Wieden's got his Nike. Goodby's got his Milk. But ask Richard Kirshenbaum to display a piece of his best work, and he just might show you his mango.
"I can honestly tell you I'm as proud of this as I would be of a great TV campaign," says the 36-year-old co-founder of New York's Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, as he holds a piece of fruit that looks like any other mango, except for the tiny Snapple label that has been affixed to it. A few years ago, when Snapple, former KB&P mainstay client, was introducing a mango-flavored drink, the agency came up with the idea of putting a Snapple sticker on 13 million mangoes. Not exactly a conventional media buy, but it did what so much of KB&P's work has historically done-generate a big buzz. "I like to show this toyoung people who come here," says Kirshenbaum, holding up the mango. "The point is, you can do something on fruit and get noticed-you don't have to shoot with Tony Kaye."
Kirshenbaum has been advocating such unconventional approaches and "guerrilla" tactics practically ever since he and partner Jonathan Bond opened shop 10 years ago. To get attention in those early years-and K&B got more than its share-they relied not so much on the conventionally well-crafted ad as on little tricks: cleverly staged events (remember Donna Rice for No Excuses jeans?), calculatedly outrageous statements, stickers on bathroom walls and graffiti on the sidewalks. K&B's infamous sidewalk stencil for Bamboo lingerie-"From here, it looks like you could use some new underwear"-remains a prototype of guerrilla advertising.
Now, as KB&P reaches the ripe old age of 10 with a big birthday bash this fall, the agency is still up to some of the same old tricks. This past spring, for its new client Target stores, the agency handed out bagels and subway tokens on the streets of New York. For Citibank, Kirshenbaum mailed out a batch of weird postcards offering greetings from South Dakota (it eventually was made clear to recipients that Citibank has a credit card office there).
Meanwhile, the agency continues to toot its own horn in the slightly overbearing manner that has made KB&P less than loved in some quarters of the ad business. As part of the agency's 10th anniversary hoopla this fall, festivities include a creative retrospective at the Art Directors Club; an industry fund-raiser for AIDS, headed up by Kirshenbaum; Under the Radar, Kirshenbaum and Bond's new book about their ad philosophy, due out in November; and, of course, a massive outdoor party. But they still have a sense of humor about it all: KB&P has also put up a splashy self-promotional billboard in its own downtown New York neighborhood: "Welcome to SoHo! Home of inspiring galleries, charming bistros and shamelessly self-promoting ad agencies like Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners."
But the question remains: Is this any way for a 10 year old (practically geriatric by agency standards) to behave? As a famous ad spokescreature once noted, tricks are for kids; big agencies are supposed to be shooting with Tony Kaye. And when it comes to high-profile TV campaigns, KB&P has been nearly off the radar since the devastating loss of the Snapple account last year. "In the last few years, aside from Snapple, I couldn't tell you what work they've done," says one competing New York creative director. "And once Snapple was gone, it seemed like they kind of disappeared."
Well, they didn't disappear, not by a longshot, and one cannot overlook the success this pair of once brash kids has made of their shop. Unlike many a startup in cutthroat New York, not only did they not fold, they thrived. KB&P has total billings of around $250 million now and has recently opened a pair of West Coast offices. But even the relentlessly upbeat Kirshenbaum acknowledges that the agency fell on some hard, soul-searching times about 18 months ago. The Snapple loss-blamed on the takeover of the soft drink company by uncool Quaker, whose marketing people apparently never jelled with KB&P-was a big part of it, and it's obvious that the agency hasn't forgotten the wound. KB&P executive creative director Bill Oberlander winces when the subject is broached. "Just think about it-we do this great campaign, then we lose the account to FCB, then it comes back to New York but it goes to Deutsch instead of us-and they bring back Wendy in a lifeboat. It's absurd." Kirshenbaum adds: "In London, it's traditional to pay part of the commission for using another agency's idea. I haven't received a check from Deutsch yet." But then, going into his spin mode again, he quickly adds: "But we're over it. I'm happy for Donny. I don't like to look back."
For KB&P, the Snapple loss was about more than just diminished billings, or even hurt feelings over a campaign co-opted by an agency rival. Snapple was the brash New York agency's first shot at a big, highly visible effort, and with the development of the Wendy character, they delivered a solidly conceptual, non-bratty campaign-proving, in the process, that it could do more than cheeky print ads for tiny shoe companies, local restaurants, and condoms. "Snapple didn't rely on controversy as much as their earlier stuff," says Nick Cohen at Mad Dogs & Englishmen, an agency partly owned by KB&P principals. "I think the agency really grew up when it did that campaign." That was true from a physical standpoint as well: "I remember we had just expanded, putting in all these new floors," says Mike McGuire, a senior creative at the agency who was working on Snapple at the time. "There was a real feeling of growth. And then all of a sudden, it was like the carpet was pulled out from us."
But the Snapple loss wasn't the only problem facing the agency at the time. Turnover had already become high, and some of the key creative people who'd helped build the agency-Risa Mickenberg, Amy Nicholson, Andy Spade and others-were leaving. While some defectors, such as Spade, were pursuing entrepreneurial opportunities, others wanted to get away from the chaos and the infamous "sweatshop" environment. One copywriter recalls that when he joined KB&P a couple of years back, he was briefed on an assignment the very morning he arrived. "And that same night, the planner came in and said, 'Let's see the work.' It was that kind of craziness. The youngest people there didn't mind, because they didn't have a life." But more senior people at the agency seemed to grow restless, and the agency seemed all too willing to let them leave as Kirshenbaum continued to bring in a steady stream of young interns and freelancers, who often worked at low salaries. "Eventually, there was a creative black hole," says one former KB&P art director. "It was just Richard and Bill and a bunch of kids."
The agency's creative corps may have been young and inexperienced, but by the mid-'90s, Kirshenbaum and Bond were trying very hard to give a "grown-up" look to their agency's identity. They redesigned their downtown offices to create the effect of a serious corporate place; on the main floor, it's deadly quiet (the rambunctious creatives have been kicked upstairs, away from management) and spacious, with modern art on the walls creating a gallery feel. "The old environment was too in-your-face," explains Oberlander. But one former KB&P creative notes that the new layout "seems like it's putting all the money and the space into presentation, instead of the people."
Mark DiMassimo, who joined the agency in 1993 (he now runs his own shop, DiMassimo Inc.), says that when he arrived, KB&P was "in the midst of an identity crisis. They felt so much that they were limited by the bad-boy image that it seemed like they were trying to become J. Walter Thompson. I think they developed a squeamishness about edginess and controversy-the things that made up their success-but were now keeping them in a box."
Part of that, too, was that the agency's client base was changing-funky shoe companies and restaurants were being replaced by banks and financial companies. Not only did that change the tenor of the work, it prompted KB&P to begin doing lots of things besides ads: Citibank, for example, had heavy direct mail needs and Kirshenbaum himself embraced this. "I became a self-made direct mail specialist," he says. But a number of creatives weren't so thrilled: "The agency just wasn't doing enough good advertising, and it seemed like half the work being done was this direct mail crap," says one defector.
By early 1996, the partners recognized that there was a need to rally the troops. Kirshenbaum approached his agency's problems just as he would a client's: He first turned to account planning. A planner sought out and interviewed former employees, as well as clients they'd pitched and didn't get. The feedback was that the agency was too chaotic, and that people working there were getting burned out.
Kirshenbaum and his new president, Rosemary Ryan, apparently took that to heart. The agency implemented a more humane work policy, with maternity leave and more vacation time, and Kirshenbaum even implemented a "stress-free day" when a masseuse comes to the office. At the same time, he says, the agency made a conscious determination to try to limit the number of new-business pitches: "We're much more selective than we were two years ago," says Kirshenbaum. And the partners looked for ways to keep senior people content by offering them more entrepreneurial opportunities. They named additional partners, and tapped several veteran creatives to run KB&P's two new spinoff operations in San Francisco. The cumulative effect of all this, says Kirshenbaum: "This was a sweatshop, but it's not anymore."
The agency wanted to improve relations with clients as well as employees, so the partners drew up a "contract of expectations"-a document that each new client is asked to sign, which clearly specifies the goals of the client and clarifies such thorny issues as who on the client side has veto power over creative work. Finally, the partners also felt there was a need for a new agency mission statement of "strategic intent." They summed it up in one line: "I can't believe it's advertising." "The idea is that people should look at everything we do-from our advertising to the way we treat employees-and be surprised because we're breaking the mold," says Kirshenbaum.
It's a nice idea, but does the agency live up to it? One former KB&P creative is skeptical: "Every agency should have a mantra, and I think a lot of the creatives there took it to heart. But I think that line about 'can't believe it's advertising' was more true of the agency years ago, with clients like Kenneth Cole, Charivari, Bamboo and Snapple, than it is today."
Still, a number of people, both inside and outside the agency, feel that K&B's creative work is on the upswing right now. The greatest praise is being directed at the Target campaign, which began with teaser spots that had the good old K&B edge: In one spot, a New York street vendor selling goofy toys is told that the nice, pleasant Minnesota retailer is coming to town and responds: "Unless you're gonna buy a weasel, you better get the . . ."-the rest is bleeped. Even better than the TV is the Target print, which creates playful associations between seemingly disparate items available at the store. The reader is left to make the connection, as in an ad that reads: "Bras. Binoculars. Miniblinds."
The agency is also breaking some interesting Rockport work, though it's not as strong, yet, as the work for its previous shoe account, Keds, another casualty of client-management shakeups that hurt in the past year. The Rockport TV spots feature groovy, unorthodox people-e.g., a pastor who likes to skateboard-who are profiled in wordless, quick-cut, grainy commercials that are hard not to watch. Rounding out some of KB&P's more recent work are new executions of its ongoing TV campaign for Blimpie that tells of the passionate love affair between Blimpie chief Tony Conza and his own sandwiches (he romances them in honeymoon suites and on the beach, hugging and squeezing the giant stuffed buns), and some jolting spots for the financial company Neuberger, including one that shows a Neuberger man staying grounded while a couple of other mutual fund managers jump headlong off a cliff.
The work may not win a passel of awards. Interestingly, KB&P has never won many trophies, even with its best work for Kenneth Cole, Snapple and others; "They've always had an unjustified bad rap in the creative community as being just all hype," says Cohen, but the new work has a liveliness to it that seems to hearken back to old K&B, with a layer of mature sophistication. "I feel like we've got some confidence back with the Target campaign," says McGuire, who adds: "There's a lot of good work coming in the next few months. I think you're going to see the same thing happen with us as with Chiat. We're over the slump and we're bouncing back now." DiMassimo concurs: "They've had some problems, but I think the agency's new work shows that they've worked that stuff out. I think they're going to be huge in the next few years."
If so, Kirshenbaum believes that success will derive largely from the things that no one talks about-the agency's "below-the-line" efforts, such as the annual report they do for Blimpie, the "comfort survey" its PR department has created for Rockport and outdoor fashion shows staged on behalf of Target. Kirshenbaum makes no apologies for this work; he believes that advertising's traditional media hierarchy-with TV at the top, followed by print, then radio and on down the ladder till you get to sales promotion and direct mail-no longer makes sense. "Today, people are watching less TV, and direct mail and promotion and PR is all just as important as doing commercials," he says. "I know a lot of creative people don't want to hear that, but it's a reality."
It's hard to argue with the agency's business results: Even if the shop has never fulfilled the early promise of becoming one of advertising's new giants, its growth has been impressive, especially considering the big blow it took from Snapple. Billings have now reached $200 million for the New York office, and another $50 million for the two San Francisco offices (the agency set up two separate offices due to a client conflict on the West Coast between Citibank and Schwab). Then there's also KB&P's more informal relationship with Mad Dogs; the two shops occasionally refer business back and forth. "By having these four offices, we're able to be a micro-Interpublic," says Bond. "We can help each other out in dealing with conflicts and other problems." But Bond insists the agency doesn't want too much help: "We're not going to do something like sell ourselves to Interpublic," he says. "Everyone's always trying to buy us. But Rich and I are still in our 30s. People sell when they want to get out. We still want to get in."
Bond-who, like Kirshenbaum, is a master of upbeat spin-notes that the agency is in some ways much healthier now than when it had Snapple. Instead of having one dominant client, the agency has a half-dozen substantial ones at or reasonably near the $20 million range: Schwab, Schieffelin & Somerset, Rockport, Prudential Healthcare, Dayton Hudson, and Citibank (they lost a small piece of the Citibank account with its recent consolidation, but otherwise takes great pride in being the only holdover agency to survive the recent Y&R blitz). "It took Goodby 10 years to have five or six clients that size," Bond points out.
But it didn't take Goodby or Wieden or Fallon that long to make its mark with a big talked-about campaign. For the present at least, such glory eludes KB&P. "I've gotten over that lust for the big TV campaign," claims Kirshenbaum. "I'm interested in big ideas-but ideas that can be expressed in small ways. If you look at what Goodby's doing, it's still more conventional big-budget TV campaigns. Yes, they're great at it. But that's not necessarily what we want to do." Bond echoes that: "In this business, everyone wants to be Doyle Dane Bernbach," he says. "And that's what Goodby is now, the new DDB. But that's not what we're about. We want to play a whole new game, to reinvent the whole business."