Stepping into it: when an upstart agency is so pleased with the outrageousness of its work, it’s time for a reality check

On a late February afternoon in Philadelphia’s staid Society Hill, Emma Hagen, a 25-year-old art director from New Zealand, is perusing phone messages from reporters from such publications as U.S. News and World Report and The New York Times. The former branch of First Philadelphia Bank is buzzing with more controversy than it ever had in its dignified previous life. Gyro Advertising, the current tenant, has just released a print campaign for a local clothing company called Zipper Head. And some of the ad posters feature the well-known clothes horses Jeffrey Dahmer and Charles Manson.
The calls pouring into Gyro’s 12-person office make for the sort of attention any cheeky young agency should love. But as the phones keep ringing, Hagen and her 28-year-old partner/ husband, Stephen Grasse, start to question whether being Philadelphia’s answer to Kirshenbaum & Bond might not be all so sweet. “Should I return their calls?” Hagen asks.
Three weeks later, after USA Today has been added to the stack of press queries, Gyro has decided to pull the ads featuring Dahmer and Manson. A call to Grasse from ADWEEK elicits the ironically formal statement, “We’re rethinking the serial killers, but everything else is running.”
The rest of the campaign for Zipper Head, which makes S&M and nightclub clothes, playfully blends Gap-like art direction with the sort of people who populate Madonna’s Sex. But, as is the case with many cause celebres, the two ads with Dahmer and Manson obscured the rest of the work. “Go a little insane NOW instead of a lot of insane later,” read the headline that ran alongside a photo of Dahmer. The implication seemed to be that perhaps he wouldn’t have killed all those people if he’d cut loose and bought a studded collar first.
In the wake of Zipper Head, Gyro finds itself in a vise that has gripped many young agencies. They’re eager to get noticed for the sheer impact of their work, and at the same time they’ll recite chapter and verse their more serious intentions in a highly competitive business. The act wears thin rather quickly. “There is a little problem with that, because Kirshenbaum is still trying to live down some of the stuff that made them brash, arrogant, sons of bitches,” says Nat Whitten, creative director of Weiss, Whitten, Carroll, Stagliano and a judge for the recent annual awards show for the An Directors’ Club of Philadelphia.
“Madonna can take all of her clothes off and show everyone her tits, but after a while it loses its effect,” says Mad Dogs and Englishmen founder Nick Cohen, who was also a judge at the show.
“We’ve been a little scared about Zipper Head,” Grasse admitted before the poster campaign was pulled. “We’ve never had an account like this before. And it scares me.”
So did he go too far? Well, imagine what it’s like to be a twenty something ad executive in Philadelphia–a city widely considered an advertising backwater-and you’re trying to make a national name for your agency. “The idea is to get noticed and buy stuff that pisses off your parents,” Grasse says of Zipper Head’s ad strategy. Grasse claims the serial killer ads were also meant to point out the dangers of being too repressed. “The Charles Manson stuff speaks to their target in a way they haven’t been spoken to before,” he says earnestly.
For other clients, Gyro’s work seems a lot less demented and never strays too far from its target. Indeed, there’s evidence to support Grasse’s contention that, despite his preference for combat boots over wing tips, he knows when to conform. “When our clients are conservative, we’re conservative, too,” he says. Gyro has handled catalog work for sportswear maker Eagle’s Eye, which makes just the sort of conservatively styled, brightly colored knit sweaters that Hagen says are a big hit with proper women in the South. Gyro has also shown an ability in media promotion, turning out spots for the CBS affiliate in Philadelphia, a PBS station in Washington, D.C., and a network affiliate in New York.
The challenge for Gyro, and upstarts like it, is to find the proper middle ground between ambitious intentions and the desire to get noticed–as long as that doesn’t land the agency squarely in the middle of the road, or way off of it. After all, there’s a whole generation of disaffected, advertising-inured consumers who could keep agencies like Gyro in business across the country. It’s hard to imagine where else in Pennsylvania three Gyro clients–the record labels Ruff House and Relapse and the We Three Records chain–would go for their advertising.
Says Grasse, “I think there’s a line out there, and we definitely found out where it was this time.”
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)