Down but Not Out, Gerry Graf Still Believes ‘Creativity Sells a Ton of Shit’

As his agency, Barton F. Graf, winds down, he still stands behind bold ideas and saying no to clients

Gerry Graf wears a shirt, tie and coat and sits in a chair, holding a gift wrapped in yellow with a brown bow.
Gerry Graf's agency, Barton F. Graf, earned a reputation for creative-driven work on clients like Little Caesars and Supercell (maker of Clash of Clans). Barton F. Graf
Headshot of Patrick Coffee

When news broke earlier this week that independent, famously “crazy” creative agency Barton F. Graf would shut its doors at the end of the year, many ad industry veterans shared their thoughts on the implications behind the slow closure of a shop known for making legitimately unusual work for a wide variety of clients while also poking a good bit of fun at advertising itself.

To learn more, Adweek sat down with the man at the center of it all: founder Gerry Graf. While in understandably low spirits about his agency’s closure, he remains unapologetic when it comes to pushing the boundaries of creative marketing and fighting against mediocrity.

However, in the nine years of running his own shop, the advertising veteran also learned the hard way about the countless, unexpected responsibilities that fall on the shoulders of an agency founder. (Hint: they include keeping your office bathrooms up to code.)

Below you can read the interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Adweek: How have things been since you confirmed that your agency would close after nine years?
Gerry Graf: I have a 13-year-old son, and last year in school they asked him what he wanted to do. He said he wanted to take over his dad’s advertising agency. So it goes deeper than just losing a business.

I can start my own pity party and say ‘Woe is me,’ but stepping back and looking at the last nine years has been really helpful. The greatest thing that’s happened in the last couple of days is lots of people who used to work here calling me up and saying how much they loved working here, how much they learned and how they became better at what they did.

"I'd like to think we were proof to everybody in the industry that creativity sells a ton of shit, and I think we did prove that."

And what’s your key takeaway?
You know, I saw some stories like, “Is this the demise of the independent agency?” … clients going to project work and stuff like that. But we had internal problems as well. And if you’re going to have a place where you’re honestly trying to do something new every single time … everybody has to be on board at the company. That started to fall apart about a year and a half ago.

Another thing is that I’m the only investor in this company. We’re completely independent and small, so we took the hits harder than most. I don’t have a big cash-cow account where I can play around with hours.

You take a step back when your businesses isn’t doing well and say, “Do you make an inferior product?” No. We’re known as the creative agency, but our clients have sold tons and tons of shit. In fact, last year Little Caesar’s was the No. 1 selling pizza. We had three clients IPO for over a billion dollars. We had two clients purchased for over a billion, and I completely believe we helped them get to that point.

What led you to do your own thing in the first place? Was it about having more control?
It was never about full control. I always say I got my advertising MBA from Goodby Silverstein & Partners because I spent almost four years there, and all the smart things I learned, I learned there, including the belief that creativity sells and the ability to fight for work while not looking like an asshole. Then, after three stints [at BBDO, TBWA and Saatchi & Saatchi] I’m like, I’ve done a good job making teams, not just making work. Why don’t I put a team together and try to do it on my own? Mark Waites from Mother said, “You should start a place.” I met David Droga at an awards show, we had lunch, and he said, “Why don’t you start a place?”

But I was scared because I didn’t have a client, and I didn’t have any partners yet. Then I flew out to San Francisco and thought I would stop by GS&P. So I’m walking up the hill [to the office] and Jeff Goodby is walking down, and he goes, “You know, I’ve been thinking about you, and you should start your own agency.” That was the final kick in the ass.

Plus, my wife, who is just fantastic, bought Quicken Books and did what we needed for expenses. She said, listen, you’ve been talking about this for a long time. If you don’t do it in five years, I’m never going to hear the end of it, so start your own damn agency.

"Do we stay devoted to always pushing creativity, or do we relax some standards and bring in the bigger clients?"

@PatrickCoffee Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.
Publish date: August 9, 2019 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT