Fritz Westenberger On The Spot

When Sugartown co-president and ecd Fritz Westenberger, 43, jumped ship at Margeotes Fertitta + Partners in 2004, he and partner Jolie DeFeis lured one client, Bacardi’s Bombay Sapphire. Now, the shop handles duties for a wide array of Bacardi units, and is working with Sting and his wife Trudie Styler on a line of organic foods created at the duo’s Tuscan villa of the same name, Il Palagio. But here’s the twist: Sugartown is trading its elbow grease for a cut of the profits, an arrangement it’s also made with Entertainment Events for its off-Broadway show, We’re Still Hot. Q: What’s the smartest decision you’ve ever made?

A: Going into business with Trudie Styler [on Il Palagio], definitely. Both her and Sting are two of the most gracious people I’ve ever met. When people are that well-known, you think about them treating you a certain way, being brusque or acting like they don’t have time for you. But they’re unbelievably nice and down-to-earth.

Il Palagio is the second project in which you’ve traded creative fees for a percentage of profits. Why do you take that approach?

It’s not about a quick hit of getting some money now … but creative involvement down the road. They’re going to need creative development as they grow. Basically, you’re putting in your labor, most of it after-hours, and your people after-hours, and you’re not getting paid for it. The trade-off is, you’re putting it into a brand that’s going to grow, and you’re going to be a huge part of that growth.

A lot has been made of the dangers to the bottom lines of agencies that rely on one client. Most of your business is Bacardi. Is there a creative danger when a shop concentrates too much on one category or client?

Each unit works with us because they value something different that we do. Because these brands have such different creative needs, I think we flex our creative muscles. But it is hurting us with clients who can’t see beyond the category, who think, “All they do is spirits.” It is very frustrating that we get categorized. Yes, we’re selling spirits, but it’s creative, its clever. Step outside of it and look at the work for what it is. Also, this idea of retail advertising, where everybody thinks you have to be a specialist in retail to get it. I mean, please, retail is much easier than brand advertising.

Speaking of Bacardi, some have criticized Sugartown’s recent Grey Goose ads for being too derivative of DeVito/Verdi’s work. What … (interrupted)

However DeVito is spinning this is rude to us. We won that business in a legitimate pitch against DeVito/Verdi and Kirshenbaum [Bond + Partners]. We won it on a creative plan that stretched out over five years, and this is just the start of it. Everybody involved was most comfortable starting close in and improving it executionally. Our plan that we showed and how that then evolved into what the brand does over the next five years is what won us the account. The next five years for Grey Goose is crucial.

Name a person you’re dying to work with.

Does it have to be someone who is alive? I would have said Walt Disney. They are unfreezing him soon. I guess I’ll say [music video director] Michel Gondry. He never does the same thing twice. He seems to have this real drive to constantly find a new technique, and that’s admirable.

How do you get past a creative block?

I get out of the office. I get away from the computer. I think e-mail seriously hinders the concentration levels on creativity. When you’re thinking, “Oh, what’s the next e-mail I have to answer?” it’s seriously distracting.

What’s your biggest pet peeve?

BlackBerries. The whole thing about these kind of technologies are that they’re supposed to help connect people, but what it really does is help disconnect people because you’ve got your face in this thing. You’re missing out on some great emotional experiences. I just don’t think it’s necessary to be that connected all the time.

What do you consider the greatest achievement of your life so far?

The house that I built upstate [in Olive, N.Y., near Woodstock]. That was such an undertaking. It took three years and a lot of paying attention to every detail of a 3,000-square-foot piece of concrete and steel.

Give me three words to describe yourself.

Drunk with power.

Three words that describe how others perceive you?

The style Nazi.

Besides your own shop, what’s your vote for the best agency out there?

I always go back to Mother London. Their whole course of becoming what they became was really well-done. When they opened they didn’t have the clients, yet they made themselves a brand and the clients came.

What is your dream assignment?

There are brands out there that I think are ready to explode. Like Vitamin Water. They’re so right with their packaging and their image. They’re bubbling under, and I think I just would love to get my hands on that. I think they’re ready for some great advertising ideas.

What’s the most important thing you learned from your parents?

Definitely the idea that whatever you do, you have to enjoy yourself, you have to have fun. I just remember my dad always saying, “You can’t be successful if you’re miserable.”