There Are Second Acts

Mcgarrybowen is riding high on a wave of new business

Suddenly, mcgarrybowen is the hottest shop in the business. In just three months, the nine-year-old agency won the creative accounts for Sears, Burger King, and United Continental in succession, adding $40 million in annual revenue at a time when bigger shops like Draftfcb are losing accounts and slashing staff.

Almost overnight, the underdog has become a front-runner, with about $150 million in total revenue at its offices in New York and Chicago, which together employ about 700 staffers. Verizon, Chase bank, and Kraft Foods are among its other top accounts.

“It’s a remarkable run,” one rival CEO grudgingly admits.

Still, its new clients—a department store that’s been struggling for years now, a fast-food chain in need of a turnaround, and a newly merged airline made up of two companies that have struggled on their own—won’t be easy ones to sell. But part of mcgarrybowen’s credibility and expertise comes from its experience handling two famously demanding clients: Verizon and Chase.

The company has an “amazing work ethic,” search consultant Catherine Bension says.

While the agency has clear creative bona fides—its decision to change the name of Verizon’s Android phone from “Dynamite” to “Droid,” for instance, is credited with saving Google’s Android mobile operating system—its real appeal may be that it is not too creative.

“Populist” is the way the agency itself describes its penchant for relatively traditional, upbeat, and reassuring campaigns that rely on tried-and-true approaches. The agency eschews the quirky and attention-getting approach of, for instance, Crispin Porter + Bogusky, from whom it took the Burger King account. And that’s appealing to companies that covet Effies more than Cannes Lions.

It is traditional, too, in the way it pitches new business. It is a buttoned-down approach, heavy on the teamwork, the man-hour investment, and the strategic underpinnings of the plan. Its pitches are self-consciously light on sexiness and big (or too big) ideas. They’re cost efficient, too. Most of the pitch materials are produced in-house, and the final bill for a pitch runs in the tens of thousands at mcgarrybowen compared to six figures for a big pitch at a global shop.

The Man Behind mcgarrybowen’s Curtain

In an age-conscious industry like advertising, it’s rare to see a man who’s cracked 70 on top. But that’s where mcgarrybowen CEO John McGarry finds himself and his company these days.

Charming, but demanding and no-nonsense, McGarry is both “gracious and tenacious,” a colleague says. One minute he’ll pepper a staffer with a tough question and the next he’ll dash off a congratulatory email to a client executive.

Not the retiring type, McGarry ended a 33-year career at Young & Rubicam in 1998, only to resurface four years later with a handful of partners and an assignment from Verizon. “He loves the business to his bones,” explains a former colleague. “He wasn’t going to stay away.”

The former colleague attributes the recent success of McGarry and his agency to the fundamentals of “doing the stuff that we’re supposed to be really, really good at, really, really well.”