Feeney's new anti-agency gets out before it's found out

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Jim Feeney, at 63 (the same age as me), has been around the track a few times. He worked 26 years at legendary ad agencies Ted Bates & Co. and Ally & Gargano, and later headed Trone Advertising and Albert Frank Guenther Law. As it says in his bio, he may be the only person in the industry to have been an integral part of the launch of three telephone companies: MCI (at Ally & Gargano) and PSINet and Winstar (at Trone).

So he's an agency man through and through. The late copy chief Gail Raphael, in a 1980 article he wrote for us, called Jim the best account exec he ever worked with. "In a business which Fred Wakeman once described as permeated by `the smell of fear,' Jim had a sense of total self-confidence that never deserted him," Gail stated. "It was not that he was unaware of the unexpected and often undeserved casualties of the agency business; it was simply that he never allowed them to affect him."

I met Jim several years ago. He was at Trone and told me he was going to rid it of tobacco business (Camel). He did, and replaced what was its biggest account with enough new business to make up for it. (After he left, Trone got back into the tobacco business.)

During all of his agency stints, Jim's clients always asked what the agency people on their account did all day. "You could get away with not calling on Monday or Tuesday, but if you didn't call by Wednesday you were in big trouble," he told me.

So Jim, with two partners, Dale Cunningham and Jim Parry, now is starting a sort of anti-agency that will be gone from its clients' business before they start complaining about its lack of availability. The idea is for their firm, Catalyst New York, to provide temporary ad service or, as their brochure puts it, "a few months' burst of commitment, vitality, drive and inspiration." As Jim says, "For three months it's the honeymoon period; then we're gone." Catalyst New York can draw on a pool of 250 freelance copywriters (even Hollywood writers), art directors, planners and account/marketing execs. They come up with "fresh, on-target strategy, positionings and executions (storyboards and ad comps and then, if you want, finished commercials and ads)." After that, they're out of there.

And out of there is where he wants to be. "I'm not looking to build long-term relationships," Jim told me. "I've got all the long-term relationships I want in my private life."

Jim, like so many others I've talked with, feels the business has changed-and not for the better. "When did all this change? I'm not sure, but I think it was in the `80s, when two very rich brothers from London made my boss at Bates a very happy and independent man. The work may not have changed that much as a result, but we did. And our clients did. I'm not so sure we liked each other as much," Jim says.

He was talking about when the Saatchi brothers bought Ted Bates & Co. and Bates chief Bob Jacoby cashed in for more than $100 million. Clients resented that Jacoby and others got rich on their accounts. That distrust lingers to this day. Jim puts it more bluntly: "Fear is rampant, and the joy goes out of your day. Fear sets in when agency people begin to think, `When am I going to be found out about what I do all day long?"'

But at Catalyst, Jim contends, "We're going to be all over them. We're going to become pests. It's a different model."

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