Creative Profile: Midtown Cowboy

There’s a new sheriff in town: Jim Ferguson plans to shake things up at Y&R in New York
Given the task of selecting and posting the best print ad for May, Jim Ferguson decided none was worthy. Instead of hanging an ad in the lobby of all 25 floors that Young & Rubicam Inc. occupies at 285 Madison Avenue–where the work traditionally appears each month–Ferguson, then the new chief creative officer and president of Young & Rubicam, posted blank sheets with tiny copy at the bottom: “There will be no ad of the month for May. For an explanation, please contact Jim Ferguson.”
The following month, he did it again. “Our print is nowhere close to where it needs to be,” explains Ferguson. “I’m not trying to be cruel. It’s just that there’s somebody watching.”
The message was clear: The new creative chief was not a pushover. Or as the plain-speaking Texan with a gift for salty speech puts it, “When somebody comes in and I see a half-ass idea, they’re going to get half my ass on it. And if they don’t like it, I’m sorry. That’s what it is.”
Since his first weeks in May, Ferguson has stressed the importance of raising the quality of Y&R’s advertising, particularly its print work. Indeed, he seems fixated on it. Ad slicks hang from the long “arm” of Big Tex, a lifesize, plywood cowboy mounted on the wall outside his office. Tex’s reversible face reveals a smile for good work and a frown for bad. His thumbs also flip up or down.
Every month, Ferguson examines each execution, e-mailing praise and criticism to the creators. An unhappy e-mail: “I’ve been looking at this ad for 10 minutes. I’ve yet to find an idea. Why don’t you come up to my office and show me?”
Whether it’s with Big Tex or blank postings, Ferguson remains focused on a dual mission: He wants to get his 200 staffers to produce eye-catching ads more consistently, as well as convince conservative clients to embrace risk.
The task is daunting.
Y&R, the largest agency in terms of billings in New York–$3.7 billion–has, in recent years, been known more for its new-business prowess and a successful initial public offering than its creative brilliance. Still, under worldwide creative director Ted Bell, who arrived from Leo Burnett in 1993, the work has improved.
Last year, the agency garnered two of the five Emmy nominations for outstanding commercial: the “Freshman” spot for AT&T, in which a mother drops off her daughter at college, and A Streetcar Named Desire spoof for Pella windows.
Nevertheless, Y&R produced more than 230 TV spots in 1998. At times, the agency seems more interested in not rocking the boat than stirring the pot–a point Ferguson acknowledged during a frank interview recently in his New York office.
“You can’t be afraid to be killed,” he says, seated at his desk, surrounded by family photos, cactus plants and a saddle. “I would rather see somebody try and fail than not try at all. It’s an old clichƒ, but it’s true.”
Clients, such as AT&T and Sears, seem willing to listen. “He’s in that first-class, rarefied tier of people–just extremely big talents–who can really do exceptional work, have a history of doing outstanding work and want big challenges,” says Steve Graham, vice president, marketing communications worldwide at AT&T.
But will a Colgate, already flush with a market leader in Total toothpaste, care if its advertising doesn’t win awards? And will Citibank, which seems content with direct marketing, change its course? Xerox did not take kindly to Ferguson’s initial take on its Greek chorus campaign–“I don’t quite understand it”–and vented its displeasure to the agency, sources say. The comment ruffled feathers, but the relationship continues, as does the campaign.
Blunt but never dull, Ferg, as his friends call him, comes across as a modern-day Mark Twain, with a story and a quip for every occasion. He can, as Texans say, talk the hide off a longhorn bull. Yet when it comes to the work, he’s all business. Ferguson may wear cowboy boots and crack corny jokes, but don’t mistake him for a rube.
“He has injected a sense of leadership and direction,” notes Y&R veteran Ed Vick, whose latest incarnation is that of chief creative officer for Y&R Inc. “Whether people like it or not, there’s a new direction. There’s a new sheriff in town, and we’re doing it his way.”
This is the first time in his 16-year career that Ferguson, 45, a copywriter by trade, has worked in New York. Until now, he hasn’t withstood the relentless pace and glare that accompanies it. But as a child of Leo Burnett and DDB, he is familiar with the demands of working for megaclients at large agencies. At Burnett, he was part of a select group of creatives who worked on McDonald’s. At DDB, in 1997, he not only helped convince McDonald’s to shift its lead creative duties (an estimated $600 million account) from Burnett to DDB–still DDB’s biggest win ever–he also became top gun on the business.
The fruits of the Ferguson-McDonald’s relationship included two classic spots from Burnett: “Nothing but Net,” a game of H-O-R-S-E that captured the boyish charm of basketball superstars Larry Bird and Michael Jordan, and “Pee-Wee Football,” a snapshot of boys in helmets on the gridiron that inspired the feature film Little Giants.
Other career highlights: “Talking Dummies,” which promoted seat belt use on behalf of the U.S. Department of Transportation, and “Mosquito,” in which a blood-sucking insect learns the hard way just how combustible McIlhenny’s Tabasco sauce can be. The latter, produced while he was creative chief at DDB Dallas, nabbed a gold Lion at Cannes in 1997.
Ferguson’s work reflects the “warmth and humanity of the guy himself,” says Roy Bergold, vice president of creative at McDonald’s. It’s no doubt a by-product of his small-town roots–he grew up in Hico, Texas, 95 miles southwest of Fort Worth–and his early days as a sportswriter in Lubbock, Texas.
“He was always more interested in telling a good story than glorifying athletes,” recalls Russ Parsons, then a colleague and now food editor at the Los Angeles Times. “He would work for hours to get his lead right.” Now, 20 years later, he’s asking the same from his copywriters and art directors.
It’s late on a Wednesday afternoon in November and seven Y&R colleagues have gathered in a conference room to discuss plans for their annual office breakfast. This year’s theme: the re-emergence of New York.
Slouched in a swivel chair, Ferguson munches chips and fiddles with an empty Evian bottle. The group mulls everything from the overall tone to how to recognize the efforts of staffers. Ferguson suggests a video set to music that includes a shot of each employee–as DDB did years ago. “I like a good suck film,” he says matter-of-factly, eliciting chuckles from the table and an incredulous look from his more demure partner, chairman and CEO Stephanie Kugelman. “We call that a feel-good,” she says.
Kugelman, a good listener with roots in planning and client management, later acknowledges their “different styles.” But she adds: “He’s not at all cavalier. He’s very measured, has a plan and has a goal.” Besides, she says, “our goals are precisely the same.”
“Refreshing” is how others describe Ferguson, be it worldwide CEO and chairman Graham Phillips, longtime creative manager Lynda Baff Clark or Ted McCagg, a copywriter who joined the agency three years ago. McCagg, who partners with art director Stuart Garrett on Pella and Merck, says Ferguson reminds him of the “cool teacher who swears in class. But he backs it up.”
The boss’ bluntness hasn’t dampened McCagg’s spirits; rather, he welcomes an honest assessment of the work. “It’s all about challenging, as opposed to keeping everybody happy,” McCagg concludes.
Ross Sutherland, a new arrival in a senior creative role, says, “[Ferguson’s] an incredibly intense guy who happens to come in an interesting package.”
Ferguson is not well known yet in New York, but his peers know his work and welcome the addition of another creative force. “It’s like if the chefs get better at New York restaurants, it increases my chances of getting a good steak,” says David Page, chief creative officer at TBWA/Chiat/Day.
Ferguson’s style also contrasts sharply with his predecessor, Bell, who is less “cowboy” and more “yachtsman,” in Ferguson’s estimation. Still, they agree on the creative approach of “inspired simplicity,” a Y&R mantra for years.
Bell, 53, who supervised New York in the absence of a creative director (the office was without one since Helayne Spivak left in 1993), has been less visible in recent months, prompting internal speculation about his future. In fairness, he may just be giving Ferguson room to work. Bell says he’s “got some work to do internationally” and has no intention of leaving anytime soon.
It’s too early to gauge the performance of Ferguson, but he has made several moves in his first seven months, most designed to give him greater control over the creative product. Early on, he cut back on the use of freelancers and instituted the rule that no more than two creative teams will work on a piece of business. “Too many gang bangers,” he explains.
Last month, he recruited seasoned pros Sutherland from Ogilvy & Mather and Richard Butt from Bates USA. Sutherland, a group creative director, is leading one of six new groups, working on AT&T, Sony and Ericsson. Butt, a creative director, is working on Colgate and reporting directly to Ferguson.
Once divided among four groups headed by executive creative directors, accounts are now being run by group creative directors who are expected to create more and supervise less. Ferguson is also installing directors of print and radio production to help director of broadcast production Ken Yagoda maintain high production standards across the board.
The agency reel is the “best we’ve had in years,” Yagoda claims. The highlights: “Making Hair-Loss History” for Merck, which manages to brand a hair-loss remedy without mentioning stomach-churning side effects (the secret: don’t name the brand, Propecia); “Virtually Unshockable” for Sony Mini-Disc, in which a Gen X skateboarder propels himself through ceiling tiles; and “Make 7-Up Yours,” an in-your-face campaign for the uncola that features comedian Orlando Jones as a marketing chief. “It’s got a ping to it” is how Y&R chairman emeritus Ed Ney puts it.
Ferguson, meanwhile, appears to have adjusted to Manhattan and life in an Upper East Side apartment, although he misses his daughters, who remain in Texas with their mother. (To ease the separation, he sees them every other weekend.) Traffic gridlock and congestion makes him feel “trapped” at times. But overall, he doesn’t seem intimated. In fact, he’s even amused when things go wrong.
For instance, there was a day not long ago when he pulled his schedule from his pocket and dropped five new $20 bills on a Madison Avenue sidewalk. “As I reached down, a hand swooped in. It was like some major chicken hawk [attacking] a prairie dog–they grabbed my money and started running down the street.”
How did Ferguson react?
“I just stood there,” he says, looking bemused. “I’ve paid more money for a worse show than that in my life. That was pretty funny. You know?” K