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Agency Profile: Toy NY

Posted on February 25, 2007 and read 8,618 times

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brettcreditpic 150x150 Agency Profile: Toy NYBrett McKenzie
Chief Writer/SBN2

“The name Toy says a lot to us; it’s kind of a metaphor for the kind of work we want to do. Are people waiting today to see the next ad? No. But they are looking for something that engages them. If the stuff we make isn’t as engaging as a new toy, then it’s probably not going to be paid much attention to. That’s the standard that we live up to every day.”
Anne Bologna, Founding Partner, Toy.

A few hours into my first trip to New York City and I already feel lost. Brendan, Mimi and myself had just flown into town that morning to help out with the 2006 NYC Clio Awards Screening, and went straight from LaGuardia to the Clio Awards Head Office at 9th and Broadway to prepare for the evening. After a bit or work, I look at a map and I figure I could walk from the Clios to my appointment at Toy, the first of a number of agencies during this trip. Toy is located on W. 21st Street, between 6th and 7th in Midtown Manhattan, so I cut across the famous Union Square, pass what looks like a kickass shop for custom made portfolios and eventually reach the building. There seems to be a lot of creative buzz in the air, as this building also houses part of New York’s renowned School of Visual Arts. I hurry on into the elevator, but when I arrive at the 8th floor, all I see is a mass of couriers, coat hangers and garment bags. I check my notes to confirm the address; it’s correct, but there’s nothing here that remotely looks like the hot new creative boutique I was expecting. I head back down the elevator to the lobby and with a puzzled look on my face I ask the security guard if he’s heard of Toy. He assures me I’m in the right location, I just had to turn right and go through a nondescript metal door.

“This is a temporary space, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt more comfortable in an agency location than here,” says Ari Merkin about Toy’s cluttered yet cozy office. Anne Bologna agrees. “It’s like we’re the ad world equivalent of a garage band!”

Toy might have the feel of an up and coming local band– the agency is a little more than a year old– but its founders are far from newcomers to the ad game. Ari is a creative genius with more creative accolades than yellow cabs in Manhattan. In 1998 he joined a relatively unknown agency called Crispin Porter + Bogusky and help turn them into one of the most talked about shops in the world. He helped develop award-winning work for Mini, and won tons of hardware for Truth Anti-Tobacco and IKEA’s ‘unboring’ campaign (including a nice, shiny Grand Clio AND Cannes Grand Prix Lion for writing “Lamp.”) Anne has over twenty years of agency experience, including ten years at Fallon Minneapolis, eventually becoming that legendary agency’s head of strategic thinking. Her strategic planning lead to Fallon receiving the first ever Cannes Titanium Lion for BMW Films.

Ari and Anne’s paths crossed in 2003, when Ari became Executive Creative Director of Fallon New York, where Anne had recently been named President. “We developed such a close partnership at Fallon that it felt like Fallon New York was our own agency in a way,” says Anne. That partnership allowed them to do even more incredible work, for clients such as Starbucks (“Glen! Glen, Glen, Glen!”) and Virgin Mobile (“Happy Christmahanakwanza!”)

So with a great relationship, at a great agency, doing great work, what made Anne and Ari (along with fellow Fallon alumnus David Dabill) decide to start up Toy? “All three of us have been around this business for quite some time, but we feel like it’s our first year in the business. Just like the Goodbys and the Weidens and the Fallons did in the 80s, you realize that there’s a new and better way,” say Anne. “Our philosophy is that the world didn’t need another advertising agency, but it could use a better one.”

Independence was also a major reason for them to open up a creative boutique of their own. “When you own yourself, it’s not about money for money’s sake, and it’s not about growth for growth’s sake,” explains Anne. “What the industry seems to be becoming – when you look at all the holding companies– is antithetical to what the core industry is all about, which is a couple of people sitting in a room, figuring out a problem and making a big creative leap.”

David, who has an impressive business and financial background, agrees. “Independence is absolutely huge if you really believe you want to build a business around the creative work. You have to have the ability to say no to clients, to able to say “this isn’t the right fit for us.” The truth is, once you’re reporting to shareholders, it becomes all about revenue. With that kind of pressure from shareholders, it’s nice to say that you want to focus on the work, but in actuality, you have to get that next new piece of business in line. With independence, creativity can shine.”

That’s all fine and dandy from a business perspective, but what does that mean for a young writer or art director? “Being independent, we have the luxury of being able to pick and choose our clients based on how much we like them, and like working with them,” says Ari. “We’ve been very selective about who we want to work with, because ultimately you become a product of what your clients are and what they want from you.”

To date, Toy has become the agency of record for the Oxygen Network and has worked with several clients on a project basis. One project Ari seems particularly pleased with is a holiday campaign for OfficeMax. “The budget was tiny, and we didn’t want to go out shouting ‘Hey, we’ve got digital cameras!’ just like everyone else.” Instead the gang at Toy teamed up with several interactive and production companies to create ‘A Gift From OfficeMax’ in the form of twenty different websites. “Instead of a TV spot, we’ve created two hours of online entertainment, all associated with Office Max and the holidays.” The results have been pretty astounding; half a billion hits, 31 million visitors spending over 250 million minutes, all in a span of only five weeks. The ElfYourself mini-site, easily the runaway favorite, was featured in the New York Times, on Good Morning America and CNN, showed up in over a hundred different YouTube videos and placed #2 on Entertainment Weekly’s ‘Must List,’ right behind some movie starring the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. By the end of the five weeks, ElfYourself received more than twice as many hits as Subservient Chicken did… in a year.

What kind of person works at a place like Toy? It’s a small but growing, eclectic group of people, including an art director who has a nice little side business selling garbage. “You can’t be someone who gets rattled at being in a place where we don’t adhere to a specific process at all times, like some other agencies,” says Jamie Rosen, director of client services.

“Smart, motivated and humble,” David adds when describing the type of person best suited for Toy. “If you’re not humble, you will be.”

There is also an emphasis placed on personal duty. “The beauty about a place like Toy is that everybody feels a sense of responsibility, for the work and for the team,” explains Ari. “This responsibility creates a real desire to work hard, a desire that might not be at other places where people are granted less responsibility. We give people who work here the same entrepreneurial feeling that we have in running the place.” This means that while Ari and Anne aren’t watching the clock to make sure everyone arrives at a specific time, just about everyone arrives relatively early and stays until the work is done; if that means you’re out the door at 6:00 PM or much later, so be it. “We’re all perfectionists to a point,” says Anne. “For us, if there’s celebrity to be had at Toy, it’s the work.” Ari agrees. “The work will always be the star at the agency, not us.”

Since Toy is small, young shop, there aren’t any specific company driven events or rituals as of yet. “The best agency traditions start at grassroots, and aren’t necessarily dictated from the top,” Anne replies. One example of this type of initiative has led to Fridays at Toy becoming ‘Call Your Mom Day.” The gang at Toy also has a strange tendency to invent theme songs for the various delivery guys dropping off food from local restaurants.

It certainly sounds like Toy is off to a great start, but how would Anne and Ari sum up the Toy experience? “We are an agency that’s very much about the work and inspired ideas,” says Anne. “Inspired ideas and inspired people make me want to come to work each day. I think it’s the purest form of advertising agencies. It’s just ideas and people.” Ari echoes that statement. “We set out to be a place where creativity can live. We hope to be a place that not only nurtures creativity but also creatives.”

Thanks to Ari, Anne, David, Jamie and the rest of Toy for taking the time to meet with us.




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