DAN GINSBERG / JIM DEYONG : Ad Agency Adds Up Successes : Award-Winning Firm Puts Message Ahead of Technique

Times staff writer

The ad shop of deYong Ginsberg Weisman Bailey isn’t worried. In fact, it’s happy.

That’s because at the Orange County AdClub AdAwards earlier this month, the Irvine agency looked like the Bobby McFerrin of advertising. The 26-person agency swept the show, walking off with four gold, 12 silver and 38 merit awards--almost twice as many as the second-biggest winner.

The shop got its start in 1975 as Reiser Williams deYong. It went through a bad--and mercifully short--marriage after a 1987 acquisition by NW Ayer, a big national agency based in New York. Eight months later, dGWB was on its own again, headed by Dan Ginsberg, president, and Jim deYong, executive creative director. The two teamed up with Mike Weisman and Ceebs Bailey to form dGWB, which officially opened its doors early last year.

Today, dGWB’s annual billings total $13 million to $15 million. The shop has made a name for itself by creating the kind of ads that are remembered long after the product is forgotten.


Locally, that includes doing ad work for the Orange County Transit District, a division of Yamaha Music Corp., Lincoln Savings and the makers of the Miami Cooler beverage.

In a recent interview with Times staff writer Mary Ann Galante, ad-biz veterans Ginsberg and deYong chatted about the industry and where it is headed. Q. How has Orange County changed since you started working in the ad business here?

A. deYong: When I first came here 12 years ago, there was one big fish in a very tiny pond. That was Cochrane Chase. And (his agency) was it. It was the only agency anybody knew about in Los Angeles.

This was the Siberia of advertising. When I arrived here from Los Angeles, all my friends were convinced I was committing professional suicide. . . .


Q. What made you decide to move here?

A. deYong: I hated Los Angeles. Believe it or not, I moved down here to get away from the traffic, the smog and the people. Twelve years later, it followed me.

A. Ginsberg: In the 7 years I’ve been down here, the clients have grown. We see larger companies moving into the area, more sophisticated advertisers, larger budgets. While we still enjoy dealing with larger firms, years ago we dealt primarily with start-up type companies and very small companies.

The client sophistication and the agency sophistication have grown.

Q. How does the one agency of 12 years ago compare to competition now in Orange County?

A. Ginsberg: Some agencies have prospered. I’d say there’s a small circle of larger agencies. And then (there are) quite a number of small, good agencies. Competition for small to medium-size accounts is very fierce.

For larger accounts that would prefer to remain in Orange County there are a few good agencies to select from. . . .

A. deYong: (Even so,) there’s no one in Orange County capable of handling a Mazda or a Mitsubishi. It’s just too big for an agency (here).


A. Ginsberg: The issues involved in handling a $50-million account are enormous. . . . A. deYong: (Large) agencies have brought people from all over the country to work on those accounts--both from their offices and using their massive resources. We obviously couldn’t do that. When I say “we” I mean no one in the Orange County advertising community.

Q. One of your accounts is the Orange County Transit District. How might you approach an ad campaign differently for an Orange County audience than if you were, say, handling it for the RTD in Los Angeles?

A. Ginsberg: The fundamental issues are the same. The marketing issues are somewhat different.

Fundamentally, you’re getting people to ride the bus. But there are different reasons--and obstacles--to getting people to ride the bus in Orange County than in L.A. Because things are closer together in L.A, a lot of people ride the bus because it’s convenient. And financially it’s a necessity to a lot of people in L.A.

Orange County is so spread out and people work so far from where they live and where they go for recreation that it’s really a difficult chore to convince them to leave their cars and get on the bus. But fundamentally we’re telling people to get on the bus.

A. deYong: The people aren’t different in Orange County and L.A. You do the advertising the same way. It’s just a matter of what messages you have that are important to those audiences. People are people.

Q. Wouldn’t you advertise differently in south Orange County than in downtown L.A.?

A. Ginsberg: When we got the OCTD account, we entered an era with them of target marketing. What we did was segment markets. Instead of just throwing advertising against Orange County in a general sense, saying “everybody please ride the bus,” we broke the program into different segments: one for senior citizens, one for Hispanics. . . .


In south Orange County, we’d have more car-pooling-type messages than we’d do in north Orange County. North Orange County would be more fundamentally “get on the bus,” because those people are less affluent. They perhaps work closer to home because it financially makes more sense to them. And we try to appeal to the financial aspects. . . .

Certainly, the Hispanic population is greater in north Orange County than south Orange County, and we do all our Hispanic advertising there, against that population. . . .

(But) almost all of the work that we do is national work. We do very little advertising that is directed locally to consumers. . . .

Q. How much of a disadvantage are you at competing for accounts in say, Seattle or Los Angeles?

A. Ginsberg: You’re definitely at a competitive disadvantage. No question about it. Nobody wants to get into his car and drive 50 miles or take a plane if he doesn’t have to. So you have to give them a reason to drive by 10 other agencies. We try and do it through breakthrough creative work.

A. deYong: Not all great advertising is done in New York and L.A. anymore. There are little pockets of creativity all over the country: Minneapolis; Raleigh, N.C.; Portland, Ore. Nothing would make me happier than to have people someday say, “Yeah, and there’s that agency in Orange County.”

A. Ginsberg: Or even if they said “those agencies in Orange County.” That would please me, as well--to have people say, “There’s a pocket of agencies in Orange County that is producing that great creative work.” And I think it’s highly possible.

A. deYong: Clients are much more willing now to go to wherever they have to go to get to great work. When we talked to the people in Seattle and Salt Lake, they were talking to no one in their own cities.

Q. The criticism of the Orange County AdClub awards--especially from the people who don’t enter the annual competition--is that it’s only a local competition. In that sense, isn’t Orange County still a poor stepchild of L.A.?

A. deYong: I think the people in L.A. (regard Orange County as a stepchild). But they’re the provincial ones. A lot fewer people now think it’s professional suicide to move down here. If you look at the agencies here, some of them are doing terrific work and prospering. Probably a higher percentage of agencies in Orange County are doing good work than are doing it in L.A. . . . The clients go where they can get the great work.

Q. Why do you think there’s a higher percentage of great work being done here?

A. Ginsberg: It’s because we absolutely have to. In order for us to develop a reputation for ourselves--both for our agency and for the geographic area--we have to make certain that every project we do is as good as we possibly can do it. Agencies in L.A. have already made their reputation.

Q. What’s the most difficult part of the ad business?

A. Ginsberg: Sleeping.

A. deYong: For the creative guy, it’s clients who are unwilling to take a chance on terrific stuff. Who are afraid to be noticed. They hire us to get noticed. Then they get conservative when we bring the work in.

Q. Is the business becoming more competitive in the sense that L.A. shops are eyeing Orange County accounts more than they used to? Are you seeing more competition from the big ad shops in L.A. for what traditionally was home-turf business?

A. deYong: We read about it all the time, but I don’t think we really run into it.

A. Ginsberg: I think it’s on selective accounts--the accounts that appear to be more glamorous (such as a) food product, a packaged goods product, for example. Or scooter accounts, with a couple million dollar budgets. You would have every L.A. agency all over it.

Q. Why are those the most glamorous accounts?

A. deYong: They are fun, consumer things. The work is going to get noticed by a lot more people.

A. deYong: Orange County Transit District is a terrific account. We do great work for them. But nobody from L.A. pitched them when they (asked for proposals).

A. Ginsberg: Apparently (the account wasn’t) glamorous enough.

Q. What are the most sought-after accounts?

A. Ginsberg: High-profile consumer accounts. Like an automobile account.

A. deYong: Or, say, Taco Bell down here. The rumor in the trade press last week was that they were looking for a new agency. They apparently had every agency in L.A. pounding on their door. They’re a big budget account, with lots of TV.

A. Ginsberg: Broadcast has a lot to do with making an account far more attractive. If it’s a broadcast account, everybody wants it.

Q. Is there room for more ad shops in Orange County?

A. deYong: Absolutely.

A. Ginsberg: No.

A. deYong: There’s room for more good ones. I’d love to have some more good ones show up. I’d like them to be local ones, though--not to have another national agency open its doors and expect business to come rolling in.

A. Ginsberg: Carpetbaggers.

Q. What’s the difference, from your standpoint?

A. deYong: Developing more local talent and local agencies does a lot more for the overall community and builds the reputation of the local ad community.

A. Ginsberg: The expectation of national agencies when they open an office is for a big amount of business. And they want it quickly because they have big business in other offices. If they don’t get it, they close the office. The more of these that happen, the more it reflects poorly on Orange County business.

Q. Dan, why do you say there’s not more room for more ad shops in Orange County?

A. Ginsberg: I’m more the business side (so) I don’t want any more competition. The true answer to the question really is yes. It would be good to have more and better agencies. . . . I would like there to be a reputation about the general area. The more they do it, the better. Q. Are there any types of accounts that you prefer not to work on?

A. deYong: I’ve changed my mind on this in the last few years, but I probably wouldn’t take on a cigarette account now. It’s legal, and a few years ago my answer would have been, if it’s legal somebody should advertise it. But jeez, it’s killing people.

A. Ginsberg: I agree with him. We wouldn’t take on a cigarette account. But I’d take the Jack Daniels account in a second.

A. deYong: A couple years ago, I found an article in the paper that said one of the houses of prostitution in Nevada was now owned by a publicly held corporation based in Orange County. I brought the article to Dan and said, “Jeez, Dan. That means it’s legal. We could do incredible ads for this thing.” And he looked at me like I was crazy.

Q. Ginsberg: Yes, and I would still look at you like you were crazy.

A. deYong: But it really is interesting to an advertising guy to find a product area that’s never been advertised before. No one has ever done legitimate advertising for that type of product. Somebody advertised Teflon for the first time. . . .

And this is probably the most sought after commodity in the world. . . . So it’s virgin territory (that’s) wide open to great advertising. . . .

If something is legalized, there’s nothing wrong with doing ads for it--if you aren’t opposed to it morally or ethically.

Q. Do ad shops ever work on trade?

A. We won’t. There are shops that do. But our employees won’t take trade and we’ve got to pay them.

Q. Is there a shakeout going on among the ad agencies in Orange County? Some have closed their doors while, at the same time, there are scores of mergers going on.

A. Ginsberg: It’s a forever and ongoing part of the business. I don’t think we’re riding any up or down part of a roller coaster. . . . There’s always buyouts, there’s always bankruptcies. There’s always booming agencies. It’s just (that) everybody is always in a different phase of their corporate life.

A. deYong: The mergers are heavier now than they’ve ever been--(but) not here in Orange County, I don’t think.

A. Ginsberg: Even that has slowed down considerably. I just think it’s a natural evolution.

Q. It seemed for a while that we were seeing a lot of ads using claymation (an animation technique used in the California Raisins commercials). Anything now that’s particularly hot in the business?

A. deYong: You know, there shouldn’t be. Too many agencies and creative people get hung up on technique instead of message. And I think that’s bad. The message should come first. Instead of creative guys sitting down and saying, “Hey, let’s do a claymation commercial,” they should start off by saying, “What should our message be?” And if claymation is the proper way to do it, that’s fine. But too many people just wanted to do claymation: “Hey, let’s do our California Raisins.”

A few years ago, it was Joe Sedelmaier TV commercials. (Sedelmaier is one of the most distinctive directors of TV commercials. His ads include Federal Express (“When it positively absolutely has to be there”), Wendy’s (“Where’s the beef?”), and Del Taco (“Not the same place, same thing”).)

Every creative guy was sitting around and instead of thinking about the proper message, they were saying, “Let’s do a Sedelmaier commercial.” Everything Sedelmaier does has the same look. And it’s a great look--it’s very funny, and he’s a great director. But my point is the same technique doesn’t work for every problem. . . .

Agencies shouldn’t come up with a technique first and then a message. They should come up with a message first and then choose the technique.

Q. What’s the biggest challenge facing the ad agency industry?

A. deYong: To control the power of the bean counters--people who just see accounts as dollar signs and don’t care about creativity. Great agencies are generally run by creative people. Accountants have never put together a great agency. . . . But when you put a bean counter in charge of an agency, all they care about is making sure every month that the bottom line is large enough. . . .

The head guys at the agency should be more concerned with the work that the agencies do. If you do the great work, you’re going to make money and you’re going to get more business.

Q. Where is the industry going?

A. deYong: We’ve gone through this period of incredible mergers and consolidation. I think the natural evolution of that is that more small agencies are going to spin off of those giant agencies. And eventually we’ll be right back where we were. . . . A few huge agencies and lots of smaller agencies.

Q. Is that good?

A. deYong: Absolutely. I don’t want to sound like a right-wing, Orange County Republican here, but it’s what America’s all about--entrepreneurs and people with the guts to start up on their own.

Q. What do you see for the ad industry in Orange County?

A. deYong: I think that L.A. agencies will continue to come in here as long as more corporations move their headquarters here and as long as Orange County corporations continue to grow. . . . They will choose, probably, between having headquarters in Orange County or L.A., and I think most of them are going to choose L.A., because when you’re in New York, you think L.A.'s the place.

But we’ve done OK thinking that Orange County’s the place.

Q. Any other parting shots?

A. deYong: Yes. If that publicly held corporation that owns the house of ill-repute in Nevada is reading. . . . Oh, just a joke, just kidding.