Bernbach to the Future?

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Lee Garfinkel is being cagey. Interviewing him amid the bare walls and unpacked boxes that symbolize his unsettled new home at DDB/New York, one can be sympathetic to his cautious responses. But, he is being unduly wary. Occasionally, he goes "off the record" to make what turn out to be tepid statements. It's as if he has been badly burned by the press, but Garfinkel, 48, is one of the most highly feted creative directors around. He has enjoyed - and frequently deserved - consistently great press for an outstanding body of work.

True, the last couple of years have not gone quite so smoothly. He left Lowe in January 2001 after eight years, characterized by ever improving creative work and bitter internal politics. He then joined D'Arcy as president and chief creative officer. Unfortunately, his first day was September 10, 2001, and soon after the repercussions from 9/11 calmed a little, rumors of D'Arcy's sale (as part of BCom3) to the Publicis Groupe surfaced. Not long after the sale, it became clear that D'Arcy would disappear. Garfinkel was offered the newly created role of Publicis worldwide chief creative officer. It was an offer he could refuse. Despite Publicis CEO Maurice Levy's entreaties, Garfinkel bucked the current trend toward global creative directorships to go local, and he accepted an offer from DDB Worldwide CEO Ken Kaess and U.S. chief creative officer Bob Scarpelli to become chairman and chief creative officer of DDB/New York.

Although Garfinkel insists it was an amicable parting, it clearly got a little ugly, with the threat of lawsuits behind the scenes. One knows this not least because Publicis made him wait before taking up his new job this past month. So, why did he choose local over global? "I didn't leave Publicis, because I never went to Publicis," is Garfinkel's soft-spoken response. "Once D'Arcy didn't exist and it was a new entity, then basically it was starting from scratch - and if I was going to do that, I thought I owed it to myself to see what network I was going to join.

"Let me just explain my definition of a worldwide creative director," he continues. "In the past it involved going from country to country, looking at the work, making a comment and then leaving without having any real impact on the creation of the work." Instead, Garfinkel is adamant that he wants to "lead by example." He insists on his need to write, to "stay close to the work." In the end, he says, he plumped for the team of people he'd be working with. He had known Scarpelli and, to a lesser degree, Kaess, for years. "I'm chairman and CCO; Bob Kuperman [the CEO] and I will run the agency," he says. "While I'm good with numbers, I don't want to have to worry about the budget every day. I need to worry about getting good creative work out. I need Bob Kuperman. I also need talent like [ECDs] John Staffen and John Russo."

One senses he feels he has something to prove. This is strange, given a track record as a writer or CD that includes Pepsi's "Cindy Crawford," "Shady Acres" and "MC Hammer" commercials, not to mention Sprite's spectacularly funny "Sun Fizz," the infamous Diet Coke "Break," starring has-been hunk Lucky Vanous, as well as plenty of great work for Heineken, Mercedes and others. Many ECDs have achieved fame with a lot less. Nevertheless, eyebrows were raised when he went to D'Arcy. It appeared an unlikely match. Garfinkel, with his BBDO, Lowe and Levine Huntley Schmidt & Beaver background - and ponderous D'Arcy? Did he feel he achieved anything there? "After Heineken came over [from Lowe], with about 90 per cent D'Arcy creative people we got out a creative product that the client felt was the best of the last four years," he says confidently. "I feel I have the ability to get better work out of people. I think I started to make a mark on the leaders of the D'Arcy network in terms of my expectations of better creative work. Another accomplishment was the Cadbury win, at a time when the client knew that the D'Arcy agency might not exist." When pushed about D'Arcy's closure, he concedes, "I was disappointed, because I put a lot of effort into turning it around. I didn't go there for a year; I wanted to make a lasting impression."

That's Garfinkel's aim in taking the DDB job. He's energized by the idea of trying to restore what was once the world's most famous agency to something approaching its former glory. "If I could do that, I will have done just about everything in advertising." Well, almost. He's never started a shop of his own, and he refuses to explain why,on the record. But it must be acknowledged that wherever he has been since BBDO, he does appear to have improved the quality of the work, most notably making Lowe a genuine creative force in the U.S. He's also one of the few modern-day creatives who has proved capable of inspiring a major account to move with him: Heineken, from Lowe to D'Arcy last January. These are rare qualities that impressed both Kaess and Scarpelli. "I was blown away by the depth of his reel, and that he's a really decent person; a Brooklyn version of Bob Scarpelli," Kaess says. "He really is about the work." Scarpelli adds, "Lee is a proven creative leader. He said he wanted to go to a place that's doing good work and where there are good people to work with. He has strong opinions, but we welcome that."

He does indeed. That, and an absolute confidence in his "talent," which he mentions often, and judgments that he's not slow to share with others. Here's an example: "The most important thing [at DDB] is to explain to people what my standards of advertising are. I hate most advertising, and I'm disappointed in most movies and television. I was asked recently if my standards are too high for advertising. No, I think that everyone else's are too low."

Here's another: "When I worked at Lowe, I didn't immediately expound on my philosophy and everyone liked working for me. But I found I was working till 10 every night and they were all going home. So I called a meeting and said, 'You know why I have good work? Not because I'm a genius; because I work hard.' "

One could make Garfinkel sound pretty arrogant by stringing together similar quotes, but this is clearly not the view of him held by those who know him better. And when asked why he is so confident in his opinions, he does display humility. "I don't always think I'm right. I absolutely do not think that everything I do is brilliant. Words like brilliant and great are bandied about far too much. Look at some of the stuff that DDB did for VW in the '60s. That's still some of the smartest stuff that was ever done, that's the Citizen Kane. So that's my standard."

Sometimes he comes across as a nostalgist, who does think advertising was smarter in the "good old days" of the 1960s, '70s and early '80s. But he retains the best of "old-fashioned" values: ads should have a point, should make consumers know how to respond in some way. He also consistently does good contemporary work. Garfinkel works all hours, obsessing over detail. He is hands-on, and he expects everyone else to write and art direct because he does. He says he has seen too many people "lose it" by giving up doing. He will not be everyone's cup of tea. He describes being a creative director as being part psychologist, part presenter, and part new-business person. That, and the rigorous obsession with getting better work out. He even believes advertising can still be fun. "You know, no one remembers the great Foosball game of 1986," he says. "What we remember is creating great ideas, and the fun we had creating those ideas, when you're running into each other's offices and asking, 'What do you think of this?' I honestly mean it: if someone's a genius and they come up with great stuff by 2 in the afternoon, then go home. I'm not like that. I don't believe in working weekends, but I do believe in working flat-out Monday to Friday. Whoever said 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration, was right. I don't know how many commercials I've done when I could have stopped, but I said, 'Let's just give it one more go.' I know you can make an impact at an agency. If you look at a lot of agencies, the junior and mid-level people are much the same. The difference is, who is the leadership? Look at D'Arcy. Those people working on General Mills and Pillsbury; all of a sudden I got Heineken-quality work out of them."

It is, says Garfinkel, about taking responsibility: "You can blame stuff on the clients, but it's not always the client's fault. You know, you start to meet the clients and you find out they're much more willing than you think to get good work out, but they can only work on what the agency offers them. I think a lot of the damage that is happening to the ad agency community is self-inflicted; I've seen it in the couple of agencies I've been in over the past couple of years. It's day-to-day decision making. It's long-term strategy. It's everything."

There are people who have far more to prove than Garfinkel. He appears to be a good choice for his new job. He will be "doing the doing," just as he likes it, being hands-on and close to the work in an agency that clearly wants to be what it was again. His track record suggests he could do very well with like-minded colleagues. And, in truth, the gentleman's club that is DDB could do with a little Garfinkeling.

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