Made in Manhattan

Hooray, New York! No, it’s not the new tagline for New York tourism or Red Stripe beer. It’s the cheer that John Hunt, the New York-based worldwide creative director of TBWA Worldwide, and Gerry Graf, the new executive creative director of TBWA\ Chiat\Day in New York, would like to hear roaring around the network within a year’s time. And perhaps even sooner than that if Graf—who steered the “Hooray beer!” campaign for Red Stripe as an ecd at BBDO—manages to snag Fidelity Investments’ estimated $75 million account.

A one-time stockbroker who worked on E*Trade’s award-winning ads during a three-year tenure at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, Graf is optimistic about the contest, which will pit him against his former BBDO colleagues, as well as Arnold and McKinney + Silver. “I have an insider’s perspective,” says Graf, a Fidelity employee for a year and half after he graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a business administration degree. (He was the only broker not making any money in the ’80s, he says.)

A win will go a long way toward building momentum for the new creative regime. Graf, who joined last month, is the fourth creative director at the $500 million agency in the last six years. Following Hunt’s April arrival, Graf’s hire is TBWA’s latest attempt to bolster a shop long hampered by creative and account-management turnover and a sense of living in the shadow of the California offices, in Playa del Rey and San Francisco, and TBWA Worldwide’s Los Angeles-based chairman and chief creative officer, Lee Clow. Graf’s new role is also the latest example of a talented creative being promoted into a management position with little experience, a role that many have found difficult to master.

“We both had one simple point: New York is this wonderful city—how come it doesn’t produce the best advertising?” says Hunt of his first meeting with Graf, at a midtown Irish bar in October. “The best and the brightest should be coming from New York.”

Says Graf, who was then overseeing creative on FedEx, Guinness Draught and Red Stripe at BBDO: “The minute John said that, I knew I was talking to the right guy.”

The 37-year-old copywriter, who grew up in the Boston suburb of Lexington, has tried out West Coast life twice: The first time, he was right out of college, living in Venice Beach and working for a rat exterminator; the second was six years ago, when he landed a job at San Francisco shop Goodby. “I just think there are West Coast people and East Coast people,” says Graf, who lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with his wife, Pam, and their two young daughters. “I never liked San Francisco.”

He would still be working at Goodby, Graf says, if the agency had followed through on dot-com-era talk of opening a New York office. “I told Rich [Silverstein] I would work for him the rest of my life if there was an office in New York,” says Graf, who had joined as associate creative director from BBDO along with his creative partner at the time, David Gray.

At TBWA\C\D, Graf fills a role vacant since June 2002, when co-ecds Dallas Itzen and Patrick O’Neill were recast as group heads. While Graf has yet to prove he can steer an agency’s creative product, some observers note that working under an exec of Hunt’s caliber will be invaluable—it’s an advantage that other execs faced with the same challenge at the shop never had. “John [Hunt] brought the papa to the group,” says Chuck McBride, TBWA\C\D’s creative director of North America. “Having him around is like having Lee around: someone who is old and wise; someone who can calm the waters rather than stir it up. Gerry is more of the stirring type.”

Silverstein describes Graf as a “pretty ambitious” creative who “always had it in mind to run his own show.” He adds: “Creative people enjoy being around him. He champions young people. If you are talented, you’ll like working with him.”

Soon after Goodby’s expansion hopes died, Graf returned to BBDO, the agency where he and Gray had made a name for themselves with the 1996 Snickers campaign that asked, “Not going anywhere for a while?” (The ads won numerous industry accolades, among them a silver Lion at Cannes, a silver Clio and a Grand Effie.) With a body of work that now included E*Trade’s memorable 2000 Super Bowl spot—the ad that boasted of wasting millions of dollars on a commercial featuring a dancing chimp—Graf continued to produce attention-getting creative with offbeat humor: the Doritos “Bold and Daring” campaign, including one spot in which a basketball-playing boy uses his leg prosthesis to score; the Red Stripe ads in which a beer ambassador inspires the “Hooray beer!” chant; and most recently, animated Guinness ads in which brewers with handlebar mustaches discuss “brilliant” inventions, such as Guinness in a bottle.

“He’s very driven, very proud of his work and gets very excited,” says former client James Thompson, the svp of marketing at Diageo who worked with Graf on Red Stripe, Goldschlager and Guinness. “He has a childlike enthusiasm about the work that sparks enthusiasm on our side as well.”

For FedEx, his largest contribution at BBDO, Graf produced ads with a comedic style more geared to the mainstream: two rounds of the dialogue-driven “Business Legends” campaign, featuring stories told by office mates Steve and Joe, and an eight-spot effort that launched in September with the new tagline, “Relax, it’s FedEx,” showing how the service makes business life simpler. “He did terrific work,” says BBDO’s North America chief creative officer Ted Sann, who rarely loses senior staff. “Things couldn’t have been better.”

Graf was also on the team that produced the pro bono “New York Miracle” campaign after 9/11 for the Office of the Mayor, an experience he loved. “I always try to remind myself that at the end of the day, I sell candy bars or Guinness—I am not this amazing artist,” he says. “It was really cool being involved in advertising at that point that meant something.”

Though Graf took a few years to realize that his dead-on wit was a job skill, he started writing comedy in college with sketches for the Keenan Review, a Saturday Night Live-like campus tradition. “I’m pretty good at making fun of people,” says Graf. “It’s the one thing I enjoyed at Notre Dame.” As a broker, he thought about what he most enjoyed doing and flashed back to those late-night writing sessions. Plus, Graf adds, “I saw that Tom Hanks movie Nothing in Common [in which Hanks plays a successful Chicago adman] and decided I’d like to throw pencils at the ceiling.”

His “horrible” portfolio eventually got him into the junior internship program at Saatchi & Saatchi in New York, where he met Gray. Before following him to BBDO in 1994, Graf says he “hid in my office for two years” at the now-defunct Wells Rich Greene, which at the time had just lost IBM.

At TBWA\C\D, Hunt and New York president Shona Seifert have made some gains, winning the $150 million Nextel business in May and launching noteworthy comic spots directed by Joe Pytka for the client—a win that helped make up for the $270 million Kmart business, which the agency resigned in July amid a legal dispute. The shop recently won a global assignment from McDonald’s and a few weeks after Graf’s arrival added Masterfoods’ estimated $25 million Skittles account, which moved over from BBDO.

“There is a lot going right with the agency at the moment and, of course, a lot to do,” says Hunt, who moved to New York from TBWA\Hunt\ Lascaris, the South African agency he co-founded more than 20 years ago. “Gerry gives us the turbo boost we need.”

The agency has not enjoyed a vibrant New York presence since it racked up awards in the late ’80s for its Nynex work, back when it was still known as Chiat/Day. A merger with TBWA in 1995 and several management changes later, the shop carries a creative reputation that still largely rests with print-driven accounts such as Absolut. Although there have been some TV standouts, such as the recent Nextel work and the Joe Boxer spots for Kmart, the agency’s reel historically has been spotty. “It’s got some work to do,” admits McBride, adding that Graf’s hands-on involvement “will make all the work better.”

Graf, who shares an office with Hunt, so far has concentrated on the Fidelity pitch and becoming acquainted with the agency’s 35-person creative department. He’s also been shaping creative on the shop’s largest piece of business, Nextel—a second round in the “Nextel. Done” campaign went into production when he arrived and will break next month. Graf’s first personnel move was to bring in former Goodby and BBDO colleague Harold Einstein to do freelance work on the Fidelity pitch.

“There are only so many talented people that are mature and have a passion for the leadership part of the job. [Gerry] demonstrated all those things,” says Clow. “I’d love for him to kick the West Coast’s ass.”

Graf’s Guide to Copywriting

Graf, one of the most entertaining comedy writers in the ad business today, is an unabashed advocate of mimicry. He admits that he spent much of his early career imitating the work coming out of Cliff Freeman and Partners, and when coaching juniors on the art of copywriting, he recommends doing similarly.

“First you copy,” explains Graf, “then if you have any talent, what’s inside you starts coming out in a nice mixture of what you admired and whatever talent you bring to it.” Early on, he admired Cliff Freeman’s classic Little Caesars ads and in more recent years, the work of Cliff Freeman’s Eric Silver, the writer who replaced Graf as one of six senior creative managers at BBDO. Other sources of inspiration: everything from Monty Python to Sanford and Son (the source of the “great googly-moogly,” uttered by the befuddled field painter in the Snickers “Chefs” spot) to adman Mark Fenske.

Graf credits the strength of the work he and his teams have produced over the years to building client trust, an element that he says cannot be underestimated, especially with more quirky work. That relationship allows creatives “not to be afraid to show clients anything as long as it’s on strategy,” says Graf, described by colleagues as a tenacious creative known for delivering an abundance of solid scripts. “If you can prove that you really care about their business, then selling ads is pretty easy.”

Asked to describe Graf’s sensibility, Bryan Buckley, director and partner at Hungry Man in New York, pinpoints that connection to strategy. “If you look at his work over time, it runs antiestablishment, but it’s not just creative for creative’s sake,” says Buckley, who has worked on many spots with Graf over the years, including the three pictured here. “It’s really marketing-driven. … He can take on anything and make great work on it.”