The Over The Hill Gang Rides Again

Ed McCabe and George Lois have been lobbing cherry bombs into the gentlemanly world of advertising for three decades. So it was no surprise earlier this year when these aging agents provocateurs once again raised the hackles of competitors.

This time, it was with lapel-grabbing ads. McCabe's was a full-page newspaper spread promoting his new agency. Colleagues marveled at its immodest headline, "A Time Whose Advertising Agency Has Come." Lois' grabber was a TV ad for Reebok International Ltd.'s Pump athletic shoe. It had football star Boomer Esiason advising viewers to "pump up and air out" as he lofted a pair of Nike Air Jordan shoes toward the TV camera. Nike Inc. immediately protested that the ad unfairly lampooned its spokesmen and slogans.

SMALL SHOPS. These aren't just flashy gestures by fading stars. Thirty years after they led a creative revolution on Madison Avenue, several of advertising's mavericks are on the move again. Some are eschewing large agencies to start up tiny shops with a handful of adventurous colleagues and clients. Others are winning renown for daring ads after years of obscurity. All are confident they'll be a tonic to an industry roiled by takeovers and enervated by recession: "This is a business that's starved for heroes," says McCabe.

That's the kind of remark that would normally make more staid ad execs roll their eyes. But the return of McCabe and his comrades is actually winning some kudos. "Maybe they're taking lessons from Nolan Ryan and George Foreman," says Philip B. Dusenberry, chairman of BBDO New York. Like them, Dusenberry is a product of the `60s creative revolution, which brought a new wit and visual style to advertising.

McCabe, a copywriter who coined the slogan "it takes a tough man to make a tender chicken" for Frank Perdue, has opened the most talked-about new agency in years. Amil Gargano, an art director whose ads for Hertz Corp. launched a counterattack against Avis Inc. in the early `60s, is leaving his medium-size agency to open his own boutique. Ronald M. Rosenfeld, who fashioned a new image for Jamaica with his ads for its tourist board, left his agency on May 16 to open an as-yet unnamed shop. And Lois, whose slogan "I want my Maypo" became part of the cultural lexicon, is producing cheeky ads for underdog computer maker Data General Corp.

All four became disillusioned with their past success, which required them to run big businesses at the expense of writing slogans or drawing storyboards. McCabe quit his $750 million shop, Scali, McCabe, Sloves, in 1986, to compete in the grueling Paris/Dakar auto rally. Lois barreled through four agencies, often dissolving ties with his partners after acrimonious disputes.

PROUD AND PROFANE. Now, they're back at the creative end of the business. All say the economic downturn has generated demand from advertisers for breakthrough commercials. With tighter marketing budgets, clients are looking for agencies that can generate lots of noise without lots of money. "Bad times lead clients to explore agencies like this one," says McCabe, a bluff 53-year-old who sports a tattoo on his right forearm.

His shop, McCabe & Co., has won $25 million in billings since opening Feb. 4. Its latest prize was the $3 million Maxell Corp. account. Another new client, the upstart Rally's hamburger chain, chose it over such established ad agencies as Jordan, McGrath, Case & Taylor Inc. Says Bruce M. Ley, marketing chief at Rally's Inc.: "Ed has a history of working with entrepreneurs."

Lois has brought a similar zeal to his career: As a young art director, he once threatened to jump out of a window when a client rejected his work. It's that manic dedication that led Reebok to award half of its $40 million account to his agency, Lois/GGK. Reebok's Pump badly needed a jolt: Sales were suffering because consumers regarded it more as a gimmick than a performance feature. The 59-year-old Lois, whose client presentations are often a study in creative profanity, advised Reebok to revive the shoe by taking on Nike's Air Jordan toe-to-toe. The campaign, which first aired on the Super Bowl XXV telecast, features athletes such as Esiason mocking Nike's spokesmen. "Boomer knows something that Bo don't know," says Esiason in one spot, snidely alluding to Nike's popular Bo Jackson commercials. Nike complained to the three networks that the ads made unfair use of Nike's spokesmen. But Reebok says they helped inflate sales of the Pump from 63,000 pairs in the first quarter of 1990 to 1.92 million in the first quarter of this year.

Billings at Lois/GGK grew 35% last year, to $120 million. The agency had suffered in the 1980s after Unilever bought perfume maker Faberge Inc. and promptly yanked its ad account.

Like Lois, Gargano's style is aggressive. His ads for the movie channel Showtime, for example, make direct comparisons to rival Home Box Office. Showtime's $7 million account will follow Gargano from his old agency, Ally & Gargano Inc., to his new venture, Amil Gargano & Partners. But colleagues also prize Gargano for such durable campaigns as the one for Federal Express Corp., which promised letter delivery "when it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight."

Gargano found he was able to create less of this advertising after he and his partner, Carl Ally, sold their agency to Marketing Corporation of America in 1986. With clients such as Ralston Purina Co., MCA brought a more prosaic packaged-goods focus to the once-hot shop. "I'm not interested in doing conventional work," Gargano says. MCA will retain a stake in his new shop.

LONG VIEW. Gargano and his colleagues have parlayed their reputations into financial backing. But the ventures are not without risk. As young agencies win more attention, Gargano and company may lose their distinctive pitch: small-shop creativity seasoned with a veteran's touch. Marketing executives who remember these legends from when they were young are nearing retirement themselves. And a new generation of clients may not value their credentials as much.

Jerry Della Femina, who made his name in advertising's heyday, takes the long view on these once-revolutionary admen. "Every one of them will succeed, and every one will fail," says Della Femina, who heads his own agency. His reasoning: Their ads will make a considerable splash. But he fears their efforts to recreate the collegiality and enthusiasm of the best `60s shops will ultimately fizzle in these harsher times. At least for now, though, advertising's Young Turks could probably still learn a thing or two from these gray panthers.

      The move to smaller shops by several of the best-known creative directors
                             Agency in 1962    Agency in 1991
      AMIL GARGANO           Benton & Bowles     Amil Gargano & Partners
      GEORGE LOIS            Papert Koenig Lois  Lois/GGK
      EDWARD McCABE          Benton & Bowles     McCabe & Co.
      RONALD ROSENFELD       Doyle Dane Bernbach Unnamed new venture
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