The rise of Berlin

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In reebok's latest ad campaign, superstar athletes and lesser-known individuals push the boundaries of their sports-a sumo wrestler attempts a gymnastic vault, a wheelchair-bound baseball player races to second base, and a woman makes a slam dunk. "Defy convention" is Reebok's tagline to describe the feats.

It's also a good tagline for how the creators of the campaign, Berlin Cameron & Partners, New York, approach their own business.

Since the shop was established in 1997, its founders, Andy Berlin, 51, and Ewen Cameron, 36, have conscientiously steered away from some of the industry's most popular business trends.

"Wherever there is a mega-trend, there will be an opportunity in the opposite direction," Mr. Berlin said. So the agency skipped much of the dot-com surge and zeroed in on big blue-chip clients. When other agencies trumpeted the growth of integrated marketing services, Berlin Cameron stuck to creating ad strategies and, primarily, TV campaigns. And as agencies of all sizes merged and consolidated, Berlin Cameron kept its independent status.

If agency growth is the measure, Berlin Cameron's unorthodox strategy has proven successful so far. According to Mr. Berlin, client billings amounted to about $5 million in the first year, and near $100 million in the second year. By 2000 he estimated clients on his roster spent about $750 million in media with their media buying shops (for example, Coca-Cola Co. through Interpublic Group of Cos.' Universal McCann, Reebok through Grey Global Group's MediaCom). However, Berlin Cameron does not buy media and therefore does not derive any of its revenue from its clients' media spending.

"Our revenue to billings ratio looks crazy, but we're happy with it. It's a different way of doing business," Mr. Berlin said.

The agency's gross income in 1999, according to Mr. Berlin, was $12 million, and $20 million in 2000. That puts Berlin Cameron far below most midsize agencies such as Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners (which, according to Advertising Age's figures, had gross income of $37.2 million in 1999) and Cliff Freeman & Partners (which had '99 gross income of $37.5 million) but in the peer group of MarchFirst's McKinney & Silver ('99 gross income of $22 million) and MDC Communications Corp.'s Crispin Porter Bogusky ('99 gross income of $18.6 million). As the agency grew in income, it added people. From an initial staff of 12, it now counts 80 employees, and among them, 10 partners. The next stage of expansion: an office abroad.

But with the advertising business as fragile as it is, the founders do not think the agency has quite reached "adult" status. "Pre-teen" is how Mr. Berlin categorizes it.

"I'm always on the cautious side," Mr. Cameron said. "But there is a critical mass point where you do believe you will survive."

The admen know a thing or two about fragility in an agency's early years: Their DDB Needham-backed agency Berlin Cameron Doyle, New York, closed within 16 months after it lost the Volkswagen of America account in 1994. Immediately afterwards they launched the first New York office of Fallon McElligott, called Fallon McElligott Berlin. Messrs. Berlin and Cameron and five other key employees left the shop after less than two years to start Berlin Cameron & Partners.

He always reinvents himself," said Jeff Goodby, co-chairman of Omnicom Group's Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco. "He can get people to do things they otherwise might not have done. Sometimes that's good."

Rich Silverstein, co-chairman of Goodby Silverstein, agreed, noting Mr. Berlin is good at making noise, and agencies "have to make noise, or they die."

This time, establishing a toe-hold with four major marketers has helped propel Berlin Cameron toward critical mass. Especially in the first year, Berlin Cameron was often reluctant to make a lot of noise, and the agency was somewhat mysterious about just who its clients were, despite the prestige of those clients' names. Coca-Cola was a client from the agency's outset-the marketer followed the founders to Berlin Cameron from their previous agency, Fallon McElligott Berlin. The agency handles Coca-Cola's Mello Yello, Nestea Cool and Dasani brands, and Coke Light in Latin America. By 1998 Reebok was on board, first for its line of running footwear and then for the Reebok brand. It was soon followed by General Motors Corp., f0r which Berlin Cameron created an Olympic campaign as well as work for the Cadillac brand. The agency acquired its fourth big-name client last summer, New York Life. Rounding out its client roster are Allied Riser Communications, Cablevision, Conde Nast Publications, Continuum Health Part-ners, Danone's Lu Biscuits, Internet Capital Group,, the National Basketball Association, Ralston Purina's Tidy Cat and Walnut Acres. (Berlin Cameron also created an ad campaign for Advertising Age.)

What's a young and still-small shop like Berlin Cameron doing with supernova-sized clients? Sure, Mr. Berlin's own legendary status in the advertising industry may have a gravitational pull of its own. He co-founded the agency now known as Goodby Silverstein; served a stint as president of Omnicom's DDB Worldwide's New York office; and through it all drew copious press coverage.

"From an outsider's point of view, there is great value in being a recognized name. It can be a very effective selling tool. Andy stands for some very positive things," said Cliff Freeman, chairman and chief creative officer of Cliff Freeman & Partners, another independent agency that has produced work for Coca-Cola.

But Mr. Berlin, his colleagues and many clients insist the agency isn't just the Andy show.

"No one hired us because they like me personally. I don't know if we would have any business that way," Mr. Berlin said. "Advertising as a cult of personality is a mistake."

That's not to say relationships haven't been key to winning and keeping clients. "We have continued to use his services across his various incarnations and reincarnations," said NBA Commissioner David Stern, who began working with Mr. Berlin at Goodby, Berlin, Silverstein a decade ago. "Sometimes we forget which incarnation it is, but in each case it's always been Andy, someone upon whom we rely."

Steven T. Florio, President- CEO of Conde Nast, also stayed with Mr. Berlin, a close personal friend, from his Goodby, Berlin, Silverstein days, and even provided office space for a short time while Berlin Cameron was getting off the ground four years ago.

Mr. Cameron, the soft-spoken planner from Scotland, brought valuable business relationships of his own to the agency. People who have worked with Messrs. Cameron and Berlin describe Mr. Cameron as the "rational" voice to Mr. Berlin's "irrational" one, the "insight" to Mr. Berlin's "execution."

Don Graham, chairman of The Washington Post, began working with Mr. Cameron in 1992 before working with Mr. Berlin, and kept his account with the agency until this year. Additionally, John Wardley, who worked at Coca-Cola when Mr. Cameron and Mr. Berlin handled the account at Fallon McElligott Berlin, became VP-marketing communications at Reebok in 1997.

"I worked with 26 agencies at Coke and the first one I called when I got to Reebok was Berlin Cameron," Mr. Wardley said. Now Mr. Cameron guides the account; Mr. Berlin does not participate in "99.9%" of its meetings, according to Mr. Wardley.

If Mr. Berlin's plans for the agency's next phase go as intended, more and more client relationships will resemble Reebok's in terms of Mr. Cameron's oversight of them. Mr. Berlin, in an effort to ease out of the spotlight, remains chairman of Berlin Cameron, but passed the CEO title on to Mr. Cameron in January. He also sold Mr. Cameron enough shares to give them equal ownership in the company, and passed day-to-day responsibilities for overseeing accounts to Mr. Cameron. "Is Ewen truly empowered or are we making a show of it?" Mr. Berlin asked. "He's really CEO. If we disagree about something-and we agree that disagreement is good-he's going to win the argument."

Mr. Berlin acknowledged the move will be a big change from his previous way of operating, and it won't happen overnight. "I was high profile once but I've been pretty carefully low profile now a number of years. And I'll be even lower profile, becoming more of a private person. I don't think being high profile was good for me, but I had to at Goodby because if we didn't talk about ourselves, who would? I shouldn't have been so high profile at DDB; it was a mistake."

The shift also will mean he spends less time pursuing new business, and more time establishing an international office, most likely in Europe. Mr. Berlin said the office probably would not be in London or Amsterdam where so many U.S.-based agencies already have opened outposts. He is considering Paris, where the agency already has a correspondent relationship with the agency Les Ouvriers du Paradis. "The thing I've done best in my life is to start agencies," Mr. Berlin noted.

Executives from Reebok and Coca-Cola said an international Berlin Cameron office could attract more ad assignments. "With their current size and location, I can use them on a project basis, but I can't turn them into one of my agency networks," a Coca-Cola executive said. "It's a trade-off. If you open more offices, I can give you business to support those offices."

Picking up the reins on some new business efforts and cultivating relationships with senior executives in large companies-a role Messrs. Berlin and Cameron argue they have neglected-is Poran Malani, 36, who became vice chairman of the agency this year. Previously, Mr. Malani was a consultant to Coca-Cola and also worked at McCann-Erickson Worldwide, where he was instrumental in solidifying a global marketing alliance between Coca-Cola and Interpublic, according to Mr. Malani and the Coca-Cola executive. "What I've tried to do is encourage agencies to gain ownership of brands and deliver central strategies," Mr. Malani said. He met Mr. Cameron 15 years ago when both men worked at BMP, London, part of DDB.

Other lieutenants stepping up as Mr. Berlin steps aside include Izzy DeBellis and Jason Peterson, both partners and creative directors who have worked with Messrs. Berlin and Cameron since the duo spun off from DDB. Employees who have gravitated to Berlin Cameron consider themselves entrepreneurial, without need of a traditional department or job description, and suspicious of authority. "The people we tend to hire who have flourished are very strong personalities. In fact, sometimes we need to all sort of row in the same direction and it's impossible. We can't do it. We didn't hire that staff," Mr. DeBellis said.

According to Mr. Berlin, his transition does not include selling the agency. "We haven't had to do that because we've been able to operate inexpensively," he said. Though the shop would make a logical fit with Interpublic, since both work for Coca-Cola and GM, John Dooner, Interpublic's chairman-CEO, said late last month that they are not in talks-at least not right now. "Never say never," he added.

Mr. Berlin may be ready to lay low, but the ad world isn't necessarily ready to believe it. "The brand was Andy Berlin and he remains the brand," said an ad consultant. "Cameron probably takes a prominent role in meetings, but the outside world doesn't know it. He has to become the face in the press, and the quote in the brochure. I'm curious to know if Andy is really ready."

Agreed another industry consultant, "Andy stands out, but the agency's not standing out right now-not top of mind." Those who know Mr. Berlin also express skepticism at his desire for a lower profile. Mr. Silverstein joked, "I would imagine Andy is always working on something. I wouldn't be surprised if he became the next vice president" of the U.S. if Dick Cheney's heart condition kicks up.

"It's always Andy Berlin's agency, but there's so much more to it than that," Mr. Peterson, the Berlin Cameron partner, said. "Andy's name has advertising rock star quality. Say `Andy Berlin,' everyone listens, and it's a good thing. It starts out as a good thing. But day-to-day clients see that we're trying to transition into a lot more than just Andy."

Contributing: Hillary Chura and Alice Z. Cuneo

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