Like him or not, Arnell can help us design next generation

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Even if you've seen the photos, it's still a shock when Peter Arnell walks through the door, 200-some-odd pounds lighter than he was two-and-a-half years ago. And with his 150-pound frame draped in khaki shorts, a warm-up jacket, white boat shoes and a plastic sports watch, his head shaved to match the day-old stubble on his cheeks, he hardly looks the role of polarizing provocateur. But that's exactly what he is.

Arnell's confidence-some call it cockiness-coupled with his C-suite access and unheard-of ability to price his brain at a million dollars a month, provoke admiration and resentment in equal parts. Those who've been in pitches with him relay how he wins over CEOs with soulful, passionate conversations about everything but advertising, and they're often torn between being in awe of that ability and dismissing it as hokum. In any case, they can't ignore it.

Since selling to Omnicom Group three years ago, Arnell has lived a dual existence: as agency boss and as John Wren's secret weapon. More often than any Omnicom network chief would like to admit, Arnell is called in to help win or save a piece of business. A client roster doesn't come close to representing the companies he works for on projects that often have little to do with print ads or TV spots. Some succeed, others spectacularly don't (Celine and Chrysler being the wreck rivals most enjoy gloating over).

But as the advertising business is transformed into the marketing business, and as the definition of marketing is broadened, the 46-year-old Arnell, an architect and photographer, is one of the next-gen leaders who can help define its future. The business he sees is one where the language of design and architecture is integrated into marketing and the disciplines become tools of the trade.

"Design and architecture are commercial arts where imagination and dreams are still present and paid for," Arnell said over dinner at midtown Manhattan's Hatsuhana, where he eats three times a week and keeps his own set of chopsticks. "When was the last time a client called himself a patron of advertising? Everyone who hires Frank Gehry calls himself a patron."

Arnell is talking about architecture in the physical sense, built environments ("A client in Japan has asked me to rethink billboards and urban landscapes") and sensory experiences ("Apple's stores are the finest example of an invitation that converts to a transaction"). But he's also talking about a front-end marketing approach that could return agencies to a seat at the strategy table.

"The industry we know today called advertising tends to have an extremely limited contributive platform by virtue of either their skill sets or their access," Arnell said. He envisions a role "where we walk in and share the path of the design of that company from the front end. Product development. Strategy. Helping to style a brand's future.

"There's a true intersection between culture and commerce, and design is abso-fucking-lutely the next power tool," he said, adding that agency visionaries who can "create a company's language and translate it into products" will be viewed by client CEOs as moneymakers rather than expenditures.

He talked about projects clients won't let him publicly reveal yet, involving new product lines that could transform their companies. But he's aware he'll need case studies of success before skeptics will give credibility to his theory.

Which, of course, he confidently predicts he can deliver. As his weight loss shows-the diet began after Wren asked him to shed a few pounds for his health-Peter Arnell loves a challenge.

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