Renowned creative Gerry Graf discusses his long journey from rat exterminator to stockbroker to becoming one of the most respected creatives in the business. After traversing the creative halls of Saatchi & Saatchi, BBDO, GS&P and TBWAChiatDay, Graf opened Barton F. Graf 9000 in New York, launching the agency with memorable work for Kayak. By Simon Wakelin

When asked what it is that brought Gerry Graf into advertising, the owner of Barton F. Graf 9000 immediately posits iconic work from Cliff Freeman & Partners New York, as a good enough reason:

“I could recite every one of their Little Caesar’s Pizza commercials line by line,” he reveals. “I wanted to get into advertising because of them. The talent that worked at Cliff Freeman was truly incredible. It really became my dream to work there.”

A graduate in Marketing from the University of Notre Dame in Boston, Graf ventured far from that goal at first, moving to Venice Beach in California to pursue his dreams.

When that dream ended with Graf chasing vermin as a rat exterminator, he quickly recalibrated:

“That was really nasty work,” he explains. “Most of the business was in Beverly Hills but it wasn’t my idea of paradise. It was horrible, crawling under people’s houses to empty rat traps.”

A move back to Boston saw Graf reinvent himself as a stockbroker, albeit by virtue of his ‘Fighting Irish’ education at Notre Dame.

“A big investment company hired me after they realised I graduated from Notre Dame,” explains Graf. “Gave me the job on the spot – but I wasn’t any good at it. I’d call people up apologising for calling, then get yelled at by my bosses.”

While lacking conviction for the brokerage business, Graf decided to pursue a career that he loved. After recalling his experiences penning skits for the annual Comedy Review at Notre Dame, Graf began writing TV scripts and submitting jokes to Saturday Night Live. Then the aforementioned Little Caesar’s Pizza commercials gave him pause for thought:

“It was inspiring seeing the commercials, and I figured it would be easier than breaking into Hollywood,” he admits. “When my girlfriend secured a job in Los Angeles, I decided to go back, broker part time and take copywriting workshops in Santa Monica.”

Graf also began working on the portfolio he trekked around LA to agency meetings, but was promptly turned down by every place he visited.

“It really hurt when people told me I sucked,” admits Graf. “But I’d ask them to be more specific, so that it became a constructive experience. I was peddling around Los Angeles sweating my ass off. I’d arrive at agencies and dry myself off with paper towels.”

After a year of abuse, Graf was on the verge of considering other career options – until a meeting with Dentsu creative director Ken Fitzgerald.

“He looked through my book, asked me to work on one of my ads and then pushed me to go to night school,” reveals Graf, admitting it inspired him. “Just one guy who gave me a little extra, a little more of his time. That gave me the belief to carry on. I try to remember that today when students try to get their work in front of me.”

A short while later Graf nailed a junior position at Saatchi & Saatchi in New York.

“I remember I got a cheap return flight from LA to New York for that meeting,” he recalls. “Then I called from a pay phone in Grand Central Station after the meeting, asking for my portfolio back. They said no – because they wanted to hire me.”

However, Graf admits it didn’t help that Cliff Freeman & Partners had an office in the very same building.

“Each day the elevator doors would open on Cliff Freeman’s floor and everyone seemed to be rolling around laughing their asses off,” he says. “Then the doors would close and I’d go to the 28th floor to pen radio ads for Dexedrine.”

Yet Saatchi kept him on track, and led him to better work at BBDO New York as a headline writer, eventually teaming up with Dave Gray to shape successful branding efforts including, Not Going Anywhere for a While? for Snickers.

That campaign led to Graf’s very first award – and a job offer from Jeff Goodby:

“Working with Jeff and Rich was like getting my advertising MBA,” says Graf on his experiences working at GS&P in San Francisco. “It was here that I learned how to come up with good ideas on a consistent basis. Their standards were so high, you’d never put awards up in your office, because the guy next to you probably had twice as many.”

After winning E-TRADE’s business, Graf was set to open up GS&P in NY. He even added Sirius Radio to the client list – but fate intervened when Sirius fired its marketing team, along with Goodby, on the very same day that Graf signed his contract to run the New York office.

An offer to become ECD at BBDO New York right after the incident eased the pain.

“I wanted to go back to New York,” admits Graf. “I’d just had a kid and I felt the pull of the east coast. It was also a pretty big position offered at BBDO, as I’d previously left there as senior copywriter.”

The move saw Graf work on stellar accounts including FedEx, Red Stripe, Guinness and Doritos, shaping ideas with creatives including Scott Vitrone, Ian Reichenthal and Harold Einstein.

“FedEx was just unbelievable to work on,” he recalls. “I started doing some great work before I got a call from Chuck McBride asking if I’d like to run TBWAChiatDay’s office in New York. I liked the sound of it so became head of its creative department.”

However, Graf admits his time there was quite an ordeal.

“The shop didn’t know what it wanted to be, who I was, or why Chuck [McBride] and Lee [Clow] wanted me there,” he reasons. “It became an ordeal. We just weren’t getting anything done. I thought, ‘I’ve just got to concentrate on something’.”

Pondering options, Graf learned that TBWAChiatDay had recently picked up the Skittles account. He saw it as an opportunity to gather momentum:

 “I knew [CEO] Paul Michaels over at Mars so concentrated on making Skittles a success,” he says. “I needed some creative chops, so convinced Scott Vitrone and Ian Reichenthal to become CDs on the account. I told them to come up with ideas while I did everything else CDs were expected to do – go to the meetings, deal with the clients and the account people.   “After one year and six different campaign ideas, we finally delivered what became a very successful and famous campaign. Not only were we allowed to do fun advertising but we also sold Mars a ton of candy.”

That success led to more accounts, including Combos, Snickers, Nextel and Absolut.

Then Graf’s ambition to open his own agency came to light.

“I started to believe I could do this on my own,” he explains. “I knew how to come up with ideas, how to get talented people, secure clients and make money.”

Graf was prepared to make the move until his brokerage experience suggested a reality check.

“I remember looking at leading economic indicators at the time and getting scared at the prospect of opening shop, “ he recalls. “You could tell the economy was suffering and shit was getting bad.”

While pondering his future, Saatchi & Saatchi re-approached Graf, asking if he’d consider joining its ranks following Tony Granger’s departure. Graf initially turned down the offer until worldwide creative director Bob Isherwood flew out to meet him in person.

“Bob is such a passionate guy,” admits Graf. “I simply wanted to work with him. I also knew the timing wasn’t right to open my own place, so I pledged to stay at least two years at Saatchi. As it turned out, a lot of people had faith in me and we did some great work.”

After two years Graf did venture forth and open his own roost.

“I wanted to open up with Harold Einstein but he wanted to fulfill his passion to direct,” reveals Graf. “All I had was a desk, a phone and a chair to cold-call CMOs and brand managers begging them for crumbs. I didn’t make any money for the first year.”

As Graf kept spinning plates, he recalled earlier meetings with Paul English, [online travel site] Kayak’s co-founder and chief technology officer, while pitching and losing on the Kayak account at Saatchi. He reconnected with English, a move that ultimately led to winning the company’s business.

“My take on Kayak was just to be simple with the branding and wipe the slate clean,” says Graf of his creative direction for the brand. “Be explicit about telling people what you do, and just say it in a memorable way.”

With client in hand, Graf quickly assembled a team including former BBH managing director Barney Robinson.

“Amusingly, Barney also wanted to meet me,” reveals Graf. “It was our very first meeting when he asked if I’d like to become ECD for BBH NY. I said no, and then asked Barney if he wanted to become president of Barton F. Graf 9000. The next day he called back to say yes. He was my first big hire.”

More hires followed, including respected creative Eric Kallman as ECD and Laura Janness from Google Labs who joined as head of planning. Graf had only 16 people aboard when he scored Dish Network, beating out both CPB and DDB

in the process.

On naming the agency Barton F. Graf 9000, Graf explains:

“Mother, Droga5 and RGA are influences on me, so I named the agency after my father [a tip of the hat to Mother], placed a number at the end of the name like Droga [9000 instead of 5] plus I try to look and sound like Bob Greenberg as much as possible.”

Then, as luck would have it, Little Caesars Pizza became a client – the very first brand that had tweaked Graf’s interest in advertising so many years before.

“Winning their business was especially sweet,” he admits. “Now I look out through the glass walls of my office at a staff of 45 people just cranking away. It’s a trip.”

As the interview winds down we discuss the immortally amusing Kayak work. With that firmly implanted in mind, I ask what it is that makes comedy funny.

“I think funny is just funny,” he answers. “[Director Harold Einstein] was my writing partner at BBDO and the one thing he does is constantly revise because the comedy is never good enough. Revision never stops, even into post and editing. If something inspires you to change the work that makes it better or funnier, you do it. You can’t be afraid to tell your client. Ours come to us knowing it’s a constant creative process no matter what we are doing.”

I ask what other directors have inspired him over the years?

“Bryan Buckley really showed me how to be a better creative,” he answers. “Frank Todaro was also amazing, a wizard at dialogue and capable of making the smallest moments hilarious. Marcos Siega is another guy with a great visual style and superb run and gun tactics. We were shooting six spots a day and it was real quality stuff. Tom Kuntz too, a great guy responsible for the look and feel of Skittles. I recently worked with Steve Miller over at @radical too. He just nailed it, he really kicked ass.”

As for the vibe in New York, Graf is optimistic about the creative road ahead.

“It’s really exciting having so many small shops dedicated to great ideas here,” he says. “New York hasn’t felt this good in a very long time.”

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