Neil Powell On The Spot

If Neil Powell, 37, were a cartoon superhero, he’d be Underdog. Though he’s traded the Kentucky pig farm of his childhood for a tony loft on Bond Street in Manhattan, his scrappy, up-by-his-bootstraps philosophy has always informed his career decisions. In 2001, the ex-Fallon cd opened New York boutique Powell with a focus on design. However, the shop is best known for its gritty Rheingold spots, and has also produced commercials for Sundance Channel and Sony Ericsson. MDC bought Powell in July and merged it with another agency, creating Margeotes Fertitta Powell, of which Powell is ecd. Q: How and why do you think these two shops [Margeotes Fertitta and Powell] are going to fit together?

A: The reason I think that they’re going to fit together is that the people at the top, meaning myself and George [Fertitta] and Michael [Kantrow], found each other and got married on their own. This wasn’t about [MDC] going, ‘Hey, Neil—we want to acquire your company and we’re going to, you know, inject you into the middle of Margeotes.’ This was about us after a number of months of discussions coming to MDC with—with our plan that we thought would work.

Do nontraditional or guerrilla tactics—call it whatever you want—do they work beyond niche targets?

I think so. I think that it’s all in the execution. You know, nontraditional, which is now a cliché, is not about how edgy the idea is. It’s about how interesting and surprising it is to the consumer. It’s not about, ‘Gee, let’s shave a cat’s ass and tattoo our logo on it.’ That’s about tone. When we talk about nontraditional . . . [it] doesn’t mean it has to be wild or wacky. It just needs to be fresh.

Today’s tiny shops are scoring projects with big-name advertisers, and the big behemoths are going after relatively small pieces of business. Do you think mid-sized shops are getting lost in the shuffle?

When I started Powell five years ago, the word on the street and in the trades was it was the end of the independent shop. The conglomerates were gobbling up everybody. And as soon as someone makes that sort of broad, sweeping statement, the pendulum shifts. Now it’s the dawn of the small independent. Now the word on the street is, well, there’s no more room in the middle. It’s at that point when I go, okay, that must be the obvious next frontier—the middle. ‘Cause nobody’s looking at it.

But can creative work pull MFP out of that kind of limbo?

I truly believe in my heart that there is absolutely no reason that within a relatively short period of time MFP can’t become a powerhouse in in the Northeast. Because there’s a hole here. There are mid-size agencies, but they’re mostly traditionally focused. A lot of agencies talk about doing nontraditional. Well, 85 percent or 90 percent of their revenue comes from traditional forms of media. I can’t say that isn’t the case here right now. It certainly doesn’t have to be.

What inspired you to get into advertising in the first place?

I came to advertising sort of through the back door. I was a graphic designer and got my start at Duffy in Minneapolis. I came out in ’95 when Fallon opened up Fallon McElligott Berlin. It wasn’t really until about ’97, when Allison Burns came to Fallon, that I started to get into advertising.

Why do you think more small agencies are incorporating design into their offering?

I think design is the great equalizer. Your advertising can be phenomenal, but if you can’t capture someone’s attention at point of sale with a great package, it doesn’t matter. Design can really be the deciding factor when it comes to the purchase or the intent to experience.

Who has influenced you most creatively?

The sort of modernist designers from the ’50s and ’60s. Paul Rand, Saul Bass, Lester Beall. They were sort of the first designers to take design to the masses. They were about creating populist work that had a real humanity to it.

A lot of people you’re overseeing have been there a very long time. How are you going to infuse this department with a new philosophy?

By example. I work alongside them. It isn’t like I sit in a corner office and give some mandate, like we’ve gotta work a certain way.

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

To leave a very comfortable position at a great, famous agency to step out and start my own company.

What was the last ad that made you think, ‘I wish I had done that’?

Honda’s ‘Grrr.’ That’s a designer’s dream. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever experienced on an advertising level.

What’s the most overrated campaign?

I would say the Miller Lite stuff is overrated. All the bullhorn stuff. I think it’s great. I just think creatively, it just wasn’t that inspiring.

How do you get past a creative block?

When things aren’t coming, I get really depressed and irritable. Usually, Josh [Rogers, strategy director] and I end up having a huge, like, screaming argument. Then we kind of laugh. Then all of a sudden, we’ve broken through a place.

What’s your greatest accomplishment so far?

I got off the pig farm. But that would be a close second to the birth of my son.