After another big year, Deutsch/LA is no longer the new kid on the block

It was, Eric Hirshberg admits, a poignant moment of “self-awareness.” Sitting at his desk after 11 p.m. one night last summer, the 32-year-old creative director of Deutsch/LA found himself sifting through a stack of photos in search of the perfect spokescow.

“They had happy cows, serious cows … every kind of cow you could imagine,” says Hirshberg, chuckling at the irony of a fast-track executive burning the midnight oil on bovine casting. “This is Hollywood, and they have casting agents for everything. I must have looked at over 100 cows. It was bizarre.”

Perhaps, but Deutsch’s ability to corral the creative portion of the California Milk Advisory Board’s $25 million California Cheese account speaks volumes about the shop’s standing on the West Coast. It wasn’t the agency’s biggest new-business win of 2000. That distinction belongs to the $100 million DirecTV account, secured in August.

Yet in both reviews, Deutsch had neither the track record nor the heritage of those it competed against (including L.A. stalwart Dailey & Associates and San Francisco supershop Goodby, Silverstein & Partners). What Hirshberg and his partner, general manager Mike Sheldon, did have, though, was their version of the “leaner, meaner, smarter” corporate culture that CEO Donny Deutsch says sets the New York-based agency apart.

In a market historically unfriendly to newcomers from the Big Apple—Scali, Wells and Hill, Holliday, to name a few—Deutsch has thrived. And it’s done so in Deutsch fashion. Instead of taking the popular road to West Coast expansion, through San Francisco, Deutsch opened in Marina del Rey, Calif., in the summer of 1995. A skeleton crew and $5 million in client billings has flourished into a shop with 280 staffers and $632 million in billings—a frontline player in the clubby L.A. market. Last year alone, the agency added more than $200 million in billings and nearly 100 employees.

And in DirecTV, it had its second $100 million-plus victory—following the watershed Mitsubishi business it won in 1998 with the help of its New York parent.

“Every month there seemed to be something new to celebrate,” Sheldon, 41, says. “It no longer feels like a fluke.”

The agency’s momentum, say the partners, is driven by a core team that includes media director Colleen Kelly, 37, director of account planning Jeffrey Blish, 52, and executive vice president of operations Kristin Greaves, 40, one of the original players in Deutsch’s Los Angeles launch. Hirshberg describes Kelly as the shop’s “den mother” who is chiefly responsible for maintaining the corporate culture. Blish is called “The Reverend,” a nod to the soaring oratory of his presentations. And Greaves, who returned to Southern California after two years as head of Deutsch’s human resources department in New York, is described as the utility player who can fill any position, including “company shrink.”

“What is so difficult to do, and what I’m so proud of, is they took the [agency] brand and built on it,” says Deutsch. “You walk into the different offices [N.Y. and L.A.] and they feel like Deutsch, but [the L.A. team] added their own thumbprint and, at the end of the day, that’s the G spot.”

Although Sheldon stresses the agency is client-driven, not creative- or account-driven, he says its greatest weapon is its approach to the work. The ability to craft ads that appeal to more than 100 Mitsubishi dealer associations in the country, Sheldon says, is “a first for a car account and a testament to the strength of the creative work here.”

At a time when many agencies are paring down, Deutsch, which was recently sold to the Interpublic Group, is setting its sights on further growth, with a new 90,000-square-foot office (three times the size of the current digs) taking shape in Marina del Rey. “I feel we’re just getting started,” says Sheldon. “We’ve worked out the bugs, managed the egos and now we’re ready to turn the corner.”