Return Trip

Implicit in the joy expressed last week by the men and women who saw each other for the first time in years at a reunion of Levine, Huntley, Schmidt & Beaver is the reality that advertising today is generally a lot less fun. As onetime Levine, Huntley copywriter Lee Garfinkel put it during an impromptu speech about an hour into the intimate, and chat-filled, event, “I’ve worked at some lousy places in the last 30 years.”

For Garfinkel and the 60 or so other former employees who attended the reunion, held in the white-walled gallery of The One Club in New York, Levine, Huntley represented “Camelot,” a special time (the early 1970s to the early 1990s) and place (New York) in the history of advertising. Former CEO Bob Schmidt compared his old shop to a free-spirited family, including all the dysfunction that comes with it. “Someone called us a benign banana republic,” added Schmidt.

The backdrop to the somewhat bare-bones reunion (no music, a few noshes, lots of bottled beers and wine) were print ads of a bygone era, which were affixed to the walls. One, for McCall’s magazine, featured a close-up of Yoko Ono, wearing her signature oversize sunglasses. The headline: “One of the dull conformists who reads McCall’s.”

A campaign for Maidenform featured portraits of men—actors Christopher Reeve, Corbin Bernsen and Pierce Brosnan—rather then models, with quotes from each on what it’s like to buy lingerie for women. Small-space ads for Panasonic vacuum cleaners mixed product shots with pithy, provocative headlines like “Let’s talk dirt” and “It’s a powerful little sucker.”

While reunioneers expressed pride in the work they created, their conversations repeatedly veered back to the playful yet competitive atmosphere in the office. Schmidt, tanned from a recent trip to the Caribbean, remembered the time that creatives tangled a hallway with toilet paper to keep account executives at bay—only to have the execs fight back with water guns.

Warlick recalled sibling rivalry among the shop’s top creative groups, each vying to create standout, award-worthy work. Warlick has an acute memory of this, given that she was responsible for entering ads into shows. That job segued into her becoming CEO of The One Club in 1989, a position that she still holds today.

Levine, Huntley had a good run—20 years—but ultimately fell victim to the loss of mega-client Subaru and the bottom-line mentality of then corporate parent Grey Advertising Inc. Grey shuttered the shop in November 1991, five months after Subaru split for Wieden + Kennedy. (The divorce followed several years of retail sales declines and a review that was central to Where the Suckers Moon, Randall Rothenberg’s memorable book on the “life and death of an advertising campaign.”)

In its heyday in the late 1980s, Levine, Huntley boasted profit margins of more than 20 percent, total revenue of about $55 million and a staff of 300, according to Schmidt. Subaru, for which the agency created the line, “Inexpensive, and built to stay that way,” represented nearly half of the total.

Creatively, the agency’s work for the likes of Panasonic, Jockey, Maidenform, Genesee beer, Matchbox and People’s Express often displayed a wry sense of humor and helped define a particular New York style of advertising made famous by Doyle Dane Bernbach.

As old colleagues nibbled on cheese, grapes and sliders, Garfinkel, now CCO for global brands at Euro RSCG, mentioned the jocular gibe he received—in an agency memo, no less—after he started dating traffic manager Shelley Cohen, the woman who later became his wife. “Lee has been playing in traffic” was how the memo put it.

Speaking before Garfinkel, former creative chief Allan Beaver summed up the Levine, Huntley experience, saying that he loved the awards, camaraderie and “the paycheck—that was always good. But quite honestly, most of all I really cherished the relationships I had with all you people.”