For the past three years, Guy Barnett and Callum MacGregor have been coasting under the radar as the mysteriously monikered The Brooklyn Brothers. The former Ogilvy & Mather/N.Y. and JWT/N.Y. creative teammates are not really brothers, nor do they hail from Brooklyn (writer Barnett is a Brit and art director MacGregor a Scotsman). Moreover, their offices are actually in Manhattan's meatpacking district. "It's the name least likely for us," admits the soft-spoken Barnett, 37, but "we like the idea of being a collective and the blue collar aspect-we like to think of ourselves as honest artisans of advertising and we treat the work very seriously, although we don't treat ourselves very seriously." Most important, "We like to think of ourselves as the anti-Deutsch," he deadpans. "We wanted something you build a brand behind, develop a character for. We don't want to be personality-based, we want to be brand-based."
Tending to dress in various shades of black and today their voices barely registering above a mutter (which might be attributable to the fact that the pair only just crawled in from MacGregor's bachelor party), personality-wise the duo seems about as far from Donny as you can get. But in the last year, brand Brooklyn Brothers has steadily become a more prominent spot on the creative map, with curiously smart and fun work for a handful of respectable clients.
Through Hungry Man, the pair co-conceived with director and former Ogilvy colleague Brendan Gibbons a refreshingly irreverent campaign for CNN.com, featuring anchors like Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper at the hilarious beck and call of web surfers. It's also hard not to notice their snarky billboards and posters for the History Channel, which spin their subjects away from the typical textbook tone. Among some of the best is a huge billboard for the channel's Barbarians program, simply stating "The Barbarians are coming" and riddled with 1400 real spears, and posters for Alexander the Great, which bring the mighty Macedonian into a modern day mindset with ironic lines like "They didn't call him Alexander the Dumbass." (See the brooklynbrothers.com.)
Beyond their media clients, the pair recently created a moving pair of pro bono spots for the United Nations, including one directed by Kevin Thomas that disturbingly brings home the dangers of land mines. They also lifted the overwhelmingly dreadful diet advertising category off its bloated rump via a delicious pair of Xenadrine spots directed by Believe Media's Anders Hallberg that play off the concept of an "X-rated" body. One features the office closet sexcapades of a newly skinny vixen and a shirtless Adonis, while fellow cube dwellers listen outside with bemusement; the second shows a teenage boy sitting in his friend's kitchen ogling a babe who turns out to be his pal's mom. While the scenarios themselves are titillating, the oddly high production values also make the spots even more pleasurable to watch. "We had a strategic planning partner do a lot of focus groups and find out what people thought about dieting in general, how it's changed in the last ten years and used that analysis and insight to create the advertising," 43-year-old MacGregor explains. "In our research we found that production values absolutely registered with people on a subliminal level." Adds Barnett, "Nobody believed diet ads because they looked cheap so the promise came out to be kind of cheap."
The partners' ad hoc approach to creative clearly doesn't turn its nose up to focus groups, which happened to be a godsend in this case. "It's to create the advertising, not to kill it," MacGregor notes. "There's a great Ogilvy quote-people 'are coming to rely too much on research, and they use it as a drunkard uses a lamp post for support, rather than for illumination.'" On History Channel, however, the process is more freeform. "They're a TV company and they tend to promote a lot of programming," Barnetts notes. "So we don't get into a lot of analysis or strategic thinking, we go straight and create a whole range of ideas." Overall, regarding what truly makes them tick, and what might explain why their work is so undeniably fun, the self-proclaimed advertising historians provide another ad guru axiom. "Howard Gossage is probably our greatest inspiration," Barnett says. "Bernbach was a great guy, but we much prefer Gossage's approach. A quote of his that we like is 'People don't read advertising. They read what interests them. Sometimes, it's an ad.' It's really based on that principle that we do our work."
The Brooklyn Brothers make their home in a modest Chelsea Market studio that they've dubbed "The Refrigerator," a bright, white-washed affair that's just enough to house the brothers, a pair of freelancers, and a handful of guests. Keeping overhead to a minimum, the pair will team with creative "partners" for research, design and production, depending on what the job requires. It's quite a ways from the partners' former lives at Ogilvy and JWT, where together they traversed a lot of blue chip territory in both both direct marketing and traditional advertising. The two helped to conceive the iconic e-business logo for IBM and also created campaigns for American Express, Merril Lynch and AIG. In 2001, they pulled out from under the big agency bigtop and formed the brotherhood, which initially "was kind of a money laundering freelance operation," Barnett quips. The duo continued to do for hire projects for large shops, but also started to leverage their all-terrain expertise to kudos-garnered work for smaller independent jobs. Last year D&AD recognized the unique movie script-inspired collateral they designed for film production company Dirty Rice, and their hilarious movie trailer for Jerry Seinfeld's Comedian earned a Silver Lion at Cannes. Featuring a bombastic voiceover artist who can't divorce himself from the cliches, it was just one component of the Bridgnorth Films promo campaign that they created with another Ogilvy cohort-turned-director, Christian Charles.
"Part of the point of setting this up was there are enough layers on the client side that we don't want to replicate them on the agency side," says Barnett. "We do the work and we get it to the client. We can deal with their layers, but we didn't want to create our own." Not that that that's anything special, they say, recognizing they're not alone in the slew of nimble boutiques that have been cropping up lately. "Every seven years or so, a whole roster of startups will announce their presence in the marketplace, and then they'll become medium sized companies and then they'll be bought by WPP and then it starts again," observes Barnett. "We don't distinguish ourselves other than by the work that we do."
As Barnett and MacGregor continue to carve out the Brooklyn Brothers brand, they're considering a small expansion of the brotherhood, currently wooing other self-sufficient creatives who can juggle both the ideas and client relations. In regards to new accounts, the two try to keep things as easy as possible. Although they're dying to get a small chunk of business from a car client-who isn't?-"We don't like to pitch business," Barnett admits. "Our profile will only suit certain clients, we do certain types of work and have a certain type of approach. Everything comes through personal contacts. When it comes through friends or business associates, we don't have to explain everything and it's easier for the client to see if we're in tune with them or not."
And whether or not this venture eventually will lead to a holding company buyout is irrelevant, in the minds of the brethren. "We like to think of ourselves as a rudderless ship," Barnett offers. "The ocean takes us wherever it goes. We'll pick up people if they come aboard, but we have no real plans to become massive, to be bought or any of those things. We do this because we want to sit down, write great ads and do billboards with arrows sticking out of them. We want to do work that registers with people, maybe make a fair amount of money and become internationally famous," he laughs.