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How One Of Advertising’s Leading Creatives Turned A Rogue Idea Into A Huge Career

Award-winning agency founder Gerry Graf offers up four lessons in career advancement and creative decision-making.

In our new series, Then & Now, we track the professional paths and key career decisions of the people with the coolest creative jobs around.

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Gerry Graf is the founder and chief creative officer of award-winning ad agency Barton F. Graf 9000 and one of advertising’s most revered creatives, but the most important creative decision of his career was a complete disregard for the authority of creative directors. Back in the mid-90s, while a copywriter at BBDO New York, Graf and his creative partner Dave Gray created a campaign for Snickers, with a quirky signature spot on how being hungry can affect your concentration. But it almost didn’t happen.

Here, Graf outlines four lessons in career advancement and creative decision-making.

Sometimes You Gotta Go Rogue (But You Better Have The Goods)

Gerry Graf

“We were supposed to show some new ideas to the executive creative director on a Sunday and on Saturday afternoon our creative directors killed our ideas, so we stayed at the office trying to come up with more,” says Graf. “Well, the ECD didn’t show up on Sunday afternoon–I think he was at the Giants game–so everyone went home, but we stayed. I’d like to say we stayed because we wanted to work harder than everyone else, but honestly I think we were just playing video games.

“Anyway, at 5 p.m. everyone’s gone and the ECD shows up and asks, ‘You guys have anything for Snickers?’ And I’ll always remember this: My creative partner and I look at each other and it’s like ‘You want to do it?’ ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ And we show him the idea our creative directors killed the day before. If it didn’t work we could’ve been fired. But we pitched him the idea and he loved it, showed it to Snickers and they loved it. We made about 15 spots and one was the old guy painting the end zone.”

His first famous piece of work and it could have gone horribly wrong. “It was a big decision for a copywriter and art director to just decide to go over the creative director’s head, but we had a lot of faith in the idea. Since then it’s been used as a case study and all that, and I always laugh a bit because if it wasn’t for the video game Marathon, it wouldn’t exist.”

Embrace Passion, Avoid Hubris

Graf’s career spans agencies like Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, TBWA\Chiat\Day, and Saatchi & Saatchi. He’s one of the most awarded creatives in the world, and that decision to use the killed Snickers idea became the foundation of what he calls his gut feeling or creative radar, without which we may never know the likes of Climate Name Change, Combos’ Man-Mom, Skittles Beard, or berries and cream (berries and what else…?).

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“It really helped me as a creative director later on, when people are showing you ideas; the flag goes up when there’s a great idea in the room,” says Graf. “You can feel it. Even if it’s just a drawing on a piece of paper or one line of copy on a TV script. The rest could be shit, but it’s about seeing the small part that’s really the idea.”

While at Goodby, Graf learned that passion for an idea can be as valuable as a good pitch. “With Rich (Silverstein) and Jeff (Goodby), if you had real passion for something, even if they didn’t really like it, they’d let you go make it,” says Graf. “They recognized that when someone really believes in something, it’s often worth letting them show it. I’ve tried to keep that going in how I work as a creative director. Passion behind an idea from talented people should be embraced because it doesn’t come along everyday.”

Being able to pick up on that nugget of creative gold takes confidence, but that radar also needs to know the difference between confidence and hubris. “It’s not about thinking you’re always right,” says Graf. “If you think you’re always right, then your ideas suck. You need someone to throw them off, but if something is gnawing at you, and you really believe in it and given it a lot of thought, go for it. That’s served me well and is also the reason I have my own agency right now.”

Fortune Favors The Bold

Knowing you have a good idea is one thing. Making it happen is another, whether it’s an idea for an ad campaign or deciding to chuck a perfectly good job to strike out on your own. For Graf, the latter was a much tougher–and longer–process. While he founded Barton F. Graf 9000 in 2010, he’d been thinking about opening his own shop for years.

“I really dragged my feet on it, too,” he says. “There are plenty of people who would just say fuck it, try it and if it fails find something else. But I’ve got three kids and a wife, I live in Manhattan, I had a respectable job both as an ECD at Chiat New York and then chief creative at Saatchi. I could’ve stayed, pick up some awards and a nice paycheck, but I had been talking about it for so long.”

The problem was, to Graf, most of the great ad start-ups had one of two things–an experienced creative partnership or a founding client. He had neither. “Every partner I wanted to do it with went off to be directors–Harold Einstein and Dave Gray–so there was no founding partner,” he says. “Paul Venables and Greg Bell (founders of Venables Bell & Partners) had something from Microsoft that they couldn’t handle at Goodby, so the client suggested they set up an agency. You hear it a lot. And here I was, I had done good work for people, made a lot of people rich, but no one ever said, ‘Hey Gerry, start an agency and I’ll be your client.’ My wife says it’s because I come off like an asshole, and I’d say ‘I don’t think that’s it…’”

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Eventually, after being encouraged too many times by his wife and people like Jeff Goodby, David Droga and Mother co-founder Mark Waites, Graf knew his idea was too good to keep avoiding. “Mark Waites gave me some awesome advice,” says Graf. “He asked me why I hadn’t started my own agency, and when I told him I thought I needed an account and no one had ever asked me to do it, he said, ‘Sometimes you need to get a divorce before the girls start calling you.’ So finally I did it. I explored every option not to do this and yet here we are. And Mark was right, the girls started calling.”


Focus on Today

Since opening his agency, Graf has been forced to deal with a laundry list of creative and business challenges, but says there is one constant on the darker days. “Opening and running this agency has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” says Graf. “There have been times when you think you’re like the best agency in the world, but more often you feel like you’re going to go out of business tomorrow. What has got me through it all, is ‘just keep going.’ We’ve had talented people leave, work crumble, but it’s about just keep doing it. Just focus on what we need to get done today.”

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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