I want it all to happen right now." Kirk Souder has a palpable sense of urgency over lunch at Levi's Plaza in San Francisco, not far from the tourist bustle of Fisherman's Wharf and from Publicis & Hal Riney, the shop he joined four months ago as president and executive creative director. "When I got out of school, there were three or four shops that you would have cut off the fingers of your left hand just to get in and clean up scraps off art directors' desks," he says. "I would love for Riney to become that kind of place as quickly as it can."
The challenge is a formidable one. In three years, Riney has seen its U.S. billings drop by about 25 percent; its longtime marquee account, Saturn, move across town to Goodby, Silverstein & Partners; and its charismatic leader retire in May 2002. Finding a successor to Bay Area ad legend Riney took 18 months, forcing the shop into a holding pattern.
"When Hal was less involved, all of a sudden it's like, What's the identity of the place?" says Dennis Lim, who oversees creative on the global Hewlett-Packard business with Greg Ketchum. "It was more than just a morale change. It was almost like, Who are we doing this for now? What's our battle cry? ... There's a fundamental thing missing when you don't have that."
The task of reclaiming the agency's creative heritage and moving beyond the roots established by its volatile, visionary founder has fallen to a 41-year-old art director who has neither the booming voice nor the booming presence of Riney. Souder's life is shaped by his family—before joining the agency, he took a two-year hiatus from the industry to travel with his wife and young son—and his efforts to help victims of sarcoma cancer, which he overcame in his twenties.
The co-founder of award-winning Los Angeles shop Ground Zero, Souder considers Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead his advertising bible and the Burning Man art festival in the Nevada desert a major source of inspiration. ("It's creativity, and it's at a scale you've never seen before," says Souder, who has attended for the past eight years.)
"Kirk is somebody that before anything else is extremely intelligent, and very present in his own life and present in the culture and art and all the things that feed your head as a creative and business person," says ESPN marketing chief Lee Ann Daly, a former client.
Colleagues and staffers describe Souder as a calming presence, an insightful, collaborative leader. "Kirk's style is very comfortable, it's very approachable," notes Ketchum. "It's in sharp contrast of Hal, who was a little bit more intimidating. When you're talking to Kirk, you feel like you are talking to a peer, a peer who is very thoughtful, helpful and credible." Riney himself did not return calls.
Scott Marshall, agency CEO and interim ecd following John Doyle's 2000 departure, describes Souder as quietly authoritative: "He's a gentle man, but he won't move away from what he thinks is right."
Searching for a leader, the agency was willing to endure a quiet period "rather than either put the wrong face out there or force a face that feels like a stop gap," says Tim Maleeny, svp and director of strategic development. "We now have a face, and it fits perfectly on this body of an agency."
Souder claims Hal Riney is on the verge of getting back on the industry's radar, with new-business initiatives under way and promising creative in the wings. "I know what we're capable of. Even the work that we have on the table right now, I want it to get out—I want people to know what we're about," he says, referring to work for the agency's two largest accounts, Sprint PCS and HP. "It frustrates me when people see us as 'Eight years ago, in a quiet town ...' That's not us anymore."
One of his first orders of business was to reach out to new-business consultants, something the agency historically did not do when it had Saturn as a calling card. "With our current clients, we can keep evolving the work in steps," Souder says. "What new business allows you to do is create instantaneous change."
Catherine Bension, president of Los Angeles-based search consultant Select Resources International, says the arrival of a creatively driven leader signals "a really exciting time" for the 250-person agency. "I don't think it's had that direction for a while," she says. "It's time for them."
Three years ago, when the agency was still reaping the benefits of the heady dot-com era, its billings stood at about $870 million from a client roster that included, along with Saturn and HP, Sprint and Internet startups such as Webvan, eToys and Discovery.com. Today, U.S. billings are approximately $640 million, with HP (which contributes more than $100 million in global billings, according to sources), Sprint PCS, Allied Domecq and North Face taking up the bulk of the client roster.
Souder, who was a physics major at the University of Delaware before Apple's "1984" inspired a switch to communications studies, has the rare combination of right- and left-brain skills needed for an agency leader, says Marshall. Looking for a Riney replacement, Marshall wanted someone who could "deliver on the creative product and focus on the entire business problem for the agency—that's pretty overwhelming for a lot of people."
Ground Zero partner Jim Smith says Souder has "a fantastic grasp of the big picture and the big issues" and an ability to "cut through the bullshit and get to the heart of the problem." And Souder has in common with Riney—who took it upon himself to write the letter to customers when Saturn issued a recall—a holistic approach to solving client problems.
"He's fiercely determined to stick to a big idea as opposed to just doing ads," says Smith. In 1994, well before the term "branded content" became the industry's buzz term of the day, Ground Zero produced a nine-minute film for Porsche that was distributed to sports-car enthusiasts and dealers.
"He's looking for a communications solution rather than what's classically defined as the best ad solution," adds Ground Zero partner Court Crandall. "I think he's more interested in doing what hasn't been done than doing what has been done really well, which is inspiring to creative people."
Souder and Crandall met in 1991 at Stein Robaire Helm in Los Angeles, where they were creative partners on Acura and Ikea, winning a gold Lion at Cannes for work for Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art. "We were of very like minds from the start," says Crandall. "During the first week, I remember thinking we both felt, 'We have to start an agency together.' " After less than two years, the pair left to form Ground Zero and quickly built a creative reputation with award-winning work for clients including ESPN, Disney, Yamaha and Partnership for a Drug Free America.
Souder's experience on Pontiac at Deutsch helped lead him to Stein Robaire Helm. He had worked his way up to associate creative director at the New York agency, where he met his wife, Patricia Phelan, then a senior media planner at Deutsch and later an executive producer at Ground Zero. He was later recruited to Ammirati & Puris, where he worked on RCA and Aetna before moving West.
Born in Levittown, Pa., Souder grew up in Switzerland, Italy and Germany, his family following the path of his father's career as a research chemist at international corporation Rohm and Haas. With his own family, he's continued the on-the-road tradition, traveling around Asia and living "a Swiss Family Robinson existence" on the beaches of Thailand and Cambodia after he sold his stake in Ground Zero in 2001.
When his son, McKinley, was born, Souder realized he could no longer give the agency his all. "He was the biggest miracle of our lives," says Souder. "As much as I loved Ground Zero, there was this other thing that I still needed to get, which involved my son, and at that moment there was a lot more growth for me in that."
Besides his family, Souder also dedicates time to serving as executive director of The Sarcoma Alliance in Mill Valley and hosting a weekly online support group at Cancersource.com. As a survivor who beat miraculous odds, he says, "it just seemed like a waste for me to not be doing that." A subtle shuffle in his walk still serves as a reminder of Souder's four-year battle with sarcoma in his twenties. Experimental radiation left his leg bone so brittle it snapped in two, and he's now on his fourth knee replacement.
Souder, who chose one of the city's only Quonset huts in the ethnically diverse Mission District as his family's new home, says he'd assumed he would have to take a less-than-ideal job when he returned to advertising. Instead, he's tackling what he terms the "rare, wonderful challenge" of helping "an amazing brand rediscover its greatness."
Last week he hired Lee Einhorn, an associate art director on the American Legacy Foundation and Monster accounts at Arnold in Boston, to partner with Michael Barti on HP (Riney handles the client's product advertising and Goodby its corporate branding). And Jae Goodman of Leagas Delaney was recently added as a partner to group creative director Mike Mazza on Sprint, which has handed the shop a b-to-b assignment. "There is a renewed energy," says Mazza. 'We're at the cusp of new growth. I'm optimistic about it."
"Recruiting all of a sudden has become choices," adds Anne Saulnier, svp and director of creative services. "[Souder] has a huge following of people who want to work with him."
The agency is rolling out a b-to-b campaign for Sprint PCS that takes a direct hit at AT&T Wireless, a strategy that svp, director of account planning Andrew Clarke says is the product of a "swarming" approach to strategic planning that was instituted by Souder. The shop's top strategists—Clarke, Maleeny and Mark McNeely, director of strategic development—attack a project in a brief meeting right off the bat to get a broad perspective on a brand and its business problems upfront. "It cuts down on a lot of time and allows you to apply the best minds in the agency on everything," says Souder.
"He is institutionalizing common sense," says Clarke. And, adds general manager Charlotte Holden, "breaking down walls and opening up the channels of communication."
A significant campaign for HP's digital products, set to debut in late September, will "represent a whole new evolution of our current HP work and our work in general," promises Souder. "It has much more of a campaign idea than a product here and a product there."
"I'm proud of where we're ending up now," adds Lim, a veteran of the Saturn account. "With our sensitivities of keeping it really intelligent and smart, and his to keep it electric, bold and youthful, we're creating a nice combination."
Souder's overarching creative goal is to produce work that goes beyond sales objectives to "invert the category so that it's your brand and everyone else." Work should be a true reflection of a brand, not of an agency's process. "We'll be the most successful when you can't tell we've been there," he says.
Which is why he considers The Fountainhead a great parable for advertising and the world beyond: The purity of an idea is the driver of creative communication. He explains: "It's a dedication to the soul and truth, and treating your life that way," he says.