THE WILD ONES;AFTER SOME SURPRISING PRINT SUCCESS, TINY ACME ADVERTISING SEEKS THE BROADCAST PINNACLE: A COMMERCIAL
IN THE LAST SEVERAL YEARS, LOS ANGELES' ANNUAL BELDING AWARDS show has been, well, full of surprises. In 1990, to the bewilderment of many in the local ad community, ABC Television grabbed the Sweepstakes award for its "Twin Peaks" on-air promos; a year later, a little-seen print campaign for the San Diego Union-Tribune took top honors. And last year an obscure Orange County shop with the generic name of Acme Advertising, led by an obscure art director with the tongue-twisting name of Sakol Mongkolkasetarin-pronounced SAY-ko Mon-cull-CASS-a-tay-rin-dominated the print category with work for a local snack food company, Pacific Snax.
Acme's "Jurassic Park"-inspired ads didn't win the Sweepstakes award (another surprise, a print campaign for Teva sports sandals, via the former Stein Robaire Helm, did), but its dinosaur-decorated work did win two Beldings in the Newspaper and Trade Magazine categories with an ad headlined "Don't be squeamish about eating dinosaurs. They'd eat you if they could," a campaign that also won a national Addy last year. Acme also won two awards for Pacific Dent Removal auto body repair service, a print campaign in which the headlines seem to have been stenciled on crumpled sheet metal. One ad read, "According to statistics, one out of every four drivers will be involved in a collision. Cool." (In a bit of inspired media buying, one of their campaigns ran on bus shelters next to racy ads for lingerie.)
No one was more shocked at the evening's outcome than Mong-kolkasetarin, who, besides being embarrassed that the emcee kept bungling his name, admits he was "in a state of disbelief and awe," mostly, he says, "because I never dreamed I'd take home more awards than Chiat/Day."
At the time, the 27-year-old art director was actually freelancing under the Acme moniker while working full time at deYoung Ginsberg Weisman Bailey, the Irvine-based shop known for its cool Gen X-targeted ads for Vans shoes. And while dGWB has gained some national notoriety, it would be fair to say that Acme, too, has helped bring Orange County advertising out of extinction. The area has suffered creatively since the closing of its largest independent agency, the former Cochrane Chase Livingston, a Saatchi spinoff responsible for Dollar Rent a Car's slapstick commercials with Leslie Nielsen and the alma mater of top Los Angeles creative directors Steve Rabosky and Tom Cordner.
Since going out on their own in mid-'94, Mongkolkasetarin and his partner, 27-year-old copywriter Brian West, have run their almost million dollar shop out of a two-bedroom apartment they share in Newport Beach on a peninsula known as Balboa Island, a strip packed with surf shops, tattoo parlors and throngs of skateboarding teens with streaked blonde hair.
Though neither partner is your typical Southern California beach dude-West is a preppy-looking ex-marine from Michigan and Mong-kolkasetarin is the soft-spoken son of Thai immigrants who always leaves his shoes at the front door-in a place like Newport it's not surprising that "fun," as West claims, "is Acme's only product." Not, he adds, "as in the dumb humor of Jim Carrey, but fun as in the smartass intellectual sensibility of Dennis Miller." It's also typified by the agency name, borrowed, yes, from the main contraption supplier of Wile E. Coyote.
With its local, print-oriented roster of clients, Acme's creative sensibility is, to date, most often characterized by an offbeat, playful approach: bold graphics, interesting type treatments and pithy, often amusing one-liners, a quirky combination that former dGWB creative director Wade Konaikowsky describes as "unorthodox and intrusive." It's also a look that the Acmes say is influenced by the classic style of art directors like John Vitro and Steve Luker as well as Cole & Weber's hipper work for Doc Martens.
Agood example is a colorful, retro-illustrated ad for Pacific Snax that reads, "As good for your heart as it is for your butt." Another for the Greek Merchant gift shop chain shows a bunch of guys crawling around in diapers (sadly, an actual photo borrowed from a local fraternity) alongside a quote from Winston Churchill: "The finest human endeavors are scholarly in nature. Therefore, he who enters a university walks on hallowed ground." Dead presidents and actors are treated with the same irreverence; an ad for the Richard Nixon Library that shows a photo of Nixon with Elvis Presley reads, "On December 21, 1970 at 12:30, the planets aligned"; another for HQ hair replacement shows a bald Humphrey Bogart and asks, "Want to look like a movie star? So did this guy."
"While the work's not brilliant, there's definitely an untarnished exuberance about it," says Harvey Lerner, former CD at Cochrane Chase Livingston. "You can tell that clients haven't been all over it."
This unstudied look is not unlike the home video that Mong-kolkasetarin sent several years back, along with his resume, to Lerner and Carolyn Johnson, another former CCL creative director. Johnson recalls that the video showed Mongkolkasetarin walking around his parents' house "literally begging us to hire him. It was amateurish, but there was a certain purity that was refreshing and irresistible."
The son of an architect, Mongkolkasetarin moved to America at the age of 6 and went on to study graphic design at Long Beach State. After graduating in 1990 he took a junior art director position at CCL, where he worked mostly on the Pacific Snax and Pirelli tire accounts until the agency folded in 1991. He freelanced for several months in DDB Needham/Los Angeles' retail department until it, too, closed, and then he started his own business, M Company, out of his parents' living room in late 1991, working mostly on Pacific Snax collateral.
At the same time he was freelancing at local agencies like Johnson/Ukropina and dGWB, at the latter teaming with writer Harry Cocciolo-now at Goodby Silverstein-on Shimano bicycles and Langor golf gear. He also met West, then working as a production artist/writer.
A frustrated photographer who, like Mongkolkasetarin, was encouraged by his parents to pursue a more stable career, West joined the Marines during his senior year of high school in the Detroit suburb of Plymouth. After spending four years at Camp Pendleton-he was discharged the day the U.S. invaded Kuwait-West initially rebelled by living on his sailboat and working in a one-hour photo booth in a San Diego mall, though he eventually enrolled in the La Jolla Academy of Advertising in 1990. After graduating in 1993, he started hanging out at nearby Franklin Stoorza, where he didn't actually have a job but was nevertheless befriended by Konaikowsky, who was an art director there at the time and later offered West an internship at dGWB.
West still keeps his boat docked near his and Mongkolkasetarin's apartment, close enough so that the pair can brainstorm and tan at the same time, but mostly so that West, who favors new age music, can escape his partner's occasional Carpenters marathons, his only real gripe about their working arrangement. As he says, "It's great to be able to create ads, do laundry and make a pot pie all at the same time."
So, besides domestic bliss, where are the pair headed? Mong-kolkasetarin, West and their lone account exec, 26-year-old Jennifer Fogg, hope to add a shoe or fashion account to the client list, which besides the aforementioned Pacific Snax and Pacific Dent Removal, includes several pieces of project business for the likes of the Atkinson Brick Co., Genova computer monitors, Mammoth Brewing Co. and Nth Degree software.
Mostly, the two hope to snag a broadcast-minded account, the lack of which continues to hamper the visibility of most Orange County agencies. Not that they're trying to build a multimillion dollar business. "Brian and Sakol are more like Mad Dogs & Englishmen than Ground Zero," notes Konaikowsky, who recently left dGWB to launch a West Coast-based creative services firm, Big Bang. "They're still more interested in ads than being hot on the trail of any big accounts."
And like John Vitro and John Robertson, the former Chiat/Day creatives who've managed to expand their national reputation and keep their shop, Vitro/Robertson, based in San Diego, West says he and Mongkolkasetarin like the idea of being local heroes. "The goal is to keep our overhead low and contact with clients high," he adds. "Neither of us wants to be chairman emeritus of a