Making the Grade

Watching a Pepsi spot he wrote several years ago in which two boys ogle Cindy Crawford, Lee Gar finkel lets slip that he doesn’t find the supermodel “that good-looking.”

He chuckles self-consciously at his impossibly high standards. “I drove the editors nuts over that spot,” he says, recalling that he thought Crawford’s gait looked too mechanical and made the editors shave off individual frames so that just one full sway of her arms is shown.

That perfectionist approach is how he plans to add some spark to the reel at D’Arcy Mas ius Benton & Bowles in New York, which he joined six months ago as president, chief creative officer worldwide. Garfinkel, 46, was courted for months by several global agencies after he left his post as CEO, chairman and chief creative officer at Lowe Lintas & Partners early last year.

John Farrell, CEO of D’Arcy, and chief branding officer Susan Gianinno were searching for a worldwide creative leader with whom they would share the president’s title. “We had a shortlist of eight people, and Lee was at the top of that list,” says Farrell.

When news of Garfinkel’s hire spread through the network last August, “it was one of those jaw-dropping moments,” says David Rosen berg, creative director at Ben simon Byrne D’Arcy in Toronto. “It sent a powerful signal throughout the organization. When we viewed his reel, it was a recognition of excellence.”

Garfinkel says it’s still too early for him to outline how he plans to transform the agency into a creative force. His most immediate response to the question: “Patience.”

After a pause, he continues, “First you have to gauge how much existing clients want to improve the quality of the work, and then you figure out how much of that is doable with the client and agency culture.” Therein lies Gar finkel’s challenge. D’Arcy’s roster is light on risk-taking clients and heavy on packaged-goods marketers like Proc ter & Gamble, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Masterfoods.

Garfinkel has made no personnel changes yet—he expects to do so “in waves” starting in May—and hasn’t assembled an agency reel. He won’t venture an estimate as to how many clients he could proudly represent on a reel. “By the time I left Lowe, we had 95 percent of clients on the agency reel,” he says, noting that it took four years to achieve that percentage. “That’s the goal for D’Arcy.”

Part of his getting-to-know-you exercise with D’Arcy’s 70-person creative staff in New York has involved critiquing his own work. He has an “A” reel, with what he considers his best work, and a “B” reel, with work he likes but thinks is lacking in certain details. For Garfinkel, it’s the details—a facial tic, a hand gesture—that differentiate a good spot from a great one. “Nuance” is a word he uses a lot.

On this particular day, Garfinkel plays his “A” reel in his sparsely decorated office. He comments on it in his soft-spoken way, in speech that carries traces of his native Bronx. His unassuming demeanor suggests a disarming air of melancholy.

The reel has a lot of work from Lowe, including Mercedes’ “Janis” spot and ads from Sprite’s “Obey your thirst” campaign. There are also Pepsi spots from Garfinkel’s days at BBDO New York and Subaru spots from Levine, Huntley, Schmidt & Beaver in New York.

One “A” spot is “The Weasel,” from Lowe’s “It’s all about the beer” campaign for Heineken. “This is a scenario everyone can relate to,” Garfinkel says. A guy saunters into a boisterous party and puts a six-pack in the fridge. The words “The weasel” appear onscreen. Instead of drinking the beer he brought, which looks suspiciously like Budweiser, he grabs two Heinekens and struts off to the party, flashing a smug smile.

“You see that?” Garfinkel asks delightedly when the smile appears. Although he did not direct the spot, Garfinkel says he instructed the actor how to smile. “It’s that kind of nuance that I like to bring to advertising,” he says. “As soon as he does that—that little smile—everyone laughs.”

One of the most famous commercials he’s written was 1994’s “Diet Coke Break,” in which women in an office lust after a construction worker drinking Diet Coke. As the camera pans the women’s faces, Gar fin kel points out the details—a matronly type drags her spectacles down to her nose; a woman’s eye flutters into a lascivious wink. Coke reshot the spot to run globally, using other agencies and actors, and Gar finkel feels some key details were lost in the new ads.

Along with his own work, Gar fin kel critiqued D’Arcy’s reel in small meetings with staff. “It was better than I thought it would be,” he says.

So let’s look at the D’Arcy reel. No go. Ever so cautious, Garfinkel will show only a few spots, ones he likes for their ability to convey a larger idea. They’re all from the New York office, created under the supervision of New York creative head Graham Woodall, who continues in that role.

“I thought this was a really neat spot,” Garfinkel says of a Pampers ad from 2000 in which Rod Stew art sings “Forever Young” over scenes of wild animals caring for their young. He describes the approach as “emotionally touching without being tacky.”

He also likes a series of 15-second spots for Norelco that focus on couples. In one, a woman accidentally drops an earring into the toilet and her man quickly fishes it out. In another, a woman sits in a car while a man, outside in the rain, dutifully changes the tire. The voiceover: “Doesn’t your guy deserve a Norelco razor?”

Once an aspiring stand-up comic, Garfinkel points to what he terms “George Carlin moments” in the spots. “They’re real moments that anyone can relate to,” he says. “That’s a good message.”

One creative who discussed D’Arcy’s reel with him says Gar finkel did not dwell on what was wrong with it. “He’d regard that as unfair,” the creative says. “He prefers to talk about what’s right. He’s not someone who likes to shit on things, because he realizes that’s demoralizing.”

Garfinkel’s major criticism, the source says, was that some of the work contains too many messages and isn’t simple enough. And the shop’s “Pontiac excitement. Pass it on” campaign was criticized, especially the spot in which people get the keys to a Pontiac for a week. “It’s not coming from a smart truth about the brand or the car,” the source says.

One of Garfinkel’s pet peeves is being outrageous just for the sake of it. “If people think the main goal is to win at Cannes, I’m telling them it’s not,” he says. “The first thing I ask is to give me really smart ideas. I’ll help you push it afterward. The advertising has to come out of the product.”

That’s the key to pushing clients to upgrade their work, he says. “It’s about being more insightful in terms of strategies and executions.”

Garfinkel has yet to help D’Arcy land a piece of business. Its pitch for Saturn was unsuccessful, but D’Arcy did land Heine ken from Lowe without a review in February. But due to Garfinkel’s noncompete agreement with his former agency, he was not involved in winning Hein eken. Ditto for the hiring of longtime Gar fin kel colleague Bob Nel son from Lowe as head of production and the possible hiring of Michael Silver, Lowe’s worldwide account director on Heineken.

Garfinkel is enthusiastic about what can be achieved at D’Arcy. To illustrate his point, he relates a recent encounter with a junior creative team at the shop. Gar finkel’s office is on the seventh floor, but the rest of the creative department is on the 15th. Nevertheless, he has a stated open-door policy, and staffers are invited to drop by at will.

“So these two guys show up,” he says, “And they were so excited about the work and the ideas they had for this particular client.” Gar finkel listened intently to their ideas. “Finally I said to them, ‘I have to be honest. I hate those commercials.’ “

But their presentation was so enthusiastic, he decided to work with them on the account nonetheless. “They’re actually very talented guys,” Garfinkel says. “They just need some guidance.”

Says Farrell, “The last thing Lee is is a cheerleader. He takes time to sit with people to explain how it can be better, and that’s what makes people’s eyes light up.”

The source on Garfinkel’s staff echoes Farrell. “Everyone was nervous about him coming in, but he’s one of the nicest people you’ll meet and a patient teacher. It’s a huge quality that’s appreciated here.”