160 Varick Street
We tirelessly search for the "big idea" that will catapult our clients' brands to new heights and into unexplored territory.
Kirshenbaum Bond + Partners, Inc. has quickly made its mark as one of the most original--and irreverent--advertising agencies in the United States. A healthy (or perhaps unhealthy) dose of "New York attitude" has helped the firm stand out in an industry homogenized by the amalgamation of other agencies into superfirms such as Interpublic Group, Omnicom Group, and WPP Group PLC. As a result of this growing concentration, Kirshenbaum Bond is one of the few independent advertising agencies of significant size remaining in New York.
Richard Kirshenbaum was 26 and Jonathan Bond 29 when they founded their company, Kirshenbaum & Bond Advertising Inc., in 1987. Kirshenbaum was a copywriter and Bond an account executive when, on their own time, they sold shoe designer Kenneth Cole on an ad that poked fun at the enormous shoe collection of Imelda Marcos, widow of the ousted Filipino dictator.
The new kids on the block pooled $50,000 in savings, rented quarters in Manhattan's SoHo district, and hung up a giant poster, blank except for two silver balls in the lower right-hand corner and the copy, "It takes three things to create great advertising. A great idea is one of them." They were quickly labeled as brats, not only for their abrasive ads but for juvenile behavior; for example, a skateboarding employee once crashed into a visiting client. Kirshenbaum & Bond (K&B) garnered seven clients in its first month, but they were small accounts, and the partners were desperate to be noticed. Shortly after, Kenneth Cole's brother Neal paid them a visit. He owned a small jeans company named No Excuses that had earned barely $10 million in two years and needed attention as badly as K&B. The partners came up with a 15-second television spot featuring Donna Rice, a young woman recently reported to be carrying on an affair with married presidential candidate Gary Hart. As Rice modeled the jeans, she delivered the line, "I make no excuses, I only wear them."
Having established themselves as the bad boys of advertising, Kirshenbaum and Bond upped the ante with forays into the uncertain shoals of ethnic humor. They drew a protest from the Italian-American Defamation League for picturing bullet holes on a blank page with the headline, "Finally, an authentic Italian restaurant where no one's been shot. Yet." The slogan, "Dress British. Think Yiddish" for a discount men's clothier inspired letters to the agency protesting the implication that Jews were cheap. A Times Square billboard for Hongson Importers' Jump sneakers that bore the legend, "The only way to get higher is illegal" seemed, for some, to suggest racial stereotyping. To its critics, Kirshenbaum and Bond offered no excuses--or apologies. Brashness made sense, the partners maintained, because the product had to seize the attention of prospective consumers before they would buy it. It also made sense for K&B, Bond later conceded. Speaking to Cynthia Rigg of Advertising Age in 1993, he explained, "When we started the agency we didn't have a brand name, any financial backing or a big client. We decided to do outrageous advertising to get us and our clients on the map."
Kirshenbaum & Bond certainly succeeded in this objective. Within a year from the founding of the agency it had a staff of 12 and billings of $9 million. K&B also had, in Esquire, a mainstream client who fancied its abrasive approach. The men's magazine wanted to drive home to advertisers the contention that its readers were upscale consumers, so Kirshenbaum & Bond introduced a print ad showing a suited man with exposed hairy chest and the headline, "Some men will never by ready for Esquire." Another ad showed large quilted dice hanging from the rearview mirror of a car, accompanied by the headline, "Some men will never be ready for a BMW. Or Esquire."
Into the Mainstream: 1990s
K&B celebrated its second anniversary by moving into quarters four times as big as the original space; it now had 32 employees and annual billings of $25 million. The agency's clients now included such blue-chip firms as Fox Broadcasting, Bear Stearns, Austin, Nichols (makers of Wild Turkey bourbon), and New York City's Dorset and Empire hotels. Yet such was its reputation that when Randall Rothenberg of the New York Times visited their offices in early 1991, he feigned surprise that "nobody was swinging from the chandeliers." Rothenberg learned, however, from a liaison between marketers and ad agencies, "They've got a presentation like a big agency. They talked about strategy. They did research. They did all the things clients expect--but not from them." In 1991 the agency began requiring employees to submit weekly time sheets, a formality Kirshenbaum and Bond had sworn never to demand. The transition to professionalism also included hiring experienced account executives from larger agencies and improving graphic design by hiring Bill Oberlander, the art director of a larger agency, as creative director.
About this time Kirshenbaum told Joe Lafayette of Advertising Age, "I don't think we ever labeled ourselves as brats. [But] our success demonstrates that our marketing strategy works. We don't mind that certain people don't like us. We're targeting clients who want a cutting edge." Bond conceded that sometimes the agency suffered because "people always thought our work was us as people. But we're really easy to work with and get along with. Just because the ads have an edge, an attitude, doesn't mean that's the way we are when you meet us. We're rational people with big-agency backgrounds."
In the last weeks of 1990 Kirshenbaum & Bond brought its billings to around $40 million a year by garnering as new clients Chemical Bank, Savin Corp., Chase Manhattan Bank, and Guinness Import Co. Chase Manhattan hired the agency to market its credit cards to college students. Guinness was seeking a new marketing campaign for its brews and liked the work Kirshenbaum & Bond already had done for Hennessy cognac and Domain (Moet) Chandon sparkling wine. For Schieffelin & Somerset Co., K&B later publicized its "Hennessy martini" (with a lemon twist but no vermouth) by hiring young actors to ask for the drink at Manhattan nightclubs and restaurants during peak weekend hours. So successful was the stunt that Bond told Stuart Elliott of the New York Times, "We've heard people order Hennessy martinis in bars who were paying for them." Eventually the agency was planting shills in bars in Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles, and San Francisco as well as New York.
Another client seeking youth-oriented buzz was the dowdy Thom McAn Shoe Co. Kirshenbaum & Bond attempted to make the Thom McAn chain contemporary with television spots in which young people voiced statements such as, "I never thought I could have a B.S.A., M.B.A. and a Ph.D. and still no job" and "I never thought there could be over 80 channels and still nothing on," before concluding, "I never thought I'd find such cool-looking shoes at Thom McAn." The spots ended with a slogan also featured in print ads and on posters, "The new Thom McAn. Your feet won't believe your eyes."
By early 1993 Kirshenbaum & Bond had 95 employees, billings of $105 million a year, and a Los Angeles office (later closed). The big breakthrough came when the agency won the account for Snapple Beverage Corporation. In April 1993 Kirshenbaum & Bond launched a campaign, estimated at $30 million, that included Snapple's first ads on national television, radio, and print. The grass-roots campaign featured fan mail from real people. In one ad one of these "real people" was strapped to a lie detector and queried, "Were you lying when you wrote to Snapple?" A retired Kentucky colonel who wrote that Snapple was the "only good thing" to come out of New York was paired with former Mayor Edward Koch, who tried vainly to convince him there were other good things about the city. Wendy Kaufman, the Snapple executive in charge of answering the mail, became a celebrity herself: Wendy, the "Snapple Lady." A fan letter even inspired K&B to invent a new Snapple drink--Ralph's Cantaloupe Cocktail--named for the Yonkers, New York, letter writer.
The success of the Snapple campaign raised Kirshenbaum & Bond's credibility and transformed it into a midsized shop. By now named Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, it had six partners, 200 employees, and annual billings of about $200 million. The 13 clients included mainstays such as Coach Leatherware and Schieffelin & Somerset (for which it was now handling six other brands besides Hennessy) and new clients such as Blimpie International, Citibank, and the cable-TV network CNBC. But as much as one-third of the agency's revenue was coming from the Snapple account, and the beverage's sales had begun to wane.
Quaker Oats Co., which now owned Snapple, dropped Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners (KB&P) on the same May 1996 day that the founding partners returned from a retreat with their employees during which they unveiled a new five-year plan. The loss of this account could have spelled doom for another agency, but KB&P was debt-free, ready to pursue new clients aggressively, and resolved to offer integrated services such as public relations, direct marketing, and media buying, like agencies many times its size. Among those who signed on were Rockport, Target, Netscape Communications, and Neuberger Berman. The agency even was able to open a San Francisco branch in 1997. By late 1998 KB&P claimed annual billings of $290 million and the addition, during the year, of 11 new clients, including Coca-Cola Co., Cablevision Systems Corp., Liberty Mutual Insurance Group, and 1-800-Flowers. The agency now employed about 245 people.
Still Independent, Full-Service Firm: 2000-02
In late 2000 Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners established an affiliate named Dotglu to focus on direct and interactive marketing services in order to help advertisers keep their existing customers. Combining two specialty KB&P units, Dotglu offered services such as customer relations marketing, database management, strategy and technology consulting, web site design, e-mail marketing, and online media planning and buying. Kirshenbaum explained to Elliott, "The ability to have a relationship with the customer brings in profits in a measurable way. That's because persuading customers to buy again from a company they have bought from before is usually less difficult--and more profitable--than convincing consumers who have never bought from a company to do so for the first time." KB&P took the majority stake in Dotglu, with senior executives and an investor group holding the rest. Earlier, the agency had acquired a minority share of a start-up New York agency, Frierson Mee & Kraft. The company also had bought and sold a minority share in Mad Dogs and Englishmen, another small New York agency.
Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners ranked 24th among New York City advertising agencies in 1999 and by late 2000 was credited with annual gross income of $37 million. By this time independent midsized agencies like KB&P were practically extinct--at least in New York--swallowed by competitors or merged into bigger holding companies because of client demand for a full range of services and global marketing capacity. Advertising industry sources also cited the diversion of capital and creative talent to Hollywood and to Internet- and web-based ventures.
The year 2001 was a difficult one for the national and local economies. Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners suffered a reduction of 18 percent in estimated billings and 8 percent in revenue. The agency won Revlon Inc. as a client but lost it in January 2002, forcing a staff cut from 223 to 202. Oberlander left KB&P in December 2000 after 11 years. Agency sources, according to Ann M. Mack of Adweek, credited him for encouraging "a culture open to experimentation ... but the arty results were sometimes more misguided than innovative. In 2000, for example ... sexually charged Tommy Hilfiger spots felt gratuitous, and a text-heavy 'Anti-Super Bowl' spot rebranding DLJdirect as CSFBdirect was confusing." CSFB (the financial firm Credit Suisse First Boston) departed as a client in 2001, along with the Japanese camera maker Olympus Optical Co., Ltd. Speaking to Mack, Bond conceded that the agency's work had "lost some of that edge for some years" and a source told her, "If you're a client looking for something different, [they've] lost that."
Oberlander was succeeded by Rob Feakins and Logan Wilmont, who inherited a creative department shrunk from 40 to 25. The two pushed for simple, strong ideas. For Manhattan's Downtown Alliance, which was seeking business for its members following the Twin Towers disaster, KB&P presented spots showing a construction worker getting a manicure and a bald man having a haircut, with the message, "You may not need it, but downtown does." For Target, they decided to illustrate the concept: If you found a really good deal and could buy as much as you wanted, how would you use the product? and devised spots such as a driver steering through an obstacle course of Tide boxes and a guitarist using toilet paper for soundproofing. This campaign won the agency a contract to produce 16 spots in 2002 instead of the usual one or two per year.
By midsummer 2002 Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners had picked up nearly $80 million in new business billings during the year, including assignments from Clear-Blue and ClearPlan Easy, Hartz Mountain Corp., Meow Mix, USA Networks Inc., Verizon Communications' SuperPages, and VF Corp.'s Intimates. Beverage Partners Worldwide, a joint venture of Coca-Cola and Nestlé S.A., was reported to have hired the agency to introduce Tey, a bottled tea. The agency's name became Kirshenbaum Bond + Partners in 2003. That year the firm won a $95 million account from Andrew Jergens Co., manufacturer of lines of lotions, facial care products, and antiperspirants.
Principal Competitors: Arnold McGrath Worldwide; Gotham Inc.; Margeotes Fertitta + Partners.