Trading Places

Gary Koepke was anxious when he arrived at The Looking Glass Studio in New York one day last April. He was making his directorial debut on a spot for David Bowie’s new album, and he expected to be micro managed and second-guessed. He waited for Adam Owett, Sony Music’s senior vice president of creative services, to question the decision to film wires and a mixing board. Koepke was prepared to hear, “Oh, you’re not going to shoot Bowie that way, are you?”

Instead, Owett stood on the sidelines, occasionally offering unobtrusive suggestions.

The result was a spot featuring a captivated girl looking through a recording-studio window at Bowie, who is clad all in white and singing the album’s first single, “Slow Burn.” More than 55,000 copies of Heathen, Bowie’s 28th release, were sold during its first week on the market in June.

“He knows how creative people function,” Koepke says of Owett, a 19-year veteran of the ad-agency world. “If you are overly protective, that would hinder the creative process.”

Owett had given Koepke—co-founder and creative director at Boston shop Modernista! and Bowie’s handpicked director—some guidelines before the shoot. He wanted a five-second product shot at the end of the commercial, and he wanted Bowie lit in such a way that would make him look younger than his 55 years. By the time they arrived at the studio, Owett was comfortable enough to let the cameras roll.

Owett, who migrated to Sony three years ago, says his experience running the creative departments at Grey in London and Partners & Shevack in New York makes him a more savvy client. “I know when they can work harder and where there are limitations,” he says. “I know when something can be done quicker or when they’re working as fast as they can.”

In an industry where client-agency relationships range from harmonious to adversarial, having a former agency executive as a client can be both a blessing and a curse. While most agency executives agree that colleagues who have crossed over understand the process better and make things happen more quickly, they also say that ex-agency people expect more: that they challenge agencies on their tendency to overpromise and underdeliver, and that their ability to act as advocates for the agency goes only so far.

Some are even accused of using their newfound power to exact revenge for all the client ills they incurred when they were lowly agency staffers. Fred Siegel, an independent consultant who left Ketchum Advertising in Philadelphia in 1993 to join QVC as svp of marketing, calls them the “bitter refugees.” “They use client status for all it’s worth,” he says.

Still, armed with an intimate knowledge of the agency world, agency exports can act as interpreters for both sides. They can educate and advise people within their marketing departments on how agencies function and how to solicit the best results from them.

John Hayes, executive vice president of global advertising and brand management at American Express, says he regularly counsels co-workers who are seeking a better understanding of their agencies. “I’ll get calls or visits from people within our organization who say, ‘I’ve never worked inside an agency. Can you help me understand how to get this result?’ Or, ‘I’m not quite sure how the agency operates, who does what and how the processes work,’ ” says Hayes, who joined AmEx in 1995 following a three-year run at Lowe. His shift to the client side came after almost 20 years at New York ad agencies, including Foote, Cone & Belding, Saatchi & Saatchi, Ammirati & Puris and Geer Dubois.

Speaking the same language is critical in a relationship that joins an inherently business-driven company with one that is predominantly creatively focused. “A lot of times, communication between agencies and clients is misunderstood or miscommunicated, which leads to a breakdown,” says John Seifert, worldwide client services director for AmEx at Ogilvy & Mather in New York. “[Hayes] helps the client side better understand that its forte is not brilliant art direction or TV production. And he helps the agency understand why the client is asking you to do something in a certain way.”

Hayes’ experience also makes him keenly aware of the competition among roster shops, and he works to encourage cooperation. Role clarity among his agency partners—which include Momentum in New York, i-shop Digitas in Boston and New York-based branding and Internet consultancy Siegelgale—is vital, he says.

“When you bring together these various entities, they have to clearly understand what their unique role is on that team and where that begins and ends. I try to make it clear that this is not about someone trying to poach somebody else’s piece of business.”

Seifert says Hayes “doesn’t try to diminish the competition, but he doesn’t allow [the rivalry] to be destructive.”

In addition to their role as mediators, clients with agency experience are also credited for an ability to distill complicated business objectives down to digestible ad strategies. Some 20 years after working together on Procter & Gamble at the former Compton Advertising, Jeff Mordos sat across from Dawn Hudson last year at Pepsi-Cola’s Purchase, N.Y., headquarters. They were there for a strategy meeting of high-level BBDO and Pepsi executives for the soon-to-be-launched Mountain Dew line extension, Code Red. Mordos, COO of BBDO in New York, listened as his former colleague, then svp, strategy and marketing (now president) of Pepsi-Cola North America, boiled down the strategy. Hudson’s insight: If Mountain Dew was born in the country and aimed at mainstream teenage boys, Code Red, which targets urban youth, should be born in the city.

“That shorthand is a good example of the ad sense she has,” says Mordos. “She translates it into a language that creatives can understand. You don’t have to deal with marketing jargon. It was a matter of her taking it and honing it down and expressing it in terms that were easy to work with.”

From that brief came two reality-TV-like spots that illustrate New York City life. One features NBA stars Chris Webber and Tracy McGrady playing in a pickup basketball game at the public court on West 4th Street. The other, filmed in Columbus Circle, shows a crowd gathering around singer Macy Gray, who heeds a street musician’s call for help and breaks into song. Both are tagged, “Discover a sensation as real as the streets.”

Clear and concise guidance also helped Universal McCann shortly after it landed Sony’s $600 million consolidated North American account. Owett briefed the agency team on the reactive nature of planning and buying media for the company’s music division.

“You don’t know who’s going to be up and down,” explains Owett. Who would have thought that Sony artist Ozzy Osbourne would become the star of a cable TV show? Or that Celine Dion would have a huge first week in this sluggish record environment, while other sure-fire artists would come out of the gate and fizzle? “The notion of media planning would be kind of a joke,” Owett says.

“He had such a clear understanding that we would find this shockingly different,” says George Hayes, evp, director of AOR accounts at Universal McCann. “It was like diving into a cold pool. We’re used to orderly buying a certain number of gross rating points each week. His warnings were not meant to humble us but to make sure we were attuned to the differences involved. This is a creative kind of buying situation.”

ESPN svp of marketing, Lee Ann Daly, who spent about six years at New York’s Ammirati Puris Lintas overseeing accounts including UPS and Compaq, understands another key factor in dealing with agencies: how important it is not to degrade the creatives who are working in the trenches.

For the ESPN SportsCenter account, Wieden + Kennedy’s New York office sometimes presents Daly with five scripts at a single meeting. As Daly reviews them, she is careful not to deflate the creative staffers even if she is asking them to return to the drawing board. Instead, says Wieden managing director Buzz Sawyer, Daly’s pointed critiques lead to better campaigns.

“She is very respectful of the [agency] process and the mind-set, particularly in the creative department,” says Sawyer. “How do you tell a creative person that an ad isn’t good without destroying them? They have to produce another one the next day.”

Agencies often operate in fear of clients that are quick to illuminate shortfalls but stingy with specific suggestions of what they want, Sawyer says. For a shop like Wieden, which churns out more than 75 ESPN spots a year, being able to identify missteps and move on is essential. Rather than merely complaining about work that falls short, Daly tells them how to improve it, Sawyer says, even to the point of proposing which SportsCenter hosts should be featured in which commercials.

“Agencies are constantly having to prove themselves. And in a marketing role inside a company, you’re constantly having to prove yourself,” says Daly, who joined ESPN in 1997 after 13 years on the agency side. “You’re not a profit center, you’re an expense center. Or you can be seen as an investment center. Truly, the work you do is like agency work, and your clients are the internal people you’re working with. If you do something and everybody’s scratching their head, asking, ‘Why the hell did you do that?’—you’d better have a really good answer.”

Creative recruiter Susan Friedman believes that former agency executives who are now clients improve a campaign directly—that they are open to fresher thinking, which leads to edgier ads. “To create good advertising, they are willing to take more chances creatively,” she says. “And, more importantly, they are able to sell those ideas internally.”

They know what it’s like. They’ve been there.

“Having done so many pitches in the past and having experienced the pain and the pleasure and the agony, it was very interesting to be on the other side,” says Sony’s Owett. “I certainly had tremendous sympathy. I also knew all the bullshit. I knew the parts that are boiler plate. And I knew the parts that every agency says. It’s interesting to hear different agencies tell you the same thing and tell you it’s proprietary. If the gods do ever send me back to the agency side, I have valuable knowledge.”