Siltanen/Keehn is flying high
Rob Siltanen is no stranger to acclaim. A copywriter who grew up in the fabled halls of TBWA\Chiat\Day, he spent the last 10 years creating blockbuster ads for clients such as Nissan and Levi’s–plus Emmy-winning Apple work–that entered the zeitgeist.
Now his work is inspiring a TV show. A FreeInternet.com campaign starring a tough-talking baby named Bob–the first work to come out
of his 9-month-old startup, Siltanen/Keehn–has prompted a development deal with CBS, which Siltanen says will lead to a sitcom.
What began last November as a solo operation out of his Manhattan Beach, Calif., home with one client, JoAnne.com, an arts-and-crafts retailer, has grown into a 25-person boutique with more than $100 million in claimed billings.
“The phone started ringing right off the bat,” says Siltanen, 36. “I was expecting $40-50 million [in billings] by year-end. We’re farther ahead than I was planning.”
In addition to FreeInternet.com and JoAnne.com, Siltanen/Keehn’s roster includes Tellme Networks and CarsDirect.com. Cramped into a small Santa Monica office, the shop is moving into new 11,000-square-foot digs in El Segundo in September. While the frenetic growth may be surprising to Siltanen, the success isn’t.
Siltanen, who was named creative director on TBWA\C\D’s Nissan account at 25, exudes confidence in his work, staff and vision. “I can’t promise I’ll give you the most talked-about [advertising], but I know from my track record that I can put it in the top 10,” he says.
Former colleague Rob Schwartz, worldwide creative director on Nissan, says Siltanen takes the tenets of his former agency to heart.
” ‘Good enough isn’t good enough’ is something I know he lives and breathes,” says Schwartz. “His spirit, drive and determination are infectious. He loves advertising.”
Siltanen’s knack for grabbing public attention helped win the FreeInternet business, estimated at $50 million in billings. “We needed someone who would be aggressive and put our name on the map,” says Lori Stutsman, the client’s vp of marketing.
Since the campaign’s debut in February, Bob, named after FreeInternet.com CEO Bob McCausland, has generated fan mail and segments on Entertainment Tonight and Good Morning America. “Today we are a brand,” says Stutsman. “The TV deal will only enhance the brand value.”
Thanks to a skin-matching technique that seamlessly marries the mouth of voiceover actor Ken Campbell to the mouth of a baby girl named Hunter Joy, some TV viewers even thought Bob was a real talking prodigy. Sitting in a chair, wearing a “Bob” T-shirt, the baby introduces the service with the voice of a grouchy middle-aged man. In one spot, Bob explains why he was chosen as spokesperson. “I’m a talking baby with an IQ of 140 for crying out loud! If not me, who?”
“The demographic we go after is families. The baby was perfect for that,” says Stutsman. “Women loved the appeal of the baby, men loved the humor and the baby has that sarcastic humor that teens really like.”
The Bob campaign is Siltanen’s signature statement: high-profile work with endless opportunities for media exposure. “I want to cross boundaries. I’m not going to do traditional advertising,” says Siltanen.
The Bob character was also incorporated into the content of the Web site, with him welcoming visitors to “The Bob Show.” Bob interviews celebrities such as Shaquille O’Neal, who also appears in the campaign. To ensure that baby Hunter doesn’t literally outgrow her character, the agency shot enough footage to carry the campaign for the next two years, says Stutsman.
Pam Keehn, who left TBWA\C\D as worldwide account director on Apple to join Siltanen as president of the shop, says what sets Siltanen apart is his skill in persuading clients to take a leap of faith. “How many clients would have bought the idea of a talking baby? You’d think that’s been done before,” she says. “The way he can bring an idea to life during a presentation, it’s magic.”
Selling the Bob campaign to the client just weeks after her arrival in January was a harbinger, says Keehn, who spent her entire 19 year-year career at TBWA\C\D. “It was the first time we had flown solo. We weren’t wrapped in the protective and high-profile Chiat environment.
“Rob is pretty ballsy,” she admits about his decision to open his own shop. “There was no fear. He knew he would be successful.” While Siltanen and Keehn are pleased with their progress, they admit leaving TBWA\C\D was hard. “I liken it to a child growing up,” says Keehn. “It’s time to take the next step.”
For Siltanen, a University of Oregon journalism graduate, the road to TBWA\C\D was inevitable. “My goal was to work at Chiat/Day,” he says. After an internship with Portland, Ore., agency Borders Perrin and Norrander, Siltanen landed a copywriting job at BBDO West, Los Angeles, working on Apple with former Chiat/Day creative Steve Hayden. A year later, he headed to Ketchum to work on Acura with creative director Brent Bouchez, another Chiat/Day alum. Less than two years into his ad career, Siltanen achieved his goal: He was hired by Chiat/Day to work on Reebok and Energizer, among other accounts.
The copywriter’s star rose quickly under the mentoring of chief creative officer Lee Clow. Within a year, he was named creative director on the shop’s largest account: Nissan. Siltanen’s reel, which ranges from funny to poignant, includes Nissan’s famed “Toys” commercial, Infiniti’s “Own one and you’ll understand” campaign, Apple’s “Think different” launch spot and Levi’s “Invisible Man.” Just before leaving, he put the finishing touches on the agency’s first campaign for the International Olympic Committee, “Celebrate Humanity.”
Viewed by many as the heir apparent to Clow, Siltanen’s future at TBWA\C\D seemed assured, and he was eager for a greater leadership role. But he grew frustrated when Clow did not name him creative director of the flagship office and resigned his position as managing partner and creative director last November.
“The time came when he was ready to do it on his own,” says Keehn. “The way he can get people to follow him, the way he can lead is a gift.”
Still, nine months after his departure, Siltanen struggles to express his feelings about Clow. “We had a close relationship for 10 years. I learned a lot,” says Siltanen. “Lee is one of the greatest advertising men who has ever existed. I’m thankful for what I’ve had over there. Lee tries to take advertising to a better place, turning it into an art form. He is a master,” he says.
When Siltanen left, Clow, who declined to be interviewed for this story, told Adweek, “This is a great opportunity for Rob to focus on what he loves best: the work.”
While Siltanen may have ruffled feathers by hiring former TBWA\C\D colleagues–including group creative director Joe Hemp, art director Craig Tanimoto, producer Nancy Dickerson and new business director Mia von Sadovszky–he prefers to concentrate on the future.
“I want to create an ideas factory,” he says. “I have this huge respect for Steve Spielberg. What he’s created at DreamWorks, I’d like to create at an agency: a place where creatives can live out their dreams.”