Not only did the San Francisco agency hold onto its biggest clients, it won the coveted $40-million Sega of America account and a $30-million assignment from Norwegian Cruise Lines. Despite the turmoil and transition, GBS turned in another banner year, boosting billings almost 42% to $166.7 million, burrowing into nearly every high-profile review in the West and breaking new creative ground. The agency's art direction on the award-winning Chevys campaign turned out to be one of the year's most widely copied styles. And the GBS commercials for Sega struck a nerve with kids that helped the videogame maker sell out last Christmas.
Most of all, the agency wiped out that line in the sand that separates creative boutiques from the mature shops able to manage big businesses. GBS took its ponytails, denim and hip dialect into some of the stuffiest board rooms around, gave its clients the shop's trademark brand of quirky creative and served it up with a button-down business plan that delivered. Cool. Way cool.
Carol Eleazer, the executive in charge of advertising at UNUM Corp., a conservative Maine-based insurer, says she awoke the morning after awarding GBS the $5.5-million account with something akin to buyer's remorse. 'I said, 'Oh my God, what have I done?' ' recalls Eleazer. 'There were three guys with ponytails in that room, and they're going to have to go before my board of directors.'
The anxiety passed quickly. 'They're business people as well as artists,' Eleazer says. 'They demonstrated their focus on getting results.'
That resilience surfaced last year in the wake of Berlin's departure. President Colin Probert became an integral part of the management team, Jon Steel was named general manager, Harold Sogard was hired from Ogilvy & Mather/N.Y. as director of account services, and Jerry Barnhart returned to the agency as cfo, a new post. 'We've taken the critical responsibility for the company and spread it down beyond the partnership,' says Goodby. 'We've had to, or we'd all have heart attacks.'
Not long ago the three partners marched into a review, laid out the big picture, and hoped they'd snare the account by the force of sheer intelligence and charisma. Today, it's not unusual for a GBS team with as many as nine execs to pitch an account, detailing nearly every aspect of the proposal. There are scheduled meetings, agency-wide and departmental, something that only happened haphazardly before. 'We've grown up a bit,' says Marty Wenzel, a group account director since 1988. 'We became less dependent on individuals and more on a system.'
If that system has helped the agency get and keep business, it's also nurtured a staff that's had to sustain what insiders concede has been a grueling pace. Consider that GBS was layering Sega and NCL onto the already formidable task of absorbing its 1991 wins, Isuzu of America and Carl's Jr. Throughout, it has continued to pursue new business. There were some disappointments in 1992, including some $5 million in losses from computer maker Librex, software publisher Adobe and Clark's footwear. GBS failed to bring in The Good Guys account and Avia. But the momentum never flagged. 'You'd much rather jump over the top of the trench when the officer is running with you,' says Steel. 'That's really the way it works here. If people lead here, they lead by example.'
It's not exactly B-school style, but it's a far cry from the space cadet image Goodby and Silverstein once had, the one that led some to question their ability to survive Berlin's departure.
The naysayers may have been wrong all along. When Don Doyle joined Carl Karcher Enterprises as president and ceo earlier this year, the economic climate had worsened for fast-food restaurants. Doyle decided a change in ad strategy was needed. Before he even met with the shop, 'Goodby had undertaken a fairly extensive review and reached the same conclusion,' Doyle says. The new campaign, due next month, will take a more hard-sell approach than the earlier Carl's Jr. work.
After Omnicom completed its acquisition of GBS last February and the rift between the principals became apparent, onlookers concluded Goodby and Silverstein didn't share Berlin's aggressive vision for building a big, national agency.
Not true, says Silverstein. 'We didn't believe you could just acquire an agency and immediately make that agency good,' he says, a reference to reports that Berlin wanted to annex some of the other Omnicom units to GBS. 'Do I want a $500 million company? Fine with me. But I want it directed out of San Francisco. The work has to come out of where the engine room is, and the engine room is here.'
It's not unlike the strategy that built Leo Burnett Co. into a $2-billion-plus shop. But the next step is certain to be more difficult. 'We're no longer the cute, dark horse,' says Goodby. 'Now we're sometimes the favorite, and that's a weird position because you can only screw it up.'
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)