Kevin McKeon On The Spot

In 1980, Kevin McKeon dropped out of the School of Visual Arts and into a copywriter job at Benton & Bowles. Since then he has worked at BBDO, Ammirati & Puris, Scali McCabe Sloves and Lowe Lintas. After leaving his ecd post at Bartle Bogle Hegarty in New York for a year in the Litchfield County, Conn., countryside, McKeon, 48, has returned to the asphalt of Park Slope, Brooklyn, and the ad business as ecd of StrawberryFrog’s New York office. After 25 years at industry powerhouses, McKeon explains how the bi-continental agency lured him and Heineken. Q: What drew you to StrawberryFrog?

A: I wanted a job that would inspire me. If I’m not inspired, I can’t stay engaged. I get bored. Then I get lazy. Advertising can suck, or it can be great. I wanted to be on the great side. [Creative chief] Scott Goodson and I hit it off immediately. He’s brilliant, he has no ego and he really believes in what he’s doing. He’s the most genuinely optimistic guy I ever met. These days, that’s so unbelievably rare. We really feel like we’re onto something.

At Lowe, you worked on the U.S. Heineken account. Now you’re working on Heinken again, this time on a global platform. Is it harder, easier?

Well, in practical ways, it’s trickier. You can’t use dialogue. Every once in a while you come up against a sort of narrow cultural reference that doesn’t speak globally. But I think the inherent truths about beer and its place in culture are pretty much the same everywhere. Actually, it’s a good thing for me because it disciplines you to keep the ideas really simple and universal.

This year, StrawberryFrog won work for Old Navy and Heineken. Why do you think big clients are turning to small shops like yours?

I think we are sending some signals out there that we’re doing some things very right. We are very nimble. We are very fast. We’re less structured, with less of a hierarchy, and I think clients like all that.

Is there any advantage to the large networks anymore?

It depends what you’re looking for. If a big agency was going to go to a client and say, ‘Here’s why you should come to us instead of StrawberryFrog,’ they would say they have more resources, a greater global reach, better media efficiencies and more brains working on your brands. But that’s all a matter of opinion.

What do you think of your agency’s system of calling on a network of global freelancers?

To be honest with you, I’m still adjusting to it. I come from 20 years of having my creative forces in-house, and I don’t have all the freelance talent on the tip of my tongue yet. I can’t make those calls in an instant. Scott’s been a great resource for me in terms of who’s out there in the freelance market. I’ve only been here for a month. I need to get to know those resources better.

Why did you leave BBH?

I just think we were like two wonderful people who get married and find out that they’re just wrong for each other. I think we disagreed on some things—where to take the agency, what kind of business to be pitching … just basic fundamental things.

Who’s we?

I just think me, myself and the powers that be. Primarily the London powers that be. Listen, they have a very strong culture, as this agency has a very strong culture.This culture is more suitable to me, I think.

How so?

This is a more developing culture. I think it’s a more liberated, free-thinking, willingness-to-make-mistakes kind of culture. … There’s a certain kind of craziness that I really like.

What’s the smartest business decision you’ve ever made?

Sending John Hegarty an e-mail because I had no reason to think that he would be interested in seeing my work. We ended up having three great years at BBH.

How about the dumbest business decision?

Going to NW Ayer when I was a junior copywriter, believing that I was going to do the next big AT&T TV campaign. I walked into the office and they sat me right across the hall from the men’s room, and introduced me to this person who was to be my partner. I just looked at this guy, and I just looked at where I was sitting, and I looked all around me, and I went, ‘Big mistake.’ I quit that same afternoon. … Watching people pull up their fly all day was not my idea of an advertising career.

Name one person you’re dying to work with.

Ari Merkin. Even though Ari and I are both writers, I think he is the perfect combination of intellectual and purely creative approaches to advertising. Everything he does is smart but really creatively inspired, and he is an incredibly dedicated hard worker.

Who has influenced you most creatively?

I learned to write from Tom Thomas. I learned to be stubborn from Sam Scali. I learned to be tough from John Hegarty. I’m learning to be nice from Scott Goodson, and I’ve learned to be patient from Lee Garfinkel.

Give me three words to describe yourself.

Rock-hard abs.

What are three words others would use to describe you?

At Lowe, the creative team used to call me ‘the nasty guy.’ If you don’t know me, right off the bat you might think I’m being a little bit mean, but I’m really just desperately trying to be funny.