The Henchman of Humbug

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June is busting-out-all-over month, and Mark DiMassimo's world is true to form. His household doubled in size a few weeks ago when he made his paternal debut as the father of twin sons. His four-year-old agency, New York's DiMassimo Brand Advertising, has more than doubled in size in the past year, going from $50 million in billings to about $120 million, and from 30 employees to 70.

Among current creative efforts, he's got a high-profile "Who Wants to Kick a Millionaire's Ass?" campaign for Crunch Fitness; a complete branding effort, right down to the logo design, for Web-based video/snack delivery service; and a clever campaign for President and creative director DiMassimo's business plans are on the expansive side, too; his goal is "to build the New York creative shop," he says cheerfully.

If that seems a touch hubristic, it must be noted that DiMassimo, 37, comes from solid entrepreneurial stock; his father invented the telephone speed dialer, and his uncle worked on the team that developed the integrated circuit. DiMassimo grew up in Edison, N.J., where he was a frequent visitor to Thomas Alva's lab, but the science he studied at Cornell was political science - "My interest was all the great propaganda and rhetoric," he says, which may have portended his ad future. But first he sowed his wild oats as a musician for many years on the regional rock circuit, playing keyboards, bass and guitar, doing some singing and songwriting and even managing the band, while simultaneously juggling his college education. "It was a wonderful experience of organizing goofy, drug-addled creative people into a good show," he laughs. That doesn't sound much different from being a CD, but "when I was in college, if someone had asked me to study advertising, I would've said, `Oh, ick!' " DiMassimo groans. "Who wants to sit around talking about business all the time? I never understood people who studied advertising, I thought they were dorks. But when I finally got out of college after six years, I needed to make some money." He spent two years apparently failing to do this, running his own jingles house before he broke into the ad agency ranks in 1987. His first job was on the account side, at BBDO/New York. "I started writing ads and showing them around, and after six months they moved me over to the creative department," he recalls with a sigh of relief.

DiMassimo went on to work at JWT and Deutsch before a three-year stint at Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, where he was creative director at the integrated marketing group, and his soon-to-be wife was an AE on the Citibank account. The growth of his own shop parallels K&B's late-'80s rise to some extent, with a penchant for cheeky work that's designed to get noticed, but DiMassimo's success comes mostly during the Internet gold rush, and half of his business is in dot-coms. "Yes, you have to be really careful about who you choose when it comes to dot-coms," he notes, "but most of ours are brand names and extensions of well-funded organizations."

Not that DiMassimo has any qualms about living dangerously. In fact, he refuses to take advertising too seriously, even as he tries to create the New York shop. His favorite adman is P.T. Barnum, whose wildly exaggerated `humbug' style of salesmanship is DiMassimo's great inspiration, channeled through San Francisco ad guru Howard Gossage, who is his "god, if I have one." He's fond of quoting from a 1953 book called The Shocking History of Advertising, which asserts, "The Barnum influence was responsible for much cheerful irreverence in advertising . . . there was a certain amount of petty fraud, often of a good-humored kind, in the advertising of the day . . . the seeming indifference to abuses is due to a curious American toleration of a fraud or an injustice . . . to be good-naturedly imposed upon is a positive pleasure, provided the cost of it is not too great."

The book goes on to describe popular mail-order jokes like a bug killer that's nothing more than two pieces of wood you clap together. This is a far greater sham than Crunch's boxing challenge, which is not, strictly speaking, a fraud. There is indeed a Web sweepstakes underway, with free kickboxing lessons offered and an eventual millionaire facing some lucky winner in the ring. "The next phase of our campaign is to go after real millionaires," DiMassimo chortles. He'd prefer Rick Rockwell, of Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire infamy, "but I'll settle for Donald Trump or Richard Branson," he deadpans. But it doesn't particularly matter, not with a freewheeling account like Crunch, where the client, Doug Levine, is a former standup comic. "I liken it to The Wizard of Oz," DiMassimo says of his and Levine's ad philosophy. "People want to see both the wizard and the man behind the curtain.

"No more than 10 percent of all clients really want to do great work" he adds. "But great creative isn't just edgy and in-your-face, it's great communication. You can do that for a bank too, if you have the right client. Everyone here says, `God, we gotta get a beer account,' because beer advertising is fun. I want to get an account where people don't expect fun, and bring humor and insight to a category where everything is old and staid. We're exactly the right size agency with the right energy level to do this."

Any banks out there with a standup comic for a CEO?

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