MECCA WEST: TO SOME NEW YORKERS IT'S THE FRISCO SKIDS, BUT TO MANY CREATIVES SAN FRANCISCO IS NOTHING LESS THAN GLAD AVE.
San Francisco as ad mecca. It's a hot topic among creatives in the city these days. Panels within the local ad club regularly ponder the proliferation of agencies in the Bay Area, and it often comes up in casual bar conversation (usually at Grumpy's), says Steve Stone, co-owner of the year-old Black Rocket. Stone and partner Bob Kerstetter were so struck by the phenomenon that the pair wrote a column advising their peers in a recent issue of CMYK magazine.
Their advice, though not necessarily in this order: "Return every single phone call. You never know." And of course, "You'll be tempted to do ads for anyone: the local pizza joint, your favorite salsa, the Masturbation Society. Don't. It's too easy." In summation: "The first year is a blast. The first year is hell."
Maybe it's hell, but in San Francisco, at least, it's an eminently livable one. To creatives, the city has three major draws: physical beauty, a liberal social climate and an unbridled entrepreneurial spirit. Like Portland and Seattle, it's the kind of place where creatives concentrate less on gathering at bars to drink and play pool and more on taking up an outdoor sport like kayaking or mountain biking. Maybe that explains why, in the past couple of years, San Francisco has seen more startups than just about anywhere else. Since Butler Shine & Stern opened in '93, the city has seen Odiorne Wilde Narraway Groome, Ingalls Moranville, Black Rocket, Blazing Paradigm, Witt Rylander and Leagas Delaney open their respective doors.
Indeed, San Francisco seems to be in a class by itself when compared to other West Coast ad centers. Portland, for what it's worth, is still seen as a one-agency town (with all due respect to Cole & Weber and Borders Perrin & Norrander), much like Richmond, while Seattle has yet to emerge as more than a regional center. Los Angeles, meanwhile, is, well, L.A.-lots of car accounts, peppered with the occasional super-cool campaign from a handful of creative outposts.
As far as New York is concerned, the contrasts are obvious. Mike Shine, partner at Butler Shine & Stern (across the bay in Sausalito), points out that "20 minutes outside of San Francisco you're sitting in a redwood forest; 20 minutes outside of Manhattan you're sitting in a parking lot at La Guardia." Most importantly, and this comes up a lot, the city has as much culture as New York and it's cleaner-the city, not the culture.
"Much of San Francisco's appeal is that its creative energy is focused in both the arts and in business," says Sam Pond, creative director at the 10-month-old Blazing Paradigm. It's so focused, in fact, that the area's professionals are increasingly competing for the same cool office space, according to Pond. It took him and partner Ron Walter nearly 10 months to find their Bay Bridge-adjacent office because Pond claims so many multimedia and Internet startups were grabbing all the desirable spaces.
"The city has always been open to different kinds of people, whether they're entrepreneurs or wacky inventors," notes Pond's former boss, Jeff Goodby. "It's all kind of tied to the Gold Rush mentality here."
And the city's history, much like its omnipresent fog, always hovers close to creatives' hearts, according to Rod Kilpatrick, freelance writer and former creative director at BBDO's San Francisco office. "Part of San Francisco's advertising entrepreneurism has to do with the city itself," says Kilpatrick. "The fact that it's this bastion of liberalism, a place that has always encouraged creativity in every endeavor, whether music or literature. New ideas have always streamed from this city."
And since the 1980s, many of those ideas have arguably come from the world of advertising. Most agencies flourishing in San Francisco today have Howard Gossage and Hal Riney to thank. The venerable Gossage was a copywriter by trade and a partner in the agency Freeman Mander & Gossage. He was also a well-documented industry cynic lauded by Jeff Goodby in The Book of Gossage as someone who "struggled to make advertising something that involved people at the upper levels of their capabilities, and searched for the audiences' highest common denominator rather than its lowest." In raising the consciousness of the San Francisco ad community, Gossage was known for his erudite long-copy work for Irish Distillers International, the Rover Motor Co. and Scientific American.
As his more down-home successor, Riney made the rounds of several San Francisco agencies, including Ogilvy & Mather. At O&M in the early '80s Riney was creative director and boss to Goodby, Rich Silverstein, Andy Berlin, Ken Mandelbaum and Kirk Citron. Berlin, CD at New York's Fallon McElligott Berlin, recalls that in those days the O&M office, which Riney later acquired, was like the "Bell Labs of advertising"; a place where Riney not only initiated his own trademark ethos, but one where he would also regularly call weekend meetings, chain smoke Marlboros and curse the business in not very warm and fuzzy tones: "Why can't we fucking do something fucking great?"
He did, of course. Riney's pair of Bartles & Jaymes geezers, along with Mike Koelker's increasingly innovative Levi's work and the dancing raisins for the California Raisin Board at Foote Cone & Belding helped cement San Francisco's presence on the map. After Riney purchased the local O&M office in 1985-two years after Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein spun off their own shop along with that memorable spot for the Mill Valley Film Festival-things just seemed to mushroom.
Making a rather celestial analogy, Kilpatrick notes that "gravity operates in the advertising industry just like in the physical world. Just as stars and galaxies form when matter starts to congeal, the same happens with creative communities. When a place becomes noted for its work, it increases the competitive level among others already in the market and it attracts others to the market. Talented people want to work at the best agencies. Everyone wants to be a part of the action. It's the opposite of a vicious cycle; it's a happy cycle."
Again, this is a happy cycle that many believe began in the early 1980s when, as Pond notes, "Hal Riney became the first to thumb his nose at New York and make a stand." In making that stand, Riney was the magnet for several of his peers back East-people like Citron and former agency partner Jeff Atlas, both of whom had been creatives at O&M/New York, and Mandelbaum, who'd been recruited from Ally & Gargano. More recent New York refugees include Joe O'Neill, who came from Ammirati & Puris. Initially, at least, cash was the big carrot. "Hal was willing to pay New York salaries," says Kirk Citron, president at Citron Haligman Bedecarre, which recently celebrated its seventh anniversary. "This was a big draw for many creatives, for whom San Francisco was then this unknown hinterland. But once you're here, you think, If I can make a nice living in both in both New York and San Francisco, where would I choose to live? There's really not much of a choice."
What happened next is not unlike what happened with Minneapolis in the early '80s. Just as Fallon's success spread to local competitors like Carmichael Lynch and Martin/Williams, other agencies besides what was then known as Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein began to gain visibility in San Francisco, among them CHB (then Atlas Citron Haligman & Bedecarre), the now defunct Mandelbaum Mooney Ashley and Goldberg Moser O'Neill, which started as Chiat/Day's San Francisco outpost.
But one of the major differences between San Francisco and Minneapolis, and even, say, Seattle, where noted expat creatives Tracy Wong and Rob Bagot reside, is San Francisco's proximity to a burgeoning Silicon Valley. Unlike San Francisco and Portland, Seattle has not broken out as a national creative presence; its biggest, and certainly hippest cash cow, Microsoft, is at Wieden with the hippest of all, Nike. The rest of its potentially lucrative business lies with largely sleepy clients like Boeing, while San Francisco sits right down the block from all those Internet entrepreneurs.
As a result, many agencies in town handle some high-tech business, clients not only more adventurous in their advertising but also potentially more lucrative in their long-term billings. For example, Black Rocket handles Yahoo; Blazing Paradigm has Mindscape and PointCast; Odiorne Wilde Narroway Groome has Electronic Arts; Ingalls Moranville, the former interim agency for Sun Microsystems, took over Sega from Goodby (an account that has since left); and Young & Rubicam now handles both Novell and Logitech, the company made famous by the peeing baby ad created by its former agency, Woolward & Partners. The city also has its share of large, if not necessarily sleepy clients, including Levi's (FCB), Saturn (Riney) and Pacific Bell (Goodby and FCB).
But the Masturbation Society notwithstanding, the increasing pool of hip clients doesn't hurt San Francisco's creative image. Of course, neither does its weather, particularly if an agency is trying to woo a client from back East in the middle of February. "The truth is, there are worse places for client meetings," notes Stone. "Because after the meetings, clients can take a few extra days and visit the wine country."
And, it seems, there are worse places for creatives working at regional offices of monolithic agencies. Christopher Dean, CD at Y&R, and Mike Mazza, who was a co-CD at Saatchi until last month, when he left for Riney, claimed a certain amount of autonomy from Big Brother back East. According to Dean, established cultures may not be so quick to change, but breathing the same air as Goodby lends itself to a certain creative invigoration not possible in, say, Chicago.
Not that creatives want to present an image "that portrays us as this big happy commune," says Jeff Odiorne, partner at the three-year-old OWNG, "because we're competitive. We're also diverse and successful, and that's what makes clients want to come to San Francisco." But it's not quite that simple. The truth is that despite being a high-tech hotbed, there's not enough business in the San Francisco area to sustain the number of agencies that have been established. Clients need to be imported from other parts of the country.
And as Goodby points out, those clients probably won't have multimillion dollar budgets, at least to start. "I constantly tell people in the agency that we're not going to get the No. 1 clients. If you're on the West Coast, chances are you'll be working for No. 2, 3 or even 17 in the market. Of course, that's what makes people work harder to have their advertising noticed."
Despite his own allegiance to the city, Goodby doesn't believe that San Francisco is in any danger of overtaking Madison Avenue and he feels that to call the city some great mecca is an overstatement. "There are many people in New York who still consider San Francisco a hinterland," he says, "and probably take its advertising presence a lot less seriously than we'd like to think."
And he need not look any further than his own agency. Art director Amy Nicholson would go back to New York in a nanosecond if she could also take along her clients and colleagues. Nicholson, who moved from Minneapolis and Fallon McElligott a year ago, is biding her time on Hewlett-Packard until she lands a juicier Nike assignment. Besides having creative opportunities not otherwise available in New York, the former Kirshenbaum & Bond creative says the upside of San Francisco is that "it's a lot less scratch and claw." Her peers and clients are "more sane and balanced," and so is she; moreover, no one at Goodby is expected to work until midnight, which leaves her time to take photography and step classes.
So what's the problem? "There's not the same kind of energy," says the Baltimore native, echoing a complaint that many transplanted New Yorkers voice on the West Coast, "and people don't have the same kind of weird edges. I was only going to be at Fallon for a year and then I was going back to New York," explains Nicholson, who considers Minneapolis "the wilderness. When I told my friends that I was moving to San Francisco, they were like, 'Are you crazy?' and I'm beginning to wonder," she adds. "There are no psychos here and everyone's really mellow-and clean. Even the bums look like they wear makeup. Look, I know a lot of former hard core New Yorkers who live in Marin, go snowboarding on the weekends and don't care if they ever see another subway. I'd trade it all in tomorrow."
Nicholson may be in the minority, but she's certainly not alone. Having worked in San Francisco for 17 years, Berlin says that he understands the city's appeal, though he personally doesn't miss it. He also points out that besides being advertising's epicenter, the trend toward what he sees as a more innovative and "revisionist" New York ad scene might lure young talent like Nicholson away from the West Coast-though not everyone agrees.
Kevin Roddy, a writer at Cliff Freeman, moved to Frisco a few years ago when his wife got a job as a producer at Riney. Initially, Roddy, who landed at OWNG, wasn't interested when a headhunter contacted him and his partner about a job at Freeman, but he was ultimately lured by the chance to work on bigger-budget clients like Cherry Coke.
However, he says, "In San Francisco, you look at agencies like Odiorne, Black Rocket and Butler Shine and think, Wow, these guys show real promise to be great agencies, and you really want to keep your eye on them. You just don't do that in New York." He also notes that even agencies like Kirshenbaum and Deutsch have been creative disappointments lately.
But more than the work, the real draw for Roddy was his life outside the office. For example, as an avid runner, he had his pick of a half dozen mountain routes in San Francisco; now, from his home in Brooklyn Heights, he has to take a subway just to jog in Central Park. Roddy says he'd move back if the circumstances were right, like if his boss opened a West Coast office. "Then," he says, "I'd have the best of both worlds."
Whether or not the promise shown by the city's startups means that any or all of them will become as successful as Riney or Goodby doesn't seem to matter. What does matter is that the majority of creatives in San Francisco do believe they have the best of both worlds. And as Odiorne says, "It's not like we have any