"I got the feeling my first year people asked us to pitch because they thought we did the apple iPod campaign," recalls TBWA/Chiat/Day/N.Y. ECD Gerry Graf. "We kind of have confidence in who we are now, and people know what New York does. We're no longer confused with Chiat/L.A." Indeed, there's no question as to what's going on at 488 Madison Avenue, where creative fireworks have been exploding in rapid succession for the past three years. Dance Party. Sheep Boys. Beard. Trade. Man Mom. Locker Room. And the fun continues with the recent Snickers Super Bowl spot, featuring a pair of mechanics who inadvertently get intimate by way of the nutty candy bar.
When Graf signed onto the agency in 2004, the scene was quite different. The New York office was going through a bit of an identity crisis and had lagged creatively for quite some time, coasting off the fumes of the iconic but aging Absolut campaign and perhaps trying to expunge all traces of that dancing guy in the Kmart boxers. Moreover, all eyes were on the shop to see how it would prove itself on its new $160 million whopper, Nextel. Graf came in with no bag of tricks and zero experience as the head of an entire agency, just a legacy of laughs at shops like Goodby, Silverstein and Partners and BBDO, where he masterminded comedy classics for Fedex, ETrade (including the infamous "Monkey") and Snickers ("Not Going Anywhere for Awhile").
When he arrived, what he found was a shop torn between its boutique heritage and its big network status. "When I first got here, the split between being a creative agency and a bigger agency was a) tough to get used to and b) tough to get rid of," he says. But Graf made things happen, even though he didn't have a particular design. A keep to himself, no-nonsense guy, "I didn't try to change the culture," he says bluntly. "I don't know how to inspire people. I've given countless speeches here and feel like an idiot every time I talk into a mic. My job is to make really good creative and I try to do that. And let that inspire people. I just tried to locate the opportunities to do good work and get a good campaign out. I think the more good work we do here, the more everybody's going to want to be involved in it. The two sides of being an agency that makes money, versus an agency that's creative, then start to go away, and I think we can be an agency that makes money with creative work."
One of Graf's smartest moves was bringing in Scott Vitrone and Ian Reichenthal as group creative directors on the Masterfoods account. Graf was impressed by the work that the former Wieden and Cliff Freeman creatives had done for him for Fedex as freelancers at BBDO and then at Chiat. They weren't even on staff when they helped to jumpstart the agency's creative shift, turning out Nextel's "Dance Party" and the first round of Skittles, featuring kids sitting on a rainbow and a mustached hatchling man in a bird's nest. Once the pair officially joined the team, things really started to solidify. "I felt better when I threw dust in their eyes and made them sign the contract," Graf deadpans. "They're the hardest creative directors I've ever met in my career," he laughs. "They kill all the scripts that I come up with."
Initially, the duo had little prior experience overseeing teams, Graf says, but he just provided them with trust—and room to grow. "I was given a lot of freedom when I was in their position, and the reason they get it is because every time I go into see work, they always have it," he explains. Now, "they've figured out a way to get it" from the younger creatives, unleashing more award-winning laffers like "Ernie," "Trade" and "Beard," as well as the Silver Lion-honored "Man Mom" campaign for the Masterfoods Combos brand—all of which has helped to define the madcap renaissance at the New York office.
A year and a half ago, Graf drew another freelancer back into the game, Rob Smiley, one of the founding members of the San Francisco office, to revitalize the Absolut account. "To try to beat the old campaign, one of the most famous ad campaigns ever, is a huge challenge," Smiley says, but the team recently sold a campaign that will launch in the next two months or so. "I'm pretty excited about the work," Graf says. "It's been really interesting and hard, but hopefully they go where we're asking them to go."
As for Graf's routine, it's like "having a lot of pots on the stove," he explains. But "I always try to make sure there's something I'm really proud of." At this particular moment, he's especially preoccupied with the Snickers baby now back in his lap. "It's pretty important to me," he says. This time, he's taken a different tack on the how to develop the brand. "We're just trying to feel out through execution how the consumer feels about Snickers," he says. First came outdoor ads featuring nothing but audacious expressions like "Peanutopolis" and "Substanstialiscious" done up in Snickers drag, along with spots featuring a silly serenader. Most recently, there was the Superbowl smooch, which ranked in the top ten on the USA Today Ad Meter. "I finally think we've turned the corner and figured out where Snickers should be at," he says."It's a total icon brand and it should act that way."
Ironically, while the industry obsesses over convergence, multiplatform and new media, Chiat/N.Y. so far has broken out along a largely traditional path, proving that television, especially, still has a vital—albeit weird and demented—beating heart. "Skittles came out with Skittles gum, all they did was TV, and they ran out of gum," Graf says. "I'm not saying it's just because of our TV, but TV kind of works a little bit, I guess." Beyond the Masterfoods commercials, other moments of excellence under Graf's watch include the underrated but brilliant "They Chose You for a Reason" Embassy Suites campaign, featuring the hilarious office underarchievers, as well as poignant work for the World Trade Center Memorial.
Meanwhile, a lot of the agency's spots have inspired their young fans to jumpstart their own 2.0 frenzy. The hundreds of thousands of hits on YouTube to a trove of the agency's work—from "Dance Party" to "Ernie" and "Trade" might be testament enough to the commercials' reach, but perhaps even more telling is the fact that kids are doing their own renditions, from the church youth group holding its own "Dance Party," or a pair of guys re-enacting the kleptomaniac exchange between Ernie and his victim. "Trade" fans have even gone so far as to post videos of themselves chuckling as they watch the bunny wonder.
But Graf's run so far has not been snag-free. The agency's biggest client, the merged Sprint/Nextel, last month announced that it was putting the account into review, inviting both Chiat and Publicis/Hal Riney. Weeks later, Chiat dropped out, which might be indicative of the direction TBWA Chairman/CCO Lee Clow wants to see New York go. "Gerry's done brave, interesting stuff for Nextel and for Sprint," Clow says. "I don't think [the review] has too much to do with the potential of Gerry and the New York office because they're carving out a place that's pretty unique and special." Clow, in fact, has aspirations for the shop to set an example for the rest of the TBWA family as a testing ground for his media arts intiative, which seeks to spread brand messages along a more diverse marketing map. "Gerry thinks out of the box and I think he represents the future of the way I'd like the network to think," Clow explains. "We don't just think about ads, we think about ideas that make brands engaging and famous and will ultimately use all media to express those brands."
"It's great because now there are more places for our very creative department to go play around in," says Graf about broadening the agency's reach, which will now extend to the Masterfoods websites, among other things. But he's cautious about multiplatforming for multiplatforming's sake. "A lot of people think that just because you put something on demand or make a website, it's breakthrough," he says. But "you have to have them want to go there," he says, citing another famous ad guy. "Cliff Freeman said that you've got to give people a reason to watch a commercial, stop on your print ad and read it, even go to your website. They're not just going to do it because they want to learn about moisture cream. He always believed that if you entertained somebody, they'll want to hang out with you more. And I kind of buy into that. People love Skittles commercials because they're funny as shit and they want to see the next one. And they'll learn that they have a new flavor called Tropical Burst, or whatever. What a great place, to have a consumer say I can't wait to see the next commercial or print ad or coffee table book by Skittles because it's going to crack me up. That's what we're trying to do here."