Lunch With Lee Garfinkel

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Would he order a Coke or a Pepsi? Maybe a Sprite? How about a Heineken? When Lee Garfinkel sits down and orders a beverage, it's complicated - so many old allegiances involved. Garfinkel worked on all those brands and more during his illustrious years at BBDO and Lowe Lintas & Partners. He was still pitching pop right up to the day, a couple of months back, when he startled the ad world by suddenly leaving Lowe Lintas. The official scuttlebutt: Garfinkel wanted to spend more time on creative work, while agency management wanted him running things. But those harsh politics of Madison Avenue seemed far removed on a recent afternoon in the quiet Westchester town of Mount Kisco (near Garfinkel's home in Bedford, N.Y.). At a local joint called the Lexington Square Cafe, Garfinkel sampled the rigatoni and chewed over his plans to make a fresh start.

Berger: So what are you up to these days?

Garfinkel: I'm in talks with John Dooner of IPG about possibly doing my own agency. Originally, they positioned it as a creative boutique, and I said that's not interesting to me. But if we could have more of a full-service agency . . . So that's what we're talking about.

Berger: What's wrong with a creative boutique?

Garfinkel: What I don't want to do is just be called on by clients or other agencies to help out on creative problems or projects. Because then you don't have any ownership over the account and the work. And I've found that if you put yourself in that position, then on those rare occasions when you come up with something good, you lose control of the idea. If you're going to put in the effort, you might as well have the control.

Berger: Have you considered leaving advertising, going in a whole different direction?

Garfinkel: Sure, I think about it, but would I ever actually do it? Right now, I'm building a little recording studio at my house. I've always loved music and I've always written songs. So in that studio I'll record the songs I've written for the last 30 years. I'd taped them amateurishly through the years, and I always had the dream of recording them properly. And when I'm done, I don't know what I'm going to do with them. Maybe I'll just realize, "You know what, I'm not very good." On the other hand, if someone heard my songs and said we want to sign you to a record contract, would I quit advertising? Probably.

Berger: You never intended to go into advertising, did you?

Garfinkel: I did it just to make some money, and figured at night I would write all the other stuff I really wanted to do. But growing up in the Bronx, graduating from college and not knowing how I was going to make money, the most important thing to me was just getting a job. I even took the post office exam just in case I couldn't get a job anywhere else. And then when I got an advertising job, I said, "Well, I have to do well at this because I want to make sure I have a paycheck." And then I kind of got obsessed with it, and dropped everything else.

Berger: Weren't you an aspiring standup comic back then?

Garfinkel: I did standup at the Improv and the Comic Strip in New York, then went to Los Angeles and did the Comedy Store. This was during college. In both cases, advertising and comedy, it's about having a sense of what's going to work with an audience. But there's a big difference - if you fail as a comedian, people hate you. It doesn't matter if it's just the jokes that are bad, they still hate you. Whereas if you do a bad commercial, they don't hate you, they just hate the commercial. So advertising is little bit safer.

Berger: Did that comedy background help you to do knockout presentations once you got into advertising?

Garfinkel: I felt more comfortable getting up in front of people. And the fact that I can act, people don't expect that to come out of me because I'm pretty low-key, so when I start acting out a commercial it surprises them. But you can't sell a bad idea, no matter how good a performer you might be.

Berger: Do you think Jerry Seinfeld should get into advertising?

Garfinkel: I don't know why he'd want to try that. Everybody in the media looks at advertising as an easy thing to do. They don't realize it's just as difficult to create a really great commercial as anything else. It's just like when a famous film director tries a television commercial - it usually stinks. It's not that they can't do it, but they haven't put the effort in.

Berger: You've been credited with bringing creativity to a big agency. What's the secret to doing that?

Garfinkel: You have to have a lot of patience. You can't expect to turn every account around overnight. When I first came to Lowe eight years ago, we felt if we could take the B accounts and turn them into A's, and turn the C's into C-pluses, that's a step forward. But the challenge is doing great advertising for a client that may not really want it, or who already thinks he has great advertising. It's a matter of building confidence with them, letting them know you're not just doing this for award shows, you're doing it for sales.

Berger: The conventional wisdom is that big agencies are always more bureaucratic, rely on more testing of work, and so forth. How true is that?

Garfinkel: I think we're in a strange - and not necessarily great - moment in advertising right now, because as I look across the landscape of ad agencies, there are so few great agencies. And with more consolidation going on, most of the agencies look very similar to each other. The big agencies look the same, and unfortunately I don't see that much difference between the big and the medium-sized ones. Even the ones that are considered the great creative agencies - I don't know if their work is as good right now as it used to be. I spent a lot of time watching TV over the last couple of weeks, and the advertising I saw struck me as very mediocre.

Berger: What's wrong with the work you're seeing now?

Garfinkel: Well, I grew up in a time when advertising was based on a great idea, and the execution was secondary. Then in the late `80s and early `90s, a lot of spots that were good were based on execution, but still had some good ideas. I would say right now, it's less execution, less idea, more silliness. It's so hard to find a connection between some of the products and the idea. And I've always said if you take the product out of the commercial, you shouldn't have a commercial. A lot of the Budweiser spots, you take Bud out of the spot, you still have a commercial. "Whassup" has nothing to do with Bud.

Berger: But with all the attention "Whassup" has gotten, Budweiser must consider it a home run, don't you think?

Garfinkel: But if you look at the sales figures, and I could be wrong about this, Budweiser sales are not up. So "Whassup" may win a lot of awards, and I think it's very funny, but does it get me to drink Budweiser? I don't know.

Berger: The dot-com ads - before they disappeared - seemed to suffer from that same lack of connection to the product, right?

Garfinkel: I think the internet companies gave people permission to get silly, because they thought they could get away with stuff. And it was an excuse for a lot of people to do things without thinking. How do you produce great advertising in a couple of hours?

Berger: So they were pushing agencies to work too fast, you think?

Garfinkel: Sure, because that's how the internet companies work - "We need it right away." What a change from 1988, when I worked on a campaign for Beneficial Finance with Sal DeVito, and we probably took about a month just trying to work out what the strategy was going to be. Another month just to come up with creative direction, and then a couple more weeks to come up with the creative execution. So it was two and a half months from when we got the assignment to coming up with the idea. You'd never get that kind of time today.

Berger: Was it worth spending all that time on it?

Garfinkel: It won Best of Show at the Andys, and got a lot of attention on a small budget. We ended up doing a stock footage campaign with Noriega and Khadaffi. The idea was that banks give the average citizen a hard time with a loan, but then they loan huge amounts to countries like Iraq, Panama, and Libya.

Berger: That's a funny idea, but it's not wacky like some dot-com ad with a naked guy.

Garfinkel: I've written some wacky commercials, but I tend to go more toward the George Carlin school of humor. Which is not necessarily telling a joke, but saying something that makes people go, "Oh yeah, that's me." Carlin would say things like, "You ever notice that whenever anybody opens a loaf of bread, they always go for the third piece?" And everybody nods. What we did for Heineken was similar - "Did you ever notice that the guy who brings the bad beer to a party will always take the Heineken?" And that's the kind of humor that touches people. No matter how much comedy is out there, smart comedy will always stand out. And it works in any situation. Once, when the price of cars was going up, I had a client who asked me: "At what price range does humor stop working?" And of course, the answer is, there is no price range where it stops working.

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