Creative Profile: Comic Bigwig

Michael Dweck is a master of the absurd. What more does he want?
Dweck! has created an inspired piece of merchandise to sell on its Web site: a breast-implant paperweight.
“It’s a double-D,” says agency president Michael Dweck. “If you put it over a piece of paper, it acts as a magnifying glass, too. So it’s functional.” It’s no surprise that Dweck is talking about breast-implant paperweights. After all, this is a guy who almost got booted from architecture school for designing an AT&T building to look like a giant phone booth. What’s striking, even disturbing, is that he wants to convince you, with an almost straight face, that breast-implant paperweights are useful.
“Michael’s a funny, interesting, charismatic guy who does work that matches his personality,” says Larry Shanet, a freelance producer who has worked on most of the agency’s TV campaigns, and whose name was given to the overbearing clown/network president in its ads for Comedy Central. “He’s not a cookie-cutter guy, and he doesn’t make cookie-cutter work.”
Few would disagree. As a rule, Dweck avoids the mundane, preferring to pepper his ads with odd and abusive characters–from the maniacal, murderous driver’s ed teachers in Top Driver’s ads to Dial-a-Mattress’ cranky, overgrown squirrel. He operates on the idea that people like to laugh, and they’ll like your company if your ads are entertaining.
Dweck, 41, has built a career on a skewed sensibility. He built his agency not just by offering companies advertising that’s abrasive, eccentric and often funny–but by convincing them it can also be effective.
Initially, Dweck was bored by advertising. A Bellmore, N.Y., native, he studied fine art and advertising at the Pratt Institute in the early 1980s. But after brief stints as an art director at DDB and Young & Rubicam and frustrated by what he considered a listless creative scene in New York, he decided to form his own shop, Michael Dweck & Co.
Welcoming Lori Campbell as a partner in 1992, the two cultivated a solid creative reputation, and the shop gathered steam. With Campbell’s departure this year, the 15-person agency has become simply “Dweck!” and is up to its usual creative mischief with a roster of clients totaling $50 million in billings–up from $20 million at this time last year.
“He’s very intelligent, but there’s a craziness to it,” says Scott Bernstein, vice president of marketing at Top Driver, New York. Bernstein contacted Dweck after seeing an ad he’d placed for interns. “It said, ‘We’ll use you and abuse you. You’ll get us coffee, and we won’t pay you a dime.’ It was so funny. I had to get in touch with him.”
“I realized early on it was difficult to get through to anybody. People just hate advertising–and so do we,” Dweck says. “I always thought humor got you a lot of places, that it sort of bought you a friendship.”
His five creatives come up with much of that offbeat humor, but Dweck–a kind of “camp counselor”–steers the vision: “Our view is, you can always find something funny, even in a product that’s fairly boring,” he says.
While he calls himself “the class clown of advertising,” Dweck makes it clear that’s a strictly surface impression. “We always start with a sound strategy,” he says. “We don’t take ourselves that seriously, and yet the work we produce is a serious business product. If it doesn’t make money, we’ll get our ass kicked.”
“He’s angry about the way certain brands get shepherded and stewarded,” says Ray Foote, president of Big Foote Music, a music production company and a Dweck! client, “but he sees it as an opportunity. A lot of people in advertising yearn for the days gone by. Michael’s passionate about the future. And he was that way even when he didn’t have a lot of business.”
Dweck!’s work for Big Foote had its share of wackiness–a huge Big Foote mascot showed up at events in New York for a while–but Foote credits the agency’s print ads, which portrayed staffers as touring rock stars, with helping the company find its true identity. “They really acted like a mirror for us to figure out who we are, and how we think of ourselves,” he says. “We’re a band, with passionate people performing in it.”
Dweck’s sense of humor has also invited criticism. His second TV spot, created for Giant Carpet, imagined then-lame-duck-president George Bush going on an anti-Bill Clinton rampage inside the White House. It brought a nasty phone call from George Stephanopoulos.
“He was cursing me out, saying I was staging the mock killing of a president-elect,” Dweck remembers. ABC yanked the ad under pressure, but Dweck found five slots at the last minute on Saturday Night Live, and it was a huge hit. “People loved it,” he says. “The guy went from four stores to 42 in a year and a half. We knew we’d hit a home run.”
Another ad, for Long Island’s Oak Tree Farm Dairy, attacked the competition by showing a three-eyed Pennsylvania cow standing in a field near a nuclear power plant–clearly a reference to the Three Mile Island disaster. “We don’t want to offend people, but we do want them to notice us,” Dweck insists. “And the people who don’t like us are typically not the people we’re trying to reach.”
Dial-a-Mattress might take issue with that statement. Though the agency’s “Squirrel” spot was a huge critical success, winning a Gold Lion at Cannes last year, the company pulled it after airing just 13 days. The problem, says a marketing executive at the company, was it alienated the target audience.
“Everyone here hated the ads. For cultivating customers, they were just so far off the mark,” he says. “They were funny and abrasive, but they were abrasive to women,” who, he says, make up about two-thirds of the company’s customers.
Dweck ignored suggestions to change the work, the executive claims, but others who know him find that hard to believe. “He’s got tremendous flexibility,” says Charlene Cosman, CFO of Oak Tree Farm Dairy. (The company is no longer a client, but Cosman and Dweck still keep in touch.) “He’ll fight hard for the work because he’s got such a strong sense of style. But if it’s clear he’s not going to win, he’ll say, ‘OK, how about this?’ ”
Dweck admits the Dial-a-Mattress relationship ended badly, but says the campaign, which included heavy radio as well as TV, actually helped boost the company’s sales after a two-year slide.
“There’s nothing inherently malicious in Michael’s work,” says Shanet. In any case, he adds, “Very few people are actually offended by anything. They always seem to know someone who would be offended, but they want to give themselves credit for having a sense of humor.”
Dweck! recently landed the account of TV network UPN, its biggest client yet, worth $20-25 million in billings, but the higher stakes don’t seem to be dampening the agency’s spirit. One upcoming TV spot for the network shows a guy covering his face in plastic wrap and spitting out a mouthful of milk until it sprays out around the edges. “There’s a list of, like, 20 jokes we’ve always wanted to use,” Dweck says. “For UPN, we’ve used about five of them.”
Still, UPN is an up-and-comer with a young target audience. In order to land more big fish–and Dweck wants to double billings this year and next–there may be times when he has to turn down the volume a bit.
“We’ll always find a way to get the product or service into people’s brains,” he says. “It might not always be drop-dead funny, but it’ll be clever. We’ll be sensible about it.”
His goal is to become a Goodby, Silverstein & Partners or a TBWA/ Chiat/Day. “I don’t want to be a little boutique anymore,” he admits. “Nobody sees the work.” To get where he wants to go, he has been soliciting advice from the likes of Jeff Goodby and Jay Chiat–people who have been down that road before.
“If you look at Bob Kuperman and Lee Clow, you see creative soldiers who have been through a war–and it shows,” he says. “But it’s not easy. You have to fight.”