Relaxed Fit

It’s close to 5 p.m. at TBWA\Chiat\Day, San Francisco, and Chuck McBride feels like collapsing. He caught the flu during a trip to a wedding in Chicago and has barely had enough sleep to recover. His white Oxford hangs out of his jeans and his eyes droop.

A bug zapper lies on the floor of his cluttered office and a sculpture of a deformed monster is perched on a shelf behind his desk. People keep dropping off tapes and updates about a shoot, seemingly oblivious to McBride’s condition.

There is no rest in sight for the executive creative director—point man for Levi’s, one of the nation’s better-known creative talents and father of two children.

Last fall, McBride was lured away from heading creative efforts for Nike at Wieden + Kennedy, Portland, Ore. His task: help the 2-year old San Francisco office of Playa del Rey, Calif-headquartered TBWA\C\D gain a stronger creative presence and, most critically, help revive Levi’s, the office’s flagship account.

He likens his job to that of Larry Bird, the former Boston Celtics basketball great who later coached the Indiana Pacers to the NBA Finals. Just as Bird used his on-court skills and technical expertise to help the Pacers, McBride says his copywriting background and creative skills can help nurture younger talent and build a strong team.

“We’re a young agency, and we need to establish our personality,” says McBride, 37, putting his feet on his desk. “We need to find a voice. What made San Francisco so famous in the ad community was that there were personalities. We need that personality. [Jeff] Goodby did a certain type of ad that was successful and fun. [Hal] Riney had the same mystique. We have some incredible clients—now our own work needs to be distinctive.”

This fall, TBWA\C\D launched its first work for Levi’s since McBride joined the agency and, like his previous work, it is stamped with McBride’s unique brand of creativity. The umbrella campaign, tagged “Make them your own,” is a Spike Jonze-directed, voyeuristic look at people trying on jeans in a store dressing room. For Engineered Jeans, he created four spots using a photo-animation technique, directed by and featuring the music of Icelandic band GusGus. And a recent integrated campaign for Silvertab, “Lost but not lost,” centered on the adventures of three Americans traveling in Morocco.

So far, reaction to the campaigns has been favorable. Sean Dee, head of marketing for Levi’s U.S.A., says McBride’s work is helping revitalize the brand among young consumers. New Levi’s products like Engineered Jeans are seeing positive sales results due to the new ads, says Dee. “We’re trying to reassert ourselves as the denim icon,” he says, “and he’s worked hard to reflect that in our advertising.”

McBride’s influence has also brought positive change within the agency. Carisa Bianchi, president of the S.F. office, says McBride’s offbeat style has been a boon to the agency’s creative department and product. In addition to Levi’s, McBride was creative director for the Game Show Network, OmniSky and the wildly popular Pets.com campaigns.

Much of his advertising showcases his unusual sense of humor, says Bianchi, pointing to the recent Game Show Network spots as an example. In the campaign, television viewers shout out correct answers at hapless game show contestants, who get the answers wrong.

“He’s built an incredibly strong reputation with the clients,” Bianchi adds. “They have a lot of confidence in him, and people are finally saying the work is back on track.”

It would seem that McBride’s position would require an obsession with the competition. But he says he is rarely influenced by other work. Instead, he is driven by the need to top himself. “I just try to do my own thing,” he says. “The test is always to get yourself in the position to do great work. I never got swept up in competition, and never felt like I had to be anyone but who I am. But I’m rarely happy with work, even my own.”

Despite his fatigue and ambitious workload, McBride is effusive, discussing movies, sports and advertising with equal panache. A former employee of a print production firm, McBride appears genuinely surprised by his rise to the top of his field. And while he loves advertising, McBride readily admits that on certain days he would rather put on a wetsuit and surf.

“A day doesn’t go by where I don’t wonder how the hell this happened,” McBride says, describing himself as a mediocre student who studied business but took no advertising classes at the University of San Diego.

Actually, McBride says he liked numbers and did well in math. But a conventional business career wasn’t waiting for him after school. Instead, what followed was a succession of odd jobs that lasted until his late 20s. He had a tough time breaking into advertising. “Back when I was doing print production, I would have taken any ad job,” he says.

McBride was working as a manager of his apartment complex in Los Angeles when he decided to assemble an advertising portfolio, drawn in part by the artistic bent of the field. He finally landed a copywriting position at BBDO West and later worked as a copywriter on the Isuzu and “Got milk?” campaigns at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners.

“I didn’t know his reputation would develop this quickly,” says Colin Probert, president and partner at Goodby. “But his talent was always evident when he was here.”

After Goodby, McBride joined Foote, Cone & Belding, San Francisco, the predecessor to TBWA\C\D on the Levi’s jeans account. His spots for Levi’s Wide Leg jeans were critically acclaimed but definitively offbeat. In one spot, doctors and patients sing “Tainted Love” in the operating room.

McBride continued to garner awards as a creative director at Wieden. A Nike campaign titled “What are you getting ready for?” won two gold Lions in Cannes in 1999, and earlier this year, his Nike spot “Morning After” won an Emmy for outstanding commercial.

“He’s one of the most talented guys you’ll find in the business,” says Hal Curtis, creative director on Nike at Wieden and McBride’s former partner. “He’s also a complex person and very driven.”

Tom Kelley, who worked in the Wieden account department when McBride was at the agency and now heads business development at Odiorne Wilde Narraway & Partners in San Francisco, says McBride was always energetic. “Chuck likes his cappuccinos in the morning,” he says. “He has a lot of energy and turns out a lot of ideas.”

TBWA\C\D officials say they watched McBride closely throughout his career. “He’s just one of those smart thinkers who goes beyond commercials to earth-moving kinds of ideas,” says Lee Clow, chairman and chief creative director of TBWA\C\D. “He has an understanding of how ideas link to brands. He was always the complete package.”

Kelley offers a much less abstract portrayal: “With a guy like Chuck, it is a question of harnessing a tornado,” he says. “He’s bursting at the seams.”