"I'm the worst kind of zealot, a real San Francisco convert," Vick cheerfully admits. "I'm on the board of the Chamber of Commerce, and I go around harping about how this area is a mecca for creative brain power--not just for designers, architects and advertising people, but for creative people of every type."
Indeed, the only vestige of the Madison Avenue veteran who left for the Coast a year ago--after spending the year before that trying, and rafting, to salvage Levine, Huntley, Vick & Beaver is his prepped-out loafers. Vick even abandoned his profession of 20 years, surprising no one more than himself, to become the chief executive of Landor Associates, the world's largest design firm.
It was an enviable finesse, for it not only provided the spice of a midlife career change but put Vick in a position that values agency-management skills as much as agencies themselves do. "It's similar but different," the 48-year-old says. "In terms of diversity, this is advertising multiplied manifold. It's almost always project work, and the projects are always the most interesting: repositioning a company, revitalizing a brand, integrating a merger, extending a product line."
Landor, a Young & Rubicam subsidiary that has 17 offices in 15 countries, is by far its industry's largest entity. Its staff of 300--a third of whom work out of a dramatically designed barn on San Francisco's Barbary Coast--generated $40 million in revenues last year.
Business was flat, Vick concedes, but not for reasons of underlying demand so much as a perception of design as a "postponable expense." (Some things, it seems, never change.) And while he initially regarded design as a marketing variable very much akin to advertising, only more "concentrated," he now professes to have been a bit flip.
"I was going for the sound bite," Vick says of his original take. "I didn't know a thing. I've since learned that design is the most fundamental communication in all of marketing. It's the piece of the puzzle that everything else, including advertising, must follow . . . . It tells what a property stands for and at the same time foretells its future. And, because it is so fundamental, it can change the least. A corporate identity has to last a lot longer than any television campaign."
There is an overlap, nonetheless, in that advertising and design both serve brands. Both serve to differentiate brands, to be precise, which is why Vick remains fond of the saying: Products are made in the factory, brands in the mind.
"I subscribed to that as an adman too," he says, "but packaging, for example, strikes me as even more fundamental to what branding's all about." Vick cites Landor-created packaging for Miller Genuine Draft as but one example, and notes in another that Landor's logo for Saturn was set well in advance of the car's successful launch via a memorable ad campaign by fellow San Franciscans Hal Riney & Partners.
Vick then credits his firm's founder, Walter Landor, who 52 years ago rounded the design firm acquired by Y&R in 1989, as the first to appreciate fully design's role in the branding process. Landor, now 79, remains semi-active but is still actively pursued by Japanese clients. "They regard him as a true American icon," Vick says, "because he began pioneering corporate identifies way back in the '50s, long before anyone else was even thinking about it."
Landor's "founder chairman," as his title reads today, also deserves credit, Vick goes on to say, for "establishing the first big-time creative operation" in the Bay Area. And where has that orientation taken the region today?
"American Airlines is now flying nonstop to Tokyo directly out of San Jose," Landor's new chief, and the region's newest cheerleader, exclaims. "What does that say about how the world has changed? I mean, they're not flying out of Pittsburgh, are they?"
Vick's exuberance is uplifting, but not because it's the standard Chamber of Commerce grandstanding. It's because, rather, it provides further testimony to the ability of Madison Avenue's most hardened professionals to change. "I already had learned everything I was going to learn about advertising," Vick says, "and was in the process of passing it on. Here I'm in the process of learning as well as teaching."
In times such as these, it's especially comforting to know agency veterans can not only re-invent themselves but take joy in the process. And it scarcely matters whether the re-invention has them running off with a Canadian Ambassadorship like former Y&R chief Ed Ney, managing the Opera for a few years as Omnicom chief Bruce Crawford did, or surfacing as a proselytizing San Franciscan in a semi-related profession.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)