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How do you build a creative culture at a bland shop?

When Phil Dusenberry joined BBDO 40 years ago as a junior copywriter, he found a research-driven, account-based agency that operated more like a “local dry cleaner,” he says (“in by 9, out by 5”), than the creative powerhouse it is today. He left to start his own shop in 1969 but returned eight years later as associate creative director, setting a new era in motion. In the decades since, BBDO has created enviable work for clients such as GE, Pepsi, Visa and HBO.

“Changing a big agency is as tough as getting through to your doctor on a holiday weekend,” says the former BBDO chairman.

Overhauling a corporate culture, moving an organization outside its comfort zone, proves an elusive goal more often than not. “Sixty to eighty percent of companies fail in the attempt,” says Allan Steinmetz, CEO of Inward Strategic Consulting, Boston. Those who have achieved some success—creative executives who have revitalized agencies such as BBDO, Ogilvy & Mather, McCann-Erickson and Saatchi & Saatchi—agree that executing a grand creative vision is no simple task. Beyond recruiting talent, it means getting agency departments and leaders, along with clients, in line with the new thinking—and, not least, patience and perseverance.

“It takes place over a long period of time,” says Dusenberry, noting it took about five years of small, incremental steps before BBDO saw real results.

Bill Bernbach once said, “The men who are going to be in business tomorrow are the men who understand that the future, as always, belongs to the brave.” While much about the ad business has changed since Bernbach and the other co-founders of Doyle Dane Bernbach first set the agency world on fire with their Volkswagen work, one thing has remained the same: Without the fortitude, determination and fearless dedication to the work, great ads—and great agencies—will never be made.

“You’ve got to create an ethos that says the work is the most important thing. You have to have the strength to fight for your ideas,” says Ted Sann, who assumed full responsibilities for BBDO’s worldwide creative product from Dusenberry a year ago. “In a lot of places, it doesn’t work.”

A leader, says Rick Boyko, needs a strong personality to take on big shops often mired in process. “If you are going to turn [an agency] around, you have to be pretty domineering,” says the chief creative officer of Ogilvy & Mather North America and co-president of its New York office, who leaves this month to become managing director of Virginia Commonwealth University’s AdCenter.

One of Boyko’s first steps in dismantling Ogilvy’s bureaucratic, 9-to-5 mentality was to hold an agencywide meeting to convey, “It’s all about the work, and nothing else matters.”

He’s also had the support of WPP Group CEO Martin Sorrell, who gave him a mandate to change the agency. “I felt I wasn’t going to have to worry about getting fired,” says Boyko, who has led the shop in producing well-regarded work for American Express, Kodak and IBM, among others. “You have to have support from the top to allow you to make waves.”

Publicis worldwide creative director David Droga, who drove a creative resurgence at Saatchi & Saatchi in London, echoes that rule. “By and large, creative people want to do good work,” he says. “If the machine around them isn’t conducive for that, it won’t work.” Droga joined Publicis in March, charged with making the same kind of impact he did at Saatchi; last year, for example, Saatchi in London won agency of the year honors at the Cannes International Advertising Festival, as well as 12 Lions, including a press and poster Grand Prix for its Club 18-30 ads.

That Boyko also has a president title is notable. “Great agencies that don’t need turning around are almost always creatively led,” notes Boyko, whose 1997 appointment as co-president in New York alongside top account manager Bill Gray sent a signal that the creative product would be of utmost importance. It was the first time a creative executive had run the agency since the mid-’80s.

The business side has to give up a great deal of control, notes Sann. “If you have an account/creative split in the agency, it is going to be hard to make it work.”

A creative revitalization won’t grow out of a revamp of just the creative department, says Droga. “Make the agency realize the creative product is not only the responsibility of the creative department,” he says.

Dusenberry had the entire shop focus on the work by holding informal screenings for all disciplines. “There was work going on that people weren’t even aware of,” he says. “Slowly people began to realize by word of mouth, ‘This place is changing, and it’s not what it once was. It’s becoming something better.’ ”

Within the creative department, a talent base is built by recruiting from the outside and identifying hidden strengths within. Lee Garfinkel arrived at Omnicom’s DDB in March with the mission to help restore the office to the creative glory of its legendary Bernbach days. “What I did at Lowe, what I did at D’Arcy and what I’ll do at DDB,” says the chairman and chief creative officer of the New York agency, “is look for all the undiscovered talent, nurture the talent I think is best and complement that talent with people that have delivered for me in the past and bring them into the agency, which hopefully breeds healthy competition.”

During his tenure at D’Arcy, Garfinkel put a handful of creative teams that were working on Procter & Gamble and Pillsbury, not exactly high-profile accounts, on Heineken and Amstel, and they delivered. By giving staff new opportunities and the right guidance, “you get to see a spark in people,” he says.

After Young & Rubicam brought aboard former BBDO senior executive creative director Michael Patti to upgrade the agency’s work in February, Patti faced a trial by fire: He led the pitch for the $350 million Burger King account, then produced a 12-spot campaign in 13 days. For his “Burger King adventure,” as Patti calls it, the Y&R worldwide creative director marshaled “people I barely knew” and worked around the clock. “In a way, there could be no better test of my talent and their talent,” says Patti. “They made me look good, and that made me feel good about the agency. I think it made the agency feel good about the agency too.”

Patti, who also holds the New York chairman and CEO title, says that while Y&R has some bright spots on its reel with work for Sony, Dr Pepper and AT&T, his goal is to go well beyond that: “I’d like the work to be as famous as the client’s names within the public’s minds,” he says.

When Mike Campbell joined J. Walter Thompson, New York, as executive creative director two years ago, he skipped the portfolio reviews and instead “decided to judge [the team] by every assignment that came in.” He had spent the past 15 years at BBDO, whose culture was more about confidence than arrogance, Campbell says. JWT’s creative culture was virtually nonexistent. “It was always an agency I considered tofu. It wasn’t bad, it wasn’t good,” says Campbell, now chief creative officer. “When I came here, a large part of my job was saying, ‘You are really good. You have the potential to be the best agency in the country.’ That’s a pretty big statement, but you have to think big in your aspirations.”

He’s made notable improvements. Last year the agency’s Malibu campaign won a gold Lion at Cannes, and a Danny DeVito puppet spot for Lipton Brisk earned Super Bowl kudos. For this year’s Super Bowl, the agency produced an attention-getting Trident campaign that hilariously explained what happened to the fifth dentist.

Nina DiSesa, chairman and chief creative officer of McCann-Erickson New York, also advises a considered approach to restaffing. “You have to do things slowly and quietly,” she says. “You don’t want people to be scared. … If [creative people] are too unhappy, they won’t do good work.” And while immediate changes may make headlines, they also disrupt the clients and the agency, says DiSesa, who since she joined nine years ago has seen about 90 percent of her 130-member department change over through turnover as well as some firings.

“We very gradually upgraded the talent level by replacing people who might have been good but were not good enough for a creative turnaround,” she says.

Campbell says his first year and a half on the job was spent “leading by example,” the best motivational tool. It not only sends the right message to the rest of the agency, it builds a sense of camaraderie and excitement.

“I’m not asking anybody to do anything that I’m not doing myself,” adds Garfinkel. “And the better they get to know me as a person, not just a creative director, the more you get out of people.”

The drive to outdo the colleague next door can also be a powerful motivator. “People that come here and grow here—where nothing less than the best is acceptable—they think twice about walking into the office of the creative director with anything less,” says Dusenberry. “Call it inspiration or call it intimidation: If the work is great, that is what you are looking for.”

Small gestures also build team spirit, such as buying a pool table for an agency lounge, like Campbell did. “There is nothing sadder than seeing someone sitting in their office with their brows furrowed, trying to come up with an interesting idea,” he says.

Boyko also tried to build identity with symbolic statements, re-educating the agency in the lessons of founder David Ogilvy. He plastered quotes along the agency’s walls and redesigned the agency logo using Ogilvy’s signature. “A lot of the new people had no real understanding of what David was really about,” says Boyko.

When recruiting talent, agencies looking to reinvent themselves face a Catch-22. Without the creative status and the work that demonstrates it, convincing great creatives to make a leap of faith is difficult. “Good people don’t want to come work at an agency before the good work. You can’t get the clients to get that good work without the good people and the good work,” says DiSesa, who looked to former colleagues such as Joyce King Thomas to help re-energize the shop. “At first, if the agency does not have a creative reputation, you need to bring in people who are good, who will come over with you because they are willing to roll the dice with you.”

Within two years of DiSesa’s arrival, McCann hit its stride with greater consistency across a broader range of clients; in 1997, it debuted its award-winning “Priceless” campaign for MasterCard, which served as a calling card for its new-and-improved creative reputation.

The most ambitious intentions won’t take an agency far without the clients to support a new vision. At BBDO, an influx of new work began with GE’s consolidation of its appliance business in 1979 (the agency won the assignment based on work that introduced the themeline, “We bring good things to life”).

“That was a turning point for us, and then we started to build on it,” says Dusenberry. “To get going in a different direction, you have to identify the clients that are most inclined to do the work that will give the agency a whole new look. You have to do it one by one. We started with Pepsi. Once we fixed that, we went to the next client.”

In 1985, the agency won a Grand Prix at Cannes for the Pepsi “Archeology” spot. “Pretty soon you feel the momentum shifting,” Dusenberry says. “You can begin to feel people thinking a whole different way.”

Identifying the clients that will most likely build buzz for the agency brand is the ideal way to begin. “You need to understand that with both the agency and the clients, there are some places where you can make major changes, some places where you can take baby steps, and occasionally an opportunity will crop up where you can do something revolutionary,” says Garfinkel.

While an agency sometimes gets lucky enough to have a client that wants a greater impact with a new campaign, most often it’s, “We’re fairly happy; we don’t want to fool around with anything that is working right now,” he says. “That’s where it’s harder, and you need to take some time to win the client’s confidence.”

Once the momentum begins, how long does it take to see results? The consensus is that to bring about consistent improvement, at least two years are needed. “It took 10 months before I could do something that I was really proud of,” says Garfinkel about his tenure at Lowe, New York. “Then we won Diet Coke, and then we did a new Sprite campaign. Within a year, especially with the Diet Coke work [including the Lucky Vanous spot “Break”], people started to say, ‘Something different is going on over there.’ “

But it was two or three years before Garfinkel produced an agency reel he could be proud of, representing 90 percent of the agency’s clients. In his new role at DDB, he says he intends to do the same. “I want to do great work on every account, and that’s going to take a while, and it’s going to take patience on my part,” he says.

In the end, when the pieces fall into place, the gratification is not only in the awards and the business benefits that come with a creative culture. As Dusenberry notes, “It’s a lot more fun to be great than to be adequate.”