For Those Who Think Young & Rubicam

By Published on .

In a surprise move, Michael Patti, a veteran of the mean streets of the Bronx and 19 years with the BBDO creative department, is taking his boxes of awards and his Rolodex of celebrity numbers from Sixth over to Madison Avenue ("I love that it's actually on Madison Avenue," he says) and the New York headquarters of storied Young & Rubicam. He comes as chairman/CEO of the agency. Oh, and he's global creative director, too.

It's a bold but much needed move by Y&R's worldwide chairman and CEO Mike Dolan. Although the once troubled agency has stemmed its client defections, it has yet to start winning significant new accounts. The creative department, although capable of gems like its TV work for Computer Associates, does not hit the highest notes consistently enough. With Texan Jim Ferguson moving to a North America CD role, enter Patti bearing a resume that features a long association with Pepsi, from Ray Charles and Michael Jackson, through the wonderful "My Cheatin' Heart" Coke truck driver spot, and on to Madonna and Britney Spears. Along the way there was also Diet Pepsi with Michael J. Fox, and the post-9/11 "New York Miracle" campaign starring Woody Allen, Robert De Niro and Henry Kissinger. There was HBO's "Talking Chimp," which went on to win the first advertising Emmy, and many others - right up to Patti's swan song at BBDO, the huge new GE corporate campaign.

Patti is also known for his long association with Joe Pytka, which has moved beyond commercials to the Beatles "Free as a Bird" video in 1997, and 2000's Yoko Ono/VH1 Starting Over tribute to John Lennon. So, friends with the irascible Pytka and a successful survivor of the notorious snake pit that is the 200-strong BBDO/New York creative department? A man known for a fisticuffs incident with a colleague, and once taking a baseball bat to his department's rejected creative work. Are you as, um, abrasive as people say, Mr. Patti?

"I'm not the easiest guy," he answers bluntly. "I don't mind if you say I don't suffer fools. I don't want to come off as abrasive, but I'd kill to sell a great commercial. Ideas are really fragile, and the really good ones should get produced. I will fight for the people who work for me. I have a deep-rooted belief that to do something well you have to have a passion for it, and really fight hard for it.

"BBDO's creative philosophy under Phil Dusenberry was: get the best work out of the most people," he continues. "That leads naturally to a competition between teams competing to do the best work. It may not have been the warmest, most human environment, but it was certainly stimulating." He then laughs: "Pytka, when I told him I was going to Y&R, said, 'I want you to remember one thing: these people are gentlemen. Treat them accordingly.' That, coming from Joe Pytka, was really something."

Y&R could do with some of this attitude. But Patti says he was attracted to Dolan because he wasn't too pushy or obvious about his needs. They discussed their beloved Yankees, and Dolan told Patti what he was really looking for was to "have fun in advertising." That radical thought from a WPP employee elicited a warm response from Patti, who claims to be excited by a client list full of "great opportunities" that includes Sony - "They should have advertising as famous as Nike's" - Cadbury Schweppes, Jaguar, Land Rover, Lincoln Mercury Navigator and the aforementioned Computer Associates.

But he knows that, as at BBDO, you have to choose your targets. For every Visa and Pepsi there is a Gillette and Pizza Hut. He also believes in the BBDO philosophy of making commercials look as absolutely good as possible, and, yes, he admits that he is either one of the world's worst offenders or biggest proponents of celebrity endorsements. "I've always tried not to have the celebrity overwhelm the idea," he says in his defense. "The Michael J. Fox stuff worked so well. Britney Spears was so right at that time; her fame and Pepsi's work met at the same apogee. But Michael Jackson's refusal to really engage with the product in his ads made them flat. That was a failure. I'm not an advocate of just throwing in a celebrity for its own sake. But you can't ever bore a consumer into buying your product. I believe in entertainment as the way to communicate."

Despite all the job titles, Dolan has said he doesn't want Patti bogged down in bureaucracy. His main role is the New York ECD job: "The way New York goes for Y&R is the way the world is going to go," says Patti, who claims he will be bringing a "revolution" with him. The global job he plans to approach largely as "a mentor." He won't be on planes, but he will be hands-on in New York and will continue to write "to keep sharp. I'm going in one eye blind, one eye open," he adds. "Most of the people there I don't know. But part of what will make this work is that I'm really going in without any prejudices."

Most Popular
In this article: