Brinegar's mission is to make McKinney king of creativity

By Published on .

Brad Brinegar sent me a lovely color diagram a few weeks ago. Called "the cubist olive," the illustration depicts a large gray square. In the upper right corner sits a much smaller green square, within which resides an even tinier red square. The gray represents the 500 largest ad agencies in the U.S, the green the 5% of those that compete on the basis of their creative product. And the red, Mr. Brinegar wrote me, underscoring something he'd told me a few days earlier, "is the five or six agencies that set the intellectual tone and pace for the industry-where I need McKinney to be!"

McKinney is McKinney & Silver, the North Carolina shop perennially on the periphery of national recognition and competitiveness. Mr. Brinegar is its new president-CEO, and he is something of a throwback, albeit a vital one: a "suit" who understands creativity is the sine qua non for ad industry success. "There are a million lounge singers, and only a few rock stars," he said. "We want to go from being one of the well regarded 25 to one of the five or six greats."

McKinney's dream has been deferred several times. The quintessential regional shop, it was an early beneficiary of the dot-com boom-or so its people thought-when it was acquired by Internet ad pioneer CKS Group (later known as MarchFirst) in 1996. In April 2001, when irrational exuberance had run its course and MarchFirst went bust, McKinney was acquired by France's Havas. It fell to then-CEO Don Maurer, a rationally exuberant young executive, to get McKinney back on its feet. But Mr. Maurer died in an auto accident six months later.

I met Mr. Brinegar and Mr. Maurer when we served on a panel at an American Association of Advertising Agencies meeting. Mr. Brinegar inherited the leadership of McKinney last February. He'd also had a dream deferred, having left the CEO's job at Bcom3 Group's Leo Burnett USA, where he'd spent almost his entire career, after only a year. A lifelong Chicagoan, he leapt at the opportunity to move south because he relished the chance to "take an under-reputationed agency and push it to the next level," he told me.

Among the important McKinney campaigns he's helped oversee (including an adventuresome TV effort for the Nasdaq exchange and a stylish print drive for Disaronno Orginale Amaretto, the Italian liqueur) none is more important than the campaign to "give people lives" in the agency. Foremost is his desire to coordinate research and account work to rationalize the creative briefing process. "If you start with the wrong brief, and you force people to go back to the drawing board, creatives will just get pissed off," Mr. Brinegar told me. "If you can bring just a little logic to this insane business, you end up with more human capital to run the business"-the more so because "there are a lot of people, trained well at the Goodbys and Fallons, who want to be a part of making this happen."

Can you grow the organization and still maintain that culture, I asked? "I look at what Ed Eskandarian did at Arnold Worldwide as the model," he replied, citing the Boston-based Volkswagen agency, under whose umbrella McKinney resides within the Havas network. "Really great brand ideas, great expression. And with that as the business model, Arnold went from nothing to a big, honking agency."

At that big, honking moment, Mr. Brinegar seemed consumed by a vision. My guess is it was of a tiny red square. "We've been on the cusp for a long time," he said.

Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is director of intellectual capital at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.

Most Popular
In this article: