creative profile: California Dreamer

Ken Mandelbaum got an offer from BBDO he couldn’t refuse
A middle-aged woman is perched on the edge of an island waterfall. She summons her courage and leaps into the crystal blue water 25 feet below. She smiles as she emerges from the depths; the caption says, “Because you promised yourself you would.”
BBDO West created the spot for Best Western hotels, part of a new $20 million national effort. Diving into a new enterprise is an apt image for Ken Mandelbaum, the agency’s 37-year-old chief creative officer.
Just over a year ago, Mandelbaum was a commercial director and aspiring screenwriter who earlier sold his San Francisco agency, Mandelbaum Mooney Ashley, to Hampel/Stefanides to pursue other interests.
A fan of Roman Polanski and Danish director Carl Dryer films, Mandelbaum wanted to try his hand at filmmaking–until Ted Sann, CEO and chief creative officer of BBDO New York, called. Sann invited Mandelbaum to rebuild the agency’s creative department on the West Coast.
BBDO West had enjoyed a reputation as an award-winning, brand-building agency, with colorful leaders like Steve Hayden and David Lubars. But the creative product suffered after Lubars left in 1998 for Fallon McElligott, followed by half the shop’s creative talent. Starbucks and L.A. Cellular business also disappeared. Even before Lubars’ exit, the high-flying agency had been battered by the loss of Apple Computer to TBWA/Chiat/Day in 1997.
For a year, BBDO West limped along, desperate for creative leadership. Mandelbaum gave the post serious thought for a month, deciding it was a terrific offer. “It was an opportunity to take the resources of BBDO [and turn them into] a big West Coast agency,” he says. So compelling was the deal, he was willing to extricate himself from contractual obligations with Warner Bros. and a Hollywood production company. On Jan. 1, 1999, Mandelbaum joined the agency.
Of course, Mandelbaum is no stranger to hard work. “He’s always been driven,” says Ron Berger, CEO and partner of Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG, New York, who gave him his start at Ally & Gargano in the early 1980s. Indeed. Some past colleagues considered Mandelbaum something of a hothead as a young creative. One compared him to John McEnroe for his occasional temper tantrums.
Mandelbaum admits he was stubborn in his younger days, but says time has mellowed him. Current colleagues say he’s tough but provides guidance without micromanaging.
The son of a lawyer and an academic, Mandelbaum started copywriting when he was 17, at David H. Block Advertising in Bloomfield, N.J. He soaked up One Show books and won awards at local ad club competitions. At 19, he thought he was ready for Madison Avenue. Reality intervened. One New York creative director after another rejected him. “People told me my work stunk,” he says.
After a stint writing catalog copy for J.C. Penney, Mandelbaum joined Ally & Gargano, thanks to Berger’s intervention. Berger taught an advertising course at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. He critiqued Mandelbaum’s portfolio and, according to Berger, Mandelbaum wrote a five-page letter of thanks. (Mandelbaum doesn’t recall the letter.)
Paired with Cathi Mooney, Mandelbaum learned copywriting. He convinced her to go to San Francisco, where they went to work for Hal Riney. After winning kudos for their New Zealand Kiwi Fruit Authority and Gallo work, they opened MMA. When Ashley succumbed to cancer in 1991, Mandelbaum and Mooney re-assessed their lives.
Eventually, Mooney opened a home for runaway teens, while Mandelbaum directed PSAs and short films. Then he got the BBDO call. Sann wanted to resurrect a San Francisco creative outpost and buttress the L.A. office.
Mandelbaum recruited former Hal Riney & Partners colleagues and employees from MMA. “It was an easy decision for me,” recalls Jim Lesser, vp and associate creative director at BBDO West, who had been working at Foote, Cone & Belding, San Francisco.
Another who answered the call was Michael Barti, from Publicis & Hal Riney in San Francisco. Barti had been a senior copywriter on the Saturn and First Union accounts, but his loyalty to Mandelbaum ran deep–he’d gotten his break in the ad business at MMA (the agency Mandelbaum founded in 1988 with Mooney and Don Ashley.)
A second lure for Mandelbaum was Earthlink Networks. He won the fast-growing Internet service provider, which had a reputation as a difficult client, in May 1999. While other shops recoiled from Earthlink, Mandelbaum saw it as an extraordinary opportunity for the agency. “This has the potential to be a huge account and a huge brand.”
He was right. BBDO’s national campaign, featuring the tagline “It’s your Internet. We just connect you to it,” broke nationally in January. The TV component showed quirky Web sites accessed on the Net via Earthlink, all for a low monthly rate. Outdoor work played on homonyms, and poked fun at America Online.
Brinton Young, senior vice president of marketing for Earthlink, says the response to the ads has been “pretty strong.” Best of all, he says, the numbers are up.
Mandelbaum also faced existing client demands. Pioneer needed a new print campaign. Kal Kan was introducing a new line of Cesar Select Dinners. Best Western wanted to dump the “Bellhops” campaign.
Again, Mandelbaum played up accessibility. Two of the Best Western spots, which broke last week, take place in exotic travel destinations: Hawaii and the Grand Canyon. According to Vicki Meyers, managing director of worldwide advertising, the response has been very positive.
Mandelbaum’s success is also attributed to the fact he understands the business side of clients’ needs, the result of owning his own shop. Internally, sources say, there’s less tension between BBDO West and BBDO New York than during Lubars’ reign.
Today, Mandelbaum confronts new challenges. “Our work’s got to be five times as good as it was last year,” he says. “My nature is never to be satisfied.” K
Home front:
Ken Mandelbaum, (far left) hopes to revive BBDO West with clever work, including ads for
Best Western (top, left) and Earthlink.
Pro bono ads for the Breast Cancer Fund (above) were designed by the
new creative team Mandelbaum hired
for BBDO West.