Grunitzky Finds Inspiration

NEW YORK At 36, Claude Grunitzky is chairman of The True Agency, founding editor of Trace magazine and author of a 2004 book on transculturalism.

His 45-person Los Angeles-based shop is currently developing an African-American-oriented campaign for Infiniti’s new EX, launching in January.

Previous efforts for Infiniti and Nissan have employed stunts, such as leaving keys to Altimas in city bars to promote a keyless ignition system, and programming, like last year’s Infiniti in Black design show on BET.

The Togo native explains how Francis Bacon inspires him and why he doesn’t have an iPhone.

Q: How do you measure success in guerrilla marketing campaigns such as this spring’s “lost keys” effort for the Altima?
A: That was extremely successful from a PR perspective because it allowed us, with a relatively small media buy and a really small guerrilla marketing campaign, to get a lot more bang for our buck.

What did you learn from that stunt?
That the most crazy, wacky ideas seem to work really well for us.

What inspires you creatively?
Original thinking and people who have followed their own path. I have a huge amount of respect for someone like Philippe Starck. He has been able to define his own style and apply that to services that he offers to his companies, to actual products that he develops through his companies and also for partners. That to me is an extreme model of creativity because even the collaborations that he has done for bigger companies, you can always feel his own style; it’s unmistakable. He has put his imprint on a certain part of modern classicism as applied to furniture, to interior design, to architecture. I actually live in his building. I bought an apartment in the Philippe Starck building on Broad Street, across from the New York Stock Exchange.

What else inspires you?
The paintings of Francis Bacon. I’m actually fortunate enough to own one now [“Study of the Human Body After a Design by Ingres”]. I’m a huge fan of his works. I discovered it when I was living in London in the early ’90s, and it was always my dream when I was a student to one day be able to afford a Francis Bacon. I just love the fact that he was able to channel his frustration with the violence of everyday life into amazing, timeless art. And that really inspired me. I have to look at that painting every day before I go to work, every morning, because he is an absolute genius and, creatively, I cannot think of anybody who is more evolved and honest with their own self from a painting perspective.

You launched trendspotting magazine Trace in 1995. How has your editorial background helped in advertising?
It has helped me conceive and execute some of these nontraditional campaigns we’ve done on the advertising side. Also, the access that I’ve been able to have through arbiters in the world of music, film, fashion, art, technology, design. Most of the people that I’ve met and that I’ve been able to channel into the advertising agency, I met them through the magazine as a journalist. Being a journalist and actually interviewing people since I was 24 years old, that has really helped me with advertising. When I call [celebrities], it’s a very different conversation because they know me as a journalist who has written about them and who, as a result, understands them.

Why did you cross over to advertising?
To be really honest, the magazine business sucks. It’s extremely rewarding because you get to interact with creative people and document the culture. But it’s extremely frustrating because the business model doesn’t work for an independent magazine. It’s very difficult to secure a lot of advertising so that you can pay the bills, and most of the advertising flows into these big conglomerates—the Hearsts and the Conde Nasts and so on. But we’re left with the crumbs.

What recent work do you admire?
Two books: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell. I pretty much led my entire career with that sort of approach—instincts—and when I read that book I was like, “Shit, I should have written that.” The other book I thought was really interesting was [Chris Anderson’s] The Long Tail.

What advertising out there excites you?
I continue to be a believer and a huge fan of the Apple ads. The ads for the iPhone [were] the best thing out there because they were very simple, but they really did show you the benefits of the product and they made it very cool.

Do you have an iPhone?
I don’t. I don’t want to get sucked into the always-available thing. I think it’s a real problem. You’re having dinner with somebody and the next thing you see they’re on their iPhone and they’re on their BlackBerry. I think it’s extremely rude and I think it’s a real problem for a social connection.

How many languages do you speak?
Six. [English, French, Portugese, Spanish and two African languages, Mina, from Togo, and Ewe, from Ghana.] It helps tremendously because I can go to most parts of the world and communicate with people in a language they understand. Put it this way: I’m going to London now, but two days ago I was in Sao Paulo and was able to speak Portuguese with my Brazilian clients. (It’s a big cosmetics company called Natura.) Then I can just go to Paris next week and speak to my clients in French, which is also my native tongue. And I can come back to New York and communicate in English. It has been really helpful to me.

Other than Philippe Starck, do you have any creative heroes?
There was one album that changed my life. That album was called Blue Lines. And it’s by a British hip-hop/ska/reggae/rock band called Massive Attack. It was a revolution for me. Number one, it showed me that I wanted to be in that world, in that creative space in which they operated. I knew that I had to be close to the music. And I’ve heard it so many times that it’s another part of me. That’s why I think that it changed my life, because it has helped me to sink my thinking into what would then become the magazine and then my professional career.

You wrote a book called Transculturalism: How the World Is Coming Together. How do you define transculturalism?
We define transculturalism in psychographic terms. It really is a way to describe people in terms of their hearts and minds as opposed to the demographic approach, which reduces people to age, race, gender and cultural background.

What are you reading these days?
The Culture of Narcissism, a book from the ’70s.

How did you find out about it?
When I told [a friend] that we were pitching for the New York City Department of Education, she told me about a chapter in that book that explained why the standards of education have lowered so much and, speaking specifically to the inner city, why the kids don’t value education as much as previous generations did. That was really good insight when it came to thinking about the Department of Education, where kids value iPods and sneakers more than they value school.

What were the biggest lessons from the Infiniti in Black show you produced for BET, in which a panel of black artists discussed design without mentioning the brand?
We were trying to identify a community of design-centric or design-passionate African Americans because that was what we were asked to do. And what we found is that the appreciation and the aesthetic of African Americans in regards to design is not necessarily the same as you would see in the general market. So, the sensibilities are slightly different between the general market and the African American. That was an important lesson because we are obviously coming from a transcultural perspective. And we think that some of the cultural cues that come out of our African-American experience will immediately be translated to the general market, but not always. So, the cultural conversation is a little bit more complicated than we had first imagined it to be five years ago.

How do you measure the success of something like that?
It’s measured in the ability of the Web site to gain traction and hits and the growth of those hits. It’s also measured in [the number of] hand raisers and actual people who walk into dealerships inquiring about the acquisition of a new Infiniti car. So, the numbers are very, very clear. Those numbers don’t lie.

Why weren’t you able to strike a deal with your initial backer, TBWA\Chiat\Day, to take a stake in True?
It’s interesting because we’ve been dating for almost six years, and now it seems like we’re in the dance again and we’re getting even closer than we were even six months ago. It’s one of those things where we might have been suspicious of each other, [but] we could end up getting married because there is always a simpatico factor there. But from a business perspective, we never could agree on terms. We always loved and respected everyone at TBWA.

Are you talking to anybody else about a possible deal?
We’re not even really looking for a deal. If something happens and TBWA is interested in us and we’re interested in continuing dating them, [OK]. But we’re doing pretty well as an independent. We’re now in our sixth year and we’ve grown every single year. So, it’s not bad.