On the eve of Fred/Alan’s closing in May of 1992, one of our biggest fans in the press, Adweek columnist Richard Morgan, interviewed us about what he saw as a disheartening event.
MTV AGENCY ELECTS TO DIE BEFORE IT GETS OLD
Fred/Alan, the New York agency behind the MTV look, is closing down this Friday for a myriad of reason. C-founder Fred Seibert found himself too interested to reject all nonagency opportunities, such as the president’s job he recently accepted at Hanna-Barbera. Partner Alan Goodman, already doubling as the executive producer of the month-old Hangin’ with MTV show, has other projects as well. Then, too, Fred/Alan had a knack for winning high volume assignments from low-billing clients.
Mostly, though, Fred/Alan is closing because the agency business did not fulfill its promise — as advertised.
“About a year ago,” Seibert explains, “we can to realize the business we believed existed —you know, the business popularized in the lore and myth of advertising— was gone. We realized that in no way are agencies marketing partners anymore; they’re creative vendors.”
“And as an old-school agency,” partner Goodman interrupts, “we no longer fit in. We’re more the type that works so closely with clients we help invent their products. Even diseases, like athlete’s foot, used to be created by agencies.”
Everybody misses the good ol’ days, but the exit of Fred/Alan, whose oldest partner is 40, is particularly disturbing. After working as the advertising department at MTV, Seibert and Goodman spun themselves free. They were at once seduced by their association with agencies while at MTV and intrigued by what they perceived to be a wide-open niche. Campaigns fo Barq’s, Swatch, Buf Puf, and Nick-at-Nite followed, promising their shop a veritable lock on the youth market. Fred/Alan’s youthful orientation was so convincing that three years ago I wrote:
“It’s surprising something like [Fred/Alan] didn’t happen sooner… While boomers continue to move through life’s timeline like the proverbial pig in a python, the original TV generation gives way to other TV generations. They’ll have taken over, no doubt, at a time when big agencies are still stuck with leadership weaned on print.”
I was, at best, half-right. As for the industry at large, Fred/Alan sees total denial. “Until two years ago,” Seibert says, “the TV networks paid the same exorbitant amounts for their shows and ordered the same limos. Then they woke up and realized their world didn’t exist anymore. Well, the agency business is going to wake up and realize that it, too, has been pretending.”
Such is the future, as seen by Fred/Alan. It differs from conventional wisdom in that it attributes Madison Avenue’s glorious past to a dearth of marketing skills at the client. It’s rooted in a time when clients consisted of sales-and-manufacturing teams that let their agencies run wild. That all changed in the 60’s, however, as clients took on marketing responsibilities themselves. “They no longer entrusted such an important function to an outside party,” Seibert says.
Seibert contends the change was hardly noticed, obscured in part by the 60’s creative revolution. Besides, who cared when the explosion in television rates served agencies well as it served the networks? Agencies took marketing direction from clients almost as gladly as they too commissions.
Somewhere along the way, Seibert says, agencies became “no different than a free-lance writer/art director team. The client set a strategy and gave it to them, and they fulfilled it. If the client didn’t like how they fulfilled it they gave it to another team. Then another. But that’s how a real partnership works.” The agency/client relationship has since taken on so many vendor-like traits, Seibert adds, it’s completely acceptable to “blow an agency off just because it doesn’t take you skiing.”
That’s not to say there weren’t clues along the way. For starters, Fred/Alan recalls producing 100 commercials a year before calling itself an agency. The principals, acting as strategic/creative consultants at the time, pitched all of their ideas without storyboards. “We’d simply go in and act it out, just like in those stupid old movies,” Seibert says. But the day Fred/Alan changed its designation to agency, the same people at the same clients started demanding storyboards. “You’re an agency now,” they’d say.
Other clients, while pleased with Fred/Alan the consultancy, started looking for excuses to fire Fred/Alan the agency. It was, quite simply, their way with agencies. One went so far as to jettison the relationship immediately, citing his policy never to work with agencies. “For him,” Seibert says, “an agency meant layers of bureaucratic nonsense.”
As it leaves the business, still believing the function of advertising is as vital as ever (even if the agencies aren’t), Fred/Alan relishes shaking things up as much as it did. Weiden & Kennedy, the hottest shop going, admits openly to stealing from MTV, which in essence is stealing from Fred/Alan. The sad thing is that the optimism that continues to propel W&K is depleted at the source of influence. Of Fred/Alan’s 30 disbanding workers, only one is seeking his next job in a traditional agency.0 comments Tagged: closing, self promotion,.
708 Broadway @4th Street
New York City
870 Seventh Avenue, @56th Street
The Omni Park Central Hotel
New York City
Original production home of the Jackie Gleason Show
The original Fred/Alan office was incredibly ugly. The evidence in these posted pictures (and the few others we’ve saved) should give you a slight taste of someone’s warmed over mid-century lack of sense. But, it didn’t really matter, because the people we had in the company were an incredibly inspired and talented group.
In the mid-80s, we’d inherited the space from our friend and first producing partner, Buzz Potamkin, who executed our famous MTV “moonman” IDs and produced Dale Pon’s “I Want My MTV!”. He’d just started Buzzco and offered to share space he’d found at the top of what’s now the Park Central Hotel in Manhattan, for about a third of the going rents. It had a modicum of fame because it was where Jackie Gleason his 1950s Honeymooners offices (which eventually had us name our production arm Chauncey Street, adress to Ralph Kramden in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn), but God knows who had it in between.
The most striking features were the round, stalagtited reception area (above) and the rugs (just one example, below). Each floor of the hotel had a different, mid-century rug knockoffs in the wildest colors and designs they could print. Someone had the money saving idea of using the remnants for the flooring in our space. So right where they’d run out of carpet, they just slammed the next one up against it, no matter the clash. We must have had 25 different designs jammed together. Talk about psychedelic.
No matter. The cheap rent let us populate the place with an incredible group of folks —not all of them in our company— free thinkers all; more than 25 years later many of us still work together. We had a wild time.0 comments Tagged: self promotion,.
The early 1990s made us face the limits of the business we’d built.
Starting as a production company in 1983, we made a TV series for the Playboy Channel and promos for TV networks and record companies. Soon we’d evolved into the only company branded cable channels; we’d introduced the idea to our former employers and clients at MTV and Nickelodeon. In 1988, Nickelodeon asked us to become their advertising agency. MTV and other clients soon followed.
At first we loved it. After a couple of years, we came to loath it.
The creative and strategy work was fabulous, when we could actually do it. Our lives had become the grind of supporting the overhead of over 40 people, constantly defending ourselves to clients who’s businesses we’d built from scratch, and constantly looking for new business.
Worst of all, Alan and I had stopped actually working together, the reason we started the agency in the first place. We were managing teams and arguing, not about the work (which would have been fine), but about the guarding of some real or imagined disputes between the members of our respective charges.
And the business of advertising agencies was getting stupid. Clients were coming to the conclusion that they could do much of the marketing strategy themselves, sometimes even the creative. There was constant downward pressure on fees, with the standard —15% of the media spend— coming down more than a point a year. The agency reaction was basically to combine in gigantic roll ups to protect themselves. Fred/Alan itself had buyout offers coming more rapidly every year.
I called Alan one night in February 1992 and before our conversation was over we’d agreed to announce the closing of Fred/Alan the next morning. We had a party for all our current and former colleagues at our offices on lower Broadway, a lot of laughs and tears were had, and locked the doors for good in May.
—Fred0 comments Tagged: invitation, self promotion, closing,.
“Fred Seibert and Alan Goodman, who make “I Want My MTV” ads and Nick at Nite’s retro posters, live where Mr. Ed meets Patty Duke, where kitsch equals rich.”
Manhattan, Inc.; magazine article by Judith Newman
Fred/Alan was never great at garnering publicity, especially given the money we wasted trying, though we had a couple of great hits in the Village Voice and the New York Times.
The cool thing about advertising is you get to do a lot of different kinds of work. The drag is that it’s the clients’ work and the agency, in the end, has to do what it’s told. So, when there’s a chance to do stuff with yourself as the client it’s a lot of fun.
We were moving to our third office in a decade (by this point “we” was Fred/Alan the ad agency and Chauncey Street the TV production company), down in the East Village, so we used it as an excuse to have a hoot. Art director Tom Godici contacted some artists we’d worked with (like Joey Ahlbum) and some we were looking forward to meeting (like Leslie Cabarga). Alan and creative director Bill Burnett wrote some amusing copy about some classic New York landmarks off the tourist paths, we printed a postcard folder, and our moving announcement was complete. On the first day in the new office we had an art show of the original illustrations (we had space for a small, private art gallery, where we were to have shows every month), and a good time was had by all.0 comments Tagged: self promotion, postcards, moving, announcements, illustration, print,.
We started having Christmas parties in 1985 because it was so damn hard to figure out which clients and hope-to-be-clients to give presents to, and exactly what to give them. We figured it would probably cost us the same to party and everyone would be happier anyhow. The first year we rented out the Museum of Radio & Television; everyone thought we were classy. Then a roller disco; they thought we were fun.
By ‘87 Fred/Alan had morphed into a bona fide advertising agency and we were so horrified at the thought a great party was in order. Luckily, Ed Levine and Noel Frankel had joined our ranks. Ed had recently produced one of the best Dr. John records ever and thought he could talk the good Doctor into our budget on an off night for the band. Noel, a brilliant art director, knew about our soul music obsession and one day in a planning meeting did the invitation illustration completely with a Wite Out brush tip!
We rented out a belly dancing joint on 8th Avenue, put out some checkered tableclothes, catered soul food from Sylvia’s, and Fred/Alan raised the roof on the greatest R&B club north of the Mason-Dixon. From then on our parties were legendary.
Fred/Alan Rhythm & Blues Christmas Party
Live music by Dr. John
Soul food from Sylvia’s
Featuring: “WE’LL HAVE A BLUE, BLUE CHIRSTMAS WITH (OR WITHOUT) YOU”
Come with the one you turn to when you’re blue…
Monday, December 14, 1987
Illustrated & designed by Noel Frankel
Fred/Alan didn’t do too much advertising for itself (it was expensive), so we tried to make every one count.
The New York Times was, by far, the most influential publication in advertising. In the 1980s Phil Dougherty had a repuation as the most honest, authoritative columnist in the business, and any ad in the Times would guarantee sales for your client. Well, why shouldn’t we be our own client, and use the Times to generate new business leads? We could buy remnant space at will for less than half price, our current clients would feel like they were with a pretty together agency, and businesses outside New York would take notice and call. Did it work? You bet.0 comments Tagged: New York Times, self promotion, ad, print, newspaper,.
…we were busy wondering what had happened to us.
By the late 1980s, Fred/Alan had morphed into a full service advertising agency, with writers, art directors, and account, production and media departments. Over 40 people.
We started trying to get some new accounts, the lifeblood of any agency. And not a skill we were particularly attuned to at the time. First step, a agency brochure!
It’s great fun doing good advertising, and we’d had a better run than many. Sure, we’d been critical to the building of MTV, VH-1, and Nickelodeon. And we did some awesome work for Swatch, Mosaic Records, Myers’s Rum, and Barq’s which had driven lots of business for them. It ought to be easy to wrap it all up and brag a little, yes?
Putting together a company hype is a drag, pure and simple. In person, we could speak passionately for hours telling you about what went into our work. But somehow, writing it down was somehow crass.
It began to dawn on us that maybe being an advertising agency wasn’t for us.0 comments Tagged: Barq's, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, MTV, MTV Record Club, Mosaic Records, Mosiac Records, Myers's Rum, Nick-at-Nite, Nickelodeon, Showtime, Swatch, The Movie Channel, VH-1, self promotion, NAN,.
We originally started Fred/Alan to make TV shows and movies. Finally around 1985, somewhat stable as a business, we tried ‘getting into the movies’ with something other than a ticket. We’d always liked quickie teen movies and there was a popular spate of them happening right then so we took a flyer and somehow succeeded (we really had no idea what we were doing) in optioning the rights to one of the most popular (and strangely controversial) songs of the rock era, “Louie, Louie.” A script was written by Alan, Albie Hecht (pre-Nickelodeon fame), and our director, Tommy Schlamme (pre-fame as the executive producer of The West Wing).
This ad was put together for the back cover of the 1985 MTV Video Music Awards program, figuring that something might happen. We got of a lot of attention in Hollywood and subsequently optioned two other garage band classics, “Wooly Bully” and “Wipeout,” wrote a couple more scripts, and…nothing. We were busy with the agency, and ultimately, we probably just didn’t want it enough yet.0 comments Tagged: movies, music, self promotion, ad, print,.