The Fallon Diaspora

The Fallon Diaspora

Fallon has been creative in more ways than one. Besides award-winning advertising, it also has spawned several new agencies that are small, but garnering national attention—in part, by doing “advertising” in nontraditional ways.

But his legacy is more than his agency. Though Minneapolis was already home to nationally known ad shops, notably Campbell Mithun and Carmichael Lynch, just about everyone credits Fallon for making Minnesota one of the centers of marketing creativity nationally and even internationally. And in the past half-decade, former Fallon creatives and executives have founded Minneapolis-based marketing businesses that, directly and indirectly, have perpetuated the Fallon legend.

In March, Pat Fallon, founder and chairman of the legendary Minneapolis ad agency that bears his name, was inducted into the American Advertising Federation’s Advertising Hall of Fame.

But not by following the Fallon model. Not exactly.

“The last thing we wanted to be known as was a mini-Fallon, although two of the three partners were from Fallon,” says Bob Barrie, a former Fallon art director and creative group head who cofounded Barrie D’Rozario Murphy (BDM) in 2007. “We certainly wanted to take much of what we learned at Fallon, but do things our own way as well.”

BDM is cool with the term “agency” to describe itself—it’s the only one of the four firms discussed here that has taken the old-school route of naming the business after its partners. Other Fallon alumni shops steer clear of the A-word, a term that to them suggests a mere gun for hire. Instead, they want clients to see them as big-picture partners that don’t push products and messages as much as help create a unified, attractively designed, and engaging interface with customers, off line and (increasingly) on line, in ways consistent with their brand image. (In fairness, BDM also sees itself as a strategist for many clients.)

These firms’ operations reflect their brands. Each has built a lean, nonhierarchical structure that emphasizes collaboration with employees and with clients. They realize that marketing budgets have to do more with fewer resources. Lower overhead and nimbler turnaround are two aspects of the new normal.

Still, each of these start-ups follows Fallon in at least two respects: a taste for unconventional approaches to making marketing messages, and a concomitant derring-do. “Pat Fallon created an environment where people with an entrepreneurial mindset loved coming in and were inspired,” says Rob White, who cofounded Zeus Jones with three other former Fallonites in 2007. “And I think that’s why you’re seeing the fruits of that.”

And while Fallon may have put Minneapolis in the marketing- industry spotlight, these entrepreneurs deserve much of the credit for earning industry attention again—after several years when both Fallon and Minneapolis seemed to disappear from the industry map.

 

Riding the BMW

The details are becoming familiar even to those outside the advertising industry. Tectonic plates are shifting, and the dust has yet to settle. The post-Y2K recession helped trigger them, as business got tougher to pitch and win. The Great Recession set more of the industry’s structure shaking and tumbling. And the explosion of digital and cable-TV channels has shattered mass-market media into smaller bits. Though “traditional” ads—print, TV, radio, billboards—have far from disappeared, clients large and small see that they’re becoming less effective, especially to reach a new generation of customers who spend more and more of their lives in the virtual world.

Fallon itself was responsible for shifting many of those plates, thanks largely to one of the most revolutionary campaigns in marketing history: BMW Films.

In 2001, working with its London office, Fallon produced a series of eight short thriller movies for the German luxury-car maker under the umbrella title The Hire. They starred British actor Clive Owen, whose character was referred to simply as “the Driver.” Famous names like Ang Lee and John Frankenheimer directed the films. They made their debut on line (they were later available on DVD), and they were promoted largely by viral techniques, such as posters slapped on the sides of city buildings and fences.

BMW Films “broke the territorial boundaries of print and TV, by saying, ‘We’re going to do this thing on line,’” says Jim Scott, a cofounder of Fallon-alumni firm Mono, though not a Fallon alumnus (he was a Carmichael Lynch account director). “It was about the time that technology was making its way on everybody’s laptop. But they were already there.”

BMW Films, and other Fallon online projects such as “Brawny Academy”—a series of good-naturedly wry housecleaning seminars for dudes, created for the paper-towel brand—also showed how campaigns could be organized more entrepreneurially. “Individual teams [at Fallon] working on individual pieces of business were creating businesses for their clients,” says Bruce Bildsten, who was creative leader on BMW Films. Developing each, he adds, “was equivalent to doing a start-up. It had to be invented from scratch.”

Bildsten struck out on his own in 2006 with Michelle Fitzgerald (the strategic lead on the Brawny Academy project) to form Brew, which they describe as a “creative collaborative.” Brew’s model is highly stripped down—just eight employees work for the firm full time. For each of its projects, Brew taps into a wide galaxy of freelancers and small agencies locally and throughout the country. Its work incorporates not only advertising but also logo design, online video, even clothing design.

Fallon staffers have left the mother ship before. When it was founded in 1981, the Fallon agency was originally called Fallon McElligott Rice. Cofounders Tom McElligott and Nancy Rice would leave later in the 1980s to start their own firms: McElligott Wright Morrison White (Zeus Jones’ Rob White was the “White”), and Rice and Rice. For different reasons, neither lasted very long.

In 2000, Fallonite Mike Lescarbeau cofounded One and All, which lasted for five years—with clients like Red Wing and Summit Brewing—before the vagaries of the business led the partners to close up shop.

The new breed of Fallon-alumni start-ups is still young, but so far, they’re not just hanging on, they’re growing. That said, the shops’ founders speak nothing but good about their ex-employer. So why’d they leave? It’s back-of-the-fridge news that Fallon’s fortunes and future in the mid-’00s seemed uncertain, as top executives and creatives kept the agency’s revolving door spinning like a roulette wheel. But the new shops see all that as water that’s flowed far past the bridge. Everyone’s moved on.

They prefer to say that they saw the big changes in the industry as a cool opportunity to do work that didn’t conform to the standardized approaches and siloed environment of a large agency. They wanted to work more directly with clients. They also wanted to be able to collaborate with specialists in areas like design and digital outside the orbit of Publicis Groupe, the France-based global marketing leviathan that acquired Fallon in 2000.

And however big and troubled it may have gotten, Fallon still had that DNA of feisty zest. “One of the things that we learned there was that when you really believe in yourself and you apply your talents in the right way, you really can achieve anything,” White recalls. “I remember going into the United Airlines pitch [in 1996] with Pat and the rest of the team, and it was ridiculous—this little agency in the prairie, as Pat used to call it, was going up against the world’s top big agencies.” Fallon got that business. A decade later, another frisky little agency on the prairie would win the United account: Barrie D’Rozario Murphy. (That surrealistic image from the first page of this article comes from BDM’s animated “sea orchestra” TV spot for the airline, set to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.)

There were other inspirations as well. Zeus Jones cofounder Adrian Ho points to a London agency called Mother, founded in 1996, which has termed itself “a media-agnostic, entrepreneurial creative shop” and loudly called for the death of advertising. Though not all clients have sought such creative destruction, they knew that the explosion in online media required new moves. “The most forward-thinking clients actually demanded that agencies bring them solutions that didn’t simply just follow the normal path that agencies had been taking for the past 20 years,” Fitzgerald says.

And that newer way of looking at “advertising” is also changing the way agencies are structured.

 

One Big Table

You can see this at the newer Fallon-alum shops in the fact that there are no separate offices for the top brass (there are doors to conference rooms). Indeed, the brass doesn’t see itself as brass. Bildsten and Fitzgerald smilingly note that they now make their own travel arrangements; at Fallon, that was, of course, handled by assistants.

At Zeus Jones, all 11 employees work at the same table. At Mono, all the creative work is on display in a central, skylit area called “the piazza.” There, anyone in the company can view the iterations—and critique what they see.

“The creativity comes from a lot of different places,” Mono cofounder Chris Lange says. “It doesn’t just come from the creative department. That’s part of what we were seeing [at Fallon], too: ‘Gosh, there are all these great people that have really brilliant ideas.’” Indeed, as Fitzgerald has noted, inspiration can even come from the clients themselves.

Part of the spirit of collaboration has been driven by the fact that younger people—perhaps more than ever, though perhaps not—have knowledge and experience that older colleagues find helpful to tap. Not only about digital innovations and “trend,” but also other cultural and market observations.

“Some folks in the older generations feel that, ‘Oh, there’s this entitlement’” among younger people, says Mono cofounder Michael Hart. He believes young employees don’t want “to feel like they only get the chance to really be in an organization later . . . . They don’t want to sit at the kids’ table for a period of time before they get to the adult table. So you have to create organizations that don’t have kids’ tables, or adults’ tables. You have just one big table.”

Hart adds that “in all the award shows, our credit is ‘Mono,’” rather than individuals’ names. “We believe that whenever we do a campaign, it’s Mono’s work.”

Take, for instance, the Real Good Chair Experiment. In fact, just take the Real Good Chair. The chair became the centerpiece of Minneapolis furniture maker Blu Dot’s promotion for its Manhattan store’s one-year anniversary.

“The client came to us and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got a one-year anniversary. We’re thinking of running an ad in the New York Times—what do you guys think?’” Lange recalls. “We said, ‘Well, that’s not going to create a lot of buzz.’”

The idea that Mono created for Blu Dot: putting several Real Good Chairs, a Blu Dot design, on sidewalks throughout New York City, then letting New Yorkers do what they are famous for doing—picking up stuff left on the sidewalk. Mono tracked the chairs’ travels through the big city via GPS sensors, and even had one chair tweet about its peregrinations on its own Twitter account.

The campaign got Blu Dot into the Times without having to buy an ad. As of mid-March, according to Mono, the Real Good Chair Experiment—and Mono freely admits it was an experiment, unprecedented and unpredictable—has garnered 200 million “media impressions,” on line and off.

Mono’s other nontraditional work includes in-store creative and design projects for Apple, such as back-to-school and other seasonal campaigns. Similarly, Zeus Jones has developed interactive sales platforms inside Nordstrom stores and on line.

 

Minneapolis Sound

Mike Lescarbeau, who cofounded the early Fallon-alum firm One and All, now runs a big agency, Carmichael Lynch. Even with its more traditional approach, he’s seeing the firm’s work affected by industry changes as well.

“You’re really rebuilding the airplane in the air these days with an ad agency,” he says. “Even now, we as a company draw a lot on that perspective that you can be anything that you need to be to be successful. And you can change. There’s something entrepreneurial even about being an agency of over 200 people in this town right now. You have to be reinventing yourself constantly.”

Lescarbeau says that Carmichael Lynch has seen a greater demand for TV spots recently. “It’s still a good storytelling medium,” he says. “What we’ve found is that you have to be additive to those TV spots now, and realize that they’re going out into a digital world. They’re going to be on YouTube or Hulu, they’re going to perhaps be shared, there are going to be versions of them now. Nothing’s just traditional anymore.”

Will other Fallon alumni firms arise? The guess here is: probably not. What seemed new and different about these firms a few years back, when they started up, is becoming more and more standard operating procedure—the leaner structures, the multiple-platform campaigns, the use of digital media. What’s more, Fallon, which appears to be striding confidently on the comeback trail with recent wins including Alpo and Chrysler, has changed, too.

“When I started out there in 1983, it certainly was one kind of shop, with about maybe 30 people, that did things a certain way,” Barrie says. “And as it grew to gain national and international attention, there were periods of rapid growth and retraction . . . . It was like working for a bunch of really cool, different agencies over the years.” And even after just three years away, “it feels, from the outside at least, like an entirely different agency.”

Barrie’s own agency is getting its own national attention. BDM was named “Small Agency of the Year” in 2009 by the American Association of Advertising Agencies. It’s not the only Minneapolis shop that’s earned industry ink. Pointing to the work of Mono (and of newer agencies not founded by Fallon expats, notably Minneapolis-based Pocket Hercules), Jeremy Mullman of Advertising Age wrote last September that “Minneapolis is the new bastion of Midwest creativity.” The Fallon alumni are driving much of that.

But there’d be no Fallon alumni in the Twin Cities without, um, Fallon.

“We used to say at Fallon that if it were slightly nicer outside, it wouldn’t have been the agency that it was,” says Zeus Jones’s Ho, a London native who came to Minneapolis after stops at San Francisco and New York. “It managed to bring people there like me from different parts of the country and different parts of the world. You came there not because you were coming to San Francisco or New York or some city like that. You came there because you were coming to Fallon.”

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