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Ad Agency Helping David-Sized Clients Battle Goliaths

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Imagine creating ads for some of the world’s biggest also-rans.

How do you outmaneuver McDonald’s--which spends nearly $1 billion dollars every year promoting happiness-on-a-bun? Who can slice away market share from Pizza Hut, the undisputed pizza kingpin? And if General Electric is the only light bulb maker that can bring good things to life, is everyone else in the dark?

Not necessarily. North American Philips light bulbs, the Little Caesar’s pizza chain and Wendy’s hamburgers have all tried the same solution. All have turned to Cliff Freeman & Partners.

The tiny New York ad agency seems to thrive on making big shots out of little shots. “We call ourselves the giant killers,” said Cliff Freeman, chairman of the agency that is owned by British advertising giant Saatchi & Saatchi PLC. “The frustrating thing is, nobody knows who we are.”

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But a lot of people sure know about its clients. Wendy’s was hardly a household name until Freeman rather innocently created what some ad executives have christened the advertising slogan of the ‘80s--"Where’s the beef?”

Next, the agency brought sudden fame to North American Philips with a provocative ad that featured a noisy cat accidentally getting sucked into a vacuum cleaner when a competitor’s light bulb blows. And most recently, the firm has helped make Little Caesar’s the nation’s No. 3 pizza chain with a commercial that features a mutt that manages to sound out, “I love you.”

At a time when advertisers seem to be fighting harder then ever to get noticed, there is some irony in the fact that one of the most successful agencies in the nation at garnering attention for its clients is also among the tiniest--and most obscure.

But Cliff Freeman & Partners doesn’t count on big production budgets. It counts on big laughs--belly laughs.

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“There’s nothing people like more than to laugh,” said Freeman, who laughs out loud each time he watches his own spots. “It puts people in a frame of mind that, in the end, reflects well on the product.”

While the agency is one of the least familiar names in advertising circles, its parent company is among the best known. But their reputations seems to be going in very different directions.

Saatchi & Saatchi was the world’s largest advertising conglomerate until it ran into financial problems last year and posted losses of about $92 million. There has been management turmoil at Saatchi, and earlier this month the agency fired the two men in charge of the division that oversees its advertising agencies.

Freeman admits that he has never even met the publicity-shy brothers who run Saatchi & Saatchi--and who own the majority of his agency. “It’s weird being owned by someone you’ve never met,” said Freeman. “I’d like to meet them just out of curiosity.”

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Perhaps they should want to meet him. Saatchi & Saatchi recently published a book featuring the best ads created by all of the agencies it owns. More than half the space was devoted to Cliff Freeman’s ads.

“Clearly Cliff Freeman has helped our cause,” said DeVergesJones, director of marketing services at Philips Lighting, which is a relative neophyte at marketing light bulbs. “We’ve seen our sales increase every year he’s been with us.” The first quarter in 1988, when Philips first began running Freeman’s ads, it reported sales increases of 82%.

“I’m surprised the agency hasn’t taken off more,” said Donald Deutsch, executive vice president at the New York agency Deutsch Inc. “If the Saatchi’s other agencies all did the kind of work Cliff does, the world would be a happier place.”

Indeed, Freeman thrives on making people laugh. For his former client, Wendy’s, he created the “Russian Fashion Show” ad that featured beefy Russian models in identical drab dresses. For Philips, his agency created the recent commercial that features an elderly man who suddenly sings “I’m in the Mood for Love” when his wife changes the light bulb to a Philips brand. And for Little Caesar’s, the ad firm created the spot where a goofy-looking guy at a pizza counter magically transforms a cardboard pizza carton into an evil-looking flying reptile.

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Freeman’s agency could just as easily be mistaken for an antique shop. Antiques--ranging from cookie jars to radios--are scattered throughout the firm. But there’s nothing antiquated about the agency. It spun off from the New York agency Saatchi & Saatchi DFS Compton in 1987, shortly after winning the Little Caesar’s business. It now posts annual billings of about $65 million--a big jump from the $7 million it posted two years ago.

In 1988, the ad campaign for Philips light bulbs--which featured competitors’ bulbs blowing out at very inopportune times--took top honors as the best national TV campaign at the Clio Awards. But critics still wonder if some people were laughing so hard that they forgot who the ads were for. A study by the research firm Video Storyboard Tests showed that 20% of the viewers thought the original Philips ads were for rival General Electric--while only 15% correctly knew they were for North American Philips.

As for winning Clio Awards--which Freeman seems to do year after year--one advertising research expert is unimpressed with agencies that rake in lots of Clios. A recent ad industry study found that more than half of the agencies that won Clio Awards last year went on to lose those clients--or go out of business--within a year.

“What does it say if you win awards, but lose business?” posed Lee Weinblatt, chief executive of the Englewood, N.J., research firm, Pretesting Co.

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Indeed, just a few years after winning virtually every major advertising award for its “Where’s the Beef?” campaign at Saatchi, the agency Freeman formerly worked for lost the business. But since Freeman went independent nearly three years ago, he says that he has not lost a major client.

“Not much advertising touches people,” said Freeman. “We try to create ads that enter their souls--and never leave.”


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