Ray of Light

While most of the West Coast’s recession-weary agency world retrenched last year, McCann-Erickson’s San Francisco office was like a packed diner, open 24 hours a day to serve up creative for the launch of Microsoft Windows XP.

The XP campaign was a round-the-clock challenge—as much advertising was to run in places like Hong Kong and Dublin as in the U.S.—and reflected an expanded relationship between the software giant and McCann in 2001. As other technology clients generally slashed their budgets, Microsoft handed the McCann network $150 million in overseas spending—on top of the estimated $350 million domestic business already handled out of San Francisco.

To win the vote of confidence needed from the client, former McCann S.F. chairman Barrie Hedge beefed up senior management, luring creative talent from agencies like Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. Another new arrival in San Francisco was Mark Lepere, who came from McCann’s New York office to be international director on Microsoft.

Microsoft, which accounts for about three-quarters of the office’s billings, provided the biggest windfall for the agency last year, but not the only one. Billings in San Francisco increased 18 percent to $450 million, and revenue was up 8 percent to $52 million. The agency secured the $7-10 million account of Applied Mater ials, an information infrastructure pro vider in Santa Clara, Calif. It also added Southcorp Wines’ $7-10 million business and Bay Area television station KNTV’s $5 million media account. All of which was accomplished in perhaps the most troubled advertising market of all.

“We felt like an island on a sea of turmoil,” says Hedge, 54. “We just went about working hard, doing our business. We made some wholesale changes at the top, and the staff learned to like each other.”

Hedge was brought in to steer the ship in late 1999 after McCann, a buttoned-down San Francisco fixture since 1913, merged with Microsoft roster shop Anderson & Lembke. It was an interim assignment for Hedge, who will soon take an undisclosed job with McCann parent Interpublic Group of Cos.

By 2001, the agency was still in transition, particularly in terms of staffing. Last November, it hired Courtney Bue chert, a former Leagas Delaney principal, as general manager. It was a shrewd move. Earlier in his career, Bue chert, 39, had worked on the Micro soft account at A&L and at Goodby. The shop also managed to draw two top creatives away from Goodby: executive creative director Dante Lombardi and art director and Bud weiser veteran Andy Azula, who helped to add some needed irreverence.

Senior planner James Lou joined from Grey, New York, as Microsoft worldwide planning director, a new position. Barbara Wingate, formerly a senior partner at J. Walter Thompson, San Francisco, was named svp and planner on diversified accounts, including Del Monte and Supercuts. Walt Connelly, who joined in October 2000, is the executive creative director.

“If you get good people who get along, you have something special,” says Hedge. In assembling his group, Hedge—a founder of former New York creative shop Angotti, Thomas, Hedge—sought to foster a culture of hard work, collaboration and high creative expectations. Few clients needed such efforts more last year than Microsoft, as the country’s most visible technology marketer embarked on one of its most aggressive product launches ever.

McCann had been gearing up for the challenge for two years. Microsoft wanted the XP work to communicate an emotional message of empowerment and freedom to cultures in Asia and Europe as well as the U.S. The campaign launched in October with a series of optimistic, lighthearted spots using dreamlike visuals of people flying to the sounds of Madonna’s “Ray of Light.” A simple tagline advised, “Yes, you can.”

“The most amazing thing about McCann’s Microsoft team is they started from zero in that market and ramped up so quickly,” says Mike Delman, general advertising manager for Microsoft in Redmond, Wash. “I’ve never seen an agency get to this level so fast. The awareness we’ve gotten from the XP campaign is greater than any I’ve ever seen in any category.”

The ascent of McCann, Adweek’s Western Agency of the Year, was no accident. The agency has worked hard to shed its image as just another conservative, tradition-bound network office uncomfortable with risky or adventurous work. Hedge’s handpicked group creative director, Kevin Moehlen kamp—a tall, amicable, blue-jean-wearing car-advertising veteran who joined in 2000—embodies the new direction.

“Kevin creates a great atmosphere,” says Lombardi, 36. “He’s down-to-earth, he’s always contributing, and he’s always listening. When he laughs at a spot, you feel good about it.”

In addition to the Windows XP spots, another highlight of last year’s reel was the offbeat campaign for six-year client Supercuts. Tagged “As hip as you want to be,” the campaign promised fashionable styles at low prices, with ads featuring jumpsuit-wearing fashion police grabbing unsuspecting passersby for haircuts. In one spot, an awkward high school freshman gains instant popularity and the attention of a pop star for her new coif. The $10-15 million account is the agency’s second-largest.

Work for clients like Supercuts helps McCann carve out a distinctive creative profile beyond its flagship account. “We’re trying to be a leader in McCann, not just with Microsoft,” says director of diversified accounts Tisha Mahler, 42. “If you talk to our clients outside of Micro soft, they don’t feel like they’re getting lost here.”

The success in developing a strong agency culture has helped the shop handle an increasing amount of work. Moehlenkamp, 37, compares each day in the office to a rugby match. “We’ve been inundated this year,” he says. While other shops worried if they would stay open, “each day here is like a scrum.”

Still, it is the high-profile Microsoft work that best demonstrates McCann’s strengths in a Bay Area market where global networks like Saatchi & Saatchi and Lowe have shut their doors. Mc Cann let go less than a dozen people in 2001 and lost just two accounts: SGI and Blue Shield of California, which is currently in review.

“This agency is not just about safety and stability,” says Buechert. “[With Microsoft,] we’ve gone from handling a huge account in one country to a global account and delivered. … Microsoft has more growing to do, and that’s what’s great about being here.”

Adds director of client services Michael McLaren, 38, who joined Mc Cann in 1999 from Ogilvy & Mather, New York: “We fill a vacuum for an international agency out West. When we come to the table, we bring the best of McCann and the best of San Francisco.”

STATISTICS

BILLINGS
Up 18 percent to $453 million (est.)

Revenue
Up 8 percent to $52 million (est.)

Win/Loss Pitch Ratio
4 out of 5

Accounts Won/Media Budget*
Applied Materials/$7-10 million
Southcorp Wines North America/$7-10 million
KNTV/$5 million (media only)

Accounts lost/media budget*
SGI/$4-5 million
Blue Shield of California/$3-5 million

Highlights
Strengthened relationship with Microsoft, launching two highly visible international campaigns; added senior staff.

*Only largest accounts included.
Sources: Adweek, agency reports and CMR.