THERE ARE AT LEAST 501 REASONS WHY TRYING TO FILL THE SHOES OF THE LATE MIKE KOEKLER IS A TOUGH TASK, BUT PAUL WOLFE, WHO USED TO BE AN ARCHITECT, HAS INHERITED THE HOUSE THAT KOEKLER BUILT AT FCB/SAN FRANCISCO, AND HE'S LIVING QUITE HAPPILY THESE DAYS IN
PAUL WOLFE DIDN'T HAVE MUCH to complain about in late 1994. Within a year, he'd worked on two much hyped television campaigns for MCI, the surreal "There will be no there, only here" spots for Network MCI featuring actress Anna Paquin, and the quirky Gramercy Press serial. The Gramercy campaign, particularly, was getting a lot of media attention. "Entertainment Tonight" was covering the shoots, while characters like Darlene the receptionist were making appearances on "Good Morning America." At one point, there was even talk of turning it into a real television series.
So it wasn't too surprising that the 47-year-old Wolfe, then a partner at Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer, wasn't returning calls from headhunters. In fact, it wasn't until the following spring that he even bothered to pay attention to a call about a position at FCB/San Francisco, an agency without creative leadership since the departure of the legendary Mike Koelker.
"We were talking, somewhat nonchalantly, and then it clicked: Levi's, San Francisco!" recalls Wolfe, who, describes his former life in Manhattan with his wife and two young sons as "berserk." The rest is your typical Escape From New York tale: After realizing that he "was being exposed to a suffering that people no more valid than myself weren't experiencing"-which is to say that people in San Francisco don't have to put up with half the shit New Yorkers do-Wolfe accepted the offer and promptly rented a house in rural Marin county. Today, instead of butting heads on the IRT, he regularly jogs on a pristine mountain path that he says looks like Nepal. The first time he described his office at FCB-complete with a deck, flower boxes and a killer view of the Bay Bridge-to a friend at Messner, she asked for the name of the resort.
Not that Wolfe has had much time to enjoy the scenery. Since joining as executive creative director a year ago, his life can be described as, well, berserk. Says Wolfe, "It's like a tennis ball machine, where the balls are coming so fast that you start hitting them with your face because you don't have time to get your racket up." In between reorganizing the creative department and replacing his floor's bad motel art with an installation of Albert Watson photographs, Wolfe has spearheaded several new campaigns. Most notable is Levi's "501 Reasons," the brand's biggest effort in 10 years. Already in the works as a single spot-the one shot in Prague where a kid swaps his jeans for a car-when Wolfe arrived, he turned the tag into an umbrella theme for a series of spots that run the visual gamut from, in his words, "the funky to the grandiose."
By contrast, the new Dockers campaign is a collection of improbable situations, all of which at one point lead to the appraisal of Dockers new flat-front khakis as "Nice pants." In one of the spots, for example, a guy thwarted in his attempt to pick up a woman on a subway train has only one consolation; as he runs alongside the moving train, she sexily mouths the tagline. In another spot, a man ventures out onto a ledge of a Manhattan high rise. As cops and the media congregate below (the only thing missing from this authentic looking mayhem is a bunch of guys shouting "Jump! Jump!"), a young TV newswoman gazes up and utters the "nice pants" sentiment as we see that the guy is only trying to retrieve his cat.
Overall, the look of the new Levi's work differs from the more artsy, fashion-driven aesthetic of the late Koelker, who, interestingly enough, was actually a copywriter by trade. While Wolfe, like every other critic, lauds Koelker's "501 Blues" as "a filmic breakthrough," he feels no pressure to follow the visually-driven conceptual trail blazed by his predecessor.
As far as Levi's is concerned, he says, "it needs to be translated to this generation." In the last several years, Levi's had been losing ground in its once stalwart youth market; to bring those consumers back requires treating the brand as more than trendy twentysomething clothing, according to Wolfe. "Today, we're dealing with kids who don't care about James Dean or Bob Dylan or a hunk in a T-shirt," he explains. "In England, you can sell America," he says in a seeming reference to the European work of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, "but here, you can't hype or bullshit kids today; they're too smart. They live in a world they can't trust, where there are no guarantees they'll even get a job. Levi's needs a strong strategic selling idea, even if it's as simple as spelling out all the different reasons for buying 501s in a way that's both solid and cool."
Wolfe's creative recipe, which depends heavily on conveying a sense of big-city intelligence and sophistication, was initially learned at Ammirati & Puris in the '80s, then was further honed at Messner, where he worked on Volvo and MCI. If the connection between cerebral stuff like this and the street-smart attitude associated with Levi's is hard for some to see at first, others were hip to it right away. "Paul was a good choice to take over the stewardship of Levi's because he's already done work of stature with other enduring brands," says former Ammirati partner Marcus Kemp, now creative director a few blocks away at Hal Riney & Partners. "He adds a verbal spine to an account known mostly for being visually inventive. While the Herb Ritts spots that showed guys bouncing balls on the beach were stunning, you could argue whether there was a concept. Levi's needs more than hip people doing hip things."
But not everyone is convinced, even though both FCB general manager Jack Boland and Koelker himself, who was involved in the interviewing process before his death last year, felt that Wolfe's "strategic genuineness" with campaigns like Gramercy Press and Volvo best matched FCB's creative ideal. One San Francisco creative believes that Wolfe simply isn't in the same league as Koelker, who, he says, "was to San Francisco what Lee Clow is to Los Angeles-revolutionary in his creative thinking. Mike's among only a handful of people in this business who've really made a difference."
Echoes director Joe Pytka, who shot a number of Levi's campaigns with Koelker, "Mike was one of those great thinkers, like Hal Riney and Phil Dusenberry." Calling much of the new Levi's work "overproduced, contrived, and a bit music videoish and slick," he adds that "one of Mike's greatest creative gifts was his spontaneity. His ideas always came out of a truth or a pure moment."
Still, Koelker or not, Pytka wants a piece of the Levi's action-David Fincher, for the "Reasons" campaign, and Carlton Chase, for the "Nice Pants" campaign, are among the directorial luminaries on Wolfe's roster so far-and that means doing it Wolfe's way. And the new leader insists he's not intimidated by his predecessor's towering reputation. While Koelker "was famous on the West Coast," Wolfe was on the East Coast "living in the crucible of my own work," as he puts it.
Not surprisingly, puffy-sounding comments like that tend to play up the coastal differences in style and temperament that have clearly separated Wolfe from Koelker in the eyes of FCB employees. Though several current creative staffers in the San Francisco office declined requests to talk about their new boss, Geoff Thompson, Koelker's deputy ECD in San Francisco, who's now executive creative director at FCB/Chicago, says Koelker "ran a real adult kind of society, where everyone had a lot of independence." And copywriter Suzanne Finnamore adds, "There were never any meetings. If Mike happened to walk by when you were working on something, the most he would do would be to make a cryptic remark and move on."
By all accounts, Koelker's hands-off management approach worked fine until poor health forced him off the job in March '95, at which point, Finnamore says, the agency began to flounder. "It was like being aboard the Concorde, and suddenly the pilot steps away for a cigarette," she recalls. According to Finnamore, Wolfe, with his more participatory style, has "brought a certain structure to the agency, which was needed."
Part of what Wolfe prefers to call "a reinvigoration" of the office has involved the usual creative reshuffling. Besides letting go a handful of people, he's brought in several new creatives, including copywriter Chris Lindau from Ammirati, copywriter Brian Bacino from FCB/Chicago and former freelance art director Steve Fong. And in an effort to "eliminate politics," he's also eliminated extraneous titles. "Creative account directors" exist on specific accounts, but there are no group heads at the agency, a structure that Wolfe believes "makes the work static and the people frustrated. The idea here is to maximize flexibility and opportunity for everyone."
More concretely, Wolfe has initiated a design and promotion group, headed by veteran Levi's creative George Chadwick, and an interactive department to design Web sites for Levi's. In addition to structural changes, Wolfe has attempted to update the work of FCB's other clients. Besides Levi's, which makes up nearly a third of the agency's more than $550 million in billings, and the recently departed Clorox, which ranked second with $50 million, many people might be hard-pressed to list any of the remaining clients in the agency roster, which include Armor All products, AT&T Consumer Interactive Services, Boudin Bakers, Coors Brewing, Disney Interactive, Ore-Ida Foods, The Imagination Network, Janus Funds, Pacific Bell Directory, Pillsbury and Teledyne Water Pik.
Of this group, Wolfe has so far initiated work for Disney and Janus Funds, and while a new campaign for CD-ROM games produced by the studio is tagged with the unwieldy, "The magic of Disney begins with a mouse," spots for Janus Funds, aimed at prospective Gen-X investors, are uncharacteristically hip for the category; type-driven and cooly minimalist, one commercial shows a panting dog chasing its tail as a deadpan voiceover says, "Investment advice. Everybody wants the inside scoop. But chasing every tip will drive you crazy and it won't make you rich."
Trained as an architect, Wolfe likes to repeat the mantra on his bio, which reads that he "traded drawing lines for writing them." Prior to attending the Pratt Institute of Architecture in 1978, the Queens native designed and built a house for his mother, a project that he pursued after graduating from New York University with an English/Political Science degree in 1969.
Back then, Wolfe was living a more organic existence in upstate New York, writing poetry and folk songs and supporting himself with carpentry work. But when hippies went out of fashion-and his mother bribed him with a tuition check-Wolfe moved back to the city; after graduating from Pratt, he lasted just five years in architecture, long enough to see that it was more technical than creative, and to hang out with friends who were having more fun, and making more money, working in advertising.
His own move, he says, "was rather effortless." Not long after some friends helped him put together a spec book, Wolfe landed a job at Cunningham & Walsh in 1983, an agency specializing in work for Procter & Gamble. Wolfe hung in there for nine months, and after beefing up his book with more spec work he was hired at Ammirati in 1984. Besides BMW, for which he wrote "The ultimate tanning machine" line for the introduction of a convertible, Wolfe also worked on the Clio-and Addy-winning Life print campaign.
As he moves into this next phase of his career, there are quite a few challenges ahead, not the least of which is the pressure of replacing a legend and the accompanying scrutiny that will be paid to the work, particularly Levi's-an area where, so far, Wolfe seems to be holding his own. There's also the fact that this is his first experience running a creative department, which should prove to be interesting; while noting that he's always been well-regarded as a talent, several former Messner colleagues of Wolfe's described him as political, ambitious and not particularly popular. On the other hand, while Messner's Ron Berger agrees that there are those at his agency who felt Wolfe didn't have good people skills, he adds, "At the end of the day, what matters is whether your people feel they've been treated fairly."
Regardless of how he's being received by his staff, Wolfe has clearly set for himself as he enters his second year a set of ambitious priorities: to add more talent, particularly young creatives out of schools like Art Center, and, of course, to bring in some major new business that complements "one of the primary accounts on the planet" or what he even more grandly describes as "the essence of America-like Geraldo and baseball."
And what might be the perfect complement to Levi's? "Apple," he says without hesitation. Levi's, Apple, Geraldo and baseball. You can't get more American