Maybe I shouldn’t admit this–but, for most of us, covering the agency world is like the proverbial blind man feeling the toe of the elephant and having to guess its shape. We’re the waifs watching the party from the street. We peak through the blinds and see people dancing and (dimly) hear the music. Once in a great while, one of us actually gets invited in. Then, invariably, the reverse happens: We become co-opted and join the conspiracy of silence on what hell agency life really is.
Los Angeles writer Karen Stabinet got invited inside Chiat/Day for a whole year, but she never lost her sense of mission. Though she got very close to some of the people at Chiat/Day, she maintained an objective, fly-on-the-wall attitude and, in the end, isn’t afraid to tell it straight: right down to the client blow-ups and agency skull sessions where a cynical gallows humor tries to mask the fear of failure that comes with trying to carry Chiat/Day’s creative mantle into battle against larger, more traditional, more market-oriented agencies.
In one typical executive session, as the agency is preparing for a credentials presentation to NutraSweet, an advertiser that originally didn’t even want the agency in the review but which ultimately chose C/D as its agency, the jokes around the table are what Stabiner calls “an absolute barometer of the anxiety level” in the room.
What about the agency’s lack of a full international network? Someone suggests having people flown in from London, Toronto and Sydney to show that the $1-billion agency does have a few overseas offices.
“Should we have them dressed up in their native costumes?” cracks founder Jay Chiat. “Sure,” says Los Angeles president Bob Kuperman. “We’ll do a small-world presentation.”
Kuperman then plays the client: “You lose a lot of clients, don’t you.”
“We consider that a strength,” Chiat rejoins. “We’re still here, aren’t we!”
Some might find Stabiner’s book, Inventing Desire (Simon & Schuster, 351 pages, $25), out this week, proof that life in a creative agency is a tumultuous, chaotic affair, full of sound and egos signifying little. Others, myself included, will see this book as a wonderful documentary on how great ideas in advertising actually sinwive the rigorous, agency-and-client committee process. Jay Chiat has been remarkably brave–beginning with that day 25 years ago when he borrowed $4,000 and hung out a shingle in Los Angeles, without a client. In giving Stabiner free run of his agency for all of 1990–in fact what became the worst year of the agency’s 2 1/2 decade existence–Chiat carries this courage to a new level.
During 1990, the agency lost high-profile national accounts like Reebok, Sara Lee and the $35-million Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines and saw its New York office plunge to the edge of extinction. San Francisco had to be closed and Jay began to feel the pinch of Mojo’s losses in Australia. For the first time in the agency’s history, he had to lay off personnel and introduce wage and bonus freezes for top executives. As a final blow, Tom McElligott briefly joined the agency–only to resign a few months later to start a new shop in Minneapolis, taking with him two key C/D executives.
Asked why he agreed to let Stabiner pierce the press curtain Chiat has tried to build around the agency, Chiat says nonchalantly, “Well, I think she would have done the book anyway.” His deal with Stabiner involved only two stipulations: first, that she show him the manuscript so that he could check it for accuracy and, second, that she prepare clients for sections about their business and excise anything proprietary.
There are some parts Chiat and others would probably sooner forget. Stabinet records how associate c/d Dick Sittig loved working with director Ridley Scott on the $1.17-million Nissan 300ZX Turbo “fantasy” spot, where the car races with a jet fighter. But he and his creative teams had trouble showing the same enthusiasm for the launch of the boxy Sentra. When Chiat returns from Europe to find the team only a week away from a “tissue meeting” with the client and totally unprepared, he blows up at partner Lee Clow: “(Nissan is) 75% of our business! What are we doing with two junior (creative) teams on this account?”
Any regrets? Chiat allows as how he and his colleagues are “nervous as hell” as to how the agency and client world will receive the book. If there is anything missing, says Chiat, it’s that some people won’t grasp from this snapshot an understanding of affection that C/D-ers have for one another. “The uninformed reader might come away with the impression that there’s lots of arguing and bickering and that we’re mean-spirited people. On the contrary, I think we do a lot of arguing and bickering, but it’s all with a good spirit. We are able to exchange opinions without it becoming a political issue. Whatever we do, whether destructive or constructive, we all have the same objective: to create great advertising.”
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)