Campaign spoke to Gerry Graf, the founder of creative agency Barton F Graf 9000, at the International Festival of Creativity in Cannes.
As the owner of a young, mid-size agency, how important is the Cannes Lions festival for you?
It still means something to win a Lion, although there are so many categories nowadays. Is it the ultimate creative award? It’s one of them. Ours sit in the middle of our awards cabinet, if that says anything.
You are known for using humor well in your campaigns. Do you think that is an especially effective emotion to use in marketing?
It’s one that’s really effective, and I really enjoy doing it. When you’re asking for someone’s time to listen to a sales message, you have to give something back. You can give them a coupon or you can entertain them. It’s an exchange.
Before you got into advertising, you tried to make it as a writer in Hollywood. How was that experience?
It was tough. A friend and myself wrote some spec TV scripts — we even wrote a Simpsons script — but it was just a year of a lot of doors closing in our faces. To make some money while I was in LA, I worked as a rat exterminator, and I used that when we came to pitch for [pest control brand] Tomcat — I knew more about killing rats than they did.
Barton F Graf 9000 is five years old. Has the agency grown as you expected?
I’m surprised that we’re profitable. I am. I guess, work-wise, we’re okay. But it really surprises me that the phone keeps ringing with new clients. We don’t have a new-business person, but so far our work seems to keep attracting people.
You made an ad for Clash of Clans (a mobile game) with Liam Neeson. What was he like to work with?
He was awesome. He drove himself to the set, and he was the nicest guy. He just nailed it every time, and he was hysterical. He said he did the ad because his son plays Clash of Clans and he wanted him to think he was cool.
Many young, independent creative agencies in the UK have struggled to grow because clients need such a broad range of skills now, which means they favor larger agencies. Is that your experience?
It’s the opposite situation in the States. It’s our job to come up with an idea before executing anything. We come up with the brand campaign and then we work with partners a lot and they take it away. [Young creative agencies] have made a lot of money that way. It seems like clients are just looking for that idea. It’s more important to be able to partner with other agencies [than do everything yourself].
What do you think of the UK creative agencies that have opened in New York in the past few years?
It’s been up and down. Mother has done some amazing work but they’re mostly known for what they’ve done in the UK. I think it does help to be American. I remember speaking to Dave Droga [an Australian, founder of Droga5] a long time ago, and he told me I should think about opening my own agency because he said he was doing well for himself here but he could only imagine how well he’d do if he was American. And he was right.
This article first appeared on campaignlive.co.uk.