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CREATIVE DIRECTOR BOB Brihn apologizes for the state of his new office, which is still cluttered with boxes. Brihn, who left Fallon McElligott for Cole & Weber/Seattle barely three months ago, has been too busy moving his wife and four kids into a new house to have much time to unpack. Then there's been the deluge of staff and client meetings in which, as he jokes, "people drink triple nonfat lattes instead of Maxwell House."

Seattle, in particular, is known as a city of serious java, home to the popular Starbuck's chain and a place where the smell of freshly brewed espresso permeates the downtown streets. However, except for its close proximity to Portland and Wieden & Kennedy and its being home to Joe Sedelmaier's long-running slapstick campaign for Alaska Airlines and Livingston & Co., it's a town less recognized as one of advertising's creative hotbeds.

But C&W, which has been part of The Ogilvy Group since 1977, may soon change that. The $60 million Seattle office (there's a $25 million branch in Portland) is not only Seattle's largest agency, it's also the oldest, opened in 1935, but it's only the last few years that it's become one of the most increasingly visible shops in the Northwest.

Back in the '80s the shop gained little national exposure, thanks to its mostly mainstream work for clients like Boeing (at $30 million, it remains the agen- cy's largest) and Weyerhaeuser. But in 1988, when the reins were taken over by Scott Marshall and Mark McNeely (the former was an account planner and the latter an account executive on American Express at O&M/New York), the work, particularly for smaller clients, not only began to take on a distinctly sharper edge but the shop began to attract such freelance heavyweights as The Bomb Factory's Mark Fenske and Scott Burns, the latter now with Berlin, Wright & Cameron.

Under Marshall, who took on the CD chores, Fenske and Burns wrote typically irreverent, angst-ridden ads for clients such as a recently discontinued line of Nike women's shoes and Aspen Skiing Co. Fenske, for example, wrote many of the Aspen b&w print ads that veered away from the elegant imagery favored when the account was at Hal Riney & Partners in San Francisco. "A heapin' helpin' of delicious humble pie" and "There isn't much air up here and what there is smells like fear" are among the headlines that appeared alongside photos of death-defying inclines, part of a series of ads that earned the Bill Bernbach award at last year's Northwest Addys.

At their best, Marshall and McNeely were viewed by their peers as charismatic, ambitious entrepreneurs; at their worst, the pair rubbed longtime clients the wrong way and were perceived by some as short-sighted in their quest to thrust Cole & Weber into the national spotlight. For instance, former C&W art director Tim Delaney, now at Hal Riney/Chicago, says Marshall and McNeely "were often more style than substance ... they were always looking at what Wieden had done last week." In any case, and in part because of their frustration with the corporate attitudes of clients like Boeing, Marshall and McNeely left last June to open Scattergood, which has been involved in various advertising projects including infomercials.

Just two months after their departure, art director Steve Luker, who worked with Burns and Fenske on various projects, including Nike and Aspen, went to Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein. And last month he was followed by copywriter Steve Johnston, his partner on much of the agency's other notable work, including last year's National Addy-winning radio campaign for Thomas Kemper soda, a series of folksy Motel 6-style monologues.

Yet the 36-year-old Brihn seems unfazed, even confident, about leading an 11-person department minus its most visible team. Aside from the fact that he has already hired Ammirati & Puris art director Harvey Marco (his credits include work for Nikon and Aetna), the seemingly eager, fast-talking Brihn exudes both an excitement and a nose-to-the grindstone attitude about his new job, which leads one to believe, as former FM colleague George Gier suggests, he's "got a handle on the big picture."

How exactly will things change now that Brihn is at the creative helm? He says he doesn't want to "stifle the creative momentum" begun by Marshall and McNeely, but he has his own ideas about taking the 100-person shop into a national arena where it can compete with respected regional agencies like Fallon McElligott. For one, Brihn says he and 37-year-old president/CEO Austin McGhie, the former general manager at O&M/Chicago who joined C&W last year, bring a less flashy "Midwest mindset" to the agency. More specifically, McGhie, a soft-spoken Canadian, and Brihn, a native Minnesotan, have a somewhat more businesslike leadership approach, one that some say might have benefited their predecessors. Brihn says the two plan to steer a course that will combine C&W's "strong sense of art direction" with "Fallon's strategic strength," as well as the shared creative philosophy of people like his former FM boss Pat Burnham and W&K's Jim Riswold, whose work he describes as "thoughtful and provocative, but never flash for flash's sake."

In his seven years at Fallon, Brihn's style reflects the witty simplicity that Minneapolis is known for. His credits include work for Federal Express, Hush Puppies, Time and the '91 Bronze Lion-winning TV campaign for The Minneapolis Star Tribune, which includes a hilarious spot where a dowdy housewife in curlers suddenly dons a negligee and forces her husband to turn off the TV news. By contrast, Brihn offers polite but muted praise for Seattle's creative accomplishments, suggesting only that "there's more we can do here."

His opinion of C&W's work is an equally noncommittal "fresh, smart and eclectic." With particular emphasis on the latter, the work ranges from the clever to the visual (or both, in the case of Aspen and Nike) to, at times, the utterly weird. For example, a recent low-budget commercial for Rib Ticklers barbecue sauce, directed by Johnston and Luker, begins with a children's choir singing "All Things Bright and Beautiful" over shots of some of our favorite barnyard friends, including a cute little lamb who licks the camera lens. Then, in a move certain to horrify vegetarians, a fork-wielding barbecuer appears at his grill flashing a grin as a VO declares, "Let's eat 'em!"

The agency has also proven adept at handling more technically complex assignments, such as the series of graphic mixed-media spots for Group Health Cooperative, a local HMO. Combining live action and animation as a means to illustrate healthcare bureaucracy, one shows a live-action shot of a woman's face at the center of a 3-D metal flower sprouting before a background pasted together from claim forms. Likewise, a striking pro bono spot for Greenseal, directed by Dennis Manarchy, would be at home on PBS' "Alive From Off Center." But the pro bono work the agency seems to be especially proud of is a bizarre series of commercials for the Seattle International Film Festival. Tagged "How people act," one spot, straight out of the Bob Newhart book of phone shtick, shows a prim therapist talking on the phone with a patient who has a dog fetish; after she advises the caller that it's probably safe to eat a few dog biscuits, but stay away from the canned meat for now, she ends the conversation with a very serious "Woof, woof."

Any reservations Brihn might have about the work are outweighed by his attraction to "conquering a new frontier," as he calls his prospects in Seattle. "It's like the Wild West," he adds. "I feel the same kind of excitement that I did at Fallon when I first started there. In part, because of Wieden and Nike, there's no conventional norms of what an ad should look like out here, which allows a real sense of freedom to the style of advertising."

Freedom maybe, but those who've worked in Seattle for any length of time believe that convincing a high-profile national client like Time to hire a Seattle agency is easier said than done. Unlike its progressive reputation in the music industry, Seattle's advertising image is still that of an insular, impenetrable market dominated by provincial clients. "There's never been much out-of-town business up here because we're thought of as this secondary market that doesn't want to call attention to itself and is geographically isolated," says Tracy Wong, creative director at Seattle's newly formed Wong Doody. "As a result, everyone cannibalizes each other and waits for Alaska Airlines to go into review." Two of the city's largest and most desired clients are the $100 million Nintendo account (at Leo Burnett) and the $40 million Microsoft business (in-house and at O&M/Los Angeles), though a small portion of Microsoft's direct marketing work was recently handed to C&W. Though the area is starting to attract more creative talent, Rob Bagot, creative director at local Livingston & Co., adds, "People still perceive Seattle as this small market that's kind of neat and quirky."

More of a specific problem for C&W might be that a culture Brihn views as eclectic others have described as a bit schizophrenic. "It always seemed like the work coming out of the agency was split into two camps," notes Bill Borders, director of creative services at Borders, Perrin & Norrander, which, like C&W, has offices in Portland and Seattle. "Fenske, Johnston and Luker were part of one microcosm, and the work paying the bills was being done by others in the agency."

Fenske, who still writes ads for Aspen in his Los Angeles office, admits his role at C&W was more like a "visiting chef; Scott and Mark let me cook in their kitchen, but they didn't feed what I made to everyone."

"There's such a wide range of clients that demand different work, the agency has never really found a personality," adds Luker. The agency "always seemed to be struggling to find a showcase account because, though the work for its small clients is good, Greenseal and Rib Ticklers don't keep the agency in business."

Recent work for larger and more conservative clients, however, is attempting to loosen up. Boeing, for example, has moved past the stage, McGhie says, where it functioned only "to get Dick Cheney to call and acknowledge that we were committed to defense" with a new TV campaign that features a montage of b&w stock footage of the men and women who served in WW II, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf-far less sentimental than previous Boeing exercises in patriotism. Similarly, new print work for Westin hotels has seemingly been inspired by Aspen, with ads that complement typical destination photos with head lines like "Where God used up all his blue crayons" and "Lush green seductive courses that can barely wait to break your little human heart." And a tongue-in-cheek illustrated print campaign for Stimson Lane Wineries that poked fun at the idea of Washington State being a wine mecca actually boosted its '93 wine sales by 50 percent.

As for developing an agency personality and landing an account that will increase its national visibility, well, the West wasn't won overnight. Brihn, like Marshall and McNeely, isn't eager to have his creative product typecast and, as far as seeking new clients goes, he insists C&W is "actively pursuing everything," though the only business won recently is WinterBrook Beverage Group and Gargoyles/ProTec sporting equipment, which bill $2 million apiece.

An equal priority for Brihn and McGhie, who would like to phase out the use of freelancers, is to get their creative department in order. Simultaneous with finding a seasoned replacement for Johnston, he hopes to restructure the department in more of a Fallon style, with less emphasis on teams and more on an egalitarian involvement in all the work.

Expectations run high across the board; Brihn, who also hopes to woo more out-of-town creative talent, promises that "not only is this a cool place to work,

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