Like the city they call home, Bryan Jessee and Mark McGarrah defy stereotype. Bryan loves to rodeo but sips Chardonnay with BBQ. Mark roots for the OK Sooners but works in the shadow of the Texas Longhorns. Their hometown, Austin, is perfect for their tastes and lifestyles. It’s got cowboys, honky-tonks, taco stands and rabid conservatives on Capitol Hill, but Austin also remains the capitol of Texas “weird”; a placid blue island in a righteous sea of red, it’s a progressive marvel, home to Whole Foods Markets and five-buck shots of wheat grass and to the Broken Spoke and ten-buck shots of The Ass Kicker (don't ask).
It is a milieu that attracts people like Jessee and McGarrah, lured here in 1992 and leaving behind Dallas to join GSD&M (then and now Austin’s biggest Three Ring Ad Circus). By 1996 they'd launched McGarrah Jessee (McJ). A fateful encounter would propel their careers.
Dick Evans, chairman and CEO of Frost Bank, had heard of McGarrah and Jessee before they left GSD&M. He made an appointment to drop by their new, humble office. He recalls:
“It was thirteen years ago and we were looking for a new agency. Now, as you know, banks are not the most exciting places and defining the intangible things that distinguish one from another is awfully difficult. The first thing Mark and Bryan did was to show me a bunch of bank ads with their names removed so I couldn’t identify which was which. They all looked the same: an old white-haired man with a coat slung over his shoulder looking over a construction site or a nice young couple sitting by a fire petting their golden retriever. Next, they told me they’d take the time necessary to learn who we were as people and as a company. They said that would require broad access to everyone in our company. We hired them and opened our doors to them. They came back with a campaign called, ‘We’re From Here.’ It’s a phrase that captures the essence of who we are. It remains the basis of our brand message today. Why? Because it defines the character and values of those who work here.”
In the many years since, strategies, channels and media have changed. Frost Bank has grown in size and added hundreds of new technologies that have changed the way they do business. “But,” points out Evans, “people remain the core of who and what we are as a business. Mark and Bryan understood that from the beginning and, over the years, have found marvelous ways to tell that story again and again.”
When in 2009 Ad Age named McGarrah Jessee Southwest Agency of the Year, few would also recall that the magazine also named its work for Shiner a national campaign of the year runner up. The irony was not lost on the people of McJ: A “regional” agency is national campaign runner up? WTF?
Jessee wearies fast when visitors spout off Texas bromides and clichés to be funny: “Don't get me wrong; we love our home state,” he says. “We honor our Texas heritage and love this city. But our work reaches beyond Texas. Whattaburgers stretch from Arizona to Florida. Shiner sells in 48 states. Costa del Mar eyewear advertises across the nation. Our people have pedigrees and experience that stack up with any agency anywhere.” Then is it accurate to characterize the 70-person, sub-$100 million Texas-based agency as “small” as Ad Age did? Face it: In the world of advertising, “big” mostly modifies “billings” but rarely equates with great.
McGarrah responds: “We’re big enough to remember the first name of everyone who works here. We never want to get bigger than that.”
Culture. Clients. Craft. By preserving one, you will attract the other two. It is said that a principle is meaningless unless it costs you. McJ has sacrificed to preserve culture and quality. They choose accounts judiciously and are willing to resign when a true partnership becomes impossible. They hire carefully, asking prospects to meet with as many as twenty staff members before a hire is made. Everyone has a stake in maintaining the good juju at McJ. No one takes that responsibility lightly.
McJ is located downtown in a nineteenth-century grocery warehouse that they helped save from a high-rise tombstone. Their new office is under renovation a few blocks west, inside Austin’s last significant modernist building whose interiors were originally designed by Florence Knoll. It houses a significant mural by Seymour Fogel, an American painter whose work is among numerous twentieth-century museum collections. Thanks to McJ, the Fogel mural and 1950s building were spared—preserving a slice of Texas's progressive culture. A culture in which McGarrah Jessee fits well.
GO DEEP, THEN WIDE
For those who like ads that make them smile, McJ’s work tickles many funny bones. Their Two-Finger Wave spot for Frost Bank would be absurd if it wasn’t dead-on, honest and accurate. It takes guts to tell people you’re the real deal because if you aren’t they’ll crucify you. To pull that off, you got to “go deep,” getting to know your clients and their customers inside and out.
Says Al Perkinson at Costa del Mar, “Our communications goal is to enhance our brand personality and strengthen our connection with our consumers. That requires an agency willing to gain a deep understanding of both our brand and the community that it inhabits. Fishermen can sniff out a poser in a minute. You must speak authentically. For example, our ad campaign has some pithy headlines that are inside jokes among the fishermen. They have to be just right or we’re busted.” To get them right, McJ spoke with fishing pros across the country asking for their input and critique. It was a time-intensive approach, but it led to great work that remains the talk of the fishing community.
David Kampa is a design legend in Austin. His position at McJ as design group leader speaks volumes about the agency’s commitment to hiring the best and giving them the space to work. “The model for designers at most advertising agencies is usually as a studio artist implementing creative ideas for art directors. That’s not the case here. Here, designers, art directors, writers and interactive designers are integrated as teams. Our ‘Deep and Wide’ approach opens endless design opportunities for us to affect as much client business as possible, from identity, packaging, promotions and collateral to apparel, vehicles, signage, book design and architecture.”
Jeremy Cox leads McJ’s digital design group. He says, “It is a given that anyone we hire has creative horsepower. The trick is finding those who can integrate into a team without feeling constrained or compromised creatively.” Along with co-executive creative director David Holloway, James Mikus, an eleven-year McJ veteran, directs the agency’s branding efforts. “We’ll delve into as much of a client’s business as they will allow. We're as likely to be asked to design a building, shoot a film, create an integrated campaign or pull a stunt as we are asked to create a print or TV campaign. The trick is to execute across all those platforms with a consistently high level of craft.”
At McJ, account management is called “integration” because it weaves together so many aspects of the branding equation. “We accomplish this by proving that our strategic planning and account management can knit many facets of their communications into one cohesive, effective and memorable whole,” says Britton Upham, an eight-year McJ veteran.
Wizened, wired but not British, planning director Clay Langdon agrees: “Fundamentally, planning hasn’t changed since I was a kid at Merkley Newman Harty. It’s still about listening to people and understanding brand opportunities. The difference today is that inputs and outputs are more complex. Fifteen years ago, we were searching for the idea for the campaign. Now, we’re tackling multiple business problems across multiple channels and improving brand experience across multiple environments-simultaneously. That makes planning more challenging, but more fun, too.”
McJ clients say they are part of the process and, thus, the outcome. Campaigns are not the result of fairy dust but, instead, integration, coordination and hard work. At Shiner, marketing manager Stacey Williams says that makes everyone part of the success story: “I believe the Shiner brand team is indirectly responsible for the great work of McGarrah Jessee because we spend the time outlining our goals and objectives for each and every program. This lets creative teams focus on areas of importance and come up with earth-shattering ideas. It is my role to allow creative to explore new and exciting avenues and messages, while keeping my eye on well-defined objectives. McGarrah Jessee understands this.”
Who doesn’t love good value? McGarrah and Jessee have worked together for more than a quarter century. They’ve shared the same office enclosure since founding McJ. They trust each other, do not disagree on final decisions yet bring their own opinions to the decision-making table. Each of their skills complements the other’s.
Says Evans, “They are one. It is amazing. After thirteen years, I have never seen a difference between them. Sure, they have different opinions but their respect for each other’s talent is palpable. When you talk to them, there is no divide—it’s like talking to one with the benefit of two.”
What inspires loyalty? Among other things, honesty, integrity and appreciation. Jessee and McGarrah are quick to share credit. Foremost, they say, is life-long friend Rob Lawton (emeritus professor at Creative Circus in Atlanta), both Jessee and David Kampa’s instructor years ago at East Texas State in El Paso. Second, is Stan Richards who taught them to never accept “good enough.” Then, there’s Dick Evans, their mentor, first and longest-active client. If we’d had time we’d have heard about the contributions of all 68 McJ employees.
It takes a long time to grow loyal friends. Putting people ahead of profit has netted Jessee and McGarrah many. They’ve set high standards and stood by their principles. Now, after fourteen years, they’re getting the recognition they deserve. Who knows if getting bigger will make them bad? One thing is certain: They can’t grow much bigger in their new office. The Fire Marshal won’t let them. Occupancy is limited to 140. Get in line. ca