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IHAVEANIDEA.ORG > creatives >  Ari Merkin
Ari Merkin
ariinside Ari MerkinFounder & Creative Director

Toy NY

If you had won a handful of advertising awards, maybe a Gold Clio or a Silver Lion or two, you’d be pretty pleased with yourself. A dozen or so Pencils and you’d definitely have some bragging rights. And if you won Grand Prix at both the Clios and Cannes, enough golds and silvers to start your own miniature Fort Knox, and have a reel that looks likes you took over an entire One Show Annual, then you’d probably have an ego at least twice the size of your trophy case.

Ari Merkin has all those accolades, but he’s also one of the nicest, humblest and most level headed ad guys around. The writer behind award winning work for Land Rover, Mini, Ikea (Many of you feel sorry for this lamp), and truth. Creative leader behind Virgin Mobile, Starbucks and others, and now the founder and creative director of Toy, having fun and continuing his success by allowing the world to elf themselves this past holiday season.

ihaveanidea sat down with Ari to talk about how he got to where he is today, and how he takes it all in stride.

ihaveanidea: Let’s start from the beginning. How did you get interested in advertising? I understand that the schools you attended weren’t exactly known for their creative encouragement.

Ari: Ah, you’ve done your homework. Growing up in the yeshiva system, you don’t do focus much on the right brain. It’s different these days, but back then, yeshivas were doctor, lawyer and accountant factories. So I ended up getting a pretty late start on art education. It wasn’t until I was a senior at Parsons that I discovered that advertising was an actual a job that people go to work to do every day. I’m thinking how crazy is that?’ Before long I became married to the idea of becoming a creative. There was no option. It was just something I had to do.

ihaveanidea: Your first agency was Grace & Rothschild. What was it like to work with genuine ad legends Roy Grace and Diane Rothschild, and more importantly, how did you convince genuine ad legends Roy Grace and Diane Rothschild to take a chance on you? What did they teach you that you value most to this very day?

Ari: At first, I hadn’t sent my book there because I didn’t think I had a shot of getting hired. Grace & Rothschild was a great small agency that was known for really smart, classy ads. Like most juniors at the time, my book was full of attitude. So when I finally got the nerve to send my stuff, I was surprised they hired me. Oh boy…I shouldn’t tell you this

ihaveanidea: Ah, come on! It’s not like anybody’s going to read this!

Ari: Okay. So we’re coming back from a pitch in a Land Rover Discover. We had the Land Rover account at the time. Roy, Diane, the president of the agency Chip Sleeper, me and Allen Richardson, the ACD. Allen and I are scrunched up in the fold down seats in the back. Very uncomfortable. And Diane looks back at me and starts making conversation. Until that time, I was pretty much petrified to talk to her at all, afraid of making an ass of myself. About 20 minutes into the trip I realize, hey, we’re still talking. And I’m thinking, wow, I am actually carrying on a conversation with Diane Rothschild. Somewhere along the way she decides to go straight home and get dropped off at her Upper East side apartment. So Chip pulls over and lets her out. As just before she walks away, she turns to me and asks, “Oh Ari, would you like to come up?” At which point my jaw drops. I was frozen. And everyone in the car just looks at me waiting for an answer. So finally, after going through every possible response in my head, I say, “Y’know what, umm…I think I’m just going to go back to the agency with the guys.” And Diane starts shaking her head in disbelief. Then she says, “I meant up to my seat.” It was maybe the single worst moment of my life. I’m still embarrassed telling that story. So I guess In a nutshell, that’s what G&R was: a place to learn about the power of words. It was the ad school I never had. I always attribute where I am to what I learned there. It was the basics. Headlines to visuals, visuals to headlines. I don’t know how people can succeed without that.

ihaveanidea: You started at Crispin Porter + Bogusky at a time when it wasn’t one of the most talked about agencies on earth. Did you sense it was going to be something big and that’s what had you leaving New York to Miami? What was it like to be an integral part of CP+B’s initial success?

Ari: I think CP+B’s initial success was the moment Chuck made Alex creative director. I was just one of the many who benefited from the place along the way. And yes, CP+B had a vibe unlike anything I’d ever felt before. I couldn’t have know it would come to this, but there was something in the air that I wanted to be a part of. My wife is from Miami and much of her family is still there, so CP+B was simply the right place for me at that time in my life. But it did teach me that if you give talented people a platform to shine, they will. And that’s what Toy is all about. We’re building a place where creativity can live. Which is surprisingly uncommon in New York City. I don’t think you should have to go to Miami, or Boulder for that matter, to be a part of something special.

“I don’t ever want to stop evolving creatively. The very thought of that scares the hell out of me.”

ihaveanidea: To say that your “Lamp” spot for Ikea was big is an understatement, but you’re probably tired of hearing about it…

Ari: I like celebrating the work as much as the next guy. But at some point, you’ve just got to shut that off and move on. Advertising has changed so much in the past few years. If we had the Ikea assignment today, I’m not sure we would even come up with the same solution. Best to do the work then forget about it and do something else. I don’t ever want to stop evolving creatively. The very thought of that scares the hell out of me.

ihaveanidea: The Truth campaign. Were you passionate about that cause? And does that passion make it easier or harder to create great work?

Ari: Truth was never anti-smoker, just anti an industry that creates a deadly addictive product. There’s obviously a big difference. Still I remember getting to a point where I just knew too much to be affective creatively. When I was a creative director on the account, I got to a point where my ideas just stopped being fun. I just couldn’t lighten up about the whole thing. For instance, I had an idea to get tobacco executives to quit their jobs, on-air. We ran a full page ad in the New York Times on take your daughter to work day that was basically to recruit tobacco employees. The headline said, “On take your daughter to work day, would you?” And then I was the guy answering the phone calls. That wasn’t healthy. So I guess it can be hard to work on stuff when you’re emotionally involved in the issue. My hats off to the Crispin/Arnold team for all the great work they do.

ihaveanidea: You returned to New York in 2003, had a brief stint at Cliff Freeman, went on to do phenomenal things at Fallon before leaving the big creative shops to start Toy. We’ve already covered what makes Toy so great in our agency profile of you guys, but what do you miss most about the Fallons, the Cliff Freemans, the Crispins?

Ari: I miss the people of course, but I don’t think that’s what you mean, right?…I’m sorry. I know you’re probably looking for a juicy answer here, but honestly, nothing. I miss nothing else. I feel like everything has been leading me here to Toy. In some ways I’ve always felt like a fish out of water at every agency I’ve ever been a part of. That was usually my fault, but now I have a chance to build exactly the agency I’ve always wanted to work at. And it’s a weird, smart, humbling, beautiful, nurturing, game changing kind of place. I don’t expect anyone to understand that yet, but in the coming years, you’ll start seeing more of what we do. I hope you’ll see what I see. It’s all very personal. I know my partners, Anne and David, feel the same way.

“In some ways I’ve always felt like a fish out of water at every agency I’ve ever been a part of. That was usually my fault, but now I have a chance to build exactly the agency I’ve always wanted to work at.”

ihaveanidea: You’ve been a perennial favorite on Top 10 CDs in the world lists. What does it take to not only be a great CD, but a world class CD? What’s the difference? Is it simply a matter of adding up the trophies a shop has won, or is there something else?

Ari: (laughs) Is this a question or a compliment? When I started out in the business, I was a cocky little guy looking for validation everywhere. I didn’t appreciate the fact that making great work requires great clients and a great team. I was lucky enough to be at good shops and unfortunately took all that for granted. As a CD, I realize I’m just one piece of that. It’s funny but maybe you become world class when you realize how many other people you have to thank for your success.

ihaveanidea: You have a strong commitment to both your family and your faith. How do you balance this with your duties as a creative director, and is it easier or harder now that you’re running your own agency?

Ari: The honest answer is badly. I’ve never been all that good at balancing such things. Luckily, I have understanding business partners and an amazing wife who makes it possible for me to do what I need to do every day. She is my balance.

ihaveanidea: What haven’t you done? Have you achieved everything you want to achieve, and if not, what’s next? Early retirement to the tropics? The great American novel/screenplay? Celebrating Toy’s 25th anniversary with you still at the helm?

Ari: Are you kidding me?! Seriously, I can’t believe that’s even a question. I’ve got four children to raise, an agency to build, places to go, things to see. You make it sound like I’m 70!

ihaveanidea: Okay, okay non-oldtimer, here’s a question that’s more up your alley. We’ve heard you wanted to be a comic book writer before the advertising bug bit you. So the eternal question is: who’s cooler, Spider-Man or Batman?

Ari: Both smart. Both date supermodels. But Batman has that whole Dark Knight thing, so it’s kinda no contest.

ihaveanidea: Meh, I was always more of a Spider-Man guy. If I were a trillionaire like Bruce Wayne, I’d have better things to do than spend my evenings in tights.

Ari: Ah, I see your point.

ihaveanidea: Based on your experiences so far, what’s the best piece of advice you could give to someone wanting to break into this crazy business?

Ari: I used to say determination was the key. Not giving up, being relentless about developing the best book you can. Not settling, etc, etc…I think that’s still true, but I realize that most jr. people already have that. Determination is price of entry. Even if you do get a job, your lack of determination will always catch up with you. So yeah, let’s assume you’ve already got the will. Let’s assume your ideas feel smart and that they’re executed in a fresh way. Let’s assume you’re not an asshole and that you understand the value of being a team player. Now what? Well, here’s the part too many creatives tend to forget. The minute you join an agency your student work begins to become irrelevant. The minute you create your first real campaign, that starts becoming irrelevant too. The minute you win your first award. The minute you get your first promotion. The minute you become a creative director or decide to start your own agency. Irrelevant, irrelevant, irrelevant. You got into this business to be creative and make things that are genuinely new. Never, ever lose that creative spirit that inspired you to get into the business. Never stop loving the process of making ideas. Keep saying to yourself, it’s not what I’ve done, it’s what I’ll go on to do. Your best work should always be ahead of you.

By the way, I’m still thinking about the Batman/Spider-Man thing. Is it too late to change my answer?

Interview by:

Brett McKenzie

Chief Writer


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