Creative Exodus in Adland: It's Just Not 'Fun' Anymore

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Gerry Graf
Gerry Graf Credit: Katja Heinemann

Late one night about three weeks ago, Gerry Graf had a bit of a freak-out.

The highly respected and much-awarded creative director had left a fat-salaried, high-profile job at a very large ad agency for the vagaries of the start-up life and he was, understandably, feeling edgy. The next day he phoned up David Droga, who had taken a similar risk four years ago, and went over to Droga5's New York office on Lafayette Street, which now hosts 120 people serving a client list that includes Puma, Unilever and Microsoft. Mr. Droga's advice for Mr. Graf went something like this: Not all the stars will line up at once, you don't need a wacky point of view, get yourself a strong business partner and don't pitch unless you get paid.

In other words, as Mr. Droga put it to me in an interview recalling the meeting, "You're nobody's bitch."

That might as well be the ad business' motto in 2010. Since the beginning of the year, a veritable Cannes jury worth of senior creative talent has shrugged off the leashes of big agency networks for their own start-ups or for creative pursuits outside the ad industry. A month before Mr. Graf's news broke, Ty Montague and co-CEO Rosemarie Ryan announced their departure from JWT's North American office and later started a collaborative brand studio dubbed Co. In July, Alex Bogusky told the world he was leaving MDC Partners to do ... whatever it is he's doing. Meanwhile, Eric Hirshberg ended a highly successful run at Deutsch, L.A., to go into the video-game industry. And just this month, Eric Silver left DDB, New York, to buy a majority stake in a small agency.

Longtime agency watchers will say this kind of churn has always been part of agency life, but to dismiss the trend as part of some cycle is ignoring some key questions that agencies need to answer. After all, the pressure on these companies' business model is intense. While the economic gloom might be lifting, for most it still lingers and, besides that, agencies are getting hit from all sides: Cost-cutting, conservative clients; procurement officers; more competition from small and midsize shops; newfangled concepts such as crowdsourcing agencies; and a business model still very reliant on the production of ads, not ideas.

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