Creative: Deja Vu at DDB

Reunited Creatives Bring Direction And Flair To New York Shop
Last fall, Steve Landsberg and David Nathanson were hunkered down in Nathanson’s corner office on the eighth floor–the creative floor–of DDB Needham’s Madison Avenue digs. The two new co-chief creative officers were wrestling with an administrative problem when Nat Waterston, their former boss at DDB nearly 20 years ago, popped in to say hello. Landsberg and Nathanson exchanged startled looks–the enormity of taking the reins at the agency where they both started their careers had just hit home.
“I remember thinking, ‘Is he going to kick us out of the office?'” Landsberg recalls.
By pairing the two to head DDB’s creative department, agency president Peter Tate reunited the copywriter and art director who began their careers working side by side at Doyle Dane Bernbach in the early ’80s.
Tate’s leadership choices are understandable: Nathanson’s success with DDB’s recent Compaq pitch and Landsberg’s turnaround of Ogilvy & Mather, Toronto, where he headed the creative department, were impressive.
But what’s their game plan for DDB, which billed an estimated $800 million last year? The two have rejected wholesale changes in the agency’s 40-person creative department. “You can’t come in a place and assume people aren’t good,” Landsberg says. The client list has been roughly divided in half. Nathanson is in charge of Compaq, Lockheed Martin, Amtrak and others. Landsberg runs Hershey’s, Fort James and Johnson & Johnson, among others. Under Landsberg and Nathanson, the agency resigned Bermuda Tourism and lost Citizen Watches to Deutsch and New York State Lottery to Grey, while picking up new business from Merck, Amana Appliances and Juno.
Nathanson calls the partnership “the recombining of genetic threads,” and the close encounter is working: Two weeks ago, the shop unveiled the new regime’s biggest work to date–the TV portion of a $300 million global campaign from
Compaq. It’s the highest-profile job to come out of DDB since Nathanson and Landsberg took over.
DDB landed the Houston-based computer giant in 1998, grabbing the business from under the nose of incumbent Ammirati Puris Lintas. DDB had handled Digital until Compaq gobbled it up last January. But Nathanson, who has fashioned his career around a keen understanding of the high-tech consumer, and the agency were so in tune with the typical Compaq customer that the company moved its business from APL to DDB.
“David’s understanding of what makes our customers tick” was the key that unlocked Compaq, says Andrew Salzman, the client’s vice president for advertising and brand marketing.
Working with copywriter Giff Crosby, Nathanson’s ideas for Compaq jibed seamlessly with the company’s vision of its advertising. “The Compaq work is designed to be spare yet telegraphic,” Salzman says.
The print ads center on arresting images and wit, implying a shared bond between customer and company. The broadcast campaign (two 30-second and one 60-second spot) uses disparate images–grandmother and granddaughter, an AIDS patient, a runner with a prosthetic leg–to reflect the range of services Compaq says it can offer consumers. All the ads, print and TV alike, play off the letter “Q” at the end of the company’s name. The campaign’s tagline: “Better answers.”
The duo’s Compaq output is trying to fulfill Tate’s charge. At an agency picnic last June, Tate told staffers that his goal was to “reassert the creative prominence of the New York office” within the DDB network. He felt that couldn’t happen if he and then-chief creative officer Mike Rogers continued to work together. Tate’s relationship with Rogers suffered once both ascended to senior management positions several years ago. By the time Rogers left the agency, he and Tate weren’t speaking.
For his part, Tate says, “We did not work as well together as I had hoped.” Rogers, now chief creative officer at Partners & Shevack/Wolf, says his industry track record speaks for itself: “You can draw your own conclusions about why we didn’t get to the next level.”
Enter Landsberg, 41, and Nathanson, 43, an unlikely team. While Nathanson’s salt-and-pepper hair and droopy mustache suggest he’d be more comfortable teaching at a small liberal arts college, Landsberg is the picture of a well-scrubbed yuppie. Landsberg speaks in digestible sound bites, while Nathanson uses discursive metaphors to articulate a point. But in their initial conversations about the job, the two espoused philosophies that were in sync. They even found themselves quoting from the same book, Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman’s Organizing Genius, which examines the world’s most successful creative collaborations.
Landsberg graduated from New York’s School of Visual Arts in 1980. He then joined Doyle Dane Bernbach, where he met Nathanson and worked on Volkswagen, only to leave DDB in 1985. “Being young and naive, I asked myself, ‘Do I really want to do another five Volkswagen commercials?’ In retrospect, that wouldn’t have been so bad.”
Over the next decade, he worked at Chiat/Day, McCann-Erickson and Wells, Rich, Greene/BDDP, before leaving New York for O&M/Toronto. Landsberg says the move, though risky, gave him the chance to run a creative department (with clients Jaguar, Midas and Timex) for the first time.
Nathanson studied design at the Art Center in Pasadena, Calif. The L.A. native moved to New York in 1981 to join DDB, then on to Chiat/Day. He returned to DDB to run the Volkswagen account, went to Lintas to work on IBM, then back to DDB to lead Digital.
Nathanson characterizes his body of work this way: “Somebody once looked at my book and said, ‘This looks like the work of 12 different art directors.’ I loved that.” To get at a brand, he throws himself into a problem, “peeling back the layers of an onion to arrive at an idea. We all practice the same craft: to find that special place where an idea resides.”
For Hershey’s Taste-ations hard candy, Landsberg prodded DDB staffers Dan Cohen and Gary Rozanski to focus on what distinguished the product. The two did, and the tagline reads: “The hardest thing we’ve ever made.” One ad featured a shot of a broken hammer next to a piece of candy. “You’ve got to find the truth in a client’s product and take it from there,” Landsberg says.
“Steve is able to conceptually comprehend things quickly. He understands what people are trying to get across,” says Deborah Sullivan, director of broadcast production at DDB. “And David is meticulous about his design work; he can see very clearly if the art direction is working.” Still, much of the agency’s New York work bears the imprint of Rogers as much as the new team.
Nathanson, however, is primed for change. He wants to produce “a higher batting average”–landing more creative awards, more new business wins and expanding relationships with current clients. The Compaq win is a step in that direction, but Landsberg and Nathanson say it will be a year before they can be evaluated.
Nathanson is blunt about the job he and Landsberg must do: “There’s a lot riding on it.” Reaching the next level means “turning this place into something spectacular.”