Ammirati, Chapter 2

Every year, it seems, the unforgiving economy, sheer stupidity or merger mania claims another ad agency. And just like that, a once-venerable shop or a promising upstart evaporates into thin air, leaving behind lessons we never seem to learn.

We’re all familiar with the list of those departed, and we all know which one is next. It’s always sad to watch. But let’s face it, some agencies are harder to say goodbye to than others.

One of those—for me, at least —was Ammirati & Puris. Maybe because it was the first agency I ever covered. Maybe because I thought Ralph Ammirati and Martin Puris were true advertising characters with big personalities, big ideas and even bigger expectations. Maybe because they seemed to have a bit more nerve than a lot of other agencies, just as willing to tell off a client as to suck up to one.

And maybe because it was a slow and painful death. After selling to IPG in 1994, the agency merged with Lintas and was reborn as Ammirati Puris Lintas, a three-headed monster that took more than a few beatings before it was merged with another IPG agency, Lowe, in 1999. Finally, the Ammirati and Puris names were laid to rest.

So last week, when I met with Matthew Ammirati, Ralph’s 29-year-old nephew, and learned that he had launched his own agency called Ammirati, it brought back fond memories—and made me hope that there’s still room in this town, in this business climate, for startups to flourish.

After graduating from the School of Visual Arts, Matthew went straight to work at his uncle’s shop. “It was the worst and the best,” he remembers. “I totally got into something way over my head, made tons of mistakes, but learned I really liked the business and wanted to be part of it.”

It was there that Matthew also learned the pressures and expectations associated with the family name. “But that’s not such a bad thing,” says the young art director. “It’s a great name to have to live up to. It’s a great standard.”

I asked if he shared any of Ralph’s famous traits, such as his notorious perfectionism. “I definitely have a compulsive disorder,” he admits. “It’s a family gene.”

After A&P, he freelanced and then worked at DiMassimo. Most recently, he was hanging out at the Persaud Brothers. Ammirati calls his startup a “creative house” to illustrate the point that “here, creativity is No. 1.” He opens with three clients he worked with at Persaud: Kyocera, a cell-phone marketer; footwear and athletic apparel company And1; and Anheuser-Busch, for which he creates print work for Bud Light.

Ammirati has a small core group of creatives and, at least in the beginning, plans to hire additional talent according to the specs of each assignment. That model, I suppose, has just as much chance of succeeding as any other. But there’s one thing it won’t survive without, according to the elder Ammirati. “The only advice I gave him was that you will never get anywhere without a really good business guy that lets you take care of the creative work,” Ralph told me last week.

That reminded me of something Pat Fallon told me years ago when I asked him what his smartest business decision was. He said it was hiring a CFO before any clients had come aboard.

As far as coaching his nephew, Ralph says, “If he wants to talk, I’m there. I’ll certainly give him straight advice, and hopefully he’ll take it.”

These days, Ralph spends his time traveling with his wife Joan and playing golf. In fact, when I called the house in Southampton last week to chat about Matthew, he had just returned home from a miserable round. “Do you know why I love golf?” he said. “Because since I stopped working, it’s the only thing that provides that kind of aggravation.”

Gerry Schwartz, a partner at Davis & Gilbert, the law firm that is helping Matthew set up shop, including buying back the Ammirati name, says it’s always difficult to launch an agency. “But with talent, a bit of luck and a name, it can be done,” he says.

Let’s hope so.