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A maturing Fallon attracts blue-chip clients and maintains its creative edge

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For a midsized ad agency, adding $150 million in billings is a huge coup. For Fallon, victory in the heavyweight bout for Citibank meant more than money.

"It was a turning point, a confirmation of the new direction we're going in," says agency co-president and executive creative director David Lubars.

That direction, fittingly for a Minnea po lis agency, is north. Under Lubars, co-president Rob White and general manager Eric Block, Fallon last year fully leveraged the strengths of its creativity while sidestepping the pitfalls of self-indulgence. The Citibank win in August, reaffirming Fallon as a serious player, came six months after the shop was sold to Publicis, putting it on a path to global growth. Along with more than $50 million in other wins, some of the best creative in the country and a commitment to integrated marketing that has brought proven interactive success, the performance earns Fallon the title of Adweek's Midwest Agency of the Year.

The success of 2000 is not yet fully realized in Fallon's numbers. (Billings and revenue figures reflect the 1999 losses of the $20 million Qualcomm and $100 million Miller Lite accounts, while revenue from Citi bank did not kick in until 2001.) Still, the shop is undoubtedly reaping the benefits of a sharper focus.

"We set a very aggressive agenda for change," says White. "It's about having an idea reach that isn't about silos of specific media, but rather about how people come into contact with a brand."

Fallon has been knocked over the years, often justifiably, for being creative for creative's sake—a flaw some say ensured its well-documented failures with top clients such as Miller and McDonald's. Lubars, who took over as creative chief two-and-a-half years ago, says he wanted to move the shop to what he terms a "more populist approach."

"It's like the Beatles," he says. "There's no creative compromise, but everybody likes the music."

Fallon's 2000 reel is anchored by the subtly hilarious "Cat-herders" epic for EDS. "We took a company that was dark for 15 or 20 years and thrust them on the national stage, where people were actually talking about them," Lubars says.

The range of work is impressive, from the elegance of BMW's 3 Series spots and X5 intro to the simplicity of the "Stay curious" work for PBS, a new client in 2000.

Not that Fallon shied away from creative risks. Witness the controversial test spots for Long John Silver's, another client acquired in 2000. They showed midgets in bodysuits representing cravings for items such as shrimp baskets. "We had this great strategy," Lubars says of the spots, which did not roll out widely. "We knew we were trying something new."

Brad Jakeman, Citibank's director of global advertising, acknowledges Fallon's love of the "wild and wacky," but says it's selectively applied. "They have the ability to develop a broad array of work," he says.

It's a product that's "memorable, notable and, most important, relevant," adds Anne MacDonald, head of global marketing for Citibank.

Fallon opened a brand consulting arm last year and is launching an interactive division this year. The latter will give form to what is already one of the agency's strongest areas. "We made a decision to rebundle and recommit to an internal interactive division," says White. "If people at Fallon were to continue to think that [advertising] will revolve around TV, print and radio ... we would become an old world agency in a new world."

"We didn't want to be flushed down the 20th-century toilet with some of these companies that are refusing to accept new technology," adds Lubars.

The "Buddy Lee" campaign for Lee Jeans showed how well it can work. Print and TV ads got consumers to a Web site, to play a Buddy Lee challenge game. To advance, participants had to go to a store and find a code inside a pair of jeans. While the TV spots were hilarious in their own right, Lubars is proud of the whole package. "We took a jeans maker from Kansas into the gaming industry," he says.

The sale to Publicis gives Fallon the capital to grow internationally. (United Airlines' consolidation at the agency last week is an example.) And in Maurice Lévy, Fallon has an owner with a track record of leaving well enough alone—which, if Lubars has his way, will ensure plenty more creative adventures to come.

"You cannot fit a Fallon template on any work," he says. And he's right.