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Gerry Graf
Hot Shops

Interviewed by Tim Nudd

Gerry Graf's Big Bet Pays Off at Barton F. Graf 9000

Gerry Graf worked at agencies including Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, BBDO, TBWA\Chiat\Day and Saatchi & Saatchi before opening his own shop, Barton F. Graf 9000, in 2010

Why was 2010 the right time to open your own place?

Before that, I was scared. I have a wife and three kids and didn't have all that much faith in myself. I remember Rich Silverstein telling me I needed a great partner to start my own place. He had obviously found somebody great. I've had great partners, but none of them wanted to start their own business. My last two partners, Harold Einstein and Dave Gray, both became directors.

But I had been thinking about it for a while. And the timing just seemed right. I was running Saatchi New York's creative department, and they had some longtime clients, P&G and General Mills — big, conservative clients — that were giving assignments to what you would call the more creative shops. And that just got me thinking. I could start a creative shop if these big, conservative places are putting more importance on the idea and on creativity. In business-like terms, I saw the value of what I was known for going up. I had weathered the recession at Saatchi and had saved a bunch of money. But the thing that really got me off my butt was talking with my wife. She said, "If you get to 50 and you still haven't tried this, you're really going to be upset."

Other people I knew who had started places had a client that went with them. That just never happened to me. I had talked to Mark Waites from Mother through the years about this, and he was always very supportive. And he said, "Why don't you start your own place?" And I said, "No one's said, 'We want you to take our business with you.' " And he said that sometimes you have to get a divorce before the girls start calling.

That's a good line.

That's a really good line. But he's right, too, you know? And I had a couple of talks with David Droga. And he kept saying, "Why aren't you starting your own place?" So, I've got the founders of Droga5 and Mother asking me why I haven't started my own place. That gives you a little bit of confidence.

So, you go and do this. How did it turn out the first year?

It was exciting. Once you don't have any money coming in, you work really hard. It's funny how that happens! My first two or three months, I was on the phone with every connection that I had, just trying to get something. And slowly it started to work. I picked up a project here or there, just working the phones. I did a project early on for Diageo. I did a project for Kayak, a very simple retail animated thing. I did it under cost, and it came out alright. It wasn't anything anyone would talk about, but I was doing advertising work and getting paid for it, which all of a sudden became more important than changing the entire world of advertising.

And then the Kayak client, whom I had known from Chiat — the CMO, Robert Birge — asked if I wanted to be briefed on the year's coming work. And I created three different campaigns for him, and he put them into testing and they seemed to work. He liked it. His bosses liked it. On a project basis, we made some TV ads and some banners and Facebook stuff, and it started to work. We got him to agree to sign me up for a year. And then I had some income coming in.

That gives you some stability.

I didn't make any money my first year. I didn't take any salary. And all the money that came into the agency — which at the time was me and my assistant — I reinvested in the place. First, Barney Robinson and I got together. Then I brought Eric [Kallman] in, whom I had worked with at Chiat — and everybody knows what he did at Wieden. And then we brought in Laura Janness from Google, who was Barney's client when he was at BBH, to be head of strategy. So, we had an awesome foundation — pretty much top of our field, if you ask me. And we started to pitch a lot. We got into the Dish pitch. We beat out Crispin and DDB Chicago. And then the momentum starts. And from there, it just took off. The big thing is, Just go try to do it. I had all the plans and all the things I thought were necessary. But like Mark said, it was just about getting the divorce.

Now that you're the boss, has your outlook changed on how you do the work?

Well, I owe a lot of CFOs that I used to work with some apologies. The idea is the most important thing, because that's the thing we make and are known for. But I have to look after the entire thing now. I never paid any attention to agency culture or stuff like that. And it's incredibly important.

Does that take away from your time actually making advertising?

It does. But I'm still making much more than I had made in the past five years — actually physically making stuff. So, it's OK with me. It got to a point when I was chief creative at Saatchi that I would have to give myself one project a year so I actually got to write and make one thing a year. And that's a huge reason why I wanted to do this, too. I wanted to start making stuff again.

The thing I'm caught up with most of the time is how to make this place the type of place where ideas are easy to come by — getting the certain type of people here that we need, the physical place that we're in. We've been around for two and half years. And this is the first time — the past three months, I think — that we've been able to slow down and try to figure out the type of place we want to be.

What kind of answers are you coming up with?

Well, that's tough. We're really, really good at coming up with good, quality ideas really, really quickly — more than any place I've worked before. There's about 19-20 people in the creative department out of 41 people total. The people working for me now can crank out great ideas really quickly. So, we're an idea factory. And right now we're using that brain power to make ads. The question is, What else could we use that for?

Not that we don't love advertising, but there might be something more. Right now, what we're doing with advertising — one thing I love to do, and I've always done, I like to go into places and mess with them and call bullsh-t on a lot of things and do things you aren't supposed to. We do a lot of TV. And we're going in there and messing with it. But wouldn't it be just as fun to go into other places and mess with them and do things in a fresh way? We might not have the assignments coming in in those areas, but now I get to build the department I want to. We're bringing in creative technologists, people who know the social space. It's a chicken-and-egg thing. If we bring in the talent before we get certain assignments, then we end up getting those assignments. It's always a little bit of a risk, but it's worked out for us.

What other agencies out there would you might consider kindred spirits?

I've always been kind of in love with Jung Von Matt over in Germany. I've always thought they had our same sensibility in messing around with spaces. It seems like they have our same thought process. In New York, there's been a lot of people who've given it a shot and started their own place up. And that's cool. I've been jealous of a lot of the stuff that Johannes Leonardo has done. They're really embracing doing things differently. And then, Droga — every year you're wondering what they're going to do. And Mother always has a different take on things, too.

What advice would you have for junior creatives coming into the business today?

For them, it's the greatest time ever. I've been in advertising for 18 years, and I personally think that for clients — the huge, conservative clients with all the money — that for them, the value of great ideas is the highest it's ever been. It seems to be the most important thing right now. So, for people who are good at coming up with those ideas, it's a creative paradise right now. Also, what is defined as an ad is bigger than it's ever been. There's more places to go execute now, so you're making more stuff. That was always the most important thing to me, wherever I was — what do I get to go make? So, you have more people looking for great idea. And you have more places to go to execute those ideas.

I'll never forget what Lee Clow told me. He had done "1984," of course, but he said the most famous ad he ever did for Apple was designing the Apple Store. So, that's an ad. I'm not just talking about digital or experiential stuff. Almost anything is an ad now. So, the young kids — those guys are psyched.

How do you personally get inspired to be creative day to day?

I read a lot, go to museums a lot. I'm a big comic-book guy, so I do that a lot. I watch tons and tons of TV. But I would say the thing that inspires me the most is that I keep an eye on what other people are doing. The hatred that bubbles up inside of me when I see someone else do something great is incredible and makes me feel like I'll never come up with another great idea again.

It's a healthy hatred, though.

It is. I've always needed somebody — myself included — to tell me that I can't do it. That's what inspires me the most — purely jealousy of other great creative people.