Maybe they do, but the fact is they’ve been taking the other fork in the road for a long time. When Venables and Bell were a team at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, starting in 1997, they employed an unusual method of seeking assignments. “We volunteered to work on the hard stuff,” Greg remembers. It was a strategy that paid off.
Rather than doing yet another fabulous installment of “Got Milk?” they made their names by being brilliant on more difficult, less visible clients. First, Venables was named co-creative director along with Steve Simpson when the agency principals relinquished their titles of creative director. Soon after, Bell was named group creative director, and he and Venables worked together, handling accounts like Netflix, TiVo, SBC and Yellow Pages. At the end of Venables’s first year at the helm, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners won Advertising Age’s honor of Agency of the Year.
Then, just before 9/11 hit and while the entire industry was suffering, Paul and Greg opened their agency, Venables Bell & Partners, located in San Francisco. “It was quite possibly the worst timing,” Greg says. But it, too, has paid off. While plenty of teams have bravely peeled off to start their own places with little money and no accounts, Venables and Bell had a fairy-tale beginning in comparison.
First, Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein were not only supportive, they offered them a discount on office space they weren’t using at the time, right across the street. Silverstein says, “They were good guys and I hated to see them go, but they did it right. They were upfront and honest and said, ‘Look, someday we’d like to run our own place.’”
And they had a client—Microsoft UltimateTV. They had worked with Beth Kachellek-Marchand on SBC while at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners and when she moved to Microsoft she offered them the account. The team was still at Goodby at the time, but this was the opportunity they’d been waiting for.
“My dream was always to open my own place,” Paul says. “I always knew that I would.” Venables, who began his career as a receptionist in 1988, worked as a copywriter at McCaffrey & McCall in New York in 1991, then served as associate creative director at Korey, Kay & Partners in 1993. He landed at Goodby in 1995 and stayed until 2001, earning the titles associate partner and co-creative director during his tenure.
Greg came to advertising by way of Texas. “I grew up in a place where there’s not much to do but sit around and observe people,” he says. His first job was at Cliff Freeman And Partners, where he became a vice president at the age of 26. “Cliff is one of the most creative people I’ve ever met and it was really fortunate for me. I was shooting my first spot at the age of 22,” Greg remembers. In 1997, in a gigantic stroke of luck, Goodby, based in San Francisco, called. “My wife got sick of New York so she took off to San Francisco,” Greg says with a laugh. “So they called me to work in San Francisco, not realizing I was looking to go there anyway.” He was partnered with Venables and the two had a great track record, culminating with their decision to start their own place.
Armed with Microsoft UltimateTV, the team approached Bob Molineaux, who was managing director at AKQA (formerly Citron Haligman Bedecarré) in New York. Venables, Bell and Molineaux had worked at Goodby together, where Bob was an associate partner, running Sutter Home Vineyards, Bell Helmets and Pacific Bell, among other accounts. Bob says, “Paul, Greg and I had so much success at Goodby. Paul was one of those rare creatives who took the time to learn the client’s business. The clients were blown away by Paul and Greg’s business strategy. They could go toe-to-toe with them and they often did out-think them.”
As president and founding partner of Venables Bell & Partners, Molineaux oversees an account roster which has included HBO Home Video, Pacific Gas and Electric, Siebel Systems, Robert Mondavi, Animal Planet and, of course, Microsoft UltimateTV. “We don’t turn up our nose at any category,” Bob says. “We cannot do this without the help of a great client, someone who will fight the good fight internally—a person who demands great things of us and they’re ready to go a few rounds with their own people. Because of that, we take almost every meeting. It’s a chemistry check—our opportunity to get a sense of who they are.”
The fourth partner is Lucy Farey-Jones. On every account and for almost every assignment, the planning director gets involved from the very start, either assigning a member of her team or handling the job herself. Farey-Jones, who is from England, began her career in London, where she worked as a planner at BMP DDB. She came to California in 1999 to take a position as head of planning for BBDO in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
“I’m a real fan of immersion,” she says. A compelling example of the research technique is the campaign Venables Bell & Partners created for the Montana Meth Project, a charitable organization funded by the Thomas and Stacey Siebel Foundation, based in Montana. It turns out that methamphetamine abuse and addiction has reached alarming levels in the state of Montana, far exceeding the national average. Siebel founded the Montana Meth Project last year to help fight this horrifying trend. He employed his ad agency to help him.
Farey-Jones sent a young planner to Montana who literally immersed herself in the teen world, finding out all she could. What the agency found out was depressing—most kids thought they could try methamphetamine, either by smoking it or snorting it, a couple of times with-out incurring any damage. In reality, meth is a highly-addictive drug and just one use can send a child on a largely irreversible road to addiction. So the agency began develop-ing creative and the campaign that hit home was “Meth. Not even once.”
In four TV spots, a teenager faces himself or herself in the non-addicted state—the before teen— and then after addiction. The spots, which began running in Montana in September, are chilling, powerful and gritty. Siebel Foundation executive director Sioban O’Connor says, “We have gotten complaints— people ask, why do these have to be so graphic? Yes, these are graphic. The agency was very careful about the director they chose, Tony Kay. We were looking for someone who would take a harsh, reality-based approach.” In radio spots, real teens who have been addicted to methamphetamine give chilling monologues. Tavia Holmes, senior art director, explains their process. “Our producer and a planner went out to Montana, and worked with a rehab center to find out if there were any kids who would be willing to talk to us. So the kids came in and told their story, which was recorded right in the rehab center and then we edited the pieces into radio spots.”
One of the smartest aspects of the campaign is the media buy. Instead of going with all donated time, which can so easily result in off-time airings, receiving little attention, Siebel decided on a combination of paid and donated spots. As a result, the Montana Meth Project became one of the biggest advertisers in Montana and aired through-out the day.
Holmes is currently working on the next wave of spots. “Tom Siebel is hoping to do more TV, radio and print but also guerilla marketing,” she says. “He doesn’t want the message to wear out.” In research just completed, the agency found out that the current meth spots have an extremely high unaided awareness among teens in Montana. Holmes says, “The kids even play back the story lines and the end line. They also move beyond the spots by asking how these kids are doing now, what affect the addiction has had on their parents, and more. We have to see what happens down the road, but to actually hear these responses is so encouraging.”
Located in downtown San Francisco, Venables Bell & Partners is housed in quarters designed by Gensler Architects. Two floors of mostly white walls and sur-faces look down over busy streets. The atmosphere is relaxed and fun. James Robinson, writer, explains the work culture. “It’s super collaborative here. Paul or Greg will say, ‘here’s the brief—go off and come up with something.’ They’re so enthusiastic about good work. They’re very physical, too, so you get bashed around a bit, but in a good way.”
Venables and Bell are clearly having fun running their own place. Paul says, “We throw anybody at any level on every project. And then we’re both involved in everything.” They share the same approach to creative: Paul advises, “You have to find the traction point and just go for it.” ca