in the early days of TV advertising, even after achieving success as a film director, he missed advertising's immediate gratification. In 1995, the duo formed their own little unit within the larger Wells.
One would have expected the roundelay of acquisitions and dispositions that sundered Wells three years later to have silenced these two ballyhooligans. While he admits to boredom after Mrs. Lawrence retired, Charlie says he was more wearied by his encounters with civilian life.
He bumped against that realization when he and Stan, excited by the prospect of Broadway producing, optioned a play, prompting Charlie (a former child actor) to take a 14-week production course offered by the League of American Theatres. "Producing," he says, "turned out to be a lot of the things I hated about the agency business."
Fortunately, after Wells' implosion and the absorption of their unit into what's now DDB Worldwide, Moss found himself forced to attend more directly to the work of their few remaining clients, notably Hertz. Lo and behold, it turned out that making advertising was indeed a hell of a lot of fun. So now they are seeking -- and winning -- new accounts, most recently Cybersettle.com, a novel, Internet-based insurance resolution service.
We strolled into a conference room where we were joined by several of Moss/Dragoti's senior executives and placards from a Mr. Coffee campaign. Although younger, they -- the execs, not the placards -- were dressed more conservatively than Charlie, whose black, long-sleeved polo shirt and navy slacks evoked downtown far more readily than they did his Madison Avenue location.
"I used to wear these frilly, gauzy see-through shirts and jeans," he recalled, perhaps sensing my cognitive dissonance. "One day, Mary calls and says, 'Charlie, we gotta go see the brass at Philip Morris.' I told her what I was wearing and said I couldn't go like that. 'Oh Charlie,' she said, 'they expect you to look like that.' "
"Now," said Jane Carlson, the director of account services, "our clients dress like that."
There was a ring, and the disembodied voice of Stan Dragoti joined us, sounding no less weary for the hour -- 6:30 a.m. on the West Coast. He launched a lengthy disquisition on the use of humor in the new Hertz spots he was directing, comparing it with Billy Wilder's situational humor and contrasting it to Mel Brooks' slapstick. I felt the need to interrupt.
"So, Stan," I asked. "Why are you still doing this?"
He thought for a moment. "When you get into this rhythm, and it pleases you," the once-and-present adman responded, "advertising is like a gift."