Spike Lee’s plans to recharge SpikeDDB
“All good filmmakers tell a story, and all good pieces of communication have a narrative.
Malcolm X had three hours and 23 minutes worth of story, and a commercial has 30 seconds,” says acclaimed director Spike Lee. “I always decided that if I became successful, I would not limit myself. I would not put a straitjacket on myself.”
Although Lee expanded his repertoire in the late ’80s, directing Nike spots for Wieden + Kennedy, he decided to do more. “The reason I wanted to have a joint [ad] venture,” he explains, “was to have greater creative control. After a while, I wanted to try my hand at the agency business.”
SpikeDDB was launched with great expectations in 1996 and despite a drop in billings, its death has been greatly exaggerated, says Lee. His shop has a new president, new clients and a renewed sense of pride. Lee calls last year’s TV campaign for New Era “the proudest” work of his ad agency. In it, Mike Piazza of the New York Mets and the Cleveland Indians’ Jim Thome express pride in their sport, their values and their New Era caps.
Proud Lee may be, but his joint ain’t exactly jumpin’. After nearly four years, the agency has yet to emerge as a formidable competitor in the New York agency scene.
By 1999, SpikeDDB suffered key staff defections, most notably creative director Charles Hall last May, followed in December by vp, account director Jeff Marshall, now with Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners. Hall was replaced in December 1999 by associate creative director Desmond Hall (no relation). The shop also saw billings drop from $25 million in 1998 to $15 million in 1999, and went from 10 full-time employees to just three.
Despite project work for past clients, including Fox Sports, the Miami Heat and the Continental Basketball Association, SpikeDDB has yet to land a marquee account of its own. “Everyone [at parent DDB Worldwide] treats Spike with kid gloves,” one source says. “They’re not going to hassle him. They don’t want him to leave.” Many in the industry have wondered when DDB would either pull the plug or let it fade away. DDB Worldwide chairman and CEO Keith Reinhard rejects such pessimism, saying he is committed to the shop.
The notion of failure, however, rankles a man accustomed to critical accolades. Lee readily acknowledges that the shop has suffered from image problems, including how much time he spends in the office, his level of participation in new-business pitches and whether SpikeDDB is perceived as an African American marketing agency instead of the “urban lifestyles” tag it embraces.
SpikeDDB was originally positioned as an urban-youth marketing brand that would pursue its own accounts while providing ancillary support to DDB’s larger clients. But with Lee at the helm, the idea of “urban” marketing was misunderstood.
“One of my biggest mistakes is that I really succumbed to getting tripped up in the whole label thing,” Lee laments. “Because once you begin to talk about ‘urban,’ does that mean ‘black’? I already come with the baggage of Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X and my other feature films. That just muddied the water. The agency was trying to find its way,” Lee adds, reflecting on the past four years. “It was learning how to crawl before walking.”
Now, SpikeDDB is recharging. In April, SpikeDDB hired a president, Dana Wade from Young & Rubicam, New York. Lee and top DDB execs say her business acumen and leadership are what was missing from the shop. “Her resume speaks to her level of expertise from a strategic and business standpoint,” Lee says.
Wade was tapped, Reinhard says, because she presented a strong and aggressive business plan for the agency. Wade declined to offer specifics, except to say that “Spike is in and of himself, a brand. And that brand has certain expectations and attributes, [like] a huge insight into people’s lives.”
In four years at Y&R, Wade gained the respect of colleagues as an account director who assisted with the development of Citibank’s first global sponsorship: Elton John’s 1998 world tour. She also helped broaden MetLife’s advertising from its insurance business to its offerings as a financial institution. “Her reputation is strong,” says David Flemister, a former Y&R colleague, now director of client services at dRush. “She has an opportunity to turn the place around. But to what extent she’s empowered [by DDB] remains to be seen.” Reinhard responds: “The resources of DDB are at their beck and call.”
Wade will cope with what former Spike DDB executive Marshall insists is DDB’s overdependence on Lee’s celebrity and lack of commitment to the startup. “When [the agency] got off the ground, everyone at DDB had stars in their eyes,” Marshall says. “They thought clients would come running.”
One source refers to Lee as DDB’s “meeting candy” because of a perception that he’s used solely as a new-business tool. Lee has participated in meetings with McDonald’s and had flown to Houston for DDB’s unsuccessful bid to defend Compaq. Lee says he supervised all the work SpikeDDB presented in the successful J.C. Penney pitch, though he did not attend client meetings. Says a source, “This man is a tool to get to know your prospects or to keep your current prospects.”
Lee insists he would never stand for such a scenario. “It’s not like let’s just wheel Spike out like a dog and pony show,” he says. “I would not be a part of that, and they know that.” As for his time at the shop, Lee notes, “I work hard, and I have great pride. And I love Michael Jordan, but I’m not doing no Washington Wizards GM job like he’s doing. I’m not mailing it in. You don’t have to be sitting in your office seat to be working.”
Still, Lee’s participation in campaigns outside his shop has raised some eyebrows at DDB. As a director for hire, Lee is free to pursue other projects through his production company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, which produces feature films as well as TV spots for clients not on DDB’s roster. He recently lensed a Jaguar ad for Ogilvy & Mather through 40 Acres and a Mule, and directed several U.S. Navy spots for BBDO last year.
“This is one of the great things,” Lee says. “Keith [Reinhard] said, ‘You should still be allowed to go outside SpikeDDB and direct spots when the opportunity comes up.’ In no way, shape or form do I think it hinders what I do at SpikeDDB.”
Yet questions about SpikeDDB’s viability remain. Reinhard contends the shop is probably “not truly an agency concept. It is a market concept. … Spike could pick up the phone and get a dozen people to return his calls. And we could mobilize such knowledge against any client problem.”
In fact, Wade and Lee cite his work in February for ABC, which paid for a campaign on Black History Month, as evidence of his brand value. The eight spots featured black actors, athletes, poets, etc., commenting on history, sports, jazz and society.
Wade also says the addition of Marc Ecko apparel to the roster has helped put the shop back on track. SpikeDDB claims billings of $22 million this year, and staffers are working on projects for DDB clients McDonald’s and J.C. Penney. In addition, Lee has directed several spots anchored on the themes of trust and family values for DDB’s oldest client, State Farm Insurance.
Ultimately, SpikeDDB’s survival depends on what Lee’s vision can do for clients. “Has he achieved in being an owner of his own ad agency?” Marshall asks. “No. Can he shape a brand through strategic analysis? No. But nobody will hold it against him. Creatively, he can shape a brand. At the end of the day, clients want him.”
“I love advertising. I love feature films. I love doing documentaries. I love music videos,” says Lee. “To me, it’s all under the umbrella of filmmaking and communications.