Gerry Graf and Maxi Itzkoff open creativity-led business accelerator Slap Global
2019 was a year of goodbyes for creative veterans Gerry Graf and Maxi Itzkoff: Graf closed, and even held a funeral for, his 10-year-old agency, Barton F. Graf, while Itzkoff said farewell to his post as partner and chief creative officer at WPP-owned Santo.
Now, in a year largely defined by struggles and closures in the face of COVID, the two have teamed up to open independent creative startup Slap Global, based in Buenos Aires, New York and Madrid. They describe it a business accelerator fueled by creativity—a hybrid of communications, consulting, data and design focused on solving clients’ problems from the ground-up.
Graf and Itzkoff met more than a decade ago at a Saatchi global creative council meeting. Graf had been CCO of the network’s New York office, after serving in the same post at TBWA\Chiat\Day, where he led category-redefining work for Skittles. Itzkoff had been executive creative director at Del Campo Nazca Saatchi Saatchi, known for its outlandish ideas like a BGH campaign that tried to sell air conditioners with dads wearing briefs, or the Cannes Lions Grand Prix-winning effort for Andes Beer that helped bar-goers convince their significant others that they weren’t at the pub.
Their similar sensibilities drew them together—both have a no-bullshit approach and penchant for ideas that “people tend to notice,” as Graf describes them. Barton F. Graf had been home to attention-grabbing work for Supercell, Little Caesars, Snyder’s Lance, Emerald Nuts, Tom Cat and Ragu, among others. At Santo, Itzkoff led ideas for Coca-Cola and Sprite, including campaigns like “Facing Hater,” which put an online bully in a room full of those he trolled, and “You Are Not Alone,” which featured a Reddit platform through which lonely teens could seek counsel from those who have experienced situations similar to their own.
Over the years, they had tried, but failed, to team up. Graf, for example, wanted Itzkoff to join his agency, but life circumstances kept getting in the way. Once Itzkoff saw that Graf was closing Barton, however, the conversations started again. And had it not been for the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, the new company may not have happened.
During the past several months, both had come into projects that would have benefited from the other’s expertise. Itzkoff had joined up with new partners from outside of advertising and was in the process of building technology and education startup Oxygen Advanced Sports Education, while Graf had been in discussions with Fox Sports on a potential job. The pair ended up collaborating alongside other talents in Spain, and, working together on Zoom from three different continents, the team found a groove and decided they could build something new.
Born from the pandemic
“We’ve all had to learn how to create during COVID,” Graf says. “It doesn’t make a difference if you’re in New York City or Madrid. All of a sudden you can go find talent anywhere on the planet, not just in your region. There’s no excuse to be anything but diverse anymore.”
The two are keen to avoid calling their company an agency. “There’s talk in this industry about clients paying less and less,” says Itzkoff. “But the truth is, agencies are helping less and less. It’s about going back to the core of our business, which is to make another business grow.”
The name of the company speaks directly to its role, Itzkoff adds: “It’s about slapping the industry, slapping ourselves, our clients. We’re the wake-up call. Let’s wake up and do things differently, have those conversations that aren’t so comfortable.”
The goal, they say, is to introduce creative solutions early on, starting at the roots of clients’ business problems. Whether that ultimately leads to a campaign, a product, experience, content, even a business restructuring, will depend on the company’s needs.
"If you’re just looking for an ad campaign, anybody can do that and it’s not gonna be that effective," Graf says. "We want to start with the business problems so we’re not wasting anybody’s time."
“What we are talking about is not exactly new,” Graf adds. “It goes back to when I used to work under [TBWA chief] Lee Clow and he would tell me that everything is a piece of communication—an ad, packaging, how you run the parking lot at the company plant, the people you hire, the products you create. He yelled at me because we were running Nextel and we were supposed to write their HR manual. I said, ‘Why this?’ and he couldn’t believe I didn’t know why that was important.”
As for compensation, that will depend on the job. “There’s a lot of different ways to get paid for what you do,” Graf says. “My entire 10 years at Barton I was trying to figure out IP. These days, if everything’s mostly project-based, maybe now’s the time to start looking at those types of ideas in an IP way, so you’re more than happy to hand it off and let anybody work on it—you’ll still get paid the value of creating it. Imagine if I had IP on the Skittles world created in 2003.”
“Some clients will still want advertising, will still want to pay a fee, make us pitch, but we want to avoid that,” Itzkoff says.
The two founders will oversee creative across the three offices. Itzkoff will be based in Buenos Aires while Graf will lead day-to-day on the company’s U.S. arm in New York, which will be called Knickerbocker Slap Global due to local copyright restrictions. Graf chose the name “Knickerbocker” for its storied place in New York history. Today, it’s perhaps best known as the name of the city’s National Basketball Association team the Knicks, but before that, it was the moniker Washington Irving assigned to the fictional Dutch historian central to his satirical first novel, “A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker.” His character was the key figure in a publicity stunt Irving conceived to drum up talk about the book, leading to its instant success. “My favorite ideas all have something going on on another level,” Graf says.
The company has five other partners in the various markets: in Spain, Chief Strategy Officer Adrián Mediavilla and Chief Creative Officer Rafael Santamarina, both formerly of Grey; in Buenos Aires, Chief Strategy Officer Romina Celoné, Chief Creative Officer Ignacio Etchanique and Managing Director Ana Bogni, all Santo alumni.
The agency has already worked on projects for Uber, Ballantine's and Fox Sports, and has been developing Itzkoff’s tech education startup Oxygen. Launching in 2021, the online university will be home to celebrity content from the world of traditional sports and e-sports.
Long used to running their own show, both will now have creative partners to answer to once again. Graf says this is a good thing and recounts a bit of “Star Wars” lore, when director George Lucas had screened the first film for trusted friends including Steven Spielberg and Brian DePalma. “When everyone listens to you and says ‘yes’ to you, you get ‘The Phantom Menace.’ If you have Spielberg and DePalma telling you your movie sucks, you get 'Star Wars.'”