s this a good time to start an ad agency? Sure. When’s a bad time
This story of a startup ad agency is ancient and medieval history. It takes you from the spring of 1986 A.D. to a couple of days before Thanksgiving in 1990, 24 hours after the biggest pitch Messner Vetere Berger Carey Schmetterer ever made.
I’ll mention a few early highlights here, sans details: being sued for $30 million in our fifth month in business by one of our clients’ competitors because they didn’t like one of our commercials; making a new-business pitch to six drunken airline executives for a major European carrier; explaining the intricacies of a “space-age hemorrhoid cure” to a top-5 brokerage firm in the hopes that they would see a connection between that company’s unique selling proposition and theirs (they didn’t); talking across the table to a sleeping bank executive at a credentials presentation at one of the largest financial institutions in the world; and being told by a hard-of-hearing receptionist that a general had called for me about some new-business project (turned out it was a general—General Motors). But I don’t want to leave out any detail of one little story, so I will cough it up right now:
One afternoon in 1988, when copywriter Margaret Elman was working as a receptionist for the agency, I told her that two very important people, new-business prospects, were coming up to see us. I gave her their names and told her to be especially nice and warm and welcoming.
“Of course,” she said. “I’ll bring them up, get them some coffee, be bubbly and friendly.”
The ladies came. Bob Schmetterer and I made a presentation. The ladies left. One of the ladies called me the next day.
“You know in that magazine article you gave us in the take-away package, where you say you talk very directly and honestly, and some people will like you and some people won’t?”
“Yes. Nice piece on the agency,” I offered optimistically.
“Well,” she said, “we don’t like you.”
“You don’t like the agency,” I said in a friendly but probing way.
“No, we don’t like you.”
Some time later, I told the story to Margaret. Thought it was pretty funny. “Remember those two ladies from Central Federal Savings Bank?” I asked her.
“Central Federal Savings Bank? You know, Tom, you didn’t tell me those two ladies were from Central Federal Savings Bank.”
“So, my grandfather founded the Central Federal Savings Bank. And my uncle is now the chairman of the board.”
In April 1986, Barry Vetere suggested we have lunch together at Smith & Wollensky. “Who’s buying?” I asked. He was.
The Marketing Corporation of America was about to acquire Ally & Gargano, the ad agency we were working for, as two-thirds of a creative directorship. “This is worse than being out of work,” Barry said over a bacon cheeseburger medium-rare and a bottle of Heineken. “Let’s start an agency.”
“OK,” I said.
“It’s a defensive move. We got no careers left here. You in?”
“Not much risk for me,” I said. My wife, Terry Bonaccolta, was running the Subaru account at Levine, Huntley, Schmidt. “I’m dependently wealthy.” Plus, I knew Barry was once a principal at an agency in Chicago that had his name on it. I figured he must know something about starting businesses.
“Good,” Barry said. “By the way, I left my wallet in the office. Can you handle the check?”
“OK,” I said.
I spoke to six “account people” around town, and some out of town, about joining us. No one was much interested. Actually, blank stares is more like it.
One guy, DDB’s Bob Rees, was leaving New York for Hawaii. My sell of an underfinanced agency, over breakfast at Oscar’s at the Waldorf, didn’t stand much chance against 5-foot waves, lovely hula hands, white sand beaches and beakers of Mai Tais or Gibsons. Rees suggested a name, though.
“Bob, I worked with him at Ally. Great guy. Only one problem.”
Then I got a call from Wally Carey, an account guy with experience at DDB and Benton & Bowles. We had met him on the Tuesday Team, a group of alleged ad-agency all-stars who helped re-elect Ronald Reagan and George Bush in 1984.
“Tom, let’s have lunch. Nanni Il Valletto. Tomorrow at 1.”
“Wally, you out of work too?”
His company, Leber Katz Partners, was about to be submerged out of existence as well. Wally said he wanted to talk about starting an agency.
“An ad agency?” I asked. Wally’s wife was a travel agent, and he dabbled in real estate, so I wanted to make sure we were talking about the same industry.
Wally talked about fashioning an agency after an “all-star” concept like the Tuesday Team, and in mid-July, Phil Dougherty reported in The New York Times that we would launch under that name. Phil did get a scoop, such as it was, and reported Barry, Wally and me as principals of this new agency.
I didn’t think Tuesday Team II quite did it as a name. If I was going to risk failure here, I wanted to build equity in our names, not in a day of the week probably named after some Teutonic god of agriculture.
In the end, we took the time-honored ad-agency approach: We did it both ways. We incorporated “Tuesday Team II” along with “MVC” months before we had any office, any revenue or any immediate prospects of either.
Wally didn’t bring any accounts from Leber Katz, but he did bring Kyle Daley, who would be our hard-working office manager and blithe spirit. I knew she would be good because when Stanley Katz heard that we were hiring her, he called Wally, reminded him of his non-compete and gently (or as gently as Stanley Katz could be) said that after Kyle, that had to be it. RJ Reynolds was off-limits.
Wally picked up the check for lunch, which was a good sign. But it wasn’t that good: White truffles were out of season.
A fourth partner
Barry wanted more partners. The standard three names on the door were not enough. “A hedge,” he said. “If one of you guys turns out to be a latke, we got more coming in reserve.”
Barry brought around a copywriter, Curvin O’Rielly. A gifted person, an acolyte of Carl Ally and David Ogilvy and a creative director with big-agency credentials (Ogilvy, Y&R, McCann). He would have been the fourth, but a Frenchman, Jean-Michel Goudard, seduced Curvin into starting an agency called O’Rielly O’Brien Clow RSCG. Two things untoward about that agency: It was the wrong Clow (Lee remained at Chiat/Day) and the wrong time for three-person agencies with no art director backed by an unknown (at least here in New France) group of left-wing foreign legionnaires, Roux, Séguéla, Cayzac and Goudard. (An irony was that Curvin changed his mind so quickly that he forgot that he had referred an account to us, WBZ-TV, which we would later pitch and get.)
Barry then cajoled Ron Berger, who was also at Ally & Gargano, waiting for the hangman. Ron said, “I even have something you guys don’t have. Clients. Frye boots and Windstar Cruises.” Wonderful. What do they bill? “$11,000-a-month revenue.” Fabulous.
I resigned on July 10, 1986. Barry got a call the next day from the CEO of Ally & Gargano, asking him to help reorganize the agency following my departure. “Only one problem,” he replied. “I am leaving with Tom.” A few days later, Ron got a similar call. “Only one problem. I am leaving with Tom and Barry.”
We didn’t argue over who would be creative director because Messner Vetere Berger Carey would have no commas and no titles. No vp’s, senior vp’s, executive vp’s, vice chairmen, chairmen. I guess we had worked at places where titles were cheap and at places where titles were hard-earned (Ally & Gargano, for one), and both approaches were wanting. We structured the agency like a law firm, partners and workers, but the partners also had to be workers. (Jerry Della Femina once said, “Yeah, Messner Vetere is organized like a law firm because they’re always suing each other.” Not true, but a funny line.) We thought we could eliminate managers—perhaps that was the influence of Carl Ally, who thought all you needed were leaders and workers. Managers, he thought, were a drain on good thinking for a client and good profits for him.
Our lawyer, Glenn Sedam—the same Glenn Sedam who, after Watergate, succeeded G. Gordon Liddy as the legal officer of CREEP (Committee to Re-Elect the President, the president being Richard Nixon), told us we needed a president for incorporation and a vp, a treasurer and a secretary. Wally became the president; I, the secretary; Ron, the treasurer; and Barry became the vice president, since it was his idea to do away with vp titles. All of these were under-the-table titles, and we ignored them totally.
You can make a dulling dogmatism out of such stuff, so we relented the following year for Bob Schmetterer. Since his name wasn’t going on the door immediately, he needed the title of president to indicate his weight in the company. As time went on, in the name of coherence, we added titles such as media director (Larry Dexheimer) and head of production (Trish O’Reilly). The current vogue designation for every other person in a company—chief (blank) officer—was still too far in the future, and we operated with a five-man CEO-ship; it seemed to work for a long time, although a former client of mine who worked 40 years for The Travelers rolled his eyes at the thought of decision-making by a troika plus two spare wheels.
Sept. 15, 1986
We use this as our founding date, because it was the day that the last frame from our first TV commercial occupied the entire cover of the New York Post. Our friend Roger Ailes, whom I had first met in a chow line at a Mexican buffet in the lobby of the Anatole Hotel in Dallas during the 1984 GOP convention and whom I’d come to respect as a tough, good-humored, honest businessman, referred a client to us—Andrew P. O’Rourke, candidate for governor of New York. In the spot the Post chose for its cover, Andy is entering a voting booth holding a cardboard statue of Mario Cuomo, trying to tell the governor to vote for Andrew P. O’Rourke to make New York a better place.
One commentator said the commercials would do more for the new agency than for the candidate—a fair comment, given Mario’s 66-34 lead in the polls. But the truth is, Andy was a star, a natural acting talent who did what the pols think is impossible: deliver negative and comparative messages himself, rather than through surrogates or pompous, disconnected voiceovers. Barry directed Andy, but Andy also directed himself. He took the scripts and made them work in a charming, intelligent way. Today, Andy is a Supreme Court justice in New York state, so the commercials did OK by him also.
The $25,000-a-month fee for the four months of the O’Rourke campaign capitalized the agency—another way of saying it paid the rent for a couple of rooms at 485 Madison Ave. (an address we shared with McKinsey and Mad magazine) and the salaries of our two-person staff, Larry Burday and Kyle Daley. Kyle ran the office with an iron hand and an Irish smile and sometimes an Irish hand and an iron smile; Larry was assistant art director, assistant producer, assistant account executive and media director and answered the phones when they rang, which was sporadically. There was also money left over for some rudimentary office equipment, including The Last Typewriter of the Western World.
In January of ’87, when more cash dripped in from our new-business efforts, we added AEs Kent Roman and Frank D’Angelo in addition to freelance producer Priscilla Watts and staff producer Trish O’Reilly.
New-business efforts: a letter
Ron sent several letters to people we knew in the agency business. He asked them to refer business that was too small for them. Nothing was too small for us. One letter reached Tom McElligott. Tom referred Regina vacuums to us. It was $40,000-a-month account to make commercials and lead research projects. Regina spent more than $20 million on national advertising, so we were on network TV within three months of our founding. The usual avenue for new agencies in New York then seemed to be print accounts and radio; all our new accounts in the first four months (WBZ-TV, Regina and Atari Computers) were TV.
Barry directed all the work, and it became a model for many later efforts. The notion of in-house production created the prototype for the “Survivors” spot for the Volvo pitch; for an MCI New Year’s Eve :60 just after that account was won; for the pitches for MCI, Prologue Consumer Health Services, Life magazine, Nasdaq and Volvo; and for dozens of other demonstrations of ideas and new products.
A fifth partner
Bob Schmetterer’s first adventure with Havas, as CEO of HCM (Havas Conseil Marsteller), ended in 1987, and he joined us near the end of that year as an equal partner. He would have joined us in January 1988, after his honeymoon and rebuilding his tan on a severance sabbatical, but we needed him earlier to help save Regina, which was happy with our commercials but unhappy with everything else. It was still our largest account. Bob proposed that we work three months for them for nothing, at the end of which time they could pay us the back fees or sweep us out with the other settled dust. It worked.
1988 was a very successful year. So successful that I find it hard to comment on, because there is no opportunity for self-effacement, self-abnegation, false humility. There was the Bush New Hampshire primary victory, the GOP convention film and a 30-minute show at the end of the campaign that was most valuable because we edited it with Scott Gaillard, who joined us after the campaign. Commodore Computers hired us. Barry and I had worked for them in the early ’80s at Ally, when their leader, Jack Tramiel, and our advertising had briefly made the Commodore 64 the best-selling computer in the world.
Somewhere in the middle of all this, Ron and Kent Roman pitched a guy named Keith Turnipseed to bring his tune-up business, Sparks, to the agency. He had a courtly Southern manner and spoke drippingly, like a Confederate corporal, issuing orders to the womenfolk in the agency. None of the womenfolk ever slipped and called him Tuneupseed, which clearly they wanted to.
Drixoral also became a client—the first time we got an account through a consultant, which is now standard procedure. Bob had known the search consultants, but this was the first account since Regina where we knew absolutely no one at the client. Roger Holstein, a former MCI client, also popped up out of nowhere (actually Boulder, Colo.) with Consumer Health Services, which we put on the map, or rather, a map, seeing as it was a very, very regional business. Trish O’Reilly was both the producer of their spots and an on-camera star for them; we were non-union, and Barry was the voiceover, along with being the director—and potentially a patient, too.
We also began a relationship that year with Brian Holland and Nasdaq, which led to the first great campaign the agency did, turning the National Association of Securities Dealers Automated Quotations, dysphemistically called “over-the-counter stocks,” into a brand that would drive the economy of the ’90s.
At the end of 1988, the agency became Messner Vetere Berger Carey Schmetterer. At the beginning of 1989, the name changed again, as Jean-Michel Goudard turned up like a long-lost character in a Victor Hugo novel. He brandished cash and the hope for international business. The agency became Messner Vetere Berger Carey Schmetterer RSCG.
For me, the sale was a hedge against my own great potential for indolence and incompetence. If I had known how hard and efficaciously we were all going to work during the next few years, I would not have favored selling. Then.
But there is no question that without a deal with an international partner, this brief history would be briefer. It might even have ended here.
The business plan
One was written. I know because I wrote it. I wrote it because Ron told me we needed to write a business plan. Why did we need one? He never told me that, but seeing as how there was a lull between writing for Andy O’Rourke and our next client, I wrote one.
The plan was simple: We knew a lot of clients, both corporations and individuals, who would give us business or let us pitch their business because we had worked with them and made money for them in the past. Like Hyman Roth in The Godfather, Part II, we always make money for our partners.
Dunkin’ Donuts, Volvo, Peugeot, Commodore Computers, Prologue Consumer Health Services, Atari Computers, Nasdaq, Pergament, Bush-Quayle 1988, MCI. They are examples of how the plan was less a plan than a prophecy.
A guy Barry knew at PrinczCo, a tape- editing house, referred Adelphi University; Pyramid Malls came because someone Wally Carey knew from RJ Reynolds took a marketing position with them.
Compensation schemes? I asked Wally how he arrived at the $20,000 a month that Pyramid paid the agency. Wally said, “That’s our rent for the new space, Tom. It’s like the slot machines in casinos. Covers the overhead, and the rest is profit.” Not exactly a homily from the Harvard Business Review, but his original model nevertheless.
Employee relations? First of all, young creative people are the ones who believe a new agency’s PR lock, stock and billings. Early on, copywriter Charlie Tercek and art director Tom Rosenfeld engaged in a direct mail/telemarketing effort to get hired. They were a talented team at DDB Needham, and in 1988 there was finally enough work to have them do if we added them to the payroll.
After some time in which Charlie and Tom do some creditable and valuable work for an annual salary of $43,000 each, Charlie told Ron Berger that he had been offered a job back at DDB, and at $75,000 a year, it seemed like a good deal for a Middlebury College grad to start earning better money. Charlie came over to Editor’s Gas, where I was cloistered for what seemed like a month working on a film to save Western Civilization from Michael Dukakis. I got Charlie aside and told him we were prepared to make him a counter-offer (pause) of $76,000. (I don’t tell him, but I am prepared to keep upping any DDB counter-offer by $1,000. If he’s going to leave, it’s not going to be over such a ridiculous thing as money. As in poker, you can’t allow yourself to get pushed around by the people with the chips.) He stayed, but asked if he can have lunch once a month with one of the partners to learn about the business. I took him to the Four Seasons (one of two restaurants courageous enough to give us a house account when we opened, the late Scarlotti being the other) for risotto, calf’s liver and chocolate cake. I talked nonstop for two hours about my theory of the moral and the practical in advertising. He never asked me to lunch again, not that I would have minded.
Rosenfeld was a tougher seduction. He eventually left for Deutsch on his planned career path back to his home on the West Coast. Sometime after he left, Ron called him to see if he wanted to do some freelance/ moonlighting. Tom asked to be paid upfront, in advance of the work. Ron demurred. “Ron,” I said, “haven’t you ever been stiffed on a freelance job?” “Yeah,” Ron answered, “but never by an agency where I had once been a full-time employee.” Like Frankie Pentangeli confronting the Rosato brothers over a C-note, Ron took it as an insult. In 1996, Rosenfeld visited our offices at 350 Hudson St. and dropped in to see me. “Hey, you guys got a real agency now,” he said. God, I hope not, I thought to myself.
Hiring practices? The agency’s first full-time art director, Michael Vaughn, thought he needed a copywriter to work with, Ron and I being pressed on several fronts and not fully focused all the time on the day-to-day work. Michael suggested Coz Cotzias, an old friend of his and someone whose portfolio I remembered seeing when I was copy chief at Ally & Gargano. “Sell him to me, Michael,” I said. “He lives two and a half blocks from the agency, so he doesn’t need to put in for cab fare when he works late,” he replied. “Get him,” the five partners said in a rare display of unity.
PR? We lived on it. Our impatience demanded a faster lane to success than expecting people to beat a path to us. The great self-marketers of startup ad agencies (Tom McElligott, Jeff Goodby, Nancy Rice, Andy Berlin, Rich Silverstein) had used award shows to broaden public knowledge of their companies. That strategy seemed too slow for us, with our median age of 43 and heading north. We hired Bernie Bennett, an old Broadway press guy, and he hit a home run in his first at-bat: getting us Fortune magazine’s designation as a company to watch.
Some of our stuff was homemade, too. Ron had an idea for a miniature-golf tournament for charity, and the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times picked it up for its seemingly iconoclastic spirit. Later on, I did an interview with the Washington Post just before Gorbachev visited the U.S. and opined that he could learn something about capitalism by visiting our agency, where we could pay him some of the residuals he was due for appearing in a Bush for President commercial. We put a formal bilingual invite ad in the Times, and Channel 5 sent a reporter over. Barry, Ron and I had him and the cameraman come to Petrossian, where we downed vodka and spoonfuls of sevruga. The reporter asked if promising Gorbachev residuals was just a gimmick to get attention. I said, “Of course, it’s an unabashed PR stunt designed to get more business.” He shut the lights and camera off and joined us, downing a caraway-flavored vodka in one gulp before heading off to his next Naked City feature.
We got bad PR, too. Advertising Age didn’t like the kickoff ad I wrote for Adelphi University. Headlined “Why the most interesting university in the country stoops so low as to advertise itself,” the ad mocked the marketing of colleges even as it indulged in it. Ad Age, no lover of irony, ran an editorial scolding us for our anti-institutional institutional ad. They ran letters to the editor complimenting them on their stand. Then they ran letters complimenting the letter writers complimenting the editorial. I ignored the goading until now, 17 years later. I often wondered, and still do, if Rance Crain wrote the letters himself in the manner of Michael Lerner of Tikkun.
Lessons? Change of management at a client is often the most frightening threat to an agency’s stability. Frye boots and Rockport shoes became our clients (in fact, the second and fifth clients) because Stanley Kravitz, the CEO, had worked with Ron Berger on Timberland at Ally & Gargano. Rockport’s advertising basked in overstatement: Ron and art directors Michael Vaughn and Eddie Evangelista promised that Rockport shoes helped you live longer and, at the same time, cured New York City’s traffic problems. Rockport also basked in a rising sales curve, inducing Reebok to acquire them, whereupon Stanley Kravitz left and the agency was (naturally) required to repitch the account. (In the tender world of mergers and acquisitions, the first thing that goes is the CEO, and the next thing is usually the ad agency, if not the accounting firm.)
Berger and Schmetterer and the account supervisor (kept nameless here, but call him Cheech for the sake of the narrative) scheduled a meeting to present the fruits of the past relationship and the boundless horizon of the future relationship.
Reebok asked if the agency needed any A/V equipment; the agency answered that a simple projector would be useful for the overheads that would define and amplify the current shoe market and Rockport’s unlimited potential. Said definition and amplification, however, had to go on in a scene reminiscent of a 1980s Federal Express spot with tap dancing and silhouette hand-jive by Ron and Bob, because Cheech, despite entreaties to St. Anthony, the patron saint of lost objects, couldn’t find the overheads in his briefcase, the trunk of his car or his luggage.
Reebok gave the agency the boot, as one of the trades might have put it.
So, what’s the lesson? Don’t lose overheads? Pray to St. Jude instead of St. Anthony? Avoid changes of management? Fire Cheech?
The following month, New Balance called. The great entrepreneur Jim Davis and Swedish businessman Lars Samuelson (the man who in 1967 hired Bob Schmetterer out of British Motors to work at Volvo and got him to earn his MBA) wanted to talk about shoe advertising. New Balance hired the agency and stayed for 15 years, only a couple of years longer than Cheech, who was rewarded for his absentmindedness with a raise, a bonus and several hearty handshakes. Lars, who had been Bob’s mentor, became his client, and later his colleague once again, when Bob served with him on an advisory board for Volvo.
So, the lesson: Losing an account isn’t the end of the world; often it’s just the removal of a thorny conflict problem.
MCI, October 1990
“So what are you looking for in an agency?” Bob Schmetterer asked one of the MCI people—someone who had been my client on MCI when I was at Ally & Gargano.
“Not you,” came the answer.
A great shot, actually, but Bob should have known something like that was coming, given that a few days before, he asked if we could get “the box of proprietary research that the marketing management of MCI, Tim Price and Kevin Sharer, have asked us to look at to begin our familiarization with the current situation.”
“No,” had been the answer to that innocent query.
The operative principle here is that knowing people at a potential client is not a perfect business plan. If you work long enough on an account and get to know enough people at a company, some of them will like you, and some won’t, both for good reason, I suppose. I also suppose in almost any new-business effort for a large company, the winning agency will have supporters and debunkers. In the MCI case, the clarity of both side’s opinions of me and my new agency would make Aristotle envious. MCI, too, had a competitive, anti-bureaucratic culture that often resulted in internal clash, but a clash that most often produced a consumer-driven focus in an industry where the focus had been, for more than a century, on maximizing the profit on the past and beating down competitors in the courts and public-utility commissions, not on new products and marketing.
The positive to all this was that we got into the pitch 40 days after it started. Jerry Taylor, then president of the mid-Atlantic region but soon to become president of the consumer division, wanted us in. Luckily, those first 40 days had been taken up with a round of credentials presentations and then a round of “strategic” presentations, during which time I sent voluminous MCI-mails to Jerry, offering opinions on everything from negative advertising to direct response to the macho need to kick back at AT&T simply for the sake of morale in the sales organization. Jerry had known me from earlier telecom wars, when I worked at Ally & Gargano and we had introduced MCI and competitive long distance to the American public in 1980. Larry Dexheimer, too, had been a veteran of those skirmishes as media director at Ally. I had stayed in touch with Jerry since I left Ally, and when Hal Riney dropped out of the pitch, Jerry saw it—despite some vocal internal opposition—as a way for us to get in. Angela Dunlap, who would become president of MCI Consumer in 1994, when Jerry stepped up to run the whole company, secured the box of research for us, and we were off.
This was 1990, and MCI was getting beat up on television by AT&T. The boys at the great American Telephone and Telegraph company were running spots that stopped just short of calling MCI (and Sprint) scam artists.
Our agency’s points of difference gave us some advantages over the competition:
They were real ad agencies (BBDO; Wells Rich Greene; Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos; Levine, Huntley, Schmidt & Beaver) with real clients and real doorways and real billings and executive committees. We were, well, a bunch of proles operating without a Big Brother looking over us;
We had the brains to bring in a Democrat pollster (Peter Hart) and a Republican media consultant (Roger Ailes), because we thought correctly that the long-distance war at that time was ready to move out of the trenches, and MCI was still fighting with the strategies of the previous war;
We had e-mail, which was still a curiosity in the agency world but which was the key to communicating to MCI up and down the organization. Our account people, Frank D’Angelo and Lisa Fabiano, and researcher, Sue Little, got into e-marketing/communications early, and by the time we presented to MCI, they had a virtual relationship with more than 25 MCI people around the country. Our early adoption of e-mail stemmed from our early adoption of personal computers, plus my participation in the launch of MCI mail in 1983, plus my natural bent for mail itself, which drove me to work for a year as a clerk/carrier for the U.S. Postal Service in Woodhaven, NY 11421, plus Wally, Barry and Bob’s own shrewd dabbling in the practical side of futurism.
Finally, we had 30 days and nights to create the final so-called creative pitch, and we could focus on that, because there was not much else to do around the agency, business being down considerably from 1988.
Bob Schmetterer began the presentation with a fine context-setting speech. A minute into it, just as he was really starting to roll along, our “Not you” friend in the advertising department interrupted Bob to tell him to move along, because Dan Akerson had to leave at 10:30 and couldn’t stay for the whole presentation. Barry Vetere interrupted to say that was OK, “since we have to leave at 10.” That little put-on riposte was the only thing Barry said in the presentation, but it made it clear that we weren’t going to be intimidated by off-putting corporate parlor tricks. And it set the tone for an honest analysis of the long-distance business and what MCI was facing.
Ron and Bob were quite brilliant that day. Bob told them that no one cared about long distance, and Ron told them that AT&T was making sure no one cared about MCI. I did a fine wrap-up that was notable for my 100 percent commitment to the account and a promise that the agency would not pitch any other new business for six months if we got it. (When we got Volvo two months later, Bob did his best Bill Clinton-Bill Buckley-Bill Bailey interpretation of my words and averred that Volvo was a prior condition because we had been pitching it before MCI.) Truth was, we had been pitching Volvo months before MCI, but there are several kinds of truths, as Dan Akerson, the straight-shooting MCI COO, explained to us in a testy phone call.
In between Bob’s opening and my wrap-up, Ron scooped up a loose ball quite nicely when one of the outside consultants wandered into the netherlands of the politically arcane, and for a brief moment it looked like we were losing it; Wally Carey Jr. ate all of the cookies laid out for the prospective clients; ominously, a friend at a competing agency reported that one of our opponents at MCI said we would get the account “over her dead body.”
We made an all-in bet of almost half a million dollars on that presentation. Travel alone ran us more than $100,000 for airfare, hotels, rental cars, vans, car services, taxis, tips, A/V equipment rentals, drinks and meals, and we were always a lean organization, except for meals. The ante included a survey tagged onto the final election-year congressional poll that Peter Hart was doing. Freelance friends John Danza and the late Patrick Kelly, the team that launched Federal Express in 1974, chipped in with cutting storyboards that mocked the corporate culture of AT&T. Copywriter Paul Wolfe created a series of spots from MCI customer-service stories that we shot, and they became the basis for the corporate-image campaign the following year.
Instead of Barry or me for the voice, Paul got Tony winner Phil Bosco and Tammy Grimes; instead of stock music, Paul used Philip Glass, a composer with lots of detractors but a maker of terrific sound design for cutting film. Ron had an idea for a billboard that constantly toted up the money MCI was saving the American consumer; Barry and art director Wally Arevalo did a TV version of that in our offices, where, with clever use of foliage and lighting, they made backgrounds of New York City look like L.A., Miami, Detroit and other barbarian strongholds. Editor Scott Gaillard also cut a devastating negative spot from an idea I had that used footage of AT&T’s chairman at a press conference after his system had gone down nationwide. He was standing next to a bumbling engineer who was explaining the logarithms of reliability. We ran a crawl underneath interpreting his words and directing the viewer to look for alternatives. A nice finale, as it showed the go-for-the-jugular thinking that they weren’t likely to get from real ad agencies.
It was a complicated presentation, one in which we asked an advertiser under siege to buy into a campaign with three distinct elements: their own image; negative, retaliatory attacks on AT&T; and direct marketing product messages.
Ed Carter was in the audience as a consultant to MCI. He is a telecommunications/direct marketing/telemarketing expert, a combination of John Caples and Billy Sol Hargis. Ed became the evangelist of Friends and Family, the resuscitator of consumer marketing at MCI. Ed came to me afterward and said, “You guys never made a better presentation; you never will make a better presentation. I’d a’ taped it if I were you all.”
Afterward, we met with Jerry Taylor, the visionary fourth employee of MCI who was hired by MCI founder Jack Goeken and befriended by MCI re-founder Bill McGowan. Taylor and his good friend Tim Price, who was using his considerable debating skills on our behalf, told us that we needed to do one more presentation and that, as long as we didn’t “fall on our swords,” the account was ours.
That second presentation, epees and all, is a story for someone else to tell in full. Ask the Larrys (Burday and Dexheimer) or Schmetterer or Berger or Vetere or Wally Carey Jr. or Lisa Fabiano or Sue Little. I find the story too unbelievable to relate, too close to desolation to ponder. In the finale, Bill McGowan, CEO Bert Roberts and chairman emeritus Orville Wright were brought in to soothe the battlers and help make the decision. Jerry Taylor argued that if he was going to have bottom-line responsibility for an $8 billion division, he needed to be able to pick his own advertising agency.
I took photographs of that second presentation and have kept them as a personal demonstration that nothing really is over even after it’s over, and proof that at 46 years old, I still had that streak of immaturity that drove me to take photographs during a presentation. I don’t need photographs to remember what the presentation room looked like after the decision was made and we went back to gather our stuff and head out to Gary’s bar in back of an alleyway behind MCI’s old Washington offices on 19th and M. The room was like the ring after the second Carmen Basilio-Sugar Ray Robinson fight, cigarette smoke still wafting in the air, rolled-up paper balls lying on the floor, some blood stains that posed as ink stains, losing combatants with resigned faces knowing there would never be another fight.
I called Jean-Michel Goudard the next day in Paris or Rio or Algiers and told him we had won the account, so we didn’t think a merger with Tatham Laird & Kudner RSCG in Illinois or Indiana or the Northwest Territory made sense anymore. Further, RSCG finally had a New York agency.
He said, “I thought you would get part of the account, but you got the whole thing?”
“Oui!” I said, exhausting the full panoply of my French vocabulary.
“Yes. ‘We!’ We did do it,” Goudard answered.
Yes, we did, Jean-Michel.
Jerry Taylor suggested a headline for the report of the victory: “Former letter carrier gets $120 million MCI account.” Clients always write the best headlines, don’t they?
Someone asked me a couple of weeks ago how it felt to no longer have my name on the door of the agency we founded. I said that things move on, and it was a different agency anyway, and the current name, Euro RSCG, reflects better the current composition of people and clients. And if I want, and if my superego re-emerges, I can always go to court, fill out some forms and change my name to Tom Euro.
Birth Of An Agency
s this a good time to start an ad agency? Sure. When’s a bad time