More on How I Got Over Biggism and Learned To Love Challengers.
The planner's parents were on the phone, both the mother and father. This was bad.
Ben Rothfeld, usually voluble and full-voiced—every bit the pompous planner at twenty four—was all hems and whimpers and whiny little squeaks.
This was our first agency crisis.
August, 1996. DiMassimo, Inc. was three months old, and working out of our first offices at 51 Fifth Avenue, which also happened to be Ben's parents' New York City co-op apartment.
I'd launched the agency on Cinco de Mayo without clients. Ben had left K&B to work for a consultancy in San Francisco, but wanted to come back to New York, and was willing to take a chance. His parents had moved to New Jersey, but still kept the Village co-op.
Then success happened. We picked up a project for Pepsi and my favorite car service driver needed help with his chocolate company, then my Citibank client from K&B left to head up credit card marketing at SunTrust.
"I’ll need an agency, Mark, and you know this business. I know you, I don't need a pitch, just send me a proposal by Monday."
On Monday, she had her proposal.
"Leslie, you don't want me worrying about how to buy computers or pay the bills because you need me focused on the work, right? So I need you to write me an advance check on the first few months of fees."
"Four hundred thousand dollars," I said, and still marvel to this day that I could be so matter-of-fact about something so momentous. But that was the trust Leslie and I had built while building the Citibank AAdvantage Card into the #1 credit card for the miles-obsessed consumer.
"You’ll have the check in the morning," she said, and it was so.
Today, a plaque engraved with, "Leslie Dukker Doty Center of Inspiration" hangs in our largest conference room. In 1996, it hung over Ben Rothfeld's parents' double bed.
One copywriter. Two art directors. Five computers. They all seemed to come up the elevator at the same time, along with the portfolios that flowed in ever increasing volume through that tight little tributary from the doorman's desk below.
The co-op board wasn't happy.
Even a challenger knows when to pack it in, and by the end of the next year, after several extraordinary accomplishments, Leslie Doty did leave SunTrust and the South for MasterCard and her native New York. By then we had long since vacated 51 Fifth Avenue, just ahead of the tar and feathers.
"Your Kozmo campaign is the best thing out there. It's just brilliant."
Fall, 1999. Doug Levine was the Founder/Chairman of Crunch Fitness and our newest client. John Painter and Greg Morelli had done some innovative work for Doug in an advertising class. When Doug found out they worked for Kozmo’s ad agency, the account was ours.
Doug had built his brand on cool and wacky exercise classes and a visionary/tightwad approach to branding. His latest class was kickboxing for the urban masses. The purpose of this meeting was to discuss advertising ideas, and I'd come prepared.
"Do you know Fox's new show, "Who Wants To Marry a Millionaire?!"
Like everyone in America, he did.
I continued, "We were talking about this cheesy millionaire, Rick Rockwell, and who are these women lining up to marry this guy? Someone said, 'Somebody ought to kick that guy’s ass!' Everybody burst out laughing; and I got to thinking about why."
"Why?" He asked, a broadening smile on his face.
"Because there's this Internet boom and these paper millionaires, but the average young professional is working harder and will never see that kind of money. Yet, everyone's saying, "Who wants to be a millionaire?! But not Crunch."
"Uh-huh." Meaning O.K., get to it.
"So that's our idea: Crunch's "Who Wants To Kick A Millionaire's Ass" Contest!"
We sat for about a minute in silence. Then, Doug mumbled,
"I think it’s brilliant. Let's do it."
After years of working together on everything from human-sized hamster wheels to Airplane Yoga cards on JetBlue to gym launch campaigns across the U.S., Levine sold Crunch for about $100M.
Give me a Doug Levine, a Steven Jobs, a Richard Branson every time. Give me an Ed Nicoll of Datek, Island, and Instinet.
Give me a Tom Civitano of The Plaza Hotel. Hired by Donald Trump to establish the landmark New York hotel as the best in the world despite being notoriously past its prime and lacking in funds to adequately restore, Tom hired a tiny, upstart agency -- something for which I will be eternally grateful—and then preceded to exceed Mr. Trump's expectations.
Give me a Marty Staff, CEO of Joseph Abboud, who is transforming that respected menswear label into a sophisticated marketer of style solutions for men. Give me a Doug Sieg of Lord Abbett, who’s building on 75 years of challenging the conventions of the mutual fund category. Give me a Laurent Demuynck, who's bringing passion and accountability to the high-end beer industry, and who sends me ten cases of Duvel every month to keep the ideas flowing. Give me a Caroline Vanderlip, CEO of SharedBook, a Judy Wade of McKinsey and a Donna Imperato of Cohn & Wolfe.
This business has given me all of these visionaries as clients, and then some. Here's what I look for when I'm fishing for challengers:
1) The top dog is INVOLVED. Intimately.
2) The advertising conversation and the business conversation are THE SAME CONVERSATION.
3) The work is seen as the ultimate weapon for conquering the competition.
4) The brand is seen as a precious asset and the ultimate defensive fortification against copycats and commoditisers.
5) The VISION of the top dog drives the advertising.
6) The vision of the agency and the vision of the client are complimentary and synergistic. So many ad people dream of a client who is an empty receptacle just waiting for the particular genius of the agency team to pour the solution in. This is in reality a nightmare. Steve Jobs isn't like that. AT&T is.
7) Decisions get made in meetings, not just in between.
8) Clients disagree with each other, with respect, but without regard for title or the presence of people from the agency.
9) People get overruled in front of other people every day.
10) Big bad ideas are respected. Regurgitated MBA maxims aren't.
11) Truth is honored. At all times, the less varnish the better.
12) The "strategy" is based on the opportunity, not on the problem.
13) There is an enemy. Roger Ailes once told me, "The bigger the enemy, the bigger the opportunity." Then proved it building FOXnews into the number one cable news channel.
14) Challengers don't care about "standard costs" or "standard procedure." They want the better way AND the cheaper way.
15) Everything, everything, everything is seen as an opportunity to build the brand. And, all other things being equal, the non-traditional way always wins.