From 25 to 40 and Beyond

How eight great agencies are trying to stay fresh as they reach midlife milestones.

By Warren Berger

It's anniversary time at a number of the top creative agencies in advertising. Wieden+Kennedy turned 25 years old this year, on the heels of Fallon turning 25 last year; next up is Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, which arrives at the quarter-century mark in 2008. Meanwhile, Cliff Freeman and Partners is currently celebrating its 20th anniversary. Moving up the age scale, Chiat/Day (now TBWAChiatDay) will celebrate its 40th anniversary next year, with McKinney turning 40 the year after. The Martin Agency reached that milestone two years ago, and Carmichael Lynch did so two years before that.

Together, these eight agencies have helped set the standards for creativity in advertising in recent decades; they've consistently won awards and changed the business. And while there have been lots of other startups in the years since these agencies came along, it's hard to find any that have been so consistently creative, year-in and year-out, over the past three decades (Crispin Porter + Bogusky's been around that long, too, but didn't start making waves nationally until the '90s). In this special section, one.a magazine is providing a quick glance back at the agencies' starting points, along with some high and low points along the way.

In interviews with the leaders of these agencies, we also asked them to reflect on what's changed and what hasn't, as they enter what could be considered "middle age" for an ad agency. Some of the eight are having to contend with midlife crises in the form of difficult succession issues or worrisome slumps; others, meanwhile, seem to be getting a second wind and gaining new momentum. But all are faced with the immense challenge of adapting to a dynamic new media environment that doesn't necessarily care about an agency's rich history or its past accomplishments. In a sense, all eight are back in startup mode these days, trying to figure out how to recreate themselves so they'll still be relevant for the next 25 or 40 years.

The Silver Anniversary Club

This seems to be particularly true of the trio of Wieden+Kennedy, Goodby Silverstein, and Fallon, which all started in the early '80s and came to dominate creative advertising by the 1990s. One could make the case that no agency that was started since then has made as much of a mark on creative advertising as these three. So what was it about the early '80s that gave rise to all of this sustained creative firepower?

Jeff Goodby believes it happened partly because the agencies were in the right place—off the beaten path of advertising—at the right time. "The big press centers like New York and Chicago wanted a new area of advertising to talk about, to make the business interesting," he says. "So they were very welcoming of the rise of these regional agencies." And the big established agencies didn't see the regional startups as much of a threat: "I think Wieden, ourselves, and Fallon, we were all able to fly under the radar for a while because the big agencies didn't think about us that much," says Rich Silverstein.

According to Dan Wieden, the three agencies benefited from being somewhat cut off from the main ad centers. "You're so damn isolated you end up creating your own culture and view of things," Wieden says. "Being in Portland helped us to become an odd duck. I'm not sure that would happen with a regional agency today. Now everything's so connected, which means that everything out there in the culture gets passed around and shared."

Wieden believes the three agencies, while very different from one another, shared a common attitude. "I think all three of those agencies were mavericks in the sense of throwing everything out and trying to do their own thing," he says. Silverstein adds: "I can't speak for the other two agencies, but I can tell you that we were inspired by both Fallon McElligott and Wieden. Tom McElligott showed you could have a national impact by doing award-winning work for small clients. And Wieden showed how much fun you could have in advertising."

All three agencies started with little or nothing in the way of clients and facilities. "Back then, David Kennedy and I thought if we made it to 25 days we'd be lucky," recalls Wieden. They each had their ups and downs through the years (Fallon is having one of those "down" cycles right now, as the agency tries to come to grips with a particularly turbulent business period and a transition to new creative leadership). But each agency seems to have a knack for coming up with something big and buzzworthy, just when you start to think they might be losing relevance. In the case of Fallon, it happened most recently at the start of this decade, when the agency helped introduce "branded content" with its groundbreaking BMW films; Wieden, meanwhile, has recharged Nike any number of times through the years (its multimedia work for the brand being the latest example), not to mention work for Coca-Cola, Honda UK and others; Goodby, meanwhile, has impressed everyone with its strong transition into new media in the past couple of years, particularly evident in the agency's multi-platform work for HP, Comcast, and Saturn. With all the new media changes at Goodby, Rich Silverstein says: "We may be turning 25, but we're younger now than we were five years ago."

Where these agencies go in the decades to come will depend in large part on the next generation of leadership; up to this point, all three have been very much defined and shaped by strong founders. Today, Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein still look at all the work produced by the agency, and Dan Wieden continues to be the guiding force at his agency. The situation was always different at Fallon, where key creative influencers (from Tom McElligott to Pat Burnham to Bill Westbrook to David Lubars) tended to come and go through the years, while stability was provided by the strong agency leadership of Pat Fallon and the talents of longtime veterans like Bob Barrie. With Barrie gone, Pat Fallon's role evolving and a new alliance with Saatchi recently announced, the agency now must recreate itself, as remaining founder Fred Senn acknowledges. "I think all three of the agencies from the early ‘80s now find ourselves between eras," says Senn. "All three have done great work through the years, but we're all aware that you can't live in the past. You have to consolidate what you've learned and move forward."

A pirate joins the 40-and-over crowd

If 25 represents middle age in "creative ad agency years," then what to make of a creative hotshop that's turning (gasp) 40? Next year, the agency formerly known as Chiat/Day (now TBWAChiatDay), reaches that milestone, and longtime creative director Lee Clow takes no small amount of pride that the agency is still standing—and still raising hell, from a creative standpoint. "When we made it to 20, we thought that was pretty good," says Clow. "Making it to 40 and still being thought of as a creative company—that really means something. And it's not just the fact that you're 40 years old, because there are quite a few agencies that have been around that long or a lot longer. What's surprising is when you're 40 and people still think of you the way they did years earlier—they still expect you to do brave things."

As Clow notes, during the agency's turbulent history there were a number of times when outside observers were prepared to write off Chiat/Day. When the agency lost Apple Computer, it was seen as a turning point; when it lost founder Jay Chiat, that was a bigger one. When it was acquired by Omnicom and merged with another agency, that was supposed to be the "deathknell," says Clow. But each time, the agency rebounded and today it is producing some of its best work, with an iPod-and-Skittles sensibility that feels anything but middle-aged.

Chiat isn't the only agency feeling its oats at 40. The Martin Agency reached that milestone two years ago, and it seemed to kickstart the agency and push it to another level. Since becoming a 40-year-old, the venerable Richmond shop has landed several prized accounts, including Wal-Mart, and has rocked the pop culture with geckos and cavemen. Agency chief Mike Hughes says he was "kind of shocked" to realize his agency had turned 40 in 2005. "The interesting thing is to think back on some of the great agencies from the '60s, like Scali McCabe Sloves or Ally & Gargano—it kind of amazes me that we survived and they didn't," Hughes says.

Another agency that's rocking in its 40s is Carmichael Lynch, which recently pulled off a big, game-changing account win when it landed Subaru. The agency seemed, prior to the win, to be going through a little bit of a midlife funk, and was having to adjust to major changes in agency leadership. "The difficult part for creative agencies is always that transition to a next generation, because it's often clumsy and sometimes it doesn't work," notes Mike Lescarbeau, who is part of the new generation of leadership at Carmichael. But there's no doubt that the agency needed a big change; Carmichael Lynch was somewhat locked into the image of being a "classic" agency, which isn't necessarily a good way to be seen in today's dynamic marketplace.

The North Carolina agency McKinney & Silver has had to go through a similar transition in recent years, as it approaches 40 (it will reach that age in 2009). Seemingly everything has changed in recent years, from the agency leadership to the location (headquarters moved from Raleigh to Durham) to the style of the work, and finally, right down to the name of the agency—it's just McKinney now, the Silver is gone.

David Baldwin of McKinney, the agency's creative chief, notes that the changes didn't just happen by themselves; in its 30s, the McKinney shop went through some serious soul-searching and long-range planning, Baldwin says. But now he believes the agency is primed for some good years. Baldwin, who's 45 years old himself, says: "I think I was in the best shape of my life at 40. It's when I really got serious about things. And I think that'll be true for this agency, too."

The moral may be that 40 is fine, as long as an agency makes the effort to stay fit and trim; coating won't cut it, especially in the current marketplace. "Having an agency legacy is a double-edged sword," observes CL's Lescarbeau. "Clients may call you because of it. But if you ever start to think that history will automatically make it happen for you tomorrow, that can be a trap. The truth is, you're starting over, every day."

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