With a nod to Galileo, young ad agency in California peddles levity, not gravity
San Francisco — The camera moves in for a close-up of Coit Tower on San Francisco's Telegraph Hill. ``We're reenacting Galileo's experiment,'' a voice says, ``to find out which is heavier: TV, or the Examiner.''
Then William Randolph Hearst III, grandson of the famous newspaper publisher, tosses a television set and a copy of his newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner, over the side. The paper plummets, making a crater when it crashes through the sidewalk. The TV set drops slowly until it settles, bouncing, on the sidewalk.
The commercial and its two sequels aired only once, at the '49ers' opening football game Sept. 7. But the Examiner's open siege on television news -- including newspaper ads with a picture of Barbie and Ken and the caption ``These people have everything it takes to be an award-winning TV news team'' -- has caused quite a stir.
``We had a very small budget for this campaign,'' says Rich Silverstein, one of the three founders of the Examiner's advertising agency, Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein. ``The campaign had to cause enough controversy, get enough people talking, that the TV stations would give [the Examiner] all the free publicity [it] could get.''
The strategy worked.
One network affiliate aired a stinging commentary. Channel 4 news, the CBS affiliate, rebutted with tongue in cheek. It sat Barbie and Ken dolls at the anchor desk; they refused to respond to their cues, creating panic in the engineering room.
In the next scene, a CBS reporter dropped a TV set and an Examiner from a helicopter to prove that, in fact, a television set falls quickly while a newspaper scatters in the wind.
The publicity has extended far beyond the local networks. The story has been picked up by the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, and National Public Radio.
Whether Goodby, Berlin's approach will give the Examiner a leg up over its stronger morning rival, the Chronicle, is another matter. The principals admit that their ads boosted the Chronicle's circulation as well as the Examiner's, because readers failed to differentiate between the two papers.
For 3 years, Goodby, Berlin's irreverent instincts have served it fairly well. It won four of advertising's Clio Awards this year, tying with BBDO and beating all the big New York agencies for most Clios.
Other awards, including Clios from previous years and a Gold Lion at Cannes, nearly fall off the display shelf in Goodby, Berlin's sunny, exposed-brick reception room.
The agency is bucking the trend in financial performance as well. After years of double-digit growth in ad budgets, advertising revenues nationwide rose only 7.9 percent last year. This year, McCann-Erickson projects a 7.6 percent growth. Goodby, Berlin, admittedly starting from a small base, expects its billings to increase 67 percent, from $15 million last year to $25 million in 1986.
In short, the agency switched to the fast lane just as the industry slowed down. Others have tried to follow by imitating its style. But that's not easy, says Chuck Phillips, an advertising consultant in San Francisco who has known Jeffrey Goodby, Andy Berlin, and Rich Silverstein since they worked together at Ogilvy & Mather.
``Whenever a creative guy is thinking about starting his own agency, he'll say to me, `There's always room for another Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein.' What he doesn't realize is that GBS is a phenomenon.''
The three men set up shop in April 1983 after continuous prodding by Mr. Berlin. He finally rented a room and, using a Lotus computer spreadsheet, figured out how much money they could make in the first year.
After two weeks in business, ``in order to keep Andy from going into some other business with this room that he rented,'' Mr. Silverstein says, the three decided to take the plunge.
The way they worked with their first client, a start-up software company, set their modus operandi. The three men, who were still officially at Ogilvy, did an overhaul of the company. Conceiving of software writers as artists (they claim they were the first to have the idea), they changed the company name from Amazin' Software to Electronic Arts and packaged the software in a record jacket.
The advertising, which pictures the group looking kind of mean (as any rock group should), gave the company a distinctive image in a sea of software start-ups, most of which have failed. Electronic Arts is now is a market leader in the home entertainment software business.
This soup-to-nuts approach is more difficult with larger clients. But the agency has been able to find new ways to shape the course of its clients.
For example, when successfully pitching a new client earlier this year, research turned up a market niche in the beverage business that no one was filling. GBS presented its findings, and the client is now considering making the new beverage, which will probably come out some time next year.
The key to success appears to be a certain intellectual vigor, an earnestness, that sets off sparks. Mr. Berlin, for instance, says he considers advertising an ``art in the sense that the work of da Vinci that was commissioned by the Medicis was art'' and talks of ``a belief that the consumer at his best is awesome.''
Perhaps any ad man would say the same thing. But if the advertising awards committees are any judge, appealing to the consumer's intellect makes for compelling narrative.
Take the three-minute public-service spot for the Mill Valley Film Festival, which won the agency three Clios this year. The agency used town residents to talk about the forthcoming festival. One garbage collector tells his co-worker that he enjoys film noir because ``there's a surface to the genre that, if anything, improves with age.''
In another scene, two children (Silverstein's kids) are arguing over whether New Zealand films are better than French new wave.
``That's stupid, daddy,'' the daughter says to Silverstein, who is also in the ad. ``Where's their Truffaut, where's their Godard?''
Of course, it takes more than creative dazzle to ensure one's future in this competitive business. Other firms known for their creativity have found that quirkiness does not necessarily mean clients will keep buying. Chiat/Day, for example, which won acclaim for its ads for Apple Computer (on Super Bowl day) and Nike Shoe, has lost both accounts.
``The next year is crucial,'' Silverstein says, to make the leap from a boutique to a national force. It means hanging onto trademark irreverence but somehow packaging it in a way that is acceptable to blue-chip clients, not just small or desperate ones.
``They're about ready to make the next step,'' Mr. Phillips says. But first, ``they need legitimacy. They're still too risky for a Hertz.''
Mr. Goodby bristles a little at this suggestion. ``It's endemic for people outside of our company to think of us as out of control because it was started by three creative people.''
He adds, ``The biggest risk you [a client] can take is that you're just wasting your money and no one will ever see your advertising.... I think we're batting a thousand in terms of getting [the ads] noticed.''
Nonetheless, the agency is plotting a strategy. That includes hiring an experienced person to service the accounts and help Rebecca Holder, the fourth principal, who came on two years ago, with the marketing. It also includes limiting the number of advertising accounts to around 10 -- but aiming for very big ones.
To get those accounts, Goodby, Berlin may have to give up some autonomy, says David Graham Halliday, a longtime advertising journalist, now public relations director with the Clio Awards.
``Where it involves a real traffic problem -- getting more consumers into the store -- the client will let them do what they want,'' he says. But controversial ads ``won't help them get the big clients who just want to fork it out.''
Some of those are beginning to sign up, including Starkist, Christian Brothers, and G.Heileman.
Even more important for the future, Phillips says that ``influential third parties,'' the people who recommend agencies to clients, are high on Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein.
``They'll be on every list for the next three years,'' he says.