Kelly Heads to Fallon in Search of Renaissance

CHICAGO Al Kelly, who begins his new job as ecd at Fallon Minneapolis Aug. 1, is undeterred by the agency’s two-year-old new-business slump and the troubles it’s had keeping someone in the top creative post.

The agency, he believes, is in a much better place now than it was five years ago, in part because it’s ready for a transformation—much like the one that occurred at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners earlier in the decade, he says, when he was a group cd at the Omnicom shop.

For the past two years, Kelly, 41, has been with independent StrawberryFrog’s office in Amsterdam, serving as an ecd and working on accounts such as Heineken and Barilla Pasta. Now, he says, he’s looking forward not just to the job, but to the “short, mild winters” of Minneapolis.

Q: What appealed to you about Fallon?
A: It came down to the feeling of the place. Fallon has a strong culture of Midwestern, no-nonsense people. There’s an honesty and a directness in the place.

Did you talk to other agencies? If so, what did Fallon have that they didn’t?
I talked to several agencies. Fallon had the energy of a startup, but they have the experience of building brands in new ways.

What do you mean by the “energy of a startup?”
They’re a group of people who are very talented and very driven, and they’re used to winning. They don’t like coming in second. There’s an energy and a momentum that comes from a passion to do things right. It’s palpable when you meet the people there.

But I think everyone would agree they’ve been coming in second a little too often for their tastes lately.
I think that’s true. And we’re going to change that. Part of it is they’ve been on top for so long and they’ve done so well and done it so consistently that when they hit a stumbling block, all eyes go to them. If you look at the last 25 years and at the overall body of work, it’s second to none.

How would you compare Fallon to StrawberryFrog?
One of the things I like about Fallon is there’s a lack of pretense. There’s a quiet confidence. It’s not just flash, it’s got some depth.

What would you say is the biggest misconception about Fallon?
That all the good people have left.

What about StrawberryFrog?
That they’re all talk and no action.

How would you describe the differences between [StrawberryFrog founder] Scott Goodson and [Fallon chairman] Pat Fallon?
I can’t imagine two more different people. Pat’s got the quiet confidence that comes from 25 years of incredible success building brands. I think Scott [would like the same].

What do you view as the high point of Fallon’s work over the past 25 years?
Besides the obvious answer of BMW Films? I loved the classic early print work when I was a young ad guy. I also really liked the Buddy Lee work. Everyone there is a really masterful storyteller and maybe the challenge is to figure out how to tell stories in new ways and through new channels. I think they’re going through a similar process that Goodby was going through five years ago. I saw it all firsthand. At the time no one knew the decisions they were making were going to lead to success. But in the end, the way they did it was right. It’s not as easy as it looks.

Is Goodby’s resurgence something you discussed with Pat before being hired?
Absolutely. Goodby’s as admired an agency as Fallon and I think there are some parallels. … When it comes to digital and interactive you have to start with the brand. You need to figure out what goals you’re trying to achieve and then look for the solutions.

What will your first order of business be?
I want to meet the teams and learn as much about the current brands as possible before I get distracted by new business. In my experience, it takes between six months and a year to really understand a place and the clients and their business.

Last month, Fallon promoted Todd Riddle to cd. Now, you’re coming in as his boss. How do you plan to deal with the perception that his promotion is only ceremonial?
I don’t know how important those titles are. I consider my working relationship with Todd as a partnership. We’ve met half a dozen times and there’s great chemistry. I respect him and his work. It’s a big job and it’s good to know I have a solid partner.

Kerry Feuerman and Paul Silburn each lasted less than a year in the top post at Fallon. Does that concern you?
No. I’m in for the long haul. I spent 10 years at Goodby and I expect to do the same at Fallon. There’s a spirit of reductionism at Fallon, keeping it simple, which really appeals to me and is my working style, too. I was well aware of the challenges going in, but the more people I met, the better I felt about it.

What have you learned at other agencies that you can apply to your work at Fallon?
Find like-minded clients. Pick your battles and hire young creatives that you have to pull back rather than push. … It might just be a matter of learning to tell those stories in new ways.

Were you hesitant to move to Minneapolis? Do you think Fallon would have an easier time attracting talent if it were in New York or Los Angeles?
I’m looking forward to the short, mild winters. They haven’t had [a recruiting] problem for the past 25 years. I don’t think they’ll have that problem today. Great creatives want to go where they’re going to do great work. Sweden has been one of the hottest places for interactive and it’s even colder there.