Gerry Graf

The US ad man shares his top tips for a successful career in the advertising industry

For the second profile in our series on leading ad creatives who have recently launched their own agencies, we talk to US adman Gerry Graf. Graf launched Barton F Graf 9000 (more on that name later) in 2010, and before that carved out an awards-laden career at agencies including Saatchi & Saatchi, BBDO New York, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners and TBWAChiatDay New York. We’ve picked our favourite top ten Graf tips, so here’s how to make it in advertising, Graf-style:

1. Find what makes you happy

Advertising wasn’t Gerry Graf’s first career. Surprisingly he started out as a stockbroker. “I had my broker’s licence and then I didn’t really like it very much,” he recalls. “I was coming out to work and was like ‘I don’t like doing this, and I’m too young to hate my job already’. While at college, Graf wrote for a comedy revue and loved it. So he moved to LA and tried to write pilots for TV shows. When that didn’t work, a friend suggested advertising. After doing a night class in copywriting, and hawking his portfolio for a year in LA with no success, he landed a junior copywriting job in New York at Saatchi & Saatchi, and his career in advertising began.

2. Keep moving to climb the ladder

After a stint at Saatchi & Saatchi, Graf went to Wells Rich Greene and then BBDO. He learnt his trade on the job. “After three years being paid to do advertising, when I got to BBDO I finally knew what I was doing,” he says. Then he went west to Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco, a period he describes as his “MBA in advertising”. “I just learned so much on how to be a creative person, how to manage people.” When he returned to BBDO a few years later, he had made it to the top of the creative tree. “I had left BBDO as a senior copywriter and four years later I was coming back as one of their ECDs.”

3. Learn to be a good creative director

Graf cites his time at Goodby and then BBDO as when he learnt how to be a creative director. “It took me a little while,” he says. “When you go from being a creative to a creative director, you feel the need to have to look and write or create on everything. You can’t just sit back and let an art director and a creative team work on their own, and give them time to get it, you always feel the need to just jump in and start rewriting everything. And you lose your mind, because there’s too much work for one person to do. So I lost my mind and recovered.”

4. Hire people better than you

Key to Graf’s success as a creative director was the realisation that he needed to “hire people who are more talented than I am”. TBWAChiatDay had a hugely successful young guns programme that was set up by John Hunt and Lee Clow. Through this, Graf saw a raft of top talent join the agency straight from college. “From that I learned just get as much young, hungry talent as you can, get them in there,” he says. Graf hired Scott Vitrone and Ian Reichenthal at TBWA, and the duo has recently rejoined him at Barton F Graf 9000, as ECDs and partners at the agency.

5. Use humour

Graf’s back catalogue of ads is very funny indeed. Whether the work be for Skittles, Ragú, Kayak, Fruit by the Foot, or E-Trade, Graf’s work proves that humour is an extremely effective advertising tool, whatever the brand. He recently even managed to use humour to address the issue of climate change, when Barton K Graf 9000 created a film to promote activist group 350 Action that saw hurricanes named after politicians who didn’t believe in global warming. The underlying message is of course very serious, but the delivery was hilarious. Graf extended his sense of humour to the naming of his own company. The agency is named after his father, Barton F Graf, but the rest of the moniker has a less expected heritage. “I realised that my dad had the initials BFG and back in the mid-90s I played this video game Doom, and the BFG 9000 was the best gun you could get so I just tacked on the 9000 and that’s where the name comes from,” he explains. A portrait of his father holding the gun adorns the firm’s website.

6. Timing is important

Graf planned to start his own agency in 2007 with a partner, but then the global financial meltdown took place. He moved from TBWAChiatDay to be CCO back at Saatchi & Saatchi and stayed for two years before launching Barton F Graf 9000 in 2010. “What I had noticed at Saatchi is that both P&G and General Mills, big conservative corporate clients, were starting to give out projects to what they considered creative boutiques,” he says. “It really looked to me that creativity was at a premium and I could start an agency that was just known for fantastic ideas. Whether they ran online or on TV or wherever, just getting known for fantastic ideas is a good business plan. That was the idea.”

7. It’s useful to remain humble

After years of being a creative boss at big agencies, when launching his own company, Graf suddenly found that he had to work hard to get clients’ attention. “I quit being a stockbroker because I’d get so embarrassed doing cold calls … and now I’m back full circle again making cold calls to clients who used to have to listen to me,” he says. “I had a reputation, being a good creative person and like I said, people had to listen to you. Then I was in the complete opposite end, begging for scraps, and it’s hard, it’s hard to get an ego crushed. But it’s good – that’s how you make the jump to the next place you want to go.”

8. Stick to your guns

Getting known for making fantastic ideas for brands sounds easy in theory, but involves tough decisions in practice. “The one thing we’ve done is we’ve really tried to stick to our guns,” says Graf. “If a client pushes us into a place that we really don’t think is the right place, we’ll argue or lose that client. It’s hard … and sometimes you make compromises and you hope it doesn’t destroy your whole reputation and the people who work here. But it’s been worth it because on the other side, the phone keeps ringing and clients are calling us up saying, ‘we want great creative, and we were told to call you’. So the business plan side of it is working.”

9. Keep nimble

When talking to his creative department about the kind of work he thinks they should make at Barton F Graf 9000, Graf uses the analogy of the Beatles and their constantly changing style. “Once you get good at something,” he says, “it’s time to move on. We’ve definitely tried to do that.” Barton F Graf 9000 initially concentrated on TV, as it was familiar territory, and after picking up some awards for that, Graf made some specific digital hires to build the business, which have again proved successful. “We’ve done some wonderful social campaigns and done a lot of great digital work and are trying to evolve there,” he says. “And once we’ve mastered that, we’ll move onto the next thing.”

10. Know your enemies

In three short years, Barton F Graf 9000 has carved a successful niche in the New York ad scene. While Graf has plans to expand, potentially to Europe, he doesn’t see the company becoming huge. The agency has been welcomed by the other boutiques in town. “Droga’s like the grandaddy of the new creative independents,” he says, “then you have Mother, Johannes Leonardo, who are doing great work. We’ve been in pitches with all these guys. We’re the newcomer but everyone’s been very welcoming. We’re all supporting each other, all trying to take down the huge companies up in Midtown. I guess once we take them down, we’ll take each other down…. You always need an enemy.”

More from CR

Plymouth College of Art gets physical

YCN Studio has launched a campaign promoting Plymouth College of Art’s creative facilities and the importance of hands-on learning in arts education.

Spheric Dialogues by James Jarvis

While his spherical characters are perhaps the most simple to execute on paper, James Jarvis’ first book of their philosophising tackles some of the more complex questions in life

Print and Paste and Anthony Burrill

Anthony Burrill is the latest artist to contribute to Manchester’s Print and Paste billboard project with a poster made up of individually printed giant woodblock letters

Graphic Designer

Fushi Wellbeing

Creative Designer

Monddi Design Agency