Facing Fallon’s Misfortunes

Paul Silburn admits it’s been a tumultuous 10 months since he arrived as executive creative director at Fallon North America. Since arriving in Feburary, the shop has lost accounts worth about $130 million in billings, closed its New York office, parted with Sony and turned over about a fifth of its 50-person creative staff. But, the 45-year-old says, that’s advertising.

“It’s one of those businesses where you’re either up on a high or you’re down on a low,” he says. “There are very few days where you’re coasting along in the middle. I don’t think there’s such a thing as an average day.”

That may be true, and certainly Silburn isn’t solely to blame for Fallon’s account losses—$70 million BMW North America, $30 million Lee Jeans nor $50 million Dyson vacuum, which account for about a tenth of the agency’s estimated $100 million in revenue. And the agency has this year reeled in creative assignments from KitchenAid, Vanguard Car Rental, the New York Stock Exchange and most media duties for NBC Universal. The Minneapolis shop also is pitching Heineken Premium Light’s $40 million account and assisting London on Bacardi’s $160 million global consolidation. A win of either account could ease Silburn’s transition, giving him a sense of ownership over a piece of business. “It will be amazing when it happens,” says Susan Treacy, group creative director at Fallon.

“No one’s going to pretend it hasn’t been a roller-coaster year for Fallon, but the great thing is that the integrity of the agency and [founder Pat Fallon] is in place,” says Silburn, a 15-year ad veteran.

It’s been roughly a year since the Publicis Groupe agency announced Silburn, who had been deputy creative director at TBWA London, would succeed David Lubars as the creative leader. Known for award-winning work on brands such as John West salmon, John Smith beer, Nike and Stella Artois, Silburn was one of the most awarded (and most sought-after) creatives in London. Luring him to Fallon sent a signal that the Minneapolis agency wasn’t going to compromise its creative values.

“My reaction was, ‘That’s the one. That’s the one [he’s] been waiting for,'” says JWT London ecd Nick Bell, who was one of Silburn’s bosses at Leo Burnett London. “I felt he’d be a very good fit for Fallon.”

Maurice Lévy, chairman and CEO of Publicis Groupe, says of the new ecd, “It is no surprise that Paul, as a highly regarded international creative talent, would want the challenge of working in the U.S. and at Fallon. I wish him the very best of luck in bringing about a new creative era for the agency.”

Many who know Silburn are quick to cite his talent, drive and focus, and some note that he is less ostentatious than previous leaders such as Lubars or Bill Westbrook. His quiet temperment may be closer to co-founder Tom McElligott’s than any of his predecessors—”I would say there’s some truth to that,” says chairman Pat Fallon. “Though Paul shows more resilience and less ego.”

Mark Tutssel, deputy worldwide chief creative officer at Leo Burnett, also a former boss of Silburn’s, describes him as “a perfectionist.” “He’s about big ideas,” he says. “He’s capable of living up to the Fallon name.”

First, he has to rejuvenate the creative department. The departures include group cds John Wyville, Dave Damman, Bobby Pearce and most notably, Minneapolis cd Bruce Bildsten. Silburn has taken those departures—reasons for which have ranged from conflicting styles to dwindling advancement possibilities to family issues—in stride, saying they’re to be expected when a new chief arrives. “You always get change when somebody new comes in, in any kind of role,” Silburn says of the departures. “That’s only to be expected.”

He adds that he’s been able to lure others to the agency, such as a team from his old haunt TBWA London, a team from Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, and Roger Camp and Mark Taylor, of Wieden + Kennedy and Crispin Porter + Bogusky, respectively, who will serve as Silburn’s creative director lieutenants. According to Camp, the lure was to work with Silburn and restore some of the agency’s creative “swagger,” which it lost when Lubars announced he was leaving. “It’s an opportunity to make Fallon great again,” agrees Taylor. “Everyone wants to do great work, and everyone realizes we need to do that.”

But big pronouncements of vision are not forthcoming. While Silburn regularly holds screenings of new directors and award-winning work for the creative department, he has not had any big meetings outlining his planned course. Rather, when he arrived, he held individual meetings with the creative staffers. “I’m not a big room kind of person,” he says. “I prefer talking in smaller groups of people.”

Sources say, however, that some creatives have chafed against Silburn’s changes. Whereas the creative staff had been given relative autonomy under Lubars, Silburn has taken a more hands-on approach. There’s also more “gangbanging” of creative teams, sources say. While some of these complaints can be written off as sour grapes or transitional angst, some point to a cultural difference: Silburn comes from a British model where creatives are expected to create while account people spend their time with the client.

“A little [change] is a good thing,” says one source. “But it’s a different dynamic if [the change agent is] coming from the other side of the pond.”

Silburn himself is unapologetic. The mission he has chosen to accept is to increase Fallon North America’s stature around the world, as well as internally where he says the work had become “a disposable commodity,” on which it would give up too easily. Fallon Minneapolis, he says, needs to continue to be regarded as a top creative agency because “there’s no point in an agency being [in Minneapolis] to give great account service.”

So things will be done differently, such as more competition internally. There may also be some physical rearranging; Silburn is looking to convert some conference rooms into smaller creative spaces for more brainstorming freedom.

“He’s trying to create a ‘celebrate the work’ culture, rather than a ‘celebrate me’ culture,” says art director Bob Barrie. Even some who’d left the agency for bigger opportunities elsewhere say they reget not having the chance to work with him.

When the agency ran into roadblocks about the best way to go about crafting the new Nordstrom Silverscreen project, it was Silburn who suggested re-mixing 80s hits, says Treacy, group cd on the business. And while sending creatives back to the drawing board can be tough, Treacy noted he was considerate of the work she had already put into the project. “We just moved forward in a collaborative discussion,” she says. “There was no scolding or criticism.”

Ultimately, Silburn wants to bring Fallon more gold awards and regard worldwide. It’s been “too long” since the agency turned heads with BMW Films or Citi’s identity theft work, he says. “Obviously what I want is another high point like that as quickly as possible,” he says. “And then I want another four in quick succession.”

But some of that impact will have to wait. For most of his time at Fallon Silburn’s been focused on two things: caring for current clients and winning new business. First, he’s had to adjust to the American process that calls for creative leaders’ presence with clients. “People had warned me that I would be expected to go to so many meetings,” he says. “But no matter how prepared I was for it, I wasn’t fully prepared.”

So far, he’s winning at least some clients’ approval. Brad Jakeman, managing director of global advertising for Citi, says he’s been impressed, particularly Silburn’s ability to respect the earlier work. “Paul is an incredible talent who is secure enough to know that coming in to execute off a proven platform is a good thing,” he says.

Not bad for a man who fell into the industry sideways. While doing odd jobs such as DJ-ing and “anything to avoid doing a sensible job,” around London, Silburn says a conversation in a pub led him to believe advertising was a profession of “easy money populated by beautiful women.” Sold on that pitch, he put together a portfolio and hit the pavement just as London fell into recession in 1990.

“I kind of learned a lot by trial and error,” he says. “My early years have made me appreciate the success I’ve had more recently.”

Silburn found his first job at HQ Partnership, a mostly B2B shop located above an Indian restaurant off Leicester Square. Undeterred, Silburn continued to hone his portfolio, eventually working his way into Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow Johnson and onto its Nike account. A poster he created there, of Pete Sampras serving a grenade, drew attention. “I’m still very proud of that,” he says. “That played a big part in getting me established.”

He later moved to Bartle Bogle Hegarty, then to Lowe Howard-Spink. A seven-month stint at Leo Burnett (where he was copywriter on the Gold Lion-winning John West salmon spot that was widely circulated around the globe via the Internet) was followed by a position as creative at Leith London. The agency, however, was “the wrong chemistry,” says Silburn, and he joined TBWA London a year later as deputy creative director under Trevor Beattie. He was there just over two years when Fallon called. “I was wowed really that they might consider me,” he says. “I never had any plans or ambitions to come to America, but I have such respect for the Fallon team, that I was intrigued.”

He also wasn’t sure when another opportunity might arise. Beattie seemed entrenched at TBWA, and Silburn felt he was ready for the next challenge. (“I thought, ‘This is not going to lead to much more than I’m doing now,'” he says.) Only six months after Silburn accepted the job at Fallon, Beattie left to form Beattie McGuinness Bungay. Silburn, however, says he’s never looked back. “I actually think I’ve got a more interesting job here,” he says. “I’m going to learn so much more being here and achieve so much more.”

Silburn’s goal is simple: make Fallon the best in class in everything it does. “There’s been a lot of emphasis on nontraditional media, and that’s great … but that may have been to the detriment of all of the other things the agency does,” he says. “I’d like to think we take as much care, attention and pride in everything we do.”

Regardless of any perceptions of Fallon falling, the agency is still a desirable destination for creatives, says creative recruiter Dany Lennon, president of Creative Register in Westport, Conn. “I don’t have any problem recruiting for Fallon or Paul Silburn,” she says, noting she’s placed several there in the past year. “He inherited and has been handling a tough situation in such a politically correct way. He gets my [credit] in soldiering through. … We have yet to see what Paul is made of.”