Funny Business

Call it a moment. Four months into his new gig as executive creative director of Fallon, New York, Jamie Barrett posed a question that unlocked the answer to a huge account win and a successful, albeit short-lived, campaign.

It happened at the Atlanta headquarters of MindSpring, then a relatively unknown Internet service provider looking for an agency to handle its $55 million account.

Seated in folding chairs around a tattered pool table, Fallon executives—including Barrett and president Alison Burns—listened closely while MindSpring founder Charles Brewer recalled his company’s origins. Then, as if on cue, Barrett popped the question: “If you’re standing on a mountaintop and you could yell one reason why someone should use MindSpring, what would it be?”

“You know,” Brewer replied, “you’d be happier.”

Short, simple, to the point. The phrase rolled off Brewer’s tongue like a warm and fuzzy version of “Just do it,” the legendary tagline for Nike, a brand dear to Barrett’s heart. In eight years as a copywriter, associate creative director and creative director at Wieden + Kennedy, he helped craft more than 200 TV spots for Nike that still pay dividends today.

More than a year later, Barrett cites the MindSpring win as his best day at Fallon, which is telling, considering the agency won two gold Lions at Cannes this year for MTV’s “Jukka Bros.” and The X Show’s “We know what guys are really thinking” campaigns. MindSpring was his first big win with his new colleagues. And it underscores Barrett’s incisive ability to extract a hook.

“Jamie has the ability to get inside you and help you figure out what you already know about yourself,” says Alex Kaminsky, MindSpring’s former vp of marketing. “He helps you see the tree for the forest.”

Well-balanced, likeable, direct, disarming and a good listener—that’s how colleagues and clients describe Barrett, a tall, self-dubbed “dork” who resembles John Malkovich. Others find him silly, low key and “amazingly immature.” Barrett likes to play, sometimes at the expense of office decorum. But it’s hard to argue with his results.

In less than two years, he turned a department of four that mainly produced print ads into a magnet for creative talent, including hiring Kevin Roddy and Matt Vescovo, both alumni of Cliff Freeman and Partners. As a managing partner, he has been instrumental in new business efforts, producing a string of clients (MTV, the United States Tennis Association, eTour and ABC Sports) that have boosted billings from $40 million to $250 million. Throw in three Lions (the other was a silver, for Conseco’s “Fountain” ad), and watch a shop on the rise.

Yet more than halfway through his sophomore year, Barrett, 39, is still adjusting to the label “management.” He sees his title as an obstacle to open dialogue and has gone out of his way to show he’s just a regular guy.

He often wears shorts to work, and sometimes—without warning—doffs his shirt. Other times, he offers an unexpected hug or literally gets in someone’s face. His unconventional behavior clicks with staffers.

“What comes naturally to me is to create an environment that is as stress-free and tension-free and conflict-free and intimidation-free as an advertising agency can be,” says Barrett. “I think that starts with creative people feeling like they can go out on a limb and experiment and work with me in a way that they’re not afraid.”

Yes, Barrett is a by-product of Wieden, which gives creative directors room to swim and follow their gut. Beyond that, Barrett is just being himself, a man who tries not to take anything too seriously.

Although a goofball at heart, Barrett holds a prep-school pedigree. He grew up in Greenwich, Conn., and attended St. Paul’s boarding school in New Hampshire and Princeton, where he majored in English literature and excelled at squash. In college, he was known for his height (6 feet 6 inches), wit and way with words. “He was always a funny guy,” says former roommate John Fisher. “Most of us saw Jamie writing for Saturday Night Live.”

Instead, a false notion that he knew someone who worked on Wendy’s “Where’s the beef?” campaign led him to advertising in 1985—two years after graduation.

He started on the account side, at Fallon’s Minneapolis office, working on brands such as Gold’n Plump Chickens. “Perhaps the world’s worst account executive,” recalls Fallon veteran art director Bob Barrie, suppressing a laugh. “I put it in the lack of desire category.”

Recognizing an appealing alternative, Barrett developed a book of “punny” print ads, which eventually led to a shot as a junior copywriter. His Hush Puppies and FedEx work caught the eye of Dan Wieden, among others, and in September 1990, after an eight-month stint at Chiat/Day in New York, Barrett headed west for Portland, Ore.

Working on Nike was a dream job: writing for a brand that personifies sports, rubbing elbows with world-class athletes and creating some of the best work in the category. Case in point: The ’96 spot “Frozen Moment” juxtaposes a slow-motion scene of Michael Jordan with images of ordinary people fixated on the action.

But for clues to Barrett’s personality, look no further than the ’98 campaign “Fun Police,” which turned basketball stars Gary Payton and Kevin Garnett into yellow-coated detectives who investigated dull, selfish play. In one spot, set in a laundromat, Payton, Garnett and Jason Kidd ponder fun stuff (“No-look passes? Yeah!”) while waiting for their coats to spin dry. It’s a serious musing about the importance of play.

“That campaign really represents a lot of what Jamie is about,” says (Continued on page 26) Chris Zimmerman, former ad director, now gm of golf at Nike.

As Wieden himself recalls, “Jamie had a great emotional range, an intellectual range. He could infuse spots with a great deal of humor, or he could be inspirational and evocative,” adding, “It was a very good fit.”

The decision to leave was difficult, but in September 1998, after eight years on Nike, Barrett tried something new. He had many options—including a chance to start an agency with longtime pal and fellow Wieden alum Jerry Cronin—but the allure of returning to his roots and reconnecting with Pat Fallon, his longtime mentor, brought him back to New York.

Seated inside his office on the 20th floor of the Woolworth Building, Barrett closes his eyes and listens while a young creative team describes different ways to illustrate “TV with influence,” a possible tagline to a new MTV campaign. Art director Con Williamson and copywriter Jay Sharfstein show sketches, including one that juxtaposes a screen shot from CatDog with a boy eyeing his cat and dog, staple gun and scissors behind his back. “I like that a lot,” Barrett says, “We should do that one up.”

Later, while sorting through a pile of creative submissions with Roddy, the creative director, and associate creative directors Vescovo and Chris Landi, Barrett flashes his acerbic wit. “Anyone want to gong this?” he says, midway through a TV spot for IHOP.

Roddy embraces the light mood in the department, which he describes as close-knit. “Everybody likes each other. We goof on each other. Spontaneous things come up,” he says. “The other day, we had a limbo contest in the office. …Vescovo, I think won it because he’s so short.”

Roddy, who arrived in August 1999 as an acd, became cd this year, freeing Barrett to deal with broader agency issues. A third acd arrives this month—Calvin Soh of Saatchi & Saatchi, Singapore—and there are plans for a fourth—most likely an art director, since Barrett, Roddy and Soh are writers.

Although still intimately involved in the creative process, Barrett spends much of his time these days with his fellow partners: Burns; Neil Powell, who also runs design shop Duffy Worldwide; and John Gerzema, the strategic planning director and Barrett’s closest buddy at Fallon.

They are a diverse bunch, ranging from a spiky-haired Kentuckian (Powell) to an ever-smiling “consensus-builder” from Montana (Gerzema) to a process-driven former account executive from England (Burns).

With diversity comes different styles, which can lead to spirited debates. “We didn’t go into business together,” notes Powell. “We sort of found each other. What we have had to do as a result is get comfortable with each other.”

Adds Burns: “There are definitely some good cops and bad cops among us.” Count Barrett as the former. “He likes to say ‘yes’ rather than ‘no,’ ” observes Burns, concluding, “He likes to be liked.” Even Barrett admits that when it comes to managing people, “I can be too soft. Not too soft, but too nice.”

As 2000 winds down, the creative chief seeks to broaden the emotional range of his shop’s reel, which has often feasted on humor. A recent spot for Georgia-Pacific’s Angel Soft toilet paper is a good example. The ad shows children stacking packages in their kitchen to cushion a skidding puppy. Corporate image work meshes acoustic music with simple visuals to a calm, folksy effect.

Also on Barrett’s plate: nurturing young talent such as Williamson and Sharfstein. Plus, he recently became a father. His wife, Beth, a producer he met while playing on the Wieden softball team, gave birth to Benjamin James Barrett in June. On a warm August night, Beth and Ben caught up with Barrett at a home-style restaurant off Union Square during an interview.

Without missing a beat, he got up to plant a kiss on his son’s forehead. After his family left, he mock-apologized for the interruption, quipping, “How rude.”

Therein lies the paradox that is Barrett: part jokester, part sensitive soul. Add a strong sense of perspective and you get a kinder, goofier executive creative director. What’s his secret?

“Be a little stupid. Do something crazy like untuck your shirt,” says Barrett, quoting from a speech he gave at an industry event last spring. “All of a sudden stuff starts to weigh a lot less heavily on you, tension sucks out of conference rooms and corridors, your underwear doesn’t feel so bunched up, and lo and behold—your work starts to get better.”

Is there a name for that?

“It’s the power of dorkdom,” he explains.

Sounds like a great tagline.