Strange Brew

It’s been almost four years since his inaugural trip to St. Louis, but Dan Pawych still seems awestruck. “Have you ever seen that eagle?” he asks, referring to the enormous Anheuser-Busch icon that decorates the brewer’s headquarters. It was like “going to visit the Greek gods,” he says. “It was huge.”

A classically trained pianist and painter of abstract art, Pawych, 44, is creative director of Downtown Partners in Toronto. He dresses the part, in sandals, jeans and loose-fitting shirts. The easy-going Toronto native has spent his entire career at large agencies—Bates, DDB and Bozell—in the fast-paced, cosmopolitan city. Still, Canada is a country of small ad budgets and limited media, and a trip to Missouri to present ideas to A-B executives is a trip worth getting wide-eyed about. It’s more than a simple border crossing; it’s a call-up to advertising’s big leagues.

In that first meeting in late 2000, Pawych and his team hit the ball out of the park, selling two Bud Light spots for the American market. Since then, Downtown Partners has created a string of award-winning spots for the U.S. and is a regular player in A-B’s annual Super Bowl shuffle. In just three years, the unit of Omnicom Group’s DDB Group Canada has won enough awards to cover the walls of its subterranean Toronto offices—among them, five Cannes Lions for its Bud Light work, two of them gold.

DDB is now trying to replicate that success in the U.S., having opened a second Downtown Partners in June in Chicago, with Jim Schmidt, formerly of Havas’ Euro RSCG Tatham, at the creative helm. There is no grand plan afoot to make Downtown Partners a larger agency network. In both countries, the offices were formed simply as a means to snare creative talent and the accounts they were close to.

The shops are positioned as creatively driven boutiques, where clients have easy access to senior executives. But no one gets too idealistic. DDB’s eye, of course, is on the bottom line. “It’s a revenue thing,” says Tony Altilia, agency president in Toronto. “Every multinational is about growth.”

Pawych is the “heart and soul” of the estimated $60 million, 30-person Toronto agency, says Frank Palmer, CEO of DDB Group Canada. It was Palmer who recruited Pawych back in 1999. Pawych was then an associate creative director at Bozell, working on Budweiser and some Bud Light during a six-year relationship with the Labatt Brewery, the Canadian distributor of A-B brands. But Bozell was being folded into Foote Cone & Belding, which had Coors as a client. With the Labatt business up in the air, and with Pawych unwilling to join DDB proper, Palmer suggested creating a new agency to house him and his client. It took the name Palmer Jarvis DDB Downtown, which was shortened to Downtown Partners in 2001.

The Chicago launch was also inspired by a client—Walgreen’s. Schmidt, 49, has written ads for the retailer since 1992—first at his own agency, McConnaughy Stein Schmidt Brown, then at Tatham after it bought MSSB in 2000. Tatham, which never established the creative identity it sought with the purchase of MSSB, began imploding late last year with personnel and client defections, and Schmidt quit the top creative post in January. Walgreen’s began a review, talking to agencies including DDB, but feared its account would get lost at a large agency. That’s when DDB saw a way to poach the $60 million broadcast creative account. To accommodate the business, U.S. chief creative officer and Chicago chairman Bob Scarpelli and Chicago president Ray Gillette hatched the idea for a Downtown Partners in Chicago.

“It was a perfect storm kind of thing,” says Scarpelli, who had sought to recruit Schmidt at other times over the years. “He’s one of those guys who’s really a student of advertising. His taste levels are very high. He’s plugged in to what’s happening.”

Schmidt managed a suburban Sheraton hotel before going to work at Ogilvy & Mather in Chicago at age 28. A writer who displays an inexhaustible curiosity about the business (he’s the son of an ad executive) but still finds time to help coach his son’s baseball team, Schmidt built his reputation with clean, smartly written print ads at MSSB. The shop garnered praise and trophies for its work for clients like Crate & Barrel and Illinois State Tourism, but it failed to consistently snare national accounts. In 1996, a print ad for local rug merchant Oscar Isberian won Schmidt a gold Lion at Cannes. Copy in one of the winning ads read, “Allah is in the details.”

The latest Walgreen’s work, a campaign launched by Tatham in 2001 and created by Schmidt and art director Joe Stuart, who joins him in the new venture, contrasts a fictional town where everything is perfect with the real world, where Walgreen’s can help. The new agency’s first ads will be holiday spots in that series.

Gillette, named president of the agency, will focus on new business while Schmidt builds a small creative staff. Schmidt expects to have another creative team in place by the end of the summer and then hire a designer.

In Toronto, Pawych works with just three creative teams, all of which get a shot at A-B while working on other clients, including Quaker’s Tropicana and Gatorade brands, Bridgestone tires, Mega Blocks toys, the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League and the St. Michael’s Majors junior-hockey team. Pawych and his staff, most of whom are in their 30s, work almost as equals. “Our relationship with Dan is not, ‘Oh, he’s the boss.’ He knows we know how to do the job,” says copywriter Peter Ignazi, 37. “For A-B, we put our scripts in a pile. It’s Dan’s call ultimately, but we all contribute.”

The agency was first housed in DDB’s offices, but it moved into its own space in February 2003. Offered any of four Omnicom properties, the staff settled on the basement of a six-story brick building on King Street in Toronto’s entertainment district, one floor below interactive unit Organic. It seemed the best choice, but it took a while to get used to. “We hated it at the beginning,” Pawych says of the underground lair, which has the brick walls and exposed ceilings of your typical boutique but considerably less light. “But it’s developed a vibe. Now we really like it.”

The Chicago agency is also starting out in a corner of DDB’s space, a fact Schmidt hopes to change within a year or so. While the two shops will work together only loosely—sharing a reporting structure (Gillette, like Altilia, reports to Palmer), a creative philosophy and marketing materials—Schmidt says he is happy to extend what Pawych has created. “They’ve got a culture and a sensibility and a pride about their work,” he says. “They’re very hard on themselves. They’ve set a very high bar right out of the chute with those Lions, and they want more of those.”

While Schmidt has his own gold One Show pencils and gold Clios on his résumé, he says he won’t measure the new agency’s success by number of awards won. Still, he does acknowledge their importance to a fledgling shop. “You can’t live or die with awards, but awards lend credence to a creatively driven agency,” he says. “I’ve never known an agency hurt by winning too many awards.”

Toronto’s big break came early. As Downtown Partners was launching with work for Bud Light in Canada, A-B CEO Patrick Stokes was urging a more global approach to advertising his brands. A-B vp of brand management Bob Lachky had added oversight of worldwide creative to his post and began to review overseas work more closely. He loved Downtown Partners’ “Bud Light Institute” campaign, based on the premise that Bud Light provided a refuge for men tied down by girlfriends, wives and families, but it was deemed “too chauvinistic for America at the time,” says Lachky.

In late 2000, the brewer invited the agency to St. Louis to present ideas for the “Great Lengths” campaign for Bud Light. Created for the U.S. by DDB Chicago in 1992, the long-running series humorously portrays guys doing crazy things to secure a Bud Light. Downtown Partners did not disappoint.

One of its first contributions was “Luge,” a spot that features street lugers who have inexplicably high voices. The mystery is solved when one guy, distracted by a Bud Light sign, crashes into a street light while zooming downhill. Another spot, “Fridge,” shows two shiftless friends breaking through a wall and into the back of their neighbor’s refrigerator to steal Bud Light. The girl next door screams when she sees a head in her fridge; her boyfriend screams when he sees the Bud Light is gone. The spot won a gold Lion in Cannes in 2002.

During this year’s Super Bowl, the agency’s “Good Dog” commercial for Bud Light was the first ad to run. The spot, which won a bronze Lion this year, features a regular Joe and his mutt showing up a snooty fellow and his purebred with a bite to the man’s crotch.

“The thing we saw with their work was that it had an edge to it,” says Lachky. “The insights are a little more twisted and jaded than the stuff you see in the mainstream. These guys have a term they use. They say, ‘It’s whacked.’ And that pretty much describes it.”

But what gets the agency there, Pawych says, is a persistence in looking for something different in terms of casting, directors and production. “Everyone gets comfortable in concept and executions. Instead of going forward, they want to go with what’s proven,” he says. “We spend a lot of time going through tapes, casts, to see what adds a different flair. I try to make them realize they can go further, but I’m not a slave driver.”

Pawych, who came up with the idea for “Fridge,” is old-fashioned in his comedic tastes, favoring straightforward gags over shock value. His favorite TV show is The Honeymooners. “I find it so innocent and silly,” he says.

To motivate his staff, Pawych tells them, ” ‘You’ll get a chance you won’t get anywhere else in this country,’ ” he says. “When you have a chance like they have, you’d better sit down and take that very seriously.”

The opportunity to work on A-B also lured the creative team of Ignazi and copywriter Carlos Moreno from Saatchi & Saatchi in Toronto two and a half years ago. “It gives us the world, in a way,” says Ignazi.

This year, as A-B sought to ward off competitors’ low-carbohydrate claims, it brought Downtown Partners’ “Bud Light Institute” campaign into the U.S.. “We’ve been looking for a couple years for a way to get ‘Institute’ into the U.S.,” Lachky says. “Dan brought it to us in the carbs discussion.” The spots introduce ridiculous exercises like the toe press, and an Olympics-themed spot offers mock competitions like the low jump.

The agency principals in Chicago met their Canadian counterparts in Toronto late last month. For the Canadians, having a sister shop in the Windy City is “kind of an honor,” Altilia says. “Canadians are kind of understated, you know. To think the [Chicago] company would take this little agency and the principles we’re built upon, it was great.”

Chicago will adopt Toronto’s slogan, “Unconventional action,” its sewer-cap logo and, broadly speaking, its values—which Schmidt says are those “of any smart agency.” “It’s a culture of ideas first,” he says. “A culture should work backwards from the end product.”

“I don’t know if we’re going to hold hands and sing ‘Kum Ba Yah,’ but it’ll be all right,” adds Pawych, laughing. “Of course, if they start fucking it up, we might have to say something.”