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Fighting Chance

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"Get in touch with your mick," Logan Wilmont chides in his thick Irish accent after Rob Feakins passes on a second glass of white wine at downtown Manhattan bistro Balthazar. "I've been in touch with my mick too many times," is the characteristically dry response.

If Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners' Feakins, with the perfectly groomed silver hair, is the straightman—"like a stern dad who's reserved and businesslike," as one staffer says—his co-executive creative director, Wilmont, is the irreverent counterbalance.

"Their personalities are perfectly contradictory," says Michael Lee, director of creative integration at Euro RSCG MVBMS Partners, who first paired the two in the mid-'90s on Volvo. "Logan is good at getting an intuitive understanding of the culture. Rob is good at articulating that in a concise way."

For the New York independent, historically perceived as stronger in print than TV, that combination is considered key to bringing clearer concepts and higher production values to a spotty broadcast reel. The shop has attracted little national attention since it created risqué Kenneth Cole print in the '80s and quirky "Wendy" spots for Snapple in the mid-'90s.

Feakins, 45, and Wilmont, 43, took the reins from longtime executive creative director Bill Oberlander in December 2000. It was the start of a difficult period, brought on by diminished client spending and account losses. In 2001, estimated billings dropped 18 percent to $343 million; revenue fell 8 percent to $38 million.

"[Feakins and Wilmont] were thrown into the frying pan and the fire," says Richard Kirshenbaum, 41, co-chairman and chief creative officer. Last year Olympus left, then CSFBdirect, worth a combined $30 million in bill ings. The agency landed $70 million client Rev lon, but the relationship waned and the account moved to Deutsch early this year. Estimated billings, at $284 million, have fallen 17 percent this year. The creative team has shrunk from 40 in 2000 to 25.

Feakins—formerly co-creative di rector at Ammirati Puris Lintas, later Lowe Lintas—and Wilmont, a creative partner at Kirshenbaum since 1998, have made progress, albeit slowly. A sharp, funny campaign for Target, the highlight of the new reel, has won Kirshenbaum significantly more work from the client. And as the shop picks up other incremental new business, the creative department is gradually expanding.

In 11 years at the agency, Oberlander encouraged a culture open to experimentation, say agency sources, but the arty results were sometimes more misguided than innovative. In 2000, for example, spots for Free Agent.com hooked viewers with dead-on humor, but sexually charged Tommy Hilfiger spots felt gratuitous, and a text-heavy "Anti-Super Bowl" spot rebranding DLJdirect as CSFBdirect was confusing. (Oberlander, a group partner and ecd at Ogilvy & Mather, New York, declined comment.)

While some work took too many risks, other efforts were "too conservative and too corporate," says co-chairman Jon Bond, 44. "We felt we went too far in terms of making clients comfortable and lost some of that edge for some years," he says. "There's a fine balance between being grown-up and still having edge."

Randy Cohen, director of broadcast production at Kirshenbaum, re calls a time several years ago when the agency tried to fit three ideas into one Netscape spot. "[The audience] didn't have time to breathe," he says.

Says Feakins, "We're trying to make the work more conceptual—not more rote or formulaic." To that end, the pair's overriding concern has been to focus on one key idea per campaign.

It's not a ground-breaking philosophy but one that requires discipline, says Wil mont, who launched his career at London shops BMP DDB and "the ridiculously named" (as his bio says) Still Price Court Twivy D'Souza, which he co-founded in 1985. "It's a lot easier to put four ideas in a spot than one," he says. "We push the teams to get to simple, strong ideas that we can execute the hell out of."

Feakins, who comes out of the creatively driven school of Chiat\Day, cites Target ads that launched in January as an example of their one-idea approach. The concept: "If you're going to get a really good deal at Target and you could buy as much as you want, what would you do with the product?" he says. In the first spots, a driver weaves around an obstacle course of Tide containers; a guitarist uses toilet paper as soundproofing.

In last year's post-9/11 work for Manhattan's Downtown Alliance, a new client, the agency used one powerful notion to urge customers back to downtown businesses: "You may not need it, but downtown does." To illustrate that, spots show a grimy construction worker having a manicure and a bald man getting a haircut.

Another mission has been to bring higher-quality directors on board, along with better producers, editors and music houses. "I've seen an importance being put on opening up the net [of creative choices]," Cohen says. This year the team has hired directors including Nicholas Barker for Liberty Mutual, Gerard de Thame for Wyndham International and Doug Nichol for Target.

The quality of the creative department is also improving. Two July hires come out of creative shops: creative director Wayne Best, formerly of Wieden + Kennedy and Cliff Freeman and Partners in New York, and Amee Shah, an art director from Crispin Porter + Bogusky in Miami. Two more hires are expected this month, says Feakins.

Both ecds are actively involved in day-to-day decision making. "They're not afraid to get their hands dirty," says art director Megan Skelly. Fea kins likes to delve into every aspect of a spot's creation; Wilmont, perpetually good-natured and unflappable, is generally most concerned with aesthetics and the humorous payoff.

As a manager, Wilmont tends toward light hearted criticism, while Feakins readily admits he can be harsh, as well as something of a micromanager. He attributes that in part to leading a young team (with an average age of 31). "When we're picking a Target director, for instance, I might take more of a say because I've had more experience in commercial production," Feakins says. "Some of the creatives were too laid-back with directors. It's your concept, but you've hired somebody to bring it to life—that doesn't mean you sit all day at the craft-services table."

While Kirshenbaum has done one or two Target spots annually for the past five years, in 2002 the agency will produce 16, Cohen says. The initial campaign earned Kirshenbaum the chance to produce a second round of spots, which broke in July, as well as a third series, due in October. Last month, Target Corp. also awarded the shop a branding assignment for one of its units, Marshall Field's. "If the last thing you do is good, you get more assignments," Bond explains.

Feakins acknowledges that while the arrangement can breed insecurity, he ranks the relationship as one of the top two or three in his 20-year career because it's the most "adultlike." "Other clients might want to change your director, editor, ward robe, shot selection, even though you've done 300 commercials and they've done 10," he explains. "So your idea is diluted, your expertise is diminished and then you're blamed for the results. With Target, that doesn't happen. Of course, if you screw up, you're banished from Minnesota—you won't even get past Illinois. That's being treated like an adult."

"They bring a fun and fresh perspective to their work that fits our brand well," says Eric Erickson, creative director at Target.

So far Feakins and Wilmont have added seven spots to the reel, highlighted by the Target ads. The rest—for Liberty Mutual, Downtown Alli ance and Wyndham—represent fine-tuned concepts but, as Wilmont says, "it's still a work in progress."

One source who has worked with both Oberlander and the new regime says the agency is not yet considered innovative. "If you're a client looking for something different, [the agency has] lost that. If you're looking for solid work, that's a good thing." The new work, the source says, is "not necessarily better or worse—it's different."

This year Kirshenbaum has recovered some of its 2001 losses with incremental new business from USA Networks, VF Intimates, Meow Mix, The Hartz Mountain Corp., ClearBlue and ClearPlan Easy, and Verizon SuperPages, for nearly $80 million in bill ings. And the shop has landed on the roster of Beverage Part ners Worldwide, the Coca-Cola and Nestlé venture, with the task of introducing Tey, a bottled tea, according to sources.

The agency produced about 20 spots last year and this year that number will double, says Cohen.

"The shorthand of our business is still, 'What's on your reel?' " says Fea kins. "Every spot has to count."