Pete Favat On The Spot

Pete Favat grew up in New York City surrounded by billboard ads he found “stupid” and “ugly.” “It’s like that Japanese philosophy that if you hate something, you can change it,” he says. Best known for his American Legacy Foundation work, the 45-year-old CCO of Arnold in Boston often directs many of the anti-smoking spots, and has also directed a MTV documentary, I Can’t Breathe, which followed a woman dying of a smoking-related disease. Named to his current post last year after Ron Lawner retired, Favat has helped the agency win Pearle Vision, Progressive Direct and Lee Jeans. Q: There will be a board-mandated review of the American Legacy Foundation account. Will you defend?

A: If there ever is one, of course. But there are no definites there.

You’ve defended the account twice before. How would you prepare for it again?

We just pour all the passion that we have into it. It’s not like, “Oh boy, we have to get better,” because that should be happening every day. If any account ever goes into review, a lot of times it’s political, or you haven’t been doing your job. We work hard at maintaining this job. The passion is strong. There’s no hard feelings, you just defend and you put up as good quality work as you can.

What are the key creative lessons you learned from Ron Lawner?

I’ve always loved Ron’s philosophy. He was always one to say, “You want people to feel good about seeing advertising.” He would even go so far as to say, “Let’s have someone feel good about being a human being after seeing our work.” And I think it was reflected in the VW work. You always felt good after you saw a Volkswagen ad.

After becoming CCO you organized the creative department into tribes and dubbed it Arnold 2.0. Why?

We’re in a massive shift in this business. Advertising and the way we look at advertising needs to change. We have a lot of talented people, but like most companies ours was siloed. … In the halls one day, I saw someone I really respect a lot and I said, “I saw some of the Web stuff and I wasn’t too wild about it.” And the response was, “Well, those Web guys…” I paused and I said, “Wait a minute, we are the Web guys.” We can’t silo anything anymore, because that’s just not where this train is going at all.

What will we see from your branded entertainment division?

There are a couple of television shows that we’re looking at and are involved in. … One thing I would love to see is the TV networks innovate more. I think we’re still offered 15-, 30- and 60-second spots. And if you want to do a longer format, it’s going to cost a whole lot. What if I do something that is 40 seconds because that’s when it’s perfect? That’s why the Web is gaining.

Describe your typical work day.

The day doesn’t end. It never ends. It’s like Groundhog Day in that the hardest thing to do—and you can call my wife and ask her this—is to turn it off. I had to fly down to Miami recently and was in a meeting where the ideas were flowing. I look at that as a really good day. The bad days are when I leave here after 14 hours feeling like I didn’t get shit done. Those days really bum me out.

Why does Arnold have a recording studio?

A huge percentage of people in this office are musicians, so it made sense to give them a place to go. We all work really hard here and we all work late nights and weekends. At Houston I built a basketball court because we had a lot of people who liked basketball.

Have you ever personally laid down tracks?

You don’t want me to record anything. … We had a record release party the other night for one of our creative directors who just released an album. We just had a book-signing party. We’re encouraging people to make a song, write a book and step outside of the norm. We’re also going to set up a store on our Web site [that can be accessed only by those in the agency], where we can buy each other’s stuff.

You’re best known for the “Truth” campaign. Which ad are you most proud of?

“D-Day.” It took a while to get people on board because it was powerful and had a lot of polarity to it. It stuck in the face of Big Tobacco. The idea of having 1,200 teens, individually numbered, march up to a tobacco company and drop dead on the street was chilling. … To be told by unbelievably intelligent health officials and ex-president Bush that we saved something like 200,000 lives—that’s a good day.

You lost the VW account to Crispin, Porter + Bogusky in 2005, yet you work with them on Legacy. Does this cause any problems?

Kerri Martin [former director, brand innovation, Volkswagen of America, who left abruptly last week] loves those guys, as well she should. Kerri has a high-pressure job and that is to sell cars. She felt comfortable with the past successes of those guys. … It was harsh financially. The fact is there should be no hard feelings. Arnold turned it around and passed the torch.

Has the loss hurt Arnold in new pitches?

Not really. We didn’t have a great year last year, although we ended it with two wins, Progressive and Pearle. How many Volkswagens are there? How many Nikes? We would we love to replace it with another car account. We love cars. We love auto marketing. I was a mechanic. But it’s going to have to be the right one. And yes, we are actively pursuing some of those brands.