President’s Award: Mcgarrybowen

For months, Bruce Gordon had been considering creating a heartfelt ad message to mark the one-year anniversary of Sept. 11. Verizon had been instrumental in getting New York City and the New York Stock Exchange back on line, so Gordon, president of Verizon’s retail markets’ group, felt uniquely positioned to “send a card to the nation expressing our feelings around 9/11.”

His roster shops—including Interpublic Group’s Lowe and Draft—advised against rolling out any ad, fearing that it would be seen as exploitative, Gordon says. But mcgarrybowen, a non-roster startup led by former top executives of Young & Rubicam, said it could be done, provided the “card” didn’t look or feel like a commercial.

It was August 2002, and the New York agency, which had been open for only a few weeks, didn’t have a single client. But CEO John McGarry, a politely persistent account man who had been in the business 33 years (four and a half of them as president of Y&R Inc.), and chief creative officer Gordon Bowen, a former executive creative director at Y&R and Ogilvy & Mather who was famous for emotive work on AT&T and American Express, had plenty of friends.

One of them was Gordon, a former Bell Atlantic marketing exec whom McGarry had known since 1996. (Bell Atlantic, then a client of Y&R’s The Lord Group, was among 41 “key corporate accounts” McGarry oversaw.) McGarry had called Gordon in June to ask him what he thought about his starting an agency. That led to a meeting, at which Gordon posed the 9/11 tribute question.

Mcgarrybowen’s resulting spot, “Lady Liberty,” a black-and-white paean to freedom, featuring children circling the Statue of Liberty, a ballad sung by Josh Groban and the tiniest of Verizon logos at the end, was produced in just four weeks. A month later, in October, Verizon made mcgarrybowen its lead creative agency, and the following February, the New York client shifted the rest of its business from Lowe.

Since the Verizon win, McGarry and Bowen have continued to dial more friends in the business, adding Marriott International and an Interbrew/AmBev project in 2003 and four new clients last year: Chase, Crayola, Indiplon and Reebok. It has boosted revenue more than sevenfold in that time—and 64 percent in 2004—to an estimated $18 million. It now handles creative duties on brands that spent an estimated $500 million in measured media last year.

In a mere two and a half years, the little independent has not only amassed an impressive list of blue-chip clients but also proven time and again that advertising is a business of relationships. In an industry enthralled by newfangled bells and whistles, mcgarrybowen does it the old-fashioned way, selling clients on a mixture of hands-on leadership and narrative-driven work that touches the heartstrings. For its phenomenal start—some say it’s one of the most successful startups ever—mcgarrybowen earns Adweek’s President’s Award for 2004. (The award, which is not given every year, honors excellence by a nontraditional agency.)

“I thought 30 years at Y&R was about as good as it gets,” says McGarry, 61, who left Y&R in 1998 and still had an itch to work after his non-compete expired in 2000. “My line is, ‘If this is what retirement is, I’m in heaven.’ ” As to the secret of their success, Bowen, 53, a self-described “big brand guy,” says, “I actually work best, as it is in our logo, when I have a strong partner.”

A marketplace in which many companies had become disillusioned with larger agency networks also created an opportunity, notes chief strategic officer Stewart Owen, who had the same title at Y&R Inc. “I really felt like the advertising industry is broken and needs a new model,” says Owen, 53, arguably the most outspoken of the four founders (the fourth is COO Stan Stefanski, 52, former chief administrative officer at Y&R Inc.). “At the core, we actually work on our clients’ businesses. It’s actually a simple model.”

Simple, yes. But mcgarrybowen, whose founders bring a collective 100-plus years of agency experience, is no ordinary startup. “It’s kind of a reincarnation, because these are people who have experience,” says Morgan Anderson Consulting principal Arthur Anderson. “They have their reputations. They don’t have a brand.” As Deborah Fell, svp of marketing at Marriott International (whose previous agency was McCann Erickson), puts it, “When I’m working with mcgarrybowen, I’m talking to John McGarry and Gordon Bowen, and that speaks volumes.”

The agency, with a staff of about 85, is a creative-only enterprise. For needs like media buying and Web design, it pulls in partners like Aegis Group’s Carat and T3, an interactive shop where McGarry’s son, John, is vp of client services.

Credentials, consumer insights and, yes, a few high-level connections were key to winning Binney & Smith’s Crayola, a $10 million account that arrived in July, and Chase, which parked about $300 million in business at the agency in August.

The Chase windfall came after a review involving Omnicom Group’s BBDO, IPG’s Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos and independent Gardner Nelson & Partners. Not only did mcgarrybowen come up with a “very strong strategy grounded in consumer insight,” but it showed during a post-pitch visit that it had the resources to deliver, says Carter Franke, chief marketing officer for the New York client’s card-services division. “We felt confident that they can get the work out the door, and we felt there was a lot of energy [inside the shop],” says Franke.

The Chase duties encompass everything from designing a new logo to producing corporate image and credit-card campaigns. The agency’s first work is expected in April; thus, its bright, top-floor office, which overlooks the Flatiron Building, crackles with activity the week before Christmas.

The Crayola win was similar to Verizon, in that the Easton, Pa., client was not even looking for an agency. McGarry knew Binney & Smith CEO Mark Schwab from Schwab’s days at parent company Hallmark Cards, a client that Y&R pitched in the mid-1990s. Y&R didn’t win the assignment, but Schwab was impressed by McGarry, and the latter would call every so often and offer ideas for building the brand, a Binney & Smith rep says. So when McGarry called again in late 2002, Schwab agreed to meet all the partners in early 2003. A little more than a year later, mcgarrybowen landed Crayola.

The agency got on Chase’s long list via card-services president and CEO Bill Campbell, a former top executive at Citibank, a global account that McGarry tended at Y&R. And the opportunity to design a logo for the merger of Interbrew and AmBev—a project that began in 2003 and ended in early 2004—came from John Brock, CEO of the newly forged InBev and a former client of McGarry’s at Cadbury Schweppes.

McGarry isn’t the only founder with connections, though. Bowen knew Reebok director of strategic planning and business development Tagg Romney, and in November, the agency landed brand strategy and sports initiative duties on Reebok’s $50 million account.

If connections open the door, ideas and presentation skills explain how the shop converts. Clients and colleagues credit Bowen in particular, a perfectionist with an eye for detail who leaves little to chance. “I’ve seen him rearrange the M&Ms in a bowl out front,” says executive creative director Betsy Petropoulos. Roseanne Horn, executive director of broadcast production, cites Bowen’s “unbelievable, Svengali-like ability to have clients fall in love with us.” Bob Cleary, director of marketing services at Crayola, says simply, “Gordon Bowen seems to have a knack for communicating what’s in people’s hearts.”

The principals seem just as passionate as they’ve ever been, and show no signs of slowing down. Each day, McGarry, who commutes more than an hour from the northern suburbs of Westchester County, is among the last to leave the office. As Bowen explains, “You can’t be a prima donna here. We work as teams. You can’t be a brat.” Staffers say the all-hands-on-deck approach is refreshing, particularly in contrast to larger, more stratified agencies.

“It’s kind of a return to an era that doesn’t exist anymore,” says group managing director Stephen Sonnenfeld, who joined in August from Euro RSCG. “I felt like I was in the advertising business, as opposed to being in the network holding-company business.” Account director Lyle Tick, another Euro expat, adds, “Mcgarrybowen has this incredible sense of movement and entrepreneurial spirit.”

McGarry says that’s what keeps him going. “Age is not an issue. It’s a state of mind,” he says. “That to me is a great thing.” And with a seemingly endless Rolodex after 35 years in the business, his work has only just begun.

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