By David Todd
Bill Durnan has a tattoo on his butt that reads, "Inspired thinking, brilliantly executed." Just kidding. As far as we know, Bill Durnan has nothing in that anatomical region that wasn't there the day he popped out of the womb. But if he did have a slogan affixed to his rear bumper . . . well, there's no question that would be the one.
In the last couple of years, after all, those four simple words have become a personal mantra - not just for Durnan, but for everyone at Ammirati Puris Lintas, the runner-up in Strategy's 1999 Agency of the Year competition. "It's what we live by," says Durnan, president and CEO of the Toronto-based agency. Launched in Canada six years ago, Ammirati Puris Lintas now has 70 employees, and annual billings of approximately $120 million. The agency's list of accounts includes Lever Pond's, Johnson & Johnson, Loblaws and UPS Canada, although its current signature work is, unquestionably, the "Out of the Blue" campaign for Labatt Blue. For Durnan, who assumed the senior post at Ammirati after the agency acquired his own shop, Durnan Communications, in 1997, this past year has proven particularly gratifying. After a good deal of soul-searching, the Ammirati team now enjoys a clear understanding of who they are and what they're all about. And they are beginning to see the fruits of the "APL Method," a new approach to strategic development first introduced to the agency in 1998. The APL Method is all about helping clients define themselves and their brands, Durnan says. "The question we start with in any new business discussion is: ‘Do you know who you are? Because if you don't, it's absolutely impossible for us to write a great ad for you.'" The goal of this six-step process - which begins with a "ground zero" session for identifying key issues - is to set strategic direction by distilling the client organization down to its essence. From the outset, all of the major players on both the client and the agency sides are involved - and that includes creative personnel. The APL method is particularly demanding of creatives, Durnan says, because it compels them to look past the specific advertising assignment, and consider the larger business issues that confront the client. That's not an approach that comes naturally to the average creative, he says. But it's the best way to move beyond shallow "laugh meter" advertising, and begin producing work that is founded on real insights, and has strong brand linkages. "We blur the lines between creative and strategy unlike any other agency," Durnan says. "And we still have creative people arguing about it. But the acid test is: We can look at our reel now, versus two and a half years ago, and see definite evidence of improvement. This process was actually designed to increase the odds that we would produce brilliant creative." Ammirati's approach could also help attract talented creative personnel to the agency, says chairman and creative director Doug Robinson. "I think it's very alluring for creative guys who've been in the business for a while, and who want to go the next step. You've done great ads, you've won awards - and now you want to be involved in the business at a deeper level. That commitment to understanding the client's overall business, not just their creative needs, can be very inspiring." One of the goals, Robinson says, is to encourage more "campaign thinking" on the part of creatives - to get them focused on building a body of work for the brand property that will grow and evolve over time. Before instituting the APL method, Ammirati set about trying to define its own essence: That's where the "inspired thinking, brilliantly executed" line came from. And part of Durnan's job now is ensuring that everyone at the agency lives that philosophy on a daily basis. The Toronto office of Ammirati was established in 1993. Robinson was one of the founders, along with Dennis Stief (now CEO of Ogilvy & Mather) and Tom Nelson, who moved to the flagship New York office in 1996. Initially, the mandate was simply to handle the Canadian end of the agency's UPS and Compaq accounts. Within months, however, the operation had landed all of the major Labatt Breweries of Canada brands. Assignments from the likes of Lever Pond's and J&J soon followed. "An important measure for a multinational agency is how much local business you have, versus clients assigned from another market," Durnan says. "And we're well over 50% local business. That's a sign that you're wanted and respected in you local market." (Ammirati in Toronto, he adds, will be unaffected by the recent global merger of Ammirati Puris Lintas with Lowe & Partners Worldwide.) The Labatt business is, without question, the jewel in Ammirati's crown, and the team has reveled in the opportunity to work on a brand as iconic as Blue. There is, of course, always some danger that an 800-pound-gorilla like Labatt will command a disproportionate share of an agency's resources and attention. Robinson, however, says Ammirati has sidestepped that pitfall, and has succeeded in improving the overall consistency of the work being done for all of its clients. "Labatt is a treasured piece of work, and we never lose sight of that for a moment," he says. "But the balance of this agency has never been stronger." On the whole, Robinson and Durnan agree, this is a healthy time for the advertising business, as clients gain greater appreciation of the importance of brand equity. But to capitalize on opportunities, they say, agencies must put added emphasis on producing not just great advertising, but great results. "Don't get us wrong: We're mad about creativity," Durnan says. "But what we want is creative that delivers results. If it doesn't do that, then it doesn't deserve our respect."