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"WHEN I STARTED IN THE BUSINESS AT DOYLE DANEBernbach, I looked around and I said, 'Where are the old people?' And then, 30 years later, I looked around my own agency and asked myself the same question. And I realized that I was the old people, but I didn't feel old, and my work certainly didn't feel old."

So explains Robert Reitzfeld, 54, former vice chairman and chief creative officer at Altschiller Reitzfeld and current partner in the weeks-old, New York-based Beaver Reitzfeld, the latest addition to the startup craze that swept the agency business last year. He and his new partner, Allan Beaver, also 54, former vice chairman and chief creative officer at Levine Huntley Vick & Beaver, believe that age is a relative thing, for obvious reasons. Yes, they admit, advertising is often said to be a young person's game. Does that mean there isn't room for two veteran art directors, tired of the politics and ungainly structures inherent in running their own agencies, to set up shop in the shadow of Tower Records and try to blend in with the downtown scene?

No way, dude.

"We've done the agency thing, we've had successful agencies, and we've enjoyed being in it," says the gentlemanly Beaver, who left his shop two years ago, before it flamed out after losing Subaru. Reitzfeld walked away from his agency a year ago, and since then both men have taken their time trying to decide how, where and under what circumstances they'd get back into advertising, if at all.

That they've decided to go the small, stripped-down startup route isn't surprising, given their shared belief that the agency business has managed to ignore most of the changes rocking the workplace these days. Says Beaver, "It's obvious to us that clients are looking for new ways of working with agencies." Everything in the business is in a state of flux, he says, from creative to technology to finances. "Now is the time for Robert and I, if we're going to stay in this business, to develop an organization that is aware of those changes and deals with them." Adds Reitzfeld, "The important thing is we're trying to look at it in a fresh way, and remain loose and flexible enough so that we can evolve with it." At the heart of all this new age prophesy is a very realistic goal: "We want to be creative people and turn out great advertising," Reitzfeld says, "and the current atmosphere seems to be stifling that."

Just what it was that drove Reitzfeld from his agency he didn't exactly say, although Roz Greene, Altschiller Reitzfeld's senior VP-creative director, and someone who worked with Reitzfeld for over a decade, thinks there were a number of factors. "A lot of stuff can get in the way," she says of the quest to focus on the work, everything from the price of real estate to what she calls the ambitions of people who aren't interested in coming up with solutions to clients' problems. "He might have been affected by the political and financial implications of every decision you have to make," she says.

Indeed, both partners say they spent hours talking about their mutual dissatisfactions with the agency business before exploring the idea of going out on their own. While they say they're old pals, neither has ever worked with the other, their paths crossing more at awards shows and during their back-to-back tenures as president of the One Club.

And while they bring to their union not only a depth of experience, instant name recognition and portfolios boasting just about every major award in the business, the lean and mean operation they're undertaking is not without risk. Both agree that at this stage of their careers they can't see themselves taking a creative director's job at somebody else's agency, although Beaver admits to having talked to people about it. "If this doesn't work, I don't know if we're unemployable or what-I think we are-but I think we'd have to reassess the possibilities in our lives," says Reitzfeld.

Of course, right now they're basking in the afterglow of a laudatory article in The New York Times, which generated not only the usual calls from old friends but what the bubbling partners also describe as a half dozen solid leads, one of which, a new cable television network, has already materialized into a bona fide client (pending, of course, the signing of agreements). That both prospective clients and former agency colleagues have called to say that what they're doing makes sense only strengthens their conviction. "We certainly expected a lot of nuts to come out of the woodwork," Reitzfeld adds, "because that's what happened the last time I started an agency."

The mission of their new enterprise-like other players in the new era of startups, they seem reluctant to call it an agency-is to focus on dealing intimately with client's problems, and if that means doing something other than advertising, so much the better. They'd like to indulge their passion for design, and neither is intimidated by the new media, although they're a touch suspicious of the knee-jerk manner in which most big agencies have fallen over themselves getting into interactive.

One thing they won't be able to do, for the time being, is get away from each other, considering the tiny loft space they're working in. How are they getting along? "I can't stand him," says Beaver, deadpan. Answers Reitzfeld, " If anything, I hate him more than I did two weeks ago."

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