THESE DAYS EVERYBODY IS TALKING ABOUT THE DE-pressed state of the agency business. Not so much that billings are down-in fact, they're back up again-but that people are down. If the agency business were a person it would probably be seeing a shrink twice a week, have a nervous tic and sleep about as fitfully as Sammy "The Bull" Gravano. You can't have more than two advertising people together and not have them talk about how all the fun has gone out of the business. Today, the perception is if you're having fun, you can't be serious about your work.
Well, this column is about F-U-N in capital letters. More specifically, it's about the early days at Della Femina, Travisano & Partners: an agency that thrived on chaos, bordered on bedlam and had all the stability of the Italian government. An agency so unique even back then, it seems almost impossible to comprehend against the profile of today's agencies. An agency where fun and good work weren't mutually exclusive; in fact, they fed off each other.
In order to write this piece, I called on some ex-Della Femina, Travisano & Partners pals to gather for a dinner in New York recently to help stoke the memories. Gathered around the table were Mark Yustein, who's still working for Jerry Della Femina at Jerry & Ketchum; Richie Russo, who recently left Deutsch for FCB/Tierney in Philadelphia; Jay Taub, who's at Lowe & Partners/SMS; Stan Block, who's freelancing; and Todd Seisser, who's at Ammirati & Puris/Lintas. Gently prodded along by three bottles of Villa Antinori Chianti Classico, without any of them this article would not have been possible. Of course, I have to thank my good buddy, Phil Suarez of Giraldi/Suarez, for making his restaurant, Gigino, available to us. I'd also have to mention the late Kay Kavanaugh, a wonderful writer and beautiful person whom we dearly missed this evening. Kay was very much a part of Della Femina, Travisano & Partners, and would have been a wonderful Dorothy Parker to this roundtable.
Many years ago, when I was a mere junior writer at Carl Ally, my cousin, Ron Travisano, invited me to a little party he and a few people from his agency were having at someone's apartment. There were about 10 people there. One of them was Ron's partner, Jerry Della Femina.
After a couple of hours of sipping some weak herbal tea, Jerry suggested we play strip poker. Everybody was more or less for it with one exception-Jerry. He said he would be the dealer but he wouldn't actually play himself. It turned out to be a blast. It was an innocent, side-splitting night, with a few of us getting down to our underwear. In fact, one of Ron and Jerry's clients got down to her bra and panties. The bra was one of those ballistic missile-looking, eight-prongs across the back beauties. Next to Maurice and Charles Saatchi, they had to be the biggest pair of boobs in the history of advertising.
When I went home that night I thought to myself what a fun place Della Femina, Travisano & Partners would be to work. In three months I would find out just how much-they hired me.
In those days at Della Femina, the creative staff would start arriving around 10 in the morning, with the exception of the late Steve Gordon, who was always late-like around noon or so. We could always while away the time with gin games, darts or just flat-out bullshitting for a few hours. That would take us right up until cocktail hour at 6. That's when the bar in Jerry's office would open and we would settle down to do ads.
Around this time Jerry had written his best-selling book, "From the Wonderful Folks Who Brought You Pearl Harbor." It was also the time we had the JVC account, the Japanese electronics manufacturer. For our first presentation, Mark Yustein and I mounted and wrapped in acetate a picture of an A-bomb blast with a headline that read, "From those wonderful folks who brought you Hiroshima." When we were in their boardroom before the meeting Jerry casually asked to see the work. As he was reviewing the ads, he came to the "Bomb" ad. I'll never forget the sound Jerry's head made when it hit the conference table.
Of course, Jerry was also very capable of creating a little mayhem himself. Stan Block remembered the time we were pitching an account in New Jersey that Jerry really didn't want. So at Jerry's suggestion we cut in a very graphic scene from "Deep Throat" onto our new business reel. Off to the Garden State went the new-business people to present our credentials. You could hear the screams from across the river. Other agencies did gang bangs to get accounts-we had a different approach.
But even though our comportment was just this side of Snoop Doggy Dog, we also worked hard. We had some very talented people, like the aforementioned
Gordon, Yustein and Kavanaugh, as well as Dick Raboy, Bob Giraldi, Nick Gisondi, Bob Kuperman, and Neil Drossman. They managed to find the time to do award-winning campaigns for H.R. Block, Eyewitness News, Teachers Scotch, Blue Nun and Meow Mix.
Of course, when you talk about this agency in the early '70s, you're talking the Beverly Hills Hotel. Ron and Jerry literally lived there. If a commercial was to be shot, it had to be shot in L.A. It didn't matter if it was tabletop. If it was a print ad, it had to be done there. They went with the slightest excuse. And sometimes they didn't even let that stand in the way. And they were always flying people from the office out there.
Back in those days, the Beverly Hills Hotel was the place to be. You'd walk into the Polo Lounge and every agency had their table. Doyle Dane, Wells Rich, us. What a trip for a bunch of young guys from such exotic places as Newark, Bensonhurst and Massapequa to bump into stars like Robert Goulet, Jim Brown or Telly Savalas. (Hey, what can I tell you-back then they were big stars.)
On weekends we'd be by the pool where Jerry would pay somebody to continually page him over the PA. He would have Sven, a 50-year-old cabana boy, give him a lounge chair as far from the phone as possible so that he could take the longest walk to answer the page. On a hot Saturday in August, Jerry could lose five pounds just answering phone calls.
I left the agency around 1971 and came back in 1980. It was during this absence that Jerry decided to shave his head. He said he'd given his hair 40 years to grow and he had lost his patience. In fact, I'm told, the Monday morning Jerry came in with his head completely shaved, Ron started running up and down the halls screaming, "I'm rich! I'm rich! He's lost his mind! The agency is all mine, all mine!"
By now, the place had become a little counter-culture, but its heart and soul remained the same. Now, the creatives were Jay Taub, Todd Seisser, Stan Block, Phil Silvestri, Rita Senders and Paul Basile. And the work was just as good. We did such campaigns as Emery Air Freight, Chemical Bank, Dow and Isuzu. There was Frisbee throwing in the hallways, snowball fights during the winter and the constant smell of cannabis in the hallways. Did I say smell? Hell, you could've been a candidate for the Betty Ford Clinic just from the secondary smoke. What did Jerry say to this? Let's just say our president inhaled.
It was in 1980 that we launched Frankie D's Lounge-a little Friday night get-together held in my office. It usually started around 5 and lasted until the last person went home (usually Stan Block). All the food, wine and cheese were courtesy of Ron and Jerry. It was fun and great for morale. I can't imagine any of the other agencies I worked for tolerating this, let alone financing it. But at Della Femina, it was de rigueur-whatever that means.
Heaven knows, we tried to act like a bigtime agency. We were always going to focus groups, but even they had a decided Della Femina, Travisano & Partners stamp on them. Jay Taub remembered a young writer who stuffed a wad of Bounty paper towels into his pants and walked into a focus session filled with women. Well, focus they did. One shrieked, another almost passed out, another asked if he was single. This gave new meaning to the slogan, "Bounty, the quicker picker-upper."
I've always said that Jerry was one of the funniest people I've ever met. Richie Russo was telling about the time Jerry came into his office and told him to bet the house on a particular football game. Jerry also passed this tip on to his chauffeur. Both men bet the game as heavily as they could, and Jerry's team got killed. When Jerry came into Richie's office on Monday morning, Richie said, "Jerry, I feel bad for myself, but how about Sal, your driver?" Jerry answered, "Richie, I feel terrible, I can't even look him in the back of the head."
Then there was the West Coast creative director who wouldn't know the truth if it ran him over on the street. Once, Jerry was in a big meeting and there was a knock on the door. It was Jerry's secretary telling him it was this creative director on the phone and that he needed to speak to Jerry immediately. Jerry looked to be in a quandary; he thought for a second, then said, "Tell him to start lying now and I'll be there in a minute."
Surely, no recollection of the agency would be complete without a word or two about the Annual Sex Contest. This was an event conceived by Ron and Jerry where everyone in the agency voted for the person they would most like to sleep with. The winners would get an all-expenses-paid night at the Plaza Hotel. The winners would be announced at the secretaries' lunch (usually at some Mexican restaurant), which took place before the Christmas holiday. The campaigning was intense and often underhanded but, hey, the rewards were so great. After getting wasted away in Margaritaville we would then return to the office, where we'd proceed to make the Tailhook convention seem like a gathering of Amish people. Surely, in these politically correct times, such shenanigans would bring a briefcase full of sexual harassment cases. It's just that we never had the heart to bring some of these women up on charges.
Of course, nothing lasts forever. And one of the things we all concluded this night was that a large part of the spirit of what made Della Femina, Travisano & Partners so great disappeared when Ron Travisano left. Ron was the ballast to Jerry's constant rocking of the boat. When Jerry would periodically roll a Molotov cocktail into the creative department, he was there to snuff it. Ron was, in fact, the glue that held the creative department together. And for whatever success Della Femina, Travisano achieved, make no mistake, it was its creative product that got it there.
Last Christmas, Jerry had a party for all the Della Femina veterans. It was great to see everybody again. As I was leaving, I saw Jerry with a drink in his hand looking very amused, and I thought how maybe things hadn't changed that much from when I first met him over 20 years ago. Here we were, in a strange way still running around in our underwear-and Jerry was still holding all the cards. Some things never change .... thank God.