Team Player

When Chris Graves landed his first job in advertising in 1987, fresh from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, the Southern California native found himself in foreign territory. “It was classic Darrin Stephens—he could have been in the cube next to me,” he says of his year as an art director at Ogilvy & Mather in New York. “It was a huge colossus. It was overwhelming.”

Graves, 41, who started at Lexus agency Team One last month as executive creative director, is a far cry from Bewitched’s Stephens. In addition to sharing a passion for surfing with former TBWA\Chiat\Day colleague Lee Clow, Graves says he and Clow have something else in common: the ability to not take themselves too seriously. “The most fun I ever had was when things were loose and people were not locked in an office,” he notes.

These days, Graves is holed up at the El Segundo, Calif., shop, prepping work for Lexus’ 2004 models. He did not play a role in creative development, but he’s overseeing production and starting to work on the launch campaign for the RX hybrid SUV, due early next year.

After 10 years as a creative director at TBWA\ C\D in Playa del Rey, Calif., Graves says he feels like “the new kid at school” at Team One. He quickly corrects himself: “the new principal.” Graves previously oversaw a staff of 10; now, 50 creatives at the 240-person shop report to him. Team One, whose clients also include Boost Mobile and the Los Angeles Times, pursued Graves as a replacement for Tom Cordner, who helped establish the shop in 1987 and left for J. Walter Thompson in January.

“When we looked at his work, we felt it was invariably smart,” says agency CEO Brian Sheehan, noting that while the shop is consistently good, he wants work to get “better and smarter.” Group cd James Dalthorp adds that Lexus work “lost its way a bit” in recent years. The problem? Trying to be “all things to all people.”

With a premium product like Lexus, advertising has to be “aspirational,” says Graves. “Those are the discussions we’re having now, about circling back to the core of pursuing perfection.” Ads will use “wit and intellect” to emphasize the power of Japanese engineering, he says, making clear that he plans no radical changes. “I want to stay true to what Team One has done and continue to improve on that.”

At TBWA\C\D, Graves handled Nissan and Infiniti. His work for the former, which Sheehan terms “not just car work but engaging advertising,” included a 2002 Z spot in which black-and-white stills of the car are paired with onscreen copy of punctuation marks and the phrase “Words fail.” He also led the Xterra campaign showing the “million uses and counting” for the car, with scenarios such as a guy rappelling into a cave after tying a rope to the bumper.

The Nissan work was “the most difficult and the most rewarding,” Graves says, particularly as the agency developed the “Shift” theme, which launched as Nissan revived the Z sports car. “The challenge was pretty large, in terms of global positioning, and the gauntlet was pretty severe to get something through,” he says. “I’d never been involved in something that had so many voices—it was everybody’s brand.”

Whether it’s a mass-market or a luxury car, Graves says he takes the same overarching approach: “A lot of people rely on old tricks and the same devices to sell cars, but every vehicle has its own unique personality.” Stay “true and honest” to the brand, he says.

Graves has not yet met with Lexus, but client vp of marketing Mike Wells says he’s “excited” about what the ecd will bring to the shop.

Graves’ résumé also includes One Show and Art Directors Club awards for funny documentary-style Energizer ads showing men trying to track down the bunny and a spot in which a man prepares to fill in for the bunny.

A deadpan, “very subtle sense of humor” also reveals itself in Graves’ practical jokes, says friend and former TBWA\C\D colleague Kathy Hepinstall, who praises his “steady temperament” and ability to multitask. “He has the kind of mind that’s divided into eights, and each part can work on a different problem,” she says.

Graves, who now spends more time with his three kids than he does surfing, didn’t plan on an ad career when he started at the University of Southern California, where he majored in English and pre-law. Then a teacher suggested advertising. Says Graves, “I didn’t know people got paid to make commercials.”

He says he’s been lucky in his career, which has included stints at Grace & Rothschild and Lord Dentsu. “[I’m] very privileged to have worked with some great visionary minds—Roy Grace, Lee Clow, Steve Rabosky,” Graves says. “I was also fortunate to work with people that had a lot of different styles—Dick Sittig, Rob Schwartz. They all have a different approach.”

As far as his management style, Graves says, “I’m not afraid to roll up my sleeves. I lead by example instead of lobbing things from on high.” The downside: “I tend to try to solve everything myself and take on a lot of responsibility.”

Hepinstall recalls staffers lining up to get Graves’ advice. “He was almost always 100 percent right—it was maddening!” she jokes.