An Adman’s Second Act

My father left Italy for America in the 1920s with little more than the ancient skills of a mason. The tool he revered most was a simple carpenter’s level, which has a tiny water bubble at its center that comes to rest between two hairlines when a surface is even. In the ad business, the bubble is rarely in the middle. Too many forces conspire against you. Still, I have never felt more in control of the process than I do now.

After 30-plus years of working at large agencies, I recently opened my own small place. And I’m having the time of life. I feel emancipated, as though a huge weight has been lifted. However, liberation comes with a price. Without those big paychecks coming in every two weeks, being “on your own” is scary.

If you like solitude—and I do—it’s perfect. If you don’t, it can be profoundly lonely. It also allows you to be dedicated to a client’s business on a visceral level. Not the 10-20 percent of a chief creative officer’s time dictated by a compensation spreadsheet. I’m talking 100 percent.

I was blessed with an excellent client—the previously unadvertised Canadia Diamonds—only minutes after returning to New York from my two years in Philly. Whether it was fortune or fate, I’ll never know. What I do know is I hit the ground running just as I turned in my corporate ID.

Still, there was culture shock. Where is the account group? The media department? The reams of research and armies of people? Once you get over the ego thing—which is easier than you think, if you’re ready—you adapt quickly to the reality that you’re flying without a net.

I knew, at the very least, that I had the most important resource right at my fingertips: my creative ability. No great idea ever came out of a huge machine or a “team effort.” Every great idea I’ve ever been involved with—from putting Hollywood icons in modern-day scenes for Diet Coke to dangling women’s lingerie from rooftops in Rome for Maidenform—came from a writer and an art director alone in an office, generally at 10 p.m. (weekends included).

Infrastructure? It’s highly overrated. Everything is available on the Internet. I landed a terrific assistant, and in two months we launched Canadia Diamonds with a totally integrated branding campaign—TV, print, radio, outdoor, collateral, trade support. At the big agencies, 50 people would have been mired in process for a year. With a computer, the Internet, a fast printer, a messenger on a bike and good creative instincts, it’s amazing what a few good people can do in the year 2004.

Soon after, I approached The Concept Farm for production help. I had met two of the company’s founders, Gregg Wasiak and John Gellos, when I ran the creative department at Lintas 10 years ago. Back then they were a hungry, talented young creative team whom I liked and respected. The feeling must have been mutual, because what started off as a resource for my first account has evolved into a business relationship through which we pool ideas and resources. Our first joint venture was pitching—and winning—The Albert Co., the celebrity talent negotiator.

Having a steady client is comforting. But be ready to do a lot of project work. Clients want better solutions, and they want them faster and cheaper. Small startups are perfect for that.

There’s no magic pill. Just be patient, tenacious and intensely focused on your goal. Yes, make cold calls. Somebody’s got to do it. During the six years that I ran Publicis in New York, I made a lot of cold calls and often got through to top managers. Don’t be bashful.

Last year the top 100 advertisers spent more than $85 billion in the U.S. alone. About 75 percent of that was split among the six big networks. That leaves $20 billion for the rest of us. I’ll gladly take .0001 percent of that. And, of course, my annual bonus of freedom.

Tony DeGregorio recently opened his on eponymous boutique in New York. He has worked at such agencies as Tierney DeGregorio, Publicis, TBWA\Chiat\Day, Lintas, McCann-Erickson and Levine, Huntley, Schmidt & Beaver. He can be reached at tony.degregorio@verizon.net