GO WEST. BE SMALL. THINK BIG
Bay area ad agencies, not Madison Avenue, lead the way in creativity

If you think Madison Avenue when you think advertising, it’s time to think again. Although New York – as the business capital of the world – still generates most of the commercial pitches we see and hear, the creative leadership of the ad industry has moved to the West Coast, particularly the Bay Area.

The critical reason behind this shift is the eagerness of Bay Area agencies to take chances with their advertising – which is what younger and smaller advertisers want. Such a culture lets designers and copywriters flex their creative muscles and produce product pitches that can break through a cluttered marketplace. And since artists and writers value nothing more than creative freedom, the risk-taking mantras at Bay Area ad agencies allow them to attract the best and brightest image makers.

Miller/Kadanoff’s work, which targets decision makers in high-tech companies, isn’t often seen by the general public. But much of the creative outpouring from Bay Area agencies is aimed directly at you. People who are creative don’t want to be restricted, says Marcia Kadanoff, a partner in Miller/Kadanoff, a direct marketing agency that works for Cisco and Oracle. “They want to be the same people at the office as they are at home.”

Miller/Kadanoff, headquartered in what once was a soap factory, might be the only office in San Francisco where you can find blue hair (digital artist Hoagie De La Plante), a Super Bowl ring (controller Bob Mischak once worked for the Raiders) and pierced nipples (c’mon, they can’t reveal everyone’s secrets.) in the same room.

Creativity isn’t a group grope, says Floyd Miller, president. You need individuality…

Let it flow
To make sure the creative juices aren’t inhibited, managers of area ad agencies try to nurture a culture where rules are kept to a minimum. At Hal Riney & Partners, the mothership of Bay Area independent agencies, security guards are cautioned not to disturb one woman, who, when seized by a creative frenzy, works through the night, sometimes napping on the floor. On days her muse is AWOL, she doesn’t even come into the office.

At Goldberg Moser O’Neill, there are pool and pingpong tables to break the tension and give the conscious mind something to chew on while the unconscious mind grapples with ways to communicate a client’s message. For refreshment, there’s a freezer full of all-you-can-eat Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream – a client – for inspiration.

Butler, Shine & Stern occupies a waterfront building in Sausalito that was used to build Liberty ships during World War II. Visitors often are greeted by the sound of barking dogs in the office.

Goldberg Moser O’Neill has 175 workers in its Maiden Lane offices in San Francisco, where the plush lobby features black leather chairs, fresh flowers, and copies of Fortune and Forbes. A penthouse bedroom is available for visiting clients. “At Young & Rubicam in New York I wore a suit and tie every day,” says Fred Goldberg, chairman and chief executive of Goldberg Moser O’Neill. “I thought it gave me an edge. Here, the only edge you have is the power of your intellect.”

“Advertising terrorists”
Then there’s Odiorne Wilde Narraway Groome, a 22-person ad agency on Battery Street in San Francisco. Founded by four drinking buddies on April Fool’s Day 1994, Odiorne Wilde is the sort of office where a necktie is about as easy to find as a free parking space on Union Square. A business lunch consists of Cheez Furls and Cokes. The leading industry magazine, Advertising Age, labeled Odiorne et al “advertising terrorists”. They did perhaps their most outlandish work in a low-budget poster campaign for Steel Reserve beer that features fornicating rhinos under the headline “Sex Sells Beer.”

Odiorne Wilde grabbed a slew of awards at the San Francisco Ad Club’s last show. It has also established what management guru Tom Peters calls a “renegade approach” to the ad business. Most agencies work on a commission basis, which can be abused by artificially inflating expenses. Odiorne Wilde charges a flat fee. It also opens its books to clients who want to see where their money is going. Billings – the amount clients spend on ads placed by the agency amount to roughly $18 million a year at Odiorne Wilde. By way of contrast, annual billings amount to $600 million at Hal Riney & Partners, San Francisco’s largest independent agency and the one that made San Francisco a national player in advertising.

Saturn’s rings
The success of Riney’s 1988 campaign to introduce General Motors. Saturn led the way to other companies choosing Bay Area advertising agencies. At the time, Riney was the smallest of 50 agencies from across the country to seek the $100 million account for GM’s first new domestic division in 70 years.

“Riney proved that the best ads don’t have to come out of Madison Avenue,” says Tom Bedecarre, a partner at Citron Haligman Bedecarre, a San Francisco shop, which Ad Week magazine recently named Agency of the Year in the Western United States.

Riney established his agency in 1986 after buying the San Francisco office of Ogilvy & Mather, which he had been running. His move to a small, entrepreneurial agency ran counter to the merger trend, which at that time was creating larger and more bureaucratic agencies.
Paradoxically, it was the very growth of the giant, worldwide agencies through mergers that paved the way for the success of the smaller boutique creative shops that have flourished in San Francisco. “The bigger the agency, the more opportunity for mediocrity”, says Harry Groome, a partner at Odiorne Wilde Narrawa. Groome, who spent five years at New York agencies before coming to the West.

What Riney wrought
Hal Riney has spawned more than a dozen Bay Area spinoff agencies founded by former Riney employees, including such leaders as Goodby, Silverstein (“Got Milk?”). In fact, it’s difficult to find any successful San Francisco agency without a Riney graduate. Bedecarre worked at Riney for six years before he and two partners formed Citron Haligman Bedecarre in 1990, which recently captured Macy’s western division.s $24 million account. “You work at Hal Riney to get an education”, Bedecarre says, “but after a while you get tired of living in his shadow.”

Riney’s folksy ads are credited with everything from creating a market for wine coolers (Bartles & Jaymes) to electing a president (Ronald Reagan), but critics say his range is limited and too often ads consist of ‘two guys on a porch. Riney stresses soft-sell ads that appeal to emotions rather than rationality. The billboard campaign for Saturn cars, for instance, doesn’t talk about engine size or gear ratios. Instead, it pictures the people who make and purchase the cars.

Riney didn’t single-handedly build the reputation of West Coast advertising. Jay Chiat, who now runs TWBA Chiat/Day in Los Angeles, for instance, established a reputation for his willingness to go beyond the ordinary, a la Apple’s “1984” ad that introduced the Macintosh. And Dan Wieden of Wieden & Kennedy, Nike’s ad agency, showed that leading-edge work could come out of Portland, Ore.

Larger agencies have more to lose, ad executives say, so they are less willing to take creative chances. The big agencies tend to win the accounts of the conservative, research-driven companies such as Procter & Gamble that see advertising as a process that can be measured and controlled. “In New York, advertising is seen as more of a science”, says Jack Rooney, managing director of the recently opened San Francisco office of Leagas, Delaney. In San Francisco, advertising is seen as more of an art. That is why when Leagas, Delaney — Britain’s leading creative shop wanted to open a U.S. office to handle its Adidas account, it located in San Francisco.

Conservative companies insist on more testing of ads at various stages in the creative process. Many also put newly graduated MBAs in charge of whole brand lines, and these novices are more likely to muck with an ad’s design, ad execs say. The more advertisers try to create a step-by-step approval process for creative work, the more likely they will get so-so ads, says Burt Manning, chairman and chief executive of J. Walter Thompson in New York. “People hide behind the process”, he says. If the ads don’t work, they can say, “Well, we performed every test in the book”.

The creative departments of ad agencies prefer to work with young companies and smaller companies, because they usually impose fewer restrictions.

Silicon Valley influence
Another reason the Bay Area has become a creative center of the advertising business is the presence of Silicon Valley, which has nourished a cadre of ad agencies that are comfortable marketing the latest technology. When Microsoft wanted a second agency it turned to Andersen & Lembke of San Francisco, which at the time had only 45 employees. The increased workload provided by Microsoft created 100 more jobs, says Hans Ullmark, president of Andersen & Lembke.

Of course, says Bill Cleary, a founder of CKS Partners, Silicon Valley’s leading marketing communications agency, even the best ads can only lead consumers to a product. Once they open the box, the product must stand on its own. CKS devised an enticing promotional campaign that made many consumers rush to try out Apple’s Newton – a hand-held computing device – when it was first introduced. Once exposed to Newton, however, shoppers found they could live without it. “We killed the Newton in 30 days”, Cleary says. “It would have taken a less-competent agency 90 days.”

From the San Jose Mercury News, Sunday, August 25, 1996, Business Section, Page 1, by HAL KAHN, Mercury News Staff Writer