Cannes Lions 2005

Steven Grasse

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Steven Grasse, something of an advertising outsider from the very beginning of his career, was born, appropriately enough, in Souderton, Pa., a small Mennonite farming community outside Philadelphia. His formative ad background was off the beaten path; during his college years at Syracuse University, Grasse traveled the world, doing internships at Bozell in Bangkok, Ogilvy + Mather in Hong Kong and TBWA in London before graduating to a copywriter's job at Saatchi + Saatchi in Auckland, New Zealand. He moved on to Beber-Silverstein in Miami, of all unlikely places, before starting Gyro in Philly in 1988 at the age of 23-an agency that became known frequently for the sophomoric outrageousness of its ideas and its offbeat clients, including tobacco clients, rarely seen at a shop with hip aspirations. Gyro's first client, however, was MTV, which stayed with the agency eight years; in 1992, R.J. Reynolds joined the roster and has remained ever since. Gyro's many brand development projects include the Sailor Jerry G*mart and Bikini Bandits lines, and Grasse's first book, Evil Empire: Why Britain is to Blame for Nearly All of the Modern World's Problems, will be published by Quirk Books in September. In October, the latest Bikini Bandits film, Bikini Bandits and the Curse of the Pirate's Booty, will premiere at London's Raindance Film Festival.

C You were partnering with clients and branding from the bottom up, creating new revenue sources for your agency, way before the bigger shops started moving in this direction. What got you started with this in the first place?

SG I've always had this sneaking suspicion that advertising doesn't really work. These suspicions are confirmed every time I go to focus groups and everyone in the room says that they don't look at magazines or watch TV, and if they do watch TV, they TiVo. People adopt brands for different reasons than some wacky 30-second TV spot that won a Gold Lion at Cannes; they adopt brands that they inherently like and that speak to them on a variety of levels. And it's the culmination of these connections that you build with the consumer that eventually wins them over. If anything, the mass channels are the icing on the cake, rather than the cake itself. What drove Gyro to this realization early on is having clients that were heavily restricted by the government in terms of mass advertising (cigarettes) and clients that, at least initially, had no money (Puma). Necessity was the mother of invention.

Curiously, the other factor that drove our strange evolution is the fact that for so long Philadelphia completely sucked. There were no good ad people to hire, at least not in the classical sense, so we ended up hiring people who had unusual skills-clothing designers, set designers, industrial designers. I'd retrain them to be in the ad business, but these unusual skills remained in the agency's DNA. I also believe that what's really made Gyro different is our internal ban on awards shows 15 years ago. It may seem strange that it matters so much, but it really does. Our focus is on how to sell the product rather than on winning a Gold Pencil. Until recently, there wasn't even a category in these awards shows for the stuff we do, and as far as I'm concerned, there still isn't. Of course, the bigger problem is the judges themselves: wacky ad guys who pat themselves on the back for being wacky. No, thank you!

C What are your thoughts on being a creative and the creative process today, especially in light of advertisers' changing attitudes about how they should approach their advertising and marketing?

SG People buy brands that they like and emotionally connect with. People adopt brands that represent who they are; they use them as a badge. Brands, like people, emit an energy or a life force. It's our job to distill this energy and articulate it to the consumer in as many ways as possible on as many levels as possible. Our challenge has been to find marketers who get this and haven't been brainwashed by their MBAs.

C Does Gyro still not do pitches?

SG By and large, we've grown via word of mouth and recommendations. And, rather than "pitch," we charge a fee to do creative exploration. So, we get paid to think about a project. If the exploration is well received, we then go on a monthly retainer with our clients. When we do actually pursue a client, it's when we write to them with a specific observation we've noticed about them in the marketplace.

C What lessons can bigger marketers and agencies learn from your approach?

SG The biggest lesson is to stop entering all those silly awards shows and put all that energy into thinking about how people actually buy brands. And pay more attention to design-the design of every little nook and cranny of a brand. It all matters. And stop being goofy all the time. Not everything needs to be so fucking wacky. Concentrate on making shit cool, and you can do that only if you start ignoring what a nerdy ad judge thinks of your work.

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