Creative Focus

Ever enthusiastic, Merkley Newman Harty’s newest partner has found his way home.

Marty Cooke is showing the latest print campaign for client Forbes’ technology offspring, ASAP. One ad, neon green and heavy on attitude, reads: “Is intellectual capital the new wealth, or the latest consulting wank?” “There’s a high level of taste at Merkley Newman Harty,” he says. Looking at the executions, Cooke laughs and gives a Siskel-and-Ebert-style thumbs-down. “And I’m bringing that right down.
“The agency had a little bit of a style before I came here. The work was very, very tasteful,” says the 45-year-old executive creative director and partner, laboring to find the words to describe the sometimes subtle, sometimes not-so-subtle shift that his arrival has had on MNH’s creative product. “But I personally don’t think an agency should have any particular style–except that it all should be good. As the bad boy of the political right, Forbes is full of vim and vigor,” he explains. “I’m just trying to get more of that into the advertising.”
Omnicom-owned Merkley Newman Harty opened its doors five years ago as a spin-off of financial agency Doremus & Co. Its early client roster, including Bankers Trust, Dime Savings & Loan and Forbes, and its work with later clients, such as the American Stock Exchange and IBM, provided the agency with its financial/technology reputation. Seeking to broaden the portfolio of the agency, Cooke has set his sights on adding a colorful consumer edge to the agency’s white-collar roster.
Cooke wants MNH to produce the type of work that people rip off bus shelters and break into storefronts to grab, scenarios familiar to his tenure at his former agency when posters he created for Reebok’s highly contested U.B.U. campaign were stolen out of Macy’s windows.
The TBWA Chiat/Day vet–known for such idiosyncratic work as the kaleidoscopic, Zen-inspired Fruitopia launch–joined the understated MNH in September 1996, following an eight-year tour at TBWA Chiat/Day, where he held top creative jobs at the agency’s Toronto, London and, most recently, New York offices. “There were a million reasons why I left Chiat. The biggest one? Seeing if I could do it on my own,” Cooke says. “With Jay [Chiat] and then Lee Clow, I always had this safety net. I felt since I’d learned and worked with the best creatives in the business, the time had come to work without a net.”
A year after the merger of TBWA and Chiat/Day, following a brief period when Cooke shared creative helm of the agency with TBWA creative chief Tony DeGregorio, Cooke left the company to join the younger, less complicated MNH. “When agencies are going through a merger, it’s a huge upheaval. Everybody’s energies focus on themselves and making this new organization work,” says Cooke. “I wanted to make ads. I realized I could come here and do that. The slate was clean.”
Founded in 1992 by Parry Merkley (who received acclaim for his work on American Express’ famous “Portraits” campaign at Ogilvy & Mather, New York), Jane Newman (former president of Chiat/Day, New York) and Steve Harty (who worked with Merkley at both Doremus & Co. and O&M), MNH won the prestigious IBM PC business six months after opening its doors. Though it lost the account five months later when IBM consolidated its advertising at O&M, the agency’s ill fortune was soon reversed. Displaying its new-business acumen, MNH grabbed client BellSouth. The account, worth $45 million in media spending two years ago, now represents about two-thirds of the agency’s estimated $175 million billings.
Like many in the ad industry, Cooke had heard of MNH’s stellar business rep, yet, because of the agency’s financial and technology client roster, knew little of the work. (A problem that still exists today, since many of the agency’s most visible campaigns, such as BellSouth, run in Southern markets, not in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.) “I had this impression of a smart shop with blue-chip clients and gobs of potential that wasn’t being realized,” Cooke says. “It’s the same potential that Chiat/New York had, a smallish place where you can do great work on great accounts.”
For the founding partners, bringing on Cooke as executive creative director was part of the agency’s growth plan. One overarching effect: The addition has freed up Parry Merkley’s time, which had been split between fulfilling the duties of both president and creative director.
“We knew we wanted to grow horizontally,” explains Jane Newman, partner and director of strategic planning, of the decision to bring on a fourth partner. In the last year, MNH has bolstered upper management by hiring Kayne Lanahan, who was brought in from Coca-Cola to run the media department, and Steve Bowen, who joined the agency as group account director from Food Court Entertainment Network. “It was a coup to get Marty,” Newman says. “He is a great creative person in his own right and a great creative director. It’s one thing for a creative person to do something great himself; it’s another to get great work out of other people. Only a handful of people in the U.S. can do that.”
“The best thing about the partnership is that I don’t have to worry about the other parts of the agency, just the work; they’re all so great at what they do,” says Cooke, his subtle accent betraying his Tennessee roots. “I can just hold the banner for creativity. I don’t have to worry about toning it down, the partnership balances itself, so I don’t have to temper myself.”
With spirited, enthusiastic encouragement rather than the brow-beating criticism often found within creative ranks, Cooke has breathed new energy into the 15-member creative staff. “Marty is very positive. He has tremendous ability to rally the troops. He’s given the agency a shot of adrenaline,” says creative director David Bernstein, admitting that he and others in the department had not felt they were doing their best work. “Marty has a real vision about what the agency wants, and what he wants the work to be.”
Cooke credits his approach to the craft to his experience working with advertising legends Ed McCabe at Scali, McCabe, Sloves and the late Helmut Krone at DDB Needham. A quote from the famed art director–“An open mind is an empty mind”–is hung on Cooke’s wall, a reminder of lessons learned when Cooke partnered with Krone for nine months in 1986. “My first day at work, I just sat there and said nothing. I was so nervous I would say something stupid,” remembers Cooke of his introduction to Krone. “He had this incredible presence. There he was sitting in this black Bauhaus leather chair, surrounded by his VW, Porsche and Polaroid work; all the stuff I’d seen in books–and there he was.” (Cooke is authoring a book about the fabled Krone in his spare time.) “Helmut’s work was tied into the culture,” he continues. “He wasn’t a hippie by any means, but he tapped into the zeitgeist of the day. What’s really brilliant is that his work understood where people’s consciousness was. That’s what true artists do.”
Since his arrival, Cooke has steered the creative work on a number of campaigns down decidedly different paths. Oxford health insurance expanded its TV efforts this year with a quiet, resonant campaign directed by Jeff Preiss, highlighting “unique” aspects of Oxford’s health plan, such as coverage for acupuncture treatments. The launch of Forbes Global was inaugurated with propaganda-style art and headlines that read “Ciao, Mao” and “Capitalists of the World Unite!” For Mars’ Kudos brand, an MTV Road Rules-like group of teenagers were armed with a camera to shoot odd juxtapositions representing the candy bar, such as a group of robed monks playing basketball. The agency’s earlier efforts for those brands took a more traditional approach. For example, a Kudos commercial featured standard candy-advertising fare, such as loud graphics and school scenes. “Hopefully,” Cooke says, “we yank our clients out of the category.”
For BellSouth, MNH debuted a campaign based around a fictional Southern town called “Chatsford,” unifying the various division and product messages of previous efforts for the telephone company under one theme. The humorous ads, which broke in July, were lensed by the Snickers and ESPN directing team of Bryan Buckley and Frank Todaro and unfold in a serial fashion through the good-neighbor deeds of a company employee named Tyler. In one spot, Tyler brings a cake over to a new German family in the neighborhood, then connects them to a BellSouth operator who speaks their language. “[The actor who plays Tyler] has gotten proposals of marriage, women are asking him to sign their underwear,” says Cooke. “It’s insane what’s going on down there.”
A print campaign for Oxo, a kitchen-utensils maker, gives potatoes, a burnt kitchen mess, ice cream and green apples personality. Though the client spends only $1 million in measured media, Cooke says MNH took on the business to do more consumer-oriented work. “If you’re going to convince the big consumer guys, the famous brands, to come here, you’re not going show telephone work or mutual-fund ads. You’ve got to show them some other things,” says Cooke, “stuff that deals with pop culture.”
A few weeks ago, MNH reeled in new business that may help it do just that– the $15 million National Thoroughbred Racing Association account. “It was a daring pitch, we showed them some scary stuff. It’s an interesting take on an interesting sport,” says Cooke. “We have many financial accounts, traditional ‘Merkley’ accounts. This is way outside of that.” An upcoming campaign for ABC News is equally as daring, promises Cooke.
“It’s hard to keep a high New York profile when most of your work is airing in Jackson, Miss.,” notes Eric McClellan, executive creative director at TBWA Chiat/Day, New York, who was hired by Cooke at his former agency. “Marty is a gentleman. He’s thoughtful and believes advertising can do amazing things. Our agencies have a lot of the same operating philosophies. They are built on the twin towers of planning and creative.”
Cooke’s Chiat background instantly intrigued MNH associate creative director Scott Zacaroli. “I thought, what Marty represents, in terms of his work, doesn’t have a lot in common with this agency. The Merkley reputation was sterling, but it wasn’t connected to a piece of work. It was about the way they did business, its strategic underpinnings. Chiat was always swinging for the fences.”
The agency’s BellSouth client appreciates Cooke’s creative tenacity. “What I respect the most is his vision about what he wants his creative to be,” says William Pate, vice president of advertising at BellSouth. “To be sure, we get into arguments, but that’s how you get great creative.”
Izzy DeBellis, creative director at Fallon McElligott Berlin, New York, who worked with Cooke at TBWA Chiat/Day, says Cooke is not only the nicest guy you’ll ever meet in advertising, he’s also “the only person I’ve ever seen wear a seersucker suit in Toronto.” Cooke’s sense of style is matched only by an ability to inspire his staff. “He is one of those guys you want to do good work for,” says DeBellis. “You just want him to be proud of you. You don’t want to let him down.”
A similar need to please still spurs Cooke, a desire rooted in his earliest days in the advertising business. “Sometimes when I’m working, I look out the window and feel Helmut Krone is watching me, saying ‘That’s so lame,'” says Cooke. “Helmut’s never far away.”