NEWSMAKER/STEVE RABOSKY: Steve who? stakes reputation on revitalising APL - You’ve never heard of him but to APL he’s a creative cure-all. By Harriet Green

Well, here we are. I’m sitting in an office on the 37th floor of a Manhattan skyscraper, chatting to a man I didn’t even know existed last week about the bottle on his table containing Ragu pasta sauce. And all because Andrew Cracknell quit Ammirati Puris Lintas last month.

Well, here we are. I’m sitting in an office on the 37th floor of a

Manhattan skyscraper, chatting to a man I didn’t even know existed last

week about the bottle on his table containing Ragu pasta sauce. And all

because Andrew Cracknell quit Ammirati Puris Lintas last month.



Here’s some background. Cracknell, APL’s chairman, was appointed three

years ago to restore the agency’s creative credentials. With him gone,

William Eccleshare, the chief executive, stepped up to take the chair,

while the managing director, Chris Thomas, moved into the chief exec’s

seat (Campaign, 25 September). Interviewed three weeks ago, Eccleshare

insisted the agency would still be the ’significant’ force within the

five years allotted - three years ago - by the worldwide chief

executive, Martin Puris. But Eccleshare also admitted the agency’s

creative product and new-business record needed attention.



So nobody exactly fell off their seats when APL announced last week the

appointment of a new creative hot shot. Steve Rabosky had been granted

the title of chief creative officer and was coming in over the head of

the executive creative director, Nick Welch (Campaign, last week).



But Rabosky was American, and reaction to his appointment in London was

at best, luke-warm, at worst, positively hostile. The news revived

memories of another non-Brit shipped in to reinvigorate the agency in

London: Al Crew, the Australian appointed in 1994 who resigned two years

later.



Rumour-mongers in the industry suggested that Puris, frustrated by poor

creative product (and himself under pressure from Phil Geier,

Interpublic’s chief executive) had forced Rabosky on to the agency. But

Thomas - who’s enjoyed close working relationships with senior creatives

such as Tom Carty and Walter Campbell among others at Abbott Mead

Vickers BBDO - denies this. He was hugely impressed by Rabosky at a

meeting in New York, and says he had to fight hard to prise the man away

from Puris. ’I knew I had met the person who could support the

department after Andrew left,’ he explains.



Either way, the reason for APL’s new appointment became clear on the day

of our meeting. Yet another Unilever account, it was announced, was

leaving the agency. Rabosky had been called in at short notice to help

on the pitch - hence the jar on the table - but too late. Unilever has

not been getting the creative work it wanted from its core agency, and

Ragu became the latest in a series of brands snatched away to be brought

back to life by others such as Ogilvy & Mather, Bartle Bogle Hegarty,

Mother and HHCL & Partners.



But in London, the reaction to his appointment went something like this:

Steve who? He’s obviously pretty miffed by this and you can see why. In

the US, he’s long enjoyed the industry’s respect. ’I didn’t expect

anybody over there to know who the hell I was,’ he says.



’There’s no reason why they should. (But) I am a bit surprised they are

making such a fuss about an American coming over.’



There’s no doubt Rabosky has fantastic credentials. Even if they haven’t

heard his name, doubters in London will be familiar with his work. After

humble beginnings as a copywriter in California, he became executive

creative director and managing partner under Lee Clow at TBWA Chiat/Day

in Venice, California. In 13 years, Rabosky worked on many of the

agency’s key accounts, including Apple and Nike. His reel - which

contains many of the celebrated pink bunny commercials for Energizer -

is quirky enough to appeal to a UK market. And he’s won stacks of

awards.



More than that, he’s tough. Nick Welch - charming, whimsical and

gentlemanly - is said by colleagues to be too nice to knock heads

together. Rabosky is another matter: look at his piercing blue eyes and

closely cropped head, and you’ll know what I mean. He speaks his mind,

those who know him say. As Eccleshare puts it: ’I get the sense this guy

would take no shit from anybody. He has that absolute single-minded

conviction that the only thing that matters is the creative work and

that he knows exactly what is right for the work and what isn’t.’



MT Rainey, Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe’s planning partner who worked

with Rabosky a decade ago at Chiat/Day, agrees: ’The agency needs Steve

Rabosky more than Steve Rabosky needs the agency. I don’t think it

matters that people haven’t heard of him. The cultural differences are

significant, but of all the American agencies, Chiat/Day has the same

standards and beliefs. He’s spiky enough to be a proper creative

director, not a gentleman creative. He has a passion for a great

job.’



He’s also interested in promoting talent rather than his own ego, says a

former Chiat/Day colleague, David Lubars, now creative director at

Fallon McElligott. ’I worked for him when I was a young copy cub. He’s

patient if he thinks you’re good. I learned a lot from him. He’s not a

self-promoter, he’s a quiet, reticent personality - he’s known as a very

thoughtful, measured, smart creative strategist - but if you look at the

first wave of Apple material, he did the bulk of it.’



Until recently, Rabosky has led a charmed life, but the past year has

been stressful. In 1997, he quit Chiat/Day to establish a Los Angeles

office for Chicago’s the Leap Partnership.



But the agency did not thrive and Rabosky was dismissed after just nine

months. He launched a lawsuit against the agency for dollars 500,000

(his annual salary), charging breach of contract, fraud and libel.



Disillusioned, he semi-retired, opting to freelance as and when he felt

like it - until Puris offered him a worldwide creative job. He saw it as

a challenge and for the past six months has been offering his experience

to APL offices around the world.



Currently he commutes between New York and Los Angeles to spend weekends

with his young family (hence the tan, which makes him look, with

open-necked shirt and stone-coloured jeans, just a little younger than

his 45 years).



But what can possibly interest him in this job? ’I am excited for two

reasons,’ he says. ’Firstly, I met Chris Thomas and we hit it off on a

personal level. And then I found out he was the account man on the Volvo

work that Tony Kaye shot a couple of years ago. That ’twister’

commercial is one of my favourites of the past decade. I’ve met very few

account people that have the energy and the passion for the creative

work. Secondly, I’ve always looked at London as being the most creative

community in the advertising business.’ Which seems, all things

considered, a jolly gracious compliment.



Before falling into advertising, Rabosky studied journalism as a

graduate.



But he ’didn’t like talking to people enough’ to consider it as a

serious career.



So will he address his scanty appreciation of contemporary English

culture?



He certainly doesn’t know much about it - and what he does seems to be

based on swift glimpses of daytime TV (which, characteristically

straight-talking, he pronounces rubbish). Rainey recommends caution,

however. ’He will be a big success as long as he meets the task with

moderation and doesn’t go mad. He’s more than capable of bringing high

standards and drive, as long as he does not dictate the content.’



But Rabosky doesn’t think being American will pose problems. Ads, he

argues, are almost totally transportable: ’I look at the work I respect

out of London and 99 per cent could have run here. I’m sure there are

some colloquialisms about the culture I may need to learn and I might

need somebody to screen my words. But I am a hands-on creative

person.’



That comes across. He’s nuts about creative work and you can see why

Thomas was smitten. ’If you just focus on the work all the other good

things happen - the agency will grow, you’ll get new business, you’ll

make more money, you’ll be able to pay people bonuses. Creative work is

the whole agency.’



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