Andy Hirsch and Randy Saitta, co-executive creative directors of New York agency Merkley Newman Harty & Partners, are a study in contrasts. Hirsch is wiry, wide-eyed and prone to drumming with his fingers. Saitta is tall and bearlike, with a salt-and-pepper goatee and a calm mien. They’ve been a team for nine years, best known for their 50-plus cine matic ads for Mercedes-Benz.

Now the two are charged with building up a $400 million planning-based, strategic-minded shop with a creative department of 30 into a creative leader in the spirit of the former Ammirati & Puris. It’s a heady challenge, but Hirsch, 42, and Saitta, 44, believe there’s room in New York for a midsized agency that stands for the power of the execution.

“Great thinking, memorably ex pressed,” is how Hirsch puts it. “It’s why we got into the business. It’s what we owe our clients—the craft of it.” Or, as Saitta puts it, “My core values haven’t changed—I just believe in the power of good work.”

In nearly three years as Merk ley’s creative chiefs, they’ve never strayed from that goal. Notable work on their watch includes animated spots for the Partnership for a Drug-Free America and the shop’s first campaign for Pfizer’s Lipitor, humorously showing how cholesterol affects all types. Two spots for Mercedes, “Ark” and “Aaooga,” earned two of the five Emmy nominations for advertising last year.

A key member of the team was fellow ecd Marty Orzio, who was among the group that joined Merk ley in 1999 after Mercedes shifted its $100 million factory account there from Lowe. But amid a changing of the guard last September, Orzio and agency president Steve Harty left the shop.

The shakeup began when Hirsch, Saitta and managing director Alex Gellert were offered top posts at Grey in New York. Hirsch was to become president, Saitta creative chief and Gellert—the top account executive on the Mercedes business and another Lowe expatriate—head of client services. But Merkley’s parent, Omnicom Group, blocked the move—a nod to the significance of Mercedes—by refusing to release the three from their contracts. Instead, with Harty and Orzio gone, they got what they had sought at Grey: the chance to steer an agency.

“We love the place we joined,” says Hirsch. “It’s a great shop. There’s a great philosophy. There’s a great energy, and there’s wonderful stuff here.”

In their managerial roles, Hirsch and Saitta have no plans to stop making ads. “We don’t want to become behind-the-desk administrators,” says Hirsch. “You’ve got to keep doing it … just to tell people why you’re sitting on that side of the desk, just to remind them.”

Any staffer familiar with the last eight years’ worth of Mercedes work will not need reminding. Among the most memorable spots were 1997’s “Falling in Love Again,” a poignant depiction of passion that’s part news reel, part home movie in a mixture of color and black-and-white, and “Peter Pan,” from 1998, in which an earthbound, middle-aged “Michael” learns that “It’s never too late to fly”—particularly behind the wheel of a convertible. Hirsch also won a silver Lion in Cannes for a 1994 Diet Coke ad, “Bobsled,” that used instant re play to show teammates clinking cans and sipping soda.

Mike Jackson, former U.S. CEO of Mercedes-Benz and now head of AutoNation in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., says that not only were the pair adept at hatching big ideas, but they “worked like crazy to get it down to the last detail. They have a drive to not do good work—they want to do great work.”

That approach is evident a week before Merkley’s unsuccessful pitch last December to retain its $100 million BellSouth account. The partners seem relaxed, despite long hours of work. They sit side by side inside their favorite work space: a corner conference room with bulletin boards on three walls and a glimpse of the Empire State Building. There is a playfulness to their responses as one creative team and then another reads scripts for a campaign united by the tagline, “Now, it can BeSo.”

Hirsch, who looks like former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy without the comb-over, pops a CD into a boombox, showing how music can lighten the tone of an “anthem” ad presented by copywriter Harold Karp and art director Steve Ohman, a senior team also from Lowe.

Hirsch is the most talkative of the two but often asks Saitta, “What do you think, Ran?” “Andy substantially leads the parade,” says new- business chief Steve Bowen, “but with a very deep respect for, almost reliance on, Randy.” Saitta, adds Bowen, is Hirsch’s “alter ego.”

Beneath the surface, the two have a lot in common. They share a love of pop culture and particularly of music, with Hirsch in the folkie camp (Dylan) and Saitta partial to early heavy metal (Uriah Heep). And both love quoting movie dialogue. Saitta’s passion for art direction was kindled when he started reading comic books at age 6. (He now collects original comic-book illustrations.) Hirsch traces his creative streak to his family’s influence: His father was a draftsman, his mother taught second grade, and his sister was a Marx brothers fan.

From all this springs a populist approach to advertising. “They know how to touch a consumer. It comes from being aware of what’s out there,” says Gellert, 37.

Karp, 53, praises Hirsch and Saitta as exceptionally accessible and open-minded. “They always say a good idea can come from anywhere,” he says.

It was in that environment that two print-production technicians, Jonathan Krisel and Martin Ed wards, suggested an idea for BellSouth long-distance. When Hirsch and Saitta asked to hear more, it turned out the techies had already shot and made a tape. While the client didn’t buy the work, the theme survived and is expected to be part of the shop’s last work for the Atlanta Baby Bell.

The two also understand what it’s like to be in the trenches. Frustrated by a string of rejected ideas, art director Craig Cimmino walked out one day last spring, vowing not to come back. Seething in his Brooklyn apartment, the 28-year-old Miami Ad School graduate wondered if he had chosen the wrong career.

That night, Hirsch called and told him not to do anything rash. Might as well line up a new job first, suggested Hirsch, leaving the door open for Cimmino to return, if only while he looked for something else. Hirsch even chuckled about the blowup. The next day, Cimmino came back, em barrassed by what he now describes as a “dumb move” and grateful that his boss had been understanding.

Saitta remembers what it was like to be a “junior nothing” and, as such, knows the frustration of seeing days of work shot down in less than a minute.

It’s that combination of empathy and perspective, as underscored by Hirsch’s mantra of “It’s a 30-year career,” that resonates with the department. Add a tireless work ethic and you get a picture of two “old craftsmen” trying to make good.

It’s the only way they know how to work. As Hirsch says of the days that sometimes end after 11 p.m., “You’re not done until you’re done—until you’ve written the thing.” Besides, he adds, with a nod to the shop’s goals, “This is it. This is our shot. . . . If not now, when?”