On August 3, 1981, a full-page ad ran in the Minneapolis Star and the Minneapolis Tribune. The headline, set in a clean, slim font, proclaimed, “A NEW ADVERTISING AGENCY FOR COMPANIES THAT WOULD RATHER OUTSMART THE COMPETITION THAN OUTSPEND THEM.” Four nerdy-looking guys stood with a woman in a conservative black dress. They didn’t look like Mad Men. They didn’t even look like they belonged in Don Draper’s industry. Engineers, maybe. Or, if the one on the end wasn’t wearing Gordon Gekko suspenders, you might’ve guessed they were opening a credit union in Anoka.
While it’s easy to poke fun at their look, everything that foreshadowed the Fallon McElligott Rice to come was there: a muscular, no-flab headline with a provocative message and body copy pitching scientific thinking and a condemnation of the prevailing strategies of their industry: “We believe that imagination is one of the last remaining legal means you have to gain an unfair advantage over your competition.”
It was Lutheran punk rock, Fallon’s 95 theses nailed onto the front door of the business section. A group of visionaries advocating a rejection of the tiresome “ring around the collar” ’70s and a return to the witty, laconic Doyle Dane Bernbach ’60s.
Their ambition was global in scope but local in flavor. A cold call for national advertising work that ran only in the Minneapolis papers, Fallon’s manifesto was a dog whistle intended only for a certain strain of Minnesotan. A subliminal message corroborating a smug suspicion: We are smarter than everyone else here.
“We had a messianic kind of zeal about us,” Pat Fallon says. “We announced ourselves as a national agency, day one, without a client.”
The approach worked. Ad Age named it Agency of the Year in 1983, and Fallon won accounts such as The Wall Street Journal, US WEST, and Rolling Stone. When its first creative director quit, it got sharper. When the next was forced out, it got bigger. The agency caught trophy clients and, if that client’s ambition for award-winning work wavered, it released them. And it failed, floundering through a decade it’s just now putting behind it. They sold the agency only to buy it back later and then sell it again. And it was all topped off by enough glitz, booze, and good times to belie that original ad.
Today, many of the originals have moved on and up. Fallon’s name is still on the door, though his agency was sold years ago to a French advertising conglomerate. As chairman, Pat Fallon still comes in every day, just a little later. We talked to him and 30 other Fallonites about who exactly they think they are and how they got here.
Pat Fallon, the head of media research at Martin/Williams, and Tom McElligott and Ron Anderson, the lead copywriter/creative director team at Bozell, had a freelance company called Lunch Time Ltd. In 1981, Fallon and McElligott decided to break away to start their own agency full-time. They were joined by art director Nancy Rice, account man Fred Senn, and CFO Irv Fish.
Pat Fallon (founding partner): [Tom McElligott] was a brash young copywriter whose work I admired, and I was a brash young account guy. He could sense that I had a relentlessness about me, and I could sense the same thing in him.
Nancy Rice (founding partner): I was one of the art directors Tom liked to work with when Ron would go on cruises with his wife. One day, Tom blurted out his plans. I was surprised he would ask me. I was not the first choice for a partner for that team. It was Ron.
Fred Senn (founding partner): Pat called and said, “We’re going to start an agency.” I said I had two kids and a mortgage and that I wanted time to think about it. We were all in our early 30s. I still wrote Pat a letter and said, “I’m not going to join you, it’s not the right time in my life, but I wish you the very best of luck.”
Nancy Rice: Fred was actually my idea. Fred had been a client of Tom’s and mine. I just thought he was a very smart man, very ethical, fun, funny.
Pat Fallon: Fred didn’t want to do it. We asked him and he said, “You know, no.” And he went home and told his wife, Heidi. And she said, “Are you crazy?” And so he called and said, “You know, let’s talk some more.”
Fred Senn: The address was 9th and Marquette. We were upstairs from Peter’s Grill, so we knew what the soup of the day was going to be at 8 am.
Pat Burnham (art director/associate creative director, 1981–1988; creative director, 1989–1993): Irv Fish’s wife answered the phones. We each had to take a turn [doing chores], and I remember walking to Irv Fish’s office one time to get the garbage and he said, “Oh, thank heavens you’re here.” He had a basket overflowing. I guess I was late!
Nancy Rice: The work that we initially had to get out into the public had to be work that lived up to that ambition, you know? We wanted the best people we could find, and we didn’t necessarily have the money for it.
Dean Hanson (art director, 1981–2010): People like McElligott and Ron Anderson kind of rediscovered that ’60s edge. They were like, let’s be provocative, let’s not be so safe. The bible of Fallon was old award books from the ’60s.
Irv Fish (founding partner): We had a belief that if we emptied our pockets in the middle of the table, [we could] build a better widget. There was passion. There was will. We were all C-students.
Pat Fallon: I graduated in the low 10 percent of my high school class. I was just a fuckup. We were angry ’cause, you know, most people, all of our lives, had bet against us. Even Irv, who had the most refined upbringing—he went to The Greenwich Country Day School, came from a family that had some money, and his dad went to Williams. Irv wanted to go to Williams. That was his whole dream. He didn’t get into Williams. He went to Hamline.
In 1981, Pat Fallon was an ambitious 35-year-old son of a war hero who wore his father’s atonement issues on his sleeve. But his obsessions with boxing, shooting guns, and weightlifting gave way to his sentimental side when he encountered an opportunity to enlist you to the agency’s cause.
Joe Duffy (director of Duffy & Partners, Fallon’s design firm, 1984–2003): Pat’s a fabulous writer. Great natural writer. Everything he writes is well written. I don’t care if it’s an e-mail or unbelievable eulogy.
Bill Westbrook (creative director, 1993–1998): [Pat] reads a lot of Irish literature. He has a little Hemingway in him. A man of letters who was a boxer. Pat was on the boxing commission. He’s strong as shit. I don’t know what he can press, but he’s very strong.
Pat Fallon: I grew up on 15th and 2nd Avenue. I knew every corner of this city when I was, like, 6 or 7. I watched boxing on Friday nights with my dad. By the time I got to high school, you know, I’d read more than most of my teachers. I mean, I read classics—I remember reading, like, W. Somerset Maugham when I was, like, 10. I was like, “What is that about?” Philip Carey, I don’t know why.
Joe Duffy: I met Pat in college. I was going to the Minneapolis School of Art and he was going to the University of Minnesota. We lived at 2816 West River Road in this little house with five guys. Most of us artists, painters, photographers. Pat was very outgoing, very charismatic, really, and very smart. We were all partiers.
Fallon McElligott Rice’s first national client was an insurance agency, ITT Life, run by Bob MacDonald. For a young agency trying to do disruptive work, MacDonald was a dream client.
Bob MacDonald: When I took over at ITT Life, it was this small company selling these backwater policies and stuff. The industry was ripe for change, and no one wanted to change it. So I looked at this and said, “These products are wrong; we have to compete against them and make Prudential look like shit.” What’s so revolutionary about competing against your competition? Every single agency turned us down. And then one day I remember sitting down, reading the Minneapolis Tribune. There was a full-page ad in the business section with a picture of Pat Fallon and Nancy Rice and Tom McElligott and a couple other people and copy below. I can picture it now. And I read that piece and I set up a meeting. By the end of [it] I knew we were going to do business with them. These guys were young, hungry, aggressive, creative, and they were just looking for a chance. And it was serendipity. We were tied together.
Pat Fallon: Not everybody likes this guy. And, in fact, the people in this industry don’t like him. So there was a fit there.
Bob MacDonald: Pat put on this 45-minute presentation. McElligott wasn’t there because he wouldn’t wear a tie. [When Pat’s done] I used this old Mae West line, “Is that a banana in your pocket or are you just glad to be here?” Because he was so excited. The next day I get this crate of bananas sent to my office. Literally, a huge shipping crate, six feet wide, three feet long. Then every year on the anniversary of that meeting they would do something with the whole company. Banana splits for the whole company. One year they brought a 1946 Chevy pickup truck, which they painted banana yellow, filled the back of the truck with bananas, and then we had a contest—whoever could eat the most bananas in 15 minutes got the truck.
Founding creative director Tom McElligott was the son of an Episcopalian priest and an enigmatic creative genius. He was soft-spoken but conscious of prestige and hungry for big national work that would showcase his ideas and taste.
Pat Fallon: I think [Tom McElligott] was the best print copywriter of his generation. His headlines were amazing, and what I didn’t know before I met him was how easily they came.
Fred Senn: He would have a discussion with a client about their business situation, and he would be writing something on an envelope. And Pat would say, “Don’t show ’em that yet! We have to bill them something.”
Pat Burnham: We didn't work together at Bozell, but we knew each other. And [at my interview] we were sitting outside the fountain by Peavy Plaza or something. The water's running; he's asking me to come over and be the first hire. He said, "We're gonna buy all the foam-core up in all the city, and we're gonna pitch new business clients."
In 1981 Fallon added the Episcopal Church to its client roster. The result was a pop culturally pious series of ads that are still regarded as some of the firm's most important work.
Bob Blewett (type director, 1982–2011): McElligott got [U.S. Senator Rudy] Boschwitz elected. He wrote an ad saying, “First [governor-turned-U.S. Senator Wendell Anderson] appointed himself to the job, and then he didn’t show up for work.”
Pat Burnham: There was a culture clash [inside of Tom].
Pat Fallon: His father was an alcoholic Episcopalian priest.
Pat Burnham: He’d been in the Marine Corps the first time he heard the word “mother[fucker]” He just sat there. “It was so descriptive,” he said.
Julie Ruddy (executive assistant, 1988; creative coordinator, 1989–1996; print producer, 1996–1997; director of print production, 1997–2001): Even if [receptionist] Carrie [Donovan] and I would try to engage him in conversation, he just wasn’t that kind of guy. All the people that passed through here probably knew the security guards better than Tom.
Dean Hanson: You would take stuff in and show him, and he had this trademark thing where he would rub the back of his neck and say, “Jeez, you know, I don’t think that’s going to win any awards.”
Bob Barrie (art director, 1983–2006): He also was a strong believer in simplicity. Fallon ads are always very pure and simple, and they draw your attention to themselves because they jump out in magazines.
Joe Duffy: Tom has all the work for the entire year in this empty floor beneath the agency, and he’s going through all of it. And I said, “Tom, this work is amazing, how could you possibly choose [what to submit for awards]?” And he said, “I’m not choosing; it’s all going in.” That spoke volumes. Because every other agency had their good stuff and their stuff that got them money.
In 1983, Ad Age shocked the advertising world and named still-fledgling Fallon Agency of the Year.
Irv Fish: Fallon was independent, not brash. We didn’t realize how well we were doing. We would sneak up on people. The Agency of the Year in 1983 stunned us. Absolutely. We couldn’t have imagined it. We had won The Wall Street Journal and won US WEST and one or two other national accounts, but we had just gotten on our first airplane 18 months ago to go pitch. Agency of the Year? We were still thinking, “How do we become a regional agency?”
Bob Barrie: I remember everyone in the agency got a gold Tiffany watch engraved with “Fallon McElligott Rice, Agency of the Year 1983.” I’ve still got it in a drawer somewhere.
Dean Hanson: The thing about Minneapolis was that everybody was fighting for the same piece of cheese. Everybody wanted a piece of 3M, of General Mills. That’s when McElligott and Pat said, “Why don’t we take on Chicago? Chicago has giant clients and sleepy advertising that everybody has seen a million times.”
Pat Fallon: I remember having lunch with this local guy [after missing out on a big national account]. He asked, “Why aren’t you satisfied, like the rest of us, with being a great local agency? You’re not gonna be a national agency.” And I’m thinking to myself, “Boy.” I didn’t even know what to say. That’s the center part of our dream. That’s the fundamental difference between us and you. I was polite and stuff. But that conversation was haunting to me. It rattled in my head, and I, in some strange way, found it very affirming. I knew that every time out, we could beat people like that.
Pat Burnham: At a local show one time, [copywriter] Bill Miller and I actually used a two-wheel dolly to get our awards to the car.
Charles Anderson (designer, 1985–1990): A week after I got there, they had a party because they resigned an account. It was Armour Foods. It was like a multimillion-dollar account. It was huge. Most companies would’ve freaked out or done anything to keep it, but this client didn’t really want great advertising, so the money kinda didn’t matter. So they cut it off. They had this giant banner [that] said, “ARMOUR: THE AIRLINE FOOD FOR PEOPLE GOING NOWHERE.”
Julie Ruddy: It was just absolutely not like any job I’d ever recognized. I remember being so blown away that everybody swore like crazy. There was always a party going on. They would just, like, roll in the lobby with dollies full of booze.
Some of Fallon's most iconic work was created for Rolling Stone magazine, a client from 1985-1999.
Pat Burnham: There was an irreverence. I had a mannequin that I’d stick in the window with a balloon that said “Help!” facing out, 30 floors up.
Julie Ruddy: The Christmas party was legendary. They flew The Manhattan Transfer in for the five-year anniversary party at Rupert’s. The ones that we had at the Minikahda Club felt like going to the Academy Awards.
Charles Anderson: I was so intimidated by these guys. They’d stop by and say, “Hey, wanna go grab a drink?” I’d say, “I’m working on this and I don’t really drink.” And Bob Barrie would say, “That doesn’t make you cool; that makes you boring.”
Robert Senior (founding partner, Fallon London, 1998–present): Fred Senn is a very straight guy, does a lot of charity work, the loveliest guy you’ll ever meet. Pat and Fred used to go do the catching and cleaning, so they’d be on planes all the time. The other thing about Fred is he’s a narcoleptic. So Pat would get fed up very quickly with his traveling companion [falling] fast asleep. So he used to take really filthy magazines, and he’d open them up to the center[fold] and just leave it in Fred’s lap.
Dean Hanson: That was the formula: have these guys that are really reassuring, steady, logical, responsible, take-your-call-in-the-middle-of-the-night guys that would play off of the creative aspect. They could reassure you, like, “That sounds really messed up what they’re proposing, but it’s gonna drop a bomb in your market. Trust us. And if it doesn’t work, I’ll be here tomorrow.”
After a successful four-year run at Fallon, founding partner Nancy Rice abruptly left to start Rice & Rice, an agency with her husband. At around the same time, Fallon McElligott sold off majority position to New York–based Scali, McCabe, Sloves for $6 million.
Dean Hanson: Nancy was very much a strong cultural part of the early ’80s scene. Fallon had no resources, so Nancy was literally making decisions on how to make really good ads herself. She was very much a personnel person who helped make everyone feel welcome and important. If something good happened in your life, Nancy was always there. Here’s a bottle of champagne. Here’s money for your honeymoon. She was a very human face to the agency.
Bob Blewett: She was very sweet if you worked really hard for her. But if a photographer gave her a tough time she could be one of the boys. She could just tear your throat out.
Nancy Rice: I mean, [the fact that I’m a woman] has been a topic of discussion for many years. I’m often called on to say, “Wasn’t it tough?” Well, yeah. But I don’t do the female thing.
Bob Blewett: I remember early on, I was working on something. I had it done on a Saturday morning, and I ran it over to her house. She said, “It’s gotta be tighter.” And I kinda winced and said, “Really?” And she just said, “Sharpen your knife.”
Nancy Rice: I haven’t ever talked about reasons for leaving, and I’m a gentleman, so I don’t.
In 1987, Dr. Neala Schleuning, a teacher at Mankato State University, attended a PR seminar in Minneapolis. A presentation given by Duffy & Partners partner Charles Anderson included an ad for Dynasty that featured the three female lead actresses and the headline “Bitch. Bitch. Bitch.” When Schleuning sent Anderson an outraged letter criticizing his presentation, she received a return letter, complete with a photo of a Dinka tribesman in Africa kissing a cow’s rear end. That letter was signed by Duffy & Partners’ Charles S. Anderson, but its authorship is widely attributed to Tom McElligott.
Neala Schleuning: In 1987 I was working for Mankato State University, and at that time I was the director of the women’s center. Feminist consciousness was a real frontal lobe thing for me. I just wrote a letter to the agency saying I really wasn’t happy with that ad, wasn’t comfortable with it. And that elicited this whole response.
Charles Anderson: I did get some help, I’ll tell you that. I wish I was that good of a writer.
Pat Fallon: Do you think I wrote that letter?
Charles Anderson: It was just batted around between Tom and Pat.
Neala Schleuning: I got the response and I felt really crappy. It was a crappy thing to do to anybody. [Then] they sent me a pith helmet and wished me well on my trip to Africa. I still have it. It’s a nice pith helmet! It’s a beauty!
Charles Anderson: I can’t remember if I sent [the response] and shouldn’t have or somebody else sent it. But when it hit the fan, that’s not that blurry at all.
Neala Schleuning: I started contacting women friends of mine. I went first to the women’s consortium and they had contacts. US WEST had a big active women’s union. Telephone operators. And then with that it went all over the women’s movement. US WEST pulled their account. And at that time, these guys were off on Christmas break. So nobody was at Fallon McElligott to respond.
Charles Anderson: It was a whirlwind. I was getting death threats written in blood. I’m like, “I’m just working here. I didn’t design the ad.”
Bruce Bildsten (Duffy & Partners, 1984–1985; copywriter, 1985–2005; executive creative director, 1998–2005, 2010–2013): Pat’s a joker. I’m not sure that either of them knew how serious that would become. I don’t think they realized they had crossed a line with that. Neither of them were ever mean. They thought it was a funny picture.
The Star Tribune and The New York Times were among the media to cover what became known as the “Dinka incident.” In response to the controversy, US WEST pulled its account. The Wall Street Journal and FedEx eventually followed, for losses of more than $10 million in billings.
Bob Blewett: I think [McElligott] was embarrassed. I think he internalized that. One thing that Pat Fallon did was he stepped up and ate the whole crap sandwich.
Dean Hanson: It was a powerful lesson in public relations. You can’t do locker-room jokes when you own a company that has big clients.
In the wake of the controversy, founding partner Tom McElligott unraveled: He became less and less present at the agency and was a no-show at meetings and presentations. Eventually he resigned. Within three years, he left advertising altogether. He hasn’t given an interview in decades and his phone number is unlisted. Numerous attempts to reach McElligott through a variety of sources for this story were unsuccessful. He still owns a house in Golden Valley, but save Nancy Rice, with whom he taught advertising seminars at MCAD, few of his former colleagues have seen or heard from him in years.
Pat Burnham: My memory of it is that [McElligott] was like in a cartoon when somebody is inside a bell and it rings.
Bob Blewett: He always reminded me of Salinger. And he went the recluse way.
Irv Fish: Great creatives wake up virtually every day saying to themselves, “What can I do today that is better than yesterday?” I don’t know how they do it.
Pat Fallon: Tom had some demons that he was dealing with, and when he dealt with them—or when he attempted to deal with them—he felt that he needed to solve whatever those demons were, and that this pace, this pressure, our client roster, a whole lot of things were just making it impossible for him to be happy.
Bob Barrie: I haven’t seen him since he left.
Pat Burnham: I almost saw him. I got close. I taught a class at MCAD one year. Tom had been teaching a class on radio then, but that particular semester or quarter or whatever they were on, he wasn’t doing it.
Pat Fallon: I think he was worried that he was chemically dependent. Booze. He was too straight for drugs. He looked like a fucking product manager. He looked like he worked at General Mills or Cheerios.
Associate creative director Pat Burnham stepped into the massive shoes of Tom McElligott. The creative staff rallied behind him and continued to push wry, stylish campaigns for Porsche and Hush Puppies, as well as introducing an iconic campaign for Time magazine.
Pat Burnham: Even though Tom is taller than me, better looking than me, smarter than me, and he’s a writer and I’m an art director—damn it, when it came to [the work], I never saw us miss.
Bob Blewett: Burnham was the greatest creative director. Beloved by everybody. Not even a question. McElligott had kinda disappeared into the ether. Which was kind of sad. But Burnham was unbelievable.
Bob Barrie: Some of the best work done through the years at Fallon was done during [Burnham’s] tenure.
The agency landed Porsche Cars North America (a client until 1993) at the height of its '80s heyday in 1987.
Bruce Bildsten: Burnham was a funny guy. He would dress in button-down shirts with monograms on his sleeve: BFD—big fucking deal.
Joe Duffy: I can understand why [Burnham] was chosen, because he was one of Tom’s right-hand guys. A very good creative person and very good writer, but he wasn’t as good on the business side.
Pat Burnham: I’ve been retired for so long that I look back on it and go, “Wow.” Actually, I enjoyed it. One time when I was creative director, I was on my way home and a song by Bruce Springsteen came on the radio. It was “Glory Days.” And I’m driving this Porsche 911, listening to this music, and I’m thinking, “These are my glory days.” I actually realized it, you know?
In 1993, an era in which Fallon was still owned by Scali, Bill Westbrook was recruited from Scali-owned The Martin Agency in Richmond, Virginia, to replace Pat Burnham.
Bob Barrie: I got a sense that Pat [Fallon] wanted to play on a bigger stage, and for that, he decided he needed a guy like Bill Westbrook.
Bruce Bildsten: Burnham was more of a purist. Westbrook was Burnham’s complete opposite. At a certain point, when you’re pitching business, you need to maybe do something you don’t want to do. You have to think about what’s gonna sell.
Dean Hanson: The guy can present like Don Draper. He’s not writing stuff, he’s not creating stuff, but he’s a hell of a presenter.
Pat Fallon: Westbrook looks like what you think the photographer in The Bridges of Madison County would look like. Chick magnet. Sailor. Comes in and takes over the room.
Fred Senn: For the most part, we had been a charisma-free agency, with the exception of Pat [Fallon]. Bill brought a double dose of charisma.
Bill Westbrook: Pat works you. He’ll say, “I think it would be great if you just came out. I’m going to go up to the cabin; come out and go to the cabin with me.” And I’ll say, “OK, but I don’t want to go to the agency.” In my mind I’m not being recruited. “I enjoyed meeting you during the Mercedes pitch, and I’ll come out and see you.” He said, “Great.” So I get into town and he says, “Let’s run by the agency; I need to get something.” So I’ll say, “I don’t want to meet anybody.” I know these guys, I know the creative people, judging shows with ’em. So it’s lunchtime, and he says, “Lemme just show you around.” So the next thing you know we’re walking around at lunchtime and I had an experience when 70 percent of the people were gone that I never expected: I could feel, literally, the IQ of that agency. It was like gamma rays. It was another six to eight months, and finally he broke my will when he sent me a snowblower in Virginia. I didn’t think I was as talented as McElligott or as smart as Pat. Why [did] I want this job? Oh, I got a snowblower.
The partnership group of Fallon, Senn, Fish, and Westbrook took out a loan for $14 million in order to buy the agency back from Scali. They went on to have their most successful decade ever.
Bill Westbrook: We had a chance to start pitching big business after I came, and we started knocking ’em down. Miller Brewing Company. United Airlines. BMW. All of a sudden it was like, you know, in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, when they’re trying to escape and they’re looking back and they’re seeing this posse in the distance. And they say, “Who are those guys?” That’s kinda like what this was. We would present against the big guys, we’d win, and they’d say, “Who are those guys?” In a year, we turned down [millions of] dollars worth of new business. We tripled the size of the agency in five years.
They also made Fallon a fully integrated advertising and branding agency.
Charles Anderson: Designers are introverts. They’re interested in the craft, the certain type, color form, concept, spacing. Advertising guys, we call them high-fivin’ ad guys. It’s kinda like big idea, high-five, let’s get some beers! Ad guys are way more fun at parties.
Joe Duffy: They said, “Here’s the deal, we have a number of accounts like US WEST that want us to do design as well as advertising. Every time we do design we mess it up.” Because art directors aren’t designers and the way it’s produced is different than the way you produce ads. Their vision, to their credit, is that if you have design and advertising working together, as very few brands do, you have a much more powerful brand.
One of Fallon's many late-1990s wins, the Miller Lite "Dick" campaign, was created by a hotshot Swedish creative team brought on board for their risk-taking work.
Rob White (director of account planning, 1993-2006): The big break with Pat Burnham happened. Westbrook comes in. And Duffy gets subsumed within Fallon at the same time. And Mark Goldstein comes in as head of new business. You lead with design because sometimes [solving] a design problem got us into ideas. And then you have to have killer presentation. And Goldstein was usually the master of ceremonies. [So you] pull the pitch team together and rehearse and rehearse and rehearse. It was like putting on a theater production. Especially with Bill, he was a theater major I’m sure. We were so tight we could finish each other’s sentences. We’d take something that was a little rambly and pare it down to a tight story and everyone clicked together and it’s all smart. It was Fallon, Goldstein, Westbrook, me, Joe Duffy and usually a couple people who were specific to that account. So five constants. We’d go in and do these presentations and usually blow people away.
In 1990, after a stint at Chiat/Day, Tom McElligott resurfaced in Minneapolis alongside a troika of fellow ex-Chiat execs with a new agency, McElligott Wright Morrison White. But MWMW met an ugly demise shortly thereafter. Back at Fallon, Westbrook was acquiring global talent, including a highly touted Swedish creative duo—think the albino twins in The Matrix 2 but with the superpower to make bizarre commercials like Miller Lite’s “Dick” campaign.
Rob White: [After he left Fallon] Tom McElligott was working as a floater at Chiat Day. He spent a lot of time in Toronto with a guy that I’d worked with in LA, Tony Wright. Tony and Tom McElligott started talking about doing a start up and they wanted to do one with an account planner. Tony recommended me. I’d never met Tom, he didn’t know me, only by reputation. Tony called me, said, “Are you interested?” And I was going “Holy shit, you don’t get a call from Tom McElligott every day. Of course I’m interested.”
Rob White: Vanity Fair actually did a three-page article about the tiny little pimple on the history of advertising, our little agency, because it was a bright flame that started off with a lot of hope and a lot of attention. We won a lot of pitches, and everyone thought, wow this was amazing, but we had the most public, the most horrible break up. We had five partners and we had five lawyers fighting over zip. Nobody trusted anybody else.
Fred Senn: Pat Fallon says, "We have to get Rob White. We can’t let him get out of town." When it comes time to put a full court press on somebody, there’s nobody better than Pat Fallon.
Pat Fallon: Rob has a deep contempt for Tom. At the same time, he brought him to this market and this market now is his home.
Rob White: Tom, I would not describe as a happy guy. He’s very smart, intelligent, he’s a little bit of a, he’s . . . I don’t want to go there.
Bill Westbrook: The key guy was Rob White. I’m president and creative director, and Rob is head of planning. We were tight. Our offices were next to each other. So we worked through all the pitches together. Rob White is like Spock. Bright and tireless.
Robert Senior: Account Planning was born in Britain for a single reason: The British people hate—hate—to be sold to. Account planning is a way to smuggle in a sales pitch. You’ll never hear a British person talking about money. Being sold to in the States, and I mean this in a quite positive way, is seen as a badge of honor. It’s fine. In Britain, it’s sort of class-meets-snobbery-meets-that’s just not done. All kinds of psychological reasons. The reality is, if you set an ad going “buy my product now, it’s better than that one over there, and it’s on a deal. See you there! The British go, “Fuck. Off.”
Fred Senn: Rob is Scottish. All the great account planners are coming out of England at the time. The best way to describe what they do is they are commercial anthropologists. Purina dog food, sales were dropping. And nobody knew why. There’s a large group of people thinking, “my pooch likes variety.” Veterinarians said, “don’t do that, that screws them up! That’s bad for them.” So all Purina had to do was say was, “don’t change your dog food.” That was Rob’s insight. He went to people’s kitchens. Researched. Figured out how they fed their dogs. The brief makes it very clear to the creative team: You don’t have to talk about lamb and carrots in there, all you gotta do is to get people to understand that the right thing to do is to serve one kind of food.
Bill Westbrook: Now I’ve got this pitch coming in for Miller, who wants a revolution in beer advertising. And I have the Swedes coming in, who I know can do the revolution. And I’m holding out for the Swedes. Every day Pat comes by and he says, “Who are you going to have on this pitch?” [But the Swedes] have to get their green cards. I’m waiting for the Swedes.
Paul Malmstrom (Swedish art director, 1996–2003): The idea was each time you see a communication from Miller it should feel like a Miller time. Something really odd or crazy is going to come your way. And we invented this character, Dick, who was supposedly behind the work, who was probably drinking Miller the whole time.
Bill Westbrook: So I’m [at] Philip Morris presenting to old white guys. This is for all this money. I’m looking at the chairman of Miller. “Here’s the deal, I don’t understand a lot of what I’m going to present, and I don’t think you will either, but it’s testing great.” And they laughed and they hired us.
Paul Malmstrom: People loved it because it was different. It wasn’t without controversy. I think it was a generation at Miller who were brewery workers who didn’t exactly know what to do with it because it was so odd. It definitely created waves among consumers and certainly in our industry. In a way it’s a simple concept: It’s self-aware somehow. We know that you know that this is just advertising. In a way we are winking at each other, like “Let’s just play a game here together.”
In the ’80s, Fallon McElligott’s print work was so acclaimed that some corners of the ad world referred to it as “The Minneapolis Style”—a one-two punch of an oversized headline in Franklin Gothic Bold and an arresting image in the middle of the page. Throughout the following decade, Fallon became more adept with film, and at the turn of the millennium it created The Hire, a campaign for BMW with international box office stars such as Clive Owen and Madonna. It redefined the idea of the commercial. A Harvard case study was written about the campaign.
Bruce Bildsten: BMW was essentially handed to us at a secret dinner by our former Porsche client, Jim McDowell.
Bruce Bildsten: We realized that conventional advertising had diminishing returns because BMW customers are very affluent and very savvy. And they were online, even back then. We talked big. We need feature directors to do this. We talked to the best people: John Frankenheimer, Scorsese, and David Fincher. Fincher was the guy who shaped the story, to some degree.
Rob White (director of account planning, 1993–2006): More than just doing cool stuff, it was the first real application of digital content that went beyond the norm of advertising timelines. You do everything in 30- or 60-second [spots]; you spend a lot of money to interrupt people and get your message out. And this was a case where we created something that broke all the time-length rules, but it was so cool it brought people to it. It was pull marketing, not push marketing.
Pat Fallon: It was scary. We don’t make nine-minute films.
Bruce Bildsten: We had written Star for Guy Ritchie and for “someone like Madonna.” We knew that they had just gotten married, and we just waited for him to say, “My wife would be great for this.” The first scene he shot was the car flying through the air at 6 in the morning.
If the McElligott-Burnham era was arguably Fallon’s first golden age, Westbrook was charging toward another. But in 1997, he was looking to transition away from the central creative role. Westbrook found his own replacement in the high-strung, hard-charging David Lubars, a Brooklyn native who had spent time with BBDO and Chiat/Day. Under Lubars, Fallon created splashy work for massive accounts, including United Airlines, Citibank, and BMW.
Fallon's Citibank work in the early 2000s harkened back to the dry '80s wit that made them famous.
Pat Fallon: Some very high-profile people wanted the job. I was concerned that their best work was behind them and not in front of them. And Lubars was so ambitious.
David Lubars (president and chief creative officer, 1998–2004): [Pat] saw the creative leader as the culture leader of the agency. And it’s true. Because the culture is the work. When I first started, Dean Hanson showed me a cut of a film. And I said, “Hey, have you thought about trying X?” And he says, “OK, I’ll have a look at it.” And then we’re in a meeting with a client and it’s just how he had it. So I realize, like, oh, I get it. Later [Dean Hanson] was showing me something else. I go, “What if you did X?” And he goes, “OK, I’ll have a look at it.” And then I just said, very low, “Can I have a look at it, too?” And he paused and he goes, “Yeah.” And he walked away and I thought, “Oh, we just had a fight.”
Joe Duffy: There was a total collaboration with the partners. There was mutual respect and we all worked really well together. I didn’t have that kind of chemistry with Lubars. He wanted to do his thing, so I ended up doing my thing. So I went to Pat and I said, “He doesn’t want to work with me. I can’t work with him.”
David Lubars: You know, I just think it was probably a case of too many cooks at the top.
Pat Fallon: Duffy gave me an ultimatum: “Either Lubars or me.” So Duffy is my best friend in life and I have to say “Lubars.” So then he leaves, and then Lubars leaves!
In 2000, Fallon Worldwide again sold itself to a larger entity, the Publicis Groupe, headquartered in Paris. The agency expanded aggressively—opening offices in Hong Kong, Singapore, São Paulo, and Tokyo—continuing to do lucrative, award-winning work. But in the post-9/11 industry downturn, Lubars left in 2004. The agency struggled to find another creative fit, rotating though four creative directors in six years. In 2013, Fallon lost Cadillac just when the agency was feeling its mojo again. For the first time, Fallon doubted its culture.
Bruce Bildsten: I was always number two, so when Bill [Westbrook] came in, I played the number two. I’m a little bit of a soft-spoken guy, but I always got it done. I think that Pat, based on the fame of the agency, felt like he needed a big name. And it’s very easy to overlook people. We used to have this phrase, "Be normal in your normal life and outrageous in your work." And I think in advertising there are all these outrageous characters and [Fallon] kept bringing people in for the wrong reasons. I was number two under a lot of these guys and I held it together. When Lubars left, he thought Bruce would take over and it will be fine. But he hired these English guys and it was a disaster, and I left.
Pat Fallon: I did things that I should have known better. The first guy, [Paul Silburn], I’ve never seen a reel like that in my life. It was breathtaking. And Bruce [Bildsten] and [Publicis’s] Bob [Moore] and I wanted him. We didn’t think we could get him, but we did. He was the kind of guy who could do two breathtakingly brilliant campaigns a year, but in terms of management, interacting with clients, taking flights, making meetings on time—disaster.
In 2012 Fallon hired Jeff Kling, a tatted 40-something with a world-weary charm, as chief creative officer. He hailed from vaunted Wieden + Kennedy, and was responsible for campaigns such as the Miller High Life ads and Dos Equis’ “The Most Interesting Man in the World.”
Pat Fallon: Kling has got a way with words. He’s basically an anarchist at heart. People follow the guy.
Jeff Kling (chief creative officer, 2012–present): I’m most taken by Pat’s original vision, which was: “I want to create a globally relevant company, doing world-class work, based in Minneapolis.” I’m only interested in making Fallon better than it ever was. I hope anyone who’s ever been here doesn’t hear an insult in that. But I don’t think we can do much while we’re owned by somebody else. That’s a big part of the problem.
Thirty-four years later, Fallon is no longer the Lake Wobegon of the ad world—it’s been a generation since Scandinavian names like Olsen and Hanson were as synonymous with winning CLIO and One Show awards as Streep and DiCaprio are with Golden Globes and Oscars. Fallon is still capable of a hot streak, and it has won a few accounts in a row, among them Arby’s and Woodford Reserve bourbon. But Fallon will go down in history as a pioneer—one of the first mid-sized agencies outside of New York and Los Angeles to do national-class creative work. Is there a lesson to learn from that legacy? Or is it simply a case of right people, right place, right time?
Charles Anderson: I’ve never seen such a combo of brains and balls in my life. Still haven’t.
Dean Hanson: Fallon proved New York wasn’t the only game anymore. You could have a great life and do great work and be rewarded for it in the middle of nowhere, the tundra.
Bill Westbrook: Pat knows something that everybody will say and nobody acts on: It’s only talent. If I have more talent than you have down the street and we compete against each other, 99 percent of the time I’m going to beat your brains in.
Dean Hansen: Today it’s all about research and finding that silver bullet. Trying to figure out what that audience is gonna do. In those days, rather than a single bullet, the idea was, drop a bomb. If your idea is good enough, if your concept is provocative enough, if you do it in a fresh way, it doesn't matter if you get the guy in the suit. You get his family, you get his boss; it didn't matter.
Pat Burnham: If you watch Mad Men that's one of the things they got right: The creatives are kind of afterthoughts, because it's all done in the boardroom. Most agencies, I think, are run by salespeople. But here, everybody knew that the creatives were the engine that ran the place.
Jeff Kling: I’m not here because of Fallon’s past. I’m here for what it can be. I think culture changes on a 40-year cycle, and once something embeds in culture it’s very difficult to get out. So I think that it has to be created very mindfully.
Pat Fallon: We’ve shown the world that imagination doesn’t have to be from New York or L.A. Our idea was that Minneapolis could be a hub of creativity and every expression of creativity. I’m an evangelist for this city, but as far as influencing the city itself, it’s one of my regrets that I haven’t been able to. Most creatives are bizarre and colorful and broken, and they make life interesting and maybe sometimes more difficult than it needs to be, but they make life more fun.