Q&A With Euro RSCG’s Lee Garfinkel

Lee Garfinkel, Euro RSCG’s new chief creative officer for global brands, is known primarily for his past work on cars (Mercedes-Benz), beer (Heineken) and soda (Pepsi). At his new agency, he faces a heavy diet of packaged goods (Reckitt Benckiser, Kraft Foods), with a smattering of big oil (ExxonMobil) and a luxury car (Jaguar). In an interview with AdweekMedia senior editor Andrew McMains, Garfinkel shared what sold him on Euro RSCG, his thoughts on previous agency DDB and why he’s more digitally savvy today than he was two years ago.

Adweek: How do you define this role?

Garfinkel: When I first started talking to [Euro RSCG global CEO] David Jones, he said that they have over 70 global brands. I think it might be more than most agencies. [Jones wants me to] focus on raising the bar [creatively] on as many of those as possible.

This feels more like a purely creative job, as opposed to creative and agency management.
That’s correct . . . One of the things that appeals to me about this is [that] instead of spending 40 percent of my time on creative and 60 percent on management, this is more like about 90 percent creative.

How do you distinguish between what you’ll be doing in New York versus Al Kelly, the office’s chief creative officer?
It’s really working with the best creative minds in the network to just help make the work better whenever we can. And what I’m hoping for in this role is that I not only help inspire people but other people inspire me too.

Looks like WPP is the holding company that you haven’t worked for yet.
That is correct (laughs).

Not that you set out to do that. I guess if you’re around long enough, right?
It’s interesting and it’s a great learning process. There are a lot of differences with those holding companies. They come right straight from the people that are running them, which is good for me to learn from.

What attracted you to Euro RSCG?
There were three people that were really appealing to me about this. The first was David. I thought what a really bright and energetic [leader who] had a clear mission of what I can do at Euro.

Did you know him before this?
No, I met him through the second person that was important to bringing me here, Matt Ryan [Euro’s president of global brands]. Matt and I will be partnering on a lot of global brands. I met Matt in the early ’90s when he was at Ryan Drossman. We’ve known each other for a long time.

Who was the third person?
Colleen DeCourcy. When they told me [that Euro parent Havas was] going to take a stake in Colleen’s new venture [Socialistic, a social media strategy shop], I thought this is definitely going to be going in the right direction.

What did you take away from the DDB experience?
(Laughs) You know what? I had some great years at DDB, especially in the first three years working for [then CEO} Ken Kaess. It was a terrific time for me and a terrific time for DDB New York. We won an amazing amount of business in the first three years and we started making the work better. So, I look back on those days when I first came to DDB with fondness.

What did you make of the relatively short tenure (11 months) of your successor, Eric Silver?

Honestly, I don’t know what to make of it. I like Eric and I think Eric is a very talented guy. So, what can I say? (Laughs) How’s that for a sound bite?

At one point, I heard that you were going to start your own agency. Did you give any serious thought to that?
You know, I thought about that. The last two years have been very good for me in a lot of ways because in addition to working on my entertainment projects with [former Lowe CEO] Jerry [Judge], I spent a lot of time in a lot of different advertising agencies, digital agencies, social media agencies. Not so much like looking for a job. Just wanting to see, out of curiosity, what everyone was up to. It was also a chance to bond with some people that I hadn’t seen in a while and meet some new people. It was a great learning experience to see what everybody’s offerings are. I was thinking, if and when I get back into advertising, I have a pretty good idea of what the competition is and what you’re going to need to compete.

What did you learn at the digital shops?

There’s a helluva lot of new technology out there and everybody has to be in the space. But the people who are going to win are the ones that come up with the best ways for using that space—the best ideas, no matter what the media is. You can get dazzled by the technology, but who’s really doing incredible work with this technology?

You don’t strike me as Mr. Digital.
It’s not true. It’s also not fair because back around 1998 or 1999, I started the digital group inside of Lowe . . . And back then, from new business meetings you could see the clients be just as engaged in the digital and the interactive work as the big television commercials. This is an opportunity to work in a new in a new canvas. And I did the same at DDB New York. I brought in digital people to work inside DDB New York, separate from Tribal (DDB).

How do you feel about the state of creativity in the business?
I’ve always said that work could be better and the agencies could be better, especially now. My complaint 15 years ago was [that] 95 percent of all television commercials are mediocre. Now, like 99 percent of all advertising is mediocre because there’s so much more communication out there than ever before. How much of it is good? Most of it is terrible. So, it’s a great opportunity at any agency. The big difference today versus 10 years ago is how many different agencies are out there. But I think every big agency is fairly equal in some ways. So, what’s going to separate one from the other? People. If you get a lot of like-minded talented people in one place, any agency can break away from the pack.