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Over the past twelve years, this creative-driven New York ad agency, independently owned and run by the partners Sal DeVito and Ellis Verdi, has tended to produce ads that don't sugarcoat their messages or soften their sharp edges. There's often a candor and a street-smart tone to the agency's work that has enabled it to stand out, win awards and attract clients. But it has also occasionally stirred controversy, drawn angry letters, sparked a protest or two, and provoked the wrath of a certain big-city mayor named Rudy.

"We certainly don't set out to make anybody mad or start a controversy," insists Ellis Verdi, who runs the business side of the agency. "We try to do advertising that has a strong point of view and gets to the heart of the issue. When you do that, sometimes you're going to hit a nerve.

DeVito/Verdi has been doing that ever since 1991, when one of the agency's first clients, a discount New York clothing store named Daffy's, asked for help in spreading word of its low prices. The agency responded with a series of now-classic ads that basically told New Yorkers they'd be crazy to pay too much for clothes. One ad showed a picture of a straitjacket: "If you're paying over $400 for a dress shirt," the headline read, "may we suggest a jacket to go with it?" The ad was all in good fun, of course, and was relevant to Daffy's marketing objective—but nonetheless, the agency soon found itself being picketed by a mental health advocacy group that objected to the straitjacket imagery. Both DeVito and Verdi were surprised, though not discouraged; as Daffy's sales took off, they knew that they'd touched the right kind of nerve."

That was just the beginning of a series of small controversies that seemed to flare up periodically throughout the 1990s as the agency kept growing and taking on new marketing challenges. The problems with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani occurred in the midst of Giuliani's tempestuous reign (well before his heroic 9/11 moment), at a time when the mayor was known not only for his policy successes but also for his tendency to trumpet them. And so when DeVito/Verdi was asked to create an ad promoting New York magazine, the agency came up with this headline: "Possibly the only good thing in New York Rudy hasn't taken credit for." This did not go over well at City Hall and soon the ad was removed from the sides of buses, which in turn sparked a lawsuit and a First Amendment debate. In the end, it was determined that DeVito/Verdi did, indeed, have the right to poke fun at the Mayor on the sides of his own buses.

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Around this same time, a fledgling magazine called Timeout New York, a guide to city dining and entertainment, came to DeVito/Verdi seeking a campaign that would get attention and explain what the magazine was about. The agency responded with ads that did both. "Our magazine is a lot like the average New Yorker," one headline read. "It'll tell you where you can go and what you can do with yourself." Another ad in the campaign, posted on a billboard, announced: "Welcome to New York. Now get out." The combination of the Daffy's campaign, the Giuliani incident and the Timeout ads seemed to confirm what people had begun to suspect about DeVito/Verdi-no doubt about it, they were wise guys.

To some extent, it's true. There's a brutal honesty to DeVito/Verdi advertising that is characteristic of New York City itself, so it should come as no surprise that both DeVito and Verdi are homegrown products. Verdi grew up in Manhattan and spent the early part of his career at the New York office of Grey Advertising; DeVito was a Brooklyn boy who became an art director at various New York agencies. It was Verdi who decided to start an independent shop, initially working out of his one-room East-Side apartment, with no clients and a creative partner named John Follis. "I was just picking up the phone and cold-calling, a hundred calls a day," Verdi says. As he slowly began to lure in clients, he placed another important call—to DeVito, who'd recently left the agency Levine Huntley Schmidt & Beaver and was looking for a new opportunity. DeVito and Verdi meshed immediately, Follis subsequently departed. And from then on, the agency kept writing the kind of headlines that make headlines.
But lost in some of the noise surrounding DeVito/Verdi has been the larger truth about the agency and its founders. Just as there is more to New Yorkers than mere brashness, there's more to DeVito/Verdi than provocative headlines. Verdi is an astute businessman who is steeped in marketing principles and very focused on business results. DeVito is a classically-trained art director who in his off-hours teaches at New York's School of Visual Arts, where he stresses the fundamentals of highly-conceptual advertising. In short, there's a lot of depth and substance behind the "wise guys" (and by the way, both men are soft-spoken and polite).

"We have this reputation for being brash and having a New York attitude," says DeVito. "And we have taken that tone with some of our New York clients, because it made sense for them. But if you look at all our work, you see a range. Some of it is funny, but some of it is very emotional."

We certainly don't set out to make anybody mad or start a controversy. We try to do advertising that has a strong point of view and gets to the heart of the issue. When you do that, sometimes you're going to hit a nerve." —Ellis Verdi

Illustrating DeVito's point is the agency's work for various social organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and Pro-Choice Education Project. There are no wisecracking jokes in these ads, but they're still apt to cause a stir. Consider the DeVito/Verdi ACLU ad that juxtaposes the faces of Martin Luther King and Charles Manson, beneath a headline noting that a person who looks like King is far more likely to be pulled over by police than one who looks like Manson. Or there is the Pro-Choice ad showing a bunch of faceless men in suits, with the headline: "77% of anti-abortion leaders are men. 100% of them will never be pregnant."

The agency has a history of taking on hot-button social issues in its advertising, something most agencies avoid for fear of alienating clients. When asked about this, Verdi says: "I've been led to some extent by my interests in certain issues. But it's not as if the agency has a single viewpoint or philosophy—we don't take sides." Indeed, the agency recently worked with the Ad Council on the Bush Administration's 'Freedom' campaign, a post-9/11 series of ads promoting an appreciation of American liberty; one haunting DeVito/Verdi commercial depicted what it would be like to live in an America where people must check over their shoulders and lower their voices before they can gripe about the government.

It's unclear whether the provocative nature of some of the agency's work has been a boon or an obstacle in attracting clients. The fact is, some clients like to draw attention with their ads, while others are wary of doing anything that might make anyone uncomfortable; DeVito/Verdi tends to do better with the former group than the latter. Still, as the agency has grown—today, DeVito/ Verdi employs about 80 people and media billings amount to roughly $170 million a year—its client roster has expanded into a diverse group that includes large national brands like Canon and Universal (the agency works on Universal's Motown music label), as well as small-to-midsized companies like Grey Goose vodka, the Hotwire travel Web site, Court TV and Jackson-Hewitt tax preparation. There are local New York clients like Mount Sinai Hospital, but there's also a Midwestern superstore chain, Meijer.

We have this reputation for being brash and having a New York attitude. And we have taken that tone with some of our New York clients, because it made sense for them. But if you look at all our work, you see a range. Some of it is funny, but some of it is very emotional." —Sal DeVito

It's hard to generalize about the work being done for these different entities, except to say that all of it is rooted in solid strategy (the agency tries to distill each client's marketing needs down to one distinct message based on the brand's strengths), all of it is intended to generate measurable business results and all of it is designed to get noticed. Which means that some of it, inevitably, tends to get a few people riled up.

Even in the case of a rather lighthearted campaign for Meijer stores, DeVito/Verdi manages to inject touches of blunt candor. One commercial shows a bunch of children acting overjoyed when their mother brings home new school supplies bought at Meijer. ("Oh a ruler—now I can measure things!" screams one gleeful child). In the midst of the ersatz scene, type scrolls over the screen: "This is a dramatization. Your kids will never get this excited about school supplies. So why pay more than you have to?" The Meijer's campaign has been a big success, but it has also brought a smattering of letters from some that are uncomfortable with the ads. Similarly, the agency's campaign for Mount Sinai Hospital is a positive testament to all the hospital's wonderful achievements, but is couched in headlines that challenge the reader: "If you can go into the city to see a show," one ad reads, "you can go into the city to save your life."

If that slightly "in-your-face" tone alienates a few sensitive souls, DeVito has come to accept this as part of his agency's fate. "Once," he says "we did an ad that showed a fruitcake being thrown out, and we got letters from somebody who makes fruitcakes, seeking an apology. I couldn't believe it—a fruitcake!" He has concluded that, "You never can tell what will get somebody upset. But the important thing, I think, is to make sure they notice the ad in the first place." ca

Warren Berger (warrenberger.com) is a writer and speaker specializing in design, advertising and innovation. He is the author of several books, including the newly revised A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas (Bloomsbury, 2014). Berger lectures and conducts workshops on innovation and creativity in business, and he is a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, the Harvard Business Review and CA.

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