Puzzle Master

In jeans and a short-sleeve polo shirt, Kevin Roddy leans toward the flat-screen television, a gleam in his eye.

In this conference room at Euro RSCG MVBMS Partners’ TriBeCa offices, the main attraction is the agency’s new Volvo work. In one spot, the sportily redone S40 appears in an Xbox videogame, racing down a street and flipping several times, ending up right side up. A second spot puts the car in a music-video scene, with urban trendsetters driving it down a road as women fall like rain to a Dilated Peoples hip-hop track.

It’s the first major campaign from MVBMS since Roddy, 42, arrived in August as executive creative director and partner, and it’s a risk. The client historically has focused on safety in the U.S. and courted a more mature buyer, not the 25-35-year-olds who are the target of this work.

But Roddy, who studied journalism in college and is a fan of documentary films, is here to take risks. He was lured away from his post as ecd at Fallon in New York to ramp up creative at the $1.2 billion office, whose other clients include Intel, MCI, Nestlé and New Balance. When Ron Berger tapped him for the top creative post, which had been vacant since Berger rose to CEO in 2002, he outlined Roddy’s charge. “I said it’s a place that’s always been known for doing good, smart advertising,” Berger says. “But we felt we should be known for doing great, smart advertising.”

“I don’t know whether [the agency] fell asleep or just got incredibly comfortable,” says Roddy. “It kind of needed a new creative leader to come in and say, ‘Where are we going?’ ”

Roddy waited four months to make a move, hiring Jeff Kling from Wieden + Kennedy in Amsterdam and Kara Goodrich, formerly of Arnold in Boston, as cds in January. Kling’s best known work at Wieden was for Miller High Life; Goodrich is a top-notch mentor who can look at work from both a copywriter and art-director standpoint, Roddy says. They start this month and round out a team of eight cds, not counting Roddy. Kling’s duties will include New Balance; Goodrich will work on Stouffers, French’s, Harris Direct and International Paper.

Roddy may not be your usual creative leader. An avid reader who cites Lonesome Dove among his favorite books, he doesn’t exactly stand out in a crowd. He has a playful side (he has named characters in spots after fellow creatives), but his self-described “calm” demeanor would seem better suited to an account manager, which he once was. “He’s not a guy you walk into an agency and say, ‘That must be one of the creative guys,’ ” says Goodby, Silverstein & Partners cd Jamie Barrett, who worked with Roddy at Fallon. “He tucks in his shirt, has a nice haircut, shows up promptly to meetings and is articulate. He puts people at ease.”

His client-management skills are also applauded. “He’s one of those rare creative people who can stand up at an easel and not look like an idiot,” says Cliff Freeman, who hired Roddy as a copywriter at Cliff Freeman and Partners in 1996. “He never lost that ability to articulate a strategic point of view to a client.”

For Roddy, who oversees 50 people, it’s just the beginning. When MVBMS was formed in 1986, it was set up like a law firm, with the creative partners overseeing their accounts fairly autonomously. Though most of the founding partners have left, their “fiefdoms,” as Roddy calls them, remain. Now Roddy must bring them all into a coherent whole through restructuring and more new hires.

“Until I got here, there wasn’t a lot of communication,” he says. “There wasn’t a set of standards. There wasn’t consistency.”

“It’s a challenging role,” says Barrett. “It’s a big agency, and the larger they are, the harder it is to redirect and to reshape.”

That, says Roddy, is the whole point. “A lot of the agencies I’ve worked with in the past, whether it’s Fallon or Cliff, they’re already sort of there,” he says. “This agency over the last five to 10 years sort of lost some of that. What we need to do is get it back. That’s what’s exciting.”

The Portland, Ore., native has looked all over for new challenges. After working account jobs at shops including Chiat/Day (where he met his future wife, Julie), he switched to copywriting at Earle Palmer Brown, under the tutelege of Bill Westbrook. After a stint at Odiorne Wilde Narraway & Partners in San Francisco, he joined Cliff Freeman in 1996 (making a splash with Fox Sports) and Fallon in 1999 (working on accounts including Timberland).

Through it all, his account skills stayed with him. “He listens to what the client feedback is in terms of the business reality,” says Volvo national ad manager Jim Borsh. “But he also is very passionate about his creative product.”

New Evian and Polaroid work is due in April, and Intel soon after. “He has jumped in with both sleeves rolled up. He’s questioning things we might not have questioned,” says partner and cd Ken Segall. “Kevin has risen to the challenge without alientating us and included us all. We’re all pretty hopeful for the future.”