Toy Story

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After bidding farewell to big-agency life in mid-2005, Anne Bologna and Ari Merkin find themselves playing in a whole new playground-their own. For the past two months, the former heads of Fallon/New York have been hard at work assembling the foundation of their new boutique agency, Toy. And for the tandem that consistently churned out attention-grabbing campaigns for clients like Virgin Mobile, Starbucks and Brawny, this latest collaboration may be the most eye-catching yet. The duo put down their new Toy just long enough to explain why.

C What's the real story behind the name Toy? Admit it, you guys came up with it while playing around with action figures, right?

AB It's so much less interesting than that. [Laughs]

AM There was one morning when I woke up with this word in my head, and I couldn't shake it. I sent an e-mail to Anne and it had just the one word: toy. She immediately wrote back a one-word response: perfect.

AB Because it captures the idea of ideas that are as engaging as a new toy. A toy doesn't need to be explained. You know what it is, it makes you smile, and you want to see again.

AM Also, if you're going to be a good startup, you have to have a really short name. [Laughs] Mother, six letters. Naked is five. Seriously, we've even got Mono beat.

C What made you both decide to leave Fallon?

AM Well, Fallon/N.Y. was feeling less and less like an office of Fallon. The culture was becoming our own-which gave us confidence that this was something we could do.

AB We knew we had a partnership that we could build an agency around, so in our off-time, we would talk about it. But there was something about 2005 that just felt right. For the first time since I can remember, you have big clients actually looking to smaller shops for big ideas that can go across a lot of media, and they're looking to be in touch with the people who are having the ideas. And that's really a sea change.

C So how is Toy structured to take advantage of that shift?

AB Our philosophy is simple: we want to fill the agency with crossbreeds, people who do more than one thing well. Ari is a designer and an art director and writer, and he also has the skills of a planner. I was an account person and a planner, and I consider myself a creative person as well, though no one would ever want me to write an ad-trust me on that. [Laughs] And then we have the Toy Chest, which is a group of "best in breed" people that we can use on the front, middle or back end. We'll have the big idea, and it may be well outside our area of executional expertise, but we'll find a "best in breed" person to execute that for us.

C Does maintaining a small agency culture necessitate having a small staff?

AB I'd love to say right now that I don't ever want to be more than 150 people. But if we end up being 300 people, and we've still maintained a sense of entrepreneurialism and are true to our principles, so be it. But instinctively, we feel like we'll always be boutique-ish.

C Back to the name. Does Toy imply a certain level of playfulness that you'll strive to achieve in your creative?

AM Different toys for different people. Toy isn't about a certain style of work. What's good for one client may not be good for another.

AB Compare the Starbucks "Glen" spot with the Time "Pendulum" board-they're both incredibly engaging and right for each brand. So it's not always going to be funny. It's more about a standard for the level of engagement that it will elicit.

C On the client front, what do you have in the works?

AB We have Oxygen as our agency-of-record client, and we've had three other client assignments that of course we can't talk about yet.

AM We want to build a few clients at a time. Size isn't important to us-we'd rather have a handful of the right clients who want what we do. The way we're structured doesn't allow for layers and politics-just an intense focus on getting it right and enjoying the process.

C Can you talk about the dynamic you two share? What makes the partnership work?

AB Ari's a creative and I'm a strategist, and the kinds of ideas that we believe in are those where you can't tear the strategy and the idea apart. So the way we work together is very seamless. Thirty years ago, I was fortunate enough to meet my husband, which was love at first sight-and I always talk about Ari as kind of professional love at first sight. [Laughs] It's nice to share a vision and a philosophy about this business with somebody.

AM And on top of running the agency, steering clients in the right strategic direction, simplifying just about everything and inspiring everyone around her, Anne has the most challenging job of all: she keeps me focused and sane.

C And finally, what's your favorite toy?

AB Transformers. They're just so cool.

AM I'm a sucker for a pair of nunchucks. But I keep hitting myself in the balls.

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