Fallon’s New Face

For an ad man not stuck on tradition, Ari Merkin is a very traditional guy.

Is this boring? Should I throw in some dirty jokes?” Ari Merkin, in the middle of an interview, is doing what he always does: looking for ways to tweak things.

“Nothing is ever done to Ari,” says Alex Bogusky, executive creative director at Crispin Porter + Bogusky, who hired the copywriter eight years ago. “It may appear to be done, but he’s still thinking about how to make it better—he doesn’t really quit.”

Merkin’s dry humor and perfectionist ethic is evident in some of the Miami shop’s most lauded efforts: Its Mini work—he was on the team that put the car outside supermarkets, to look like a kiddie ride—and “Truth” anti-smoking ads, along with Grand Prix winner “Lamp,” which he wrote.

Agencies with similar quirky takes on advertising quickly took notice. The 33-year-old Merkin left CP+B last November to become an acd at Cliff Freeman and Partners, New York, where he spent eight months. Then in July, he was recruited by Fallon in New York to replace ecd Kevin Roddy, who left for Euro RSCG MVBMS.

Merkin’s challenge in his new role, says David Lubars, Fallon North America president and ecd, is to give the 5-year-old office, which has won several Lions, a creative reputation equal to that of the agency’s Minneapolis headquarters. “He was not just a 20th-century, stuck-in-cement, 30-second-commercial adman,” says Lubars on what brought him to Merkin. “He was looking at different ways of communicating in an increasingly complicated environment.”

For all his unconventional work, Merkin comes from—and still embraces—a highly traditional culture: Orthodox Judaism. “I grew up in yeshivas, and there were not art programs or art classes,” he says. “Kids weren’t encouraged in that direction.” But his sheltered life in Muncie, N.Y., only encouraged his curiosity, he says. “I grew up with probably more of a fascination of pop culture, just because I was so kept from it.”

Merkin is now raising his own family as Orthodox—he has three kids, ranging from 2 months to age 4, with wife Roneet. But the wining-and-dining, around-the-clock advertising lifestyle is hardly conducive to keeping kosher and doing no work on the sabbath—and early in his career, prospective employers warned him against the business. But from his first job at Grace & Rothschild on, Merkin has been lucky to find accommodating agencies and clients.

“It’s really never gotten in the way,” claims Merkin, who gets kosher meals delivered when he entertains clients and works plenty of Sundays. “If you’re true to it, I’ve never met a client who hasn’t respected that.” At the office, he says, “people are pushing me out the door on Fridays, even when I have a few minutes.”

As a kid, Merkin dreamed of becoming a comic-book writer and illustrator. He eventually gravitated to graphic design, and then copywriting. Diane Rothschild says Merkin was “one of the best people who walked through the doors” at Grace & Rothschild. “He’d rather walk out than do an ad that was mediocre. Call it stubborn, but I would also call it committed.” In one of his memorable ads there, a ballerina breaks a cement block with her head—a metaphor for the strength of the Land Rover.

Moving to CP+B after a stint at Hampel Stefanides in New York, Merkin learned to take the fundamentals a step further. “It works pretty well to take classically trained people and put them into our system,” says Bogusky of Merkin. “It was a little hard for him at first. … But in the end, he embraced it more than anybody.”

While Ikea’s “Lamp” is one of his favorites from CP+B, Merkin is most proud of the work he did for the American Legacy Foundation, especially “Body Bags.” In the spot, teenagers line up 1,200 body bags to show tobacco execs what that many daily deaths from smoking looks like. “There’s some real satisfaction in doing that kind of work on a national level,” he says.

Merkin says that while it was hard to leave CP+B last November, the logic was simple: “Cliff asked me to. Period. He’s somebody I’d always wanted to work for.” All he’ll say of his brief tenure, during which he did several humorous Value City spots, is that his departure “had nothing to do with Cliff Freeman, nor my belief in the agency.” (Freeman declined comment.)

Merkin directs a department of 15, leading creative on the seven accounts, including Virgin Mobile and Georgia-Pacific.”I feel like we’ve been on parallel paths,” Merkin says of Fallon’s BMW Films effort. “It’s easy to see they can work outside the traditional media. That’s a way of thinking Alex Bogusky inspired in me, and something I want to keep exploring here.”

His first challenge came last month, when Linus Karlsson and Paul Malmstrom, the Swedes who worked on Virgin, left to open a New York office for London’s Mother. Merkin hints that “we’re making some surprising decisions” to replace the team.

As the agency works on a branding campaign for Virgin due early next year, Merkin enthuses about the opportunities at Fallon. “Our clients are just killer,” he says. But there’s one he’d like to add: “Marvel comics,” he says. “I’d finally get to work on comic books.”