Smells Like Team Spirit

By Gerry Graf Posted on Oct 15, 2012

There’s a section in Ogilvy on Advertising, I think it is Chapter 3, where David Ogilvy tells the story of how he started Ogilvy & Mather in New York. He felt totally lost, didn’t know about rate cards or staffing plans and he was completely freaking out. So he called his friend J. Walter Thompson for some help. J. Walter said, “Sure, come on over, I’ll help you with anything,” and gave David the address.

When Ogilvy got there, he found that the address he had been given was for an abandoned dock down on 14th Street. Two dock workers were waiting for him and they beat the crap out of him. The last thing Ogilvy remembered before he blacked out was seeing J. Walter’s face inside a black Lincoln town car laughing his ass off. Or something like that.

My memory is a little hazy. Maybe it was in Confessions of an Advertising Man. Anyway, New York City has always been a ruthless advertising town. Agencies are always trying to steal clients and talent from one another. Holding companies try to prevent you from working at other agencies. The big guys try to crush the little guys. Actually, the big guys just buy the little guys so the big guys are bigger and the little guys are nonexistent.

I’ve worked in New York almost my entire career and I’ve seen all this go on, but I still decided to start an agency in New York back in November 2010. It’s called Barton F. Graf 9000, LLC. It’s named after my dad and a gun.

We’ve had some pretty good success in a short time. We’ve attracted some of the most talented people in and out of the industry. We have picked up incredible clients like, Dish Network, Little Caesars Pizza, and Unilever. In under two years we have grown from two employees to 41. The success we have had has a lot to do with the talent that works here and the fact that we all work really, really hard. But another big part of it is, every time I have reached out for help—and I have asked for help a lot—I didn’t get my face kicked in. I actually got a lot of help.

When I started my own place I stumbled into this kind of underground advertising club here in New York, and they were kind enough to let me join. And maybe they’re not so underground, but it feels that way. There’s this group of agencies that are letting the big ones play their little advertising games while the underground concentrates on simply coming up with great ideas. I’m going to give Droga5 and Mother credit for helping to start it. There’s also R/GA, Big Spaceship, AKQA, The Barbarian Group and Anomaly. And now we’ve got Johannes Leonardo, Co: Collective, The Yahtzee Girls, and Eric Silver’s new place, Silver and Gold (Gold, because it’s classy). Google and Wieden+Kennedy have also done a nice job of attracting real talent back to the city.

Because I’m a scared little boy, it took me a while to get up the guts to join this group. You can give me a pad of paper and a pen and I’ll go write you a global campaign. But starting and running an entire agency is a whole other story.

Mark Waites used to call me a “yellow coward” because I was taking so long to open a place. Luckily, one thing I am good at is telling myself that I suck. But when I identify what I suck at, I’m not afraid to tell other people and ask them for help. When I needed help in the beginning, everyone in this tight NYC group of agencies said yes.

Before we even started I had lunches, drinks, and dinners with David Droga, Bob Greenberg, Carl Johnson, Ty Montague and Mark Waites. Even the godfather of the underground, Cliff Freeman, came by and gave me some tips. Some of these people I knew, some of them I had never met. I just called them up and said I don’t know how to do this, can you help me? And they did. Every one of them shared what they thought made them different and successful and wished me luck.

I will give my wife Pam credit for giving me the best piece of advice: just start the thing already and if you fail, who cares? I was trying to get every piece in place before I started—staffing, clients, office space. She pretty much kicked me out of the house and told me to figure it all out on the fly.

Early on, I had a freak out just like David Ogilvy, only this one really happened. I called David Droga for help and he invited me over to his place and showed me exactly how his agency worked. I asked him why he was helping me out so much since, after all, my agency will be directly competing with his. He said, “Do you know how great New York advertising is going to be with more and more agencies like Barton and Droga? Do you know how good the work at Droga5 is going to be with us looking over our shoulder knowing there are other people dedicated to doing great work?” That guy’s got balls and he was exactly right.

NYC is the greatest place to be in advertising right now. You can kind of feel that there is something big going on. The journalist Michael Azerrand was writing about the rise of the band Nirvana and how their album Nevermind displaced Michael Jackson, MC Hammer, Garth Brooks, and various hair bands from the top of the billboard charts. According to Wiki, he said Nevermind symbolized “a sea-change in rock music” in which the glam metal that had dominated rock music at that time fell out of favor in the face of music that was authentic and culturally relevant.

“Authentic and culturally relevant” pretty much sums up the NYC group. Right now in advertising you have the “hair band” agencies cranking out the same old thing while a previous subgenre, the “creative” agency, is starting to pull in huge accounts. A bunch of agencies saying we’re not going to do it like it was done before. That’s not only reflected in the type of work that’s being created but also in the way the NYC group interacts with other agencies.

We’re all trying to do great work and we’re all trying to help each other. So if you’re talented and not an asshole, get on a plane to NYC. There’s enough candy here for everyone.


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