Tony Stern succeeds the retiring Howie Cohen as chief creative at Phelps

Howie Cohen (l) and Tony Stern (r) of Phelps

It’s not often that outgoing C-level officers get to hand-pick their own successors in the agency world. But that’s what retiring hall of fame chief creative officer Howie Cohen was able to do at Phelps in Los Angeles.

Cohen and the Phelps agency chose advertising veteran Tony Stern as the new chief creative officer to lead the creative charge, putting the agency in capable hands.

“I was honored that this agency wanted me to be part of the process. But it's such an important transition for Phelps, I guess for any agency, to have top creative talent helping to lead the effort. And so I joined Ed Chambliss – our president – in several interviews with some very qualified people, and Tony just stuck out,” said Cohen.

“It just felt right, and it felt right for a lot of reasons based on what we're looking for. One thing obviously is the creative ability. Somebody who's really got the chops. But obviously if you're going to be a chief creative officer, you're not doing it all yourself so we needed somebody who could also be an effective leader, somebody that our people could look up to. It’s very critical to our culture to have somebody who can do it, and that can lead it, and earn the respect of a lot of talented people around the agency.”

Cohen certainly knows talent, having been in the advertising business since the Mad Men era and seeing the many changes that have come to the industry. He is a two-time Clio hall of famer who created iconic 70s Alka Seltzer ads (“I can’t believe I ate the whole thing” and “Try it, you’ll like it”). Cohen is retiring after a career that spanned five decades, the last two with Phelps where he led defining campaigns for such brands as Petco, Tahiti Tourisme and City of Hope.

In Stern, Phelps got someone with not just a glowing resume but also fits the independent, everybody-has-a-voice vibe.

Stern has worked with some of the world’s largest brands – including Adobe, Electronic Arts, Google, Hyundai and Smirnoff – for large creative agencies, including David&Goliath, Goodby Silverstein & Partners and J. Walter Thompson. He has worked inside major advertisers, creating advertising and content for such launches as the iPad Air and the Google.org global initiative. Most recently, he has played creative consultant to advertisers, agencies and tech startups, building a broad perspective on new opportunities in the creative space.

“For the last seven years I have been a freelancer consultant and I've been very fortunate to be busy in a lot of these different arenas,” said Stern. “Over the last five to seven years, the platform that we've been given to flex our creative muscles have just exploded with social platforms, and apps and all these things. Having the opportunity to go into a lot of client direct places, I got to see inside the four wall how places work, what the opportunities are, and also getting closer to the genesis of the idea.”

A different agency model

Stern sees that the downfalls of the typical agency model brief – that you’re given a one-sheet, then the brief after somebody else has made up their mind as to the creative direction – doesn’t fit the path moving forward. He thinks stronger ideas come from being at the forefront of the process, which is why Phelps was a perfect fit for him.

“There's a really interesting process that happens here that when we kick off. Inside of Phelps, we have PR, we have media, we have creative, we have digital, we have strategy, we have all these facets that start together with the idea. You have to develop the idea, whereas traditionally, the direction has already been sold and Phelps doesn't do that. Everything starts at the beginning together. The team is created based on the need of the client from the very onset. It's just a really interesting dynamic for me to jump into,” Stern said.

Phelps is also 100% employee owned, which means everyone has a stake in the success of the company, which has been around since 1981 and now is housed in the creative hotbed of Playa Vista, California, where millennials are shaping the new wave of creativity on tech and marketing fronts.

“I grew up very strong advertising side, and it was always a cultural whining. ‘Why can't I have the bigger office? Or why can't we spend money and have a bigger party.’ Somehow, when it's your own money and you're an owner, a level of common sense enters into it that's best for everyone, because you care about other things besides the thing that you're just doing that day. You care about the future of the agency. You care about things like profitability. And you care about what's best, not just for yourself, but everybody else in the agency. That's one of the beauties of ownership,” said Cohen.

“In the short time that I've been here, there's a level of culpability that I haven't seen in most places. People are standing up…I know from the youngest to the oldest, everybody has a very similar responsibility to this company, and has a level of need, want, concern that is driven by everyone. We're not uber top heavy. We're not people resting on their laurels and waiting for somebody who's in a higher position to tell them what to do. People come out and they own it,” added Stern.

Cohen sees that working with millennials is a positive for the veteran ad guys, and the diversity in age is something that helps Phelps stand out and keep clients longterm – some for two decades.

“I think the blending of young and old is really critical. Tony's a little bit younger than me but we're both veterans. I think we grew up knowing what's really important in communicating with human beings, and that's finding a way to tap into their heart, to reach them emotionally, to touch them, to speak to them in a way they can listen and embrace it. And that's being married with new technologies that are coming into our business and new kinds of tech people, millennials who really are on top of the technology game, games playing, and digital stuff…We all talk together regardless of what discipline we're in, we get on the same team and we share and we learn from each other,” he said.

Stern added that sharing between the generations means that everyone gets to learn about emerging technologies, other disciplines and gets to trade information back and forth.

“It's really this nice little balance of sharing, but really the millennials drive this agency, just like they do anywhere else as far as the energy and the ideas. We just help them realize them, shape them, mold them, and turn them into, what we would hope, is effective communication,” Stern said.

It’s still about communicating the idea

Cohen has had a successful career, one marked by the iconic ads he did for Alka Seltzer, but reached far beyond just those two spots. He sees the biggest change over his five decades in the business as the technology shift, when advertising had to disguise itself because people wanted to find ways to avoid it.

“The people in the business had to find ways to communicate inventively without blatantly saying, ‘This is an ad,’ because nobody wanted to see it, or read it, or come near it. I think that's where everything shifted. All of a sudden, we weren't doing big advertising TV campaigns. We were spreading it around in more personal messages where we could touch people one at a time on the internet. I think that's where we had to do a shift, understand the value of our PR discipline. The PR people made a natural transition into communicating in social media with Facebook and Twitter, all the ways we do today, because they were always trying to sound like a third-party, not like the advertiser talking,” said Cohen.

“I think that's the biggest thing, is that we had to learn how to not be advertisers, but be emotional communicators and find ways to get the consumers to love our ideas so much that they would share it, and own it. And when that happens, its a very powerful way to communicate.”

As Cohen hangs up his agency hat, he looks back at the ads that made him successful and notes that, while the traditional advertising model might not churn out the traditional iconic ads, there is still room to break through in a multi-screen world.

“I think that people always love and can relate to something that strikes a nerve, touches them in their personal life,” said Cohen. “The best people of our business somehow observe something that's human and real. ‘I can't believe I ate the whole thing’ was definitely that. ‘Try it, you'll like it’ was definitely that. Those lines came out of my childhood. I heard them around the table. I didn't invent them, I just somehow remembered them and found a way to use them…I think as long as we can do that, to the point that people enjoy the message and don't feel like they're being manipulated, there's always the opportunity to communicate that way.”

He went on to say that “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing” was really one of the early social media campaigns.

“People were saying it all over New York and it was all over the country and I was walking somewhere in Rome and I heard some guy lean back from his bowl of spaghetti and said, ‘I can't believe I ate the whole thing.’ It spread like wildfire because everybody has felt that and that becomes magic.”

For Stern, taking over for an advertising icon is just another challenge, and Phelps is the right place to take on that challenge.

“My hope for Phelps is not necessarily to be bigger or better or smarter, but to be effective and to be the leader. When it was created 37 years ago, Phelps really was the first integrated marketing communications place. It was the first place that did what most people are doing now, how they're changing their advertising model by bringing so many different things in house. That was Joe (Phelps') vision 37 years ago and I think what it's done is it's given Phelps a bit of a headstart. And I just want to make sure that we continue to innovate, we continue to find the next way to answer challenges from our clients. And then also make them just as famous as we want to be famous. If our clients succeed, we succeed,” Stern concluded.

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