So far, we’ve got the setup: two guys walk into an advertising agency. The rest of the joke has to do with overcoming things—horrible economic times, being over 50 in a business where that defines you as a relic, and working in a town in which the agency business has become, face it, stagnant—bordering on moribund.

Weirdly, the punch line might just be that they succeed, landing some big clients and making scads of money. And if they succeed, that success might light a creative spark that could ignite Dallas into a vibrant agency town again. Hey, it’s a joke in progress, but unprecedented times can offer unprecedented opportunities, and I promise to revisit it in a year to let you know how it’s going.

The two guys are Jim Ferguson and Bob Shallcross, copywriter and art director, respectively. They’ve done big-time work in big-time jobs at big-time agencies. Last October, they lugged their heavy reputations, heavier satchels of awards, and bulging Rolodexes to the shop of longtime local adman Jim Krause to create jimbobkrause, a new entity, aligned with but separate from Krause Advertising, a midsize Dallas ad fixture since 1979.

Ferguson is a weighty cumulous cloud of a man and just as contradictory—big and fluffy, yet capable of sudden lightning. He shifts his 55-year-old unkempt bulk in the chair beneath the pride of Cannes Lions awards on the shelf behind him (more about these later). “This is the most exciting time in the history of the advertising message, because it’s no longer about TV,” Ferguson says. “There are so many ways to get into the heads of consumers. We get to think about all aspects of the business now—taking a selling idea and driving it down to packaging or distribution, truck sides, anyplace consumers can see the message—and making sure that message is the right one.”

“We’re not intimidating,” says Shallcross, 51 and trim, with eyes that ingest every detail in their path. “We’re comfortable with big clients, but small ones can see that we have a passion for what we do, and that we can throw our egos aside and get to the work.”

Sure enough, the next time I see the pair, it’s in a photo studio near Fair Park, where they’re supervising a food shoot of corny dogs and pizza. These will form the basis for the signage and plasma screens for concessions at the new Cowboys and Yankee stadiums. That jimbobkrause should have gotten this gig is not surprising; the client is Legends Hospitality Management, which will provide food service for the venues. Mike Rawlings, Legends CEO, former president of Pizza Hut and former CEO of Tracy-Locke, Dallas, introduced the new agency partners. “I’ve long been friends with Jimmy Krause and I hired Jim Ferguson to be chief creative officer when I was running Tracy-Locke,” Rawlings says. “Ferguson is one of the best storytellers in America, and he’s built great brands over the years.”

=== Many major advertisers who have their headquarters in Dallas are going to out-of-town agencies, and we need to bring them back home." —Dennis D’Amico, Growth Strategies Group !==

Ferguson has built those brands in some pretty impressive jobs, including president/chief creative officer of Y&R/New York and chairman of TMAdvertising. Shallcross honed his talents in top jobs in Chicago at J. Walter Thompson, W.B. Doner, and Leo Burnett, where he teamed with Ferguson. And, about those Lions: presented at the International Advertising Festival in Cannes each June, they are the most respected award in advertising, and the partners have won a total of 18 between them. I’d be surprised if the combined talent currently working in all Dallas agencies have won that many, and the duo has also won every other significant advertising honor multiple times.   

Steven Spielberg called the pair in 1992. He’d seen a McDonald’s spot that Ferguson and Shallcross had written about PeeWee Football and, under Spielberg’s guidance, they wrote the film Little Giants, which was produced by Warner Bros. In 1999, Shallcross wrote and directed his first film, Bored Silly, and went on to finish his second feature, Uncle Nino. Since then he’s written and directed a number of award-winning commercials and served as a consultant for longtime clients Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Maytag, and Allstate Insurance.

So, while it’s not surprising that jimbobkrause would be doing a project for Mike Rawlings, it’s not likely that many clients would get this level of talent on a corny-dog shoot.

“That’s how Stan Richards built his terrific agency,” Ferguson says. “The Richards Group remains great because he stayed involved with the creative process all the way through.” “Yeah,” says Shallcross. “After Richards, what’s left of the other once-great agencies in town? Tracy-Locke [now TracyLocke] has become a promotional agency, TM is now an amorphous branch office, and Publicis seems to spend most of its time telling people how to pronounce its name.” Adds Krause, “Dallas is still a great business community, but now the agency landscape is pretty barren.”

Mimicking The Bankers
Those words are echoed with sadness and a resolve for change by Dennis D’Amico, managing director of Growth Strategies Group and a significant part of the Dallas advertising scene for more than 35 years. “Dallas used to be one of the top three or four agency towns, but the marketplace has changed dramatically,” he says. “Many major advertisers who have their headquarters in Dallas are going to out-of-town agencies, and we need to bring them back home. The good news is that one spark could begin that process.”  

D’Amico, a former agency executive and current executive director of the North Texas/Oklahoma Council of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, could have been speaking for any of the jimbobkrause principals when he added, “We’ve become too process-oriented. The guys at the top are mimicking bankers, and the worker bees these days are kids with Macs who are filling in the blanks. Personal involvement by great talent is one of the key missing ingredients.”

Jimbobkrause claims to take stewardship of their clients’ money as seriously as their personal involvement with the clients’ brands. “My mother owned a little candy store in Hico, Texas,” says Ferguson. “That’s where I learned a lot about business. My dad sold cows. We always brought along a box of baloney sandwiches to market, but if dad had a good day, we ate steaks at Cattlemen’s restaurant in Fort Worth. If we had a bad day, we ate the baloney. I never want to see my clients eating sandwiches from a box after they’ve been to market with our work.” Is the baloney sliced a little thick to swallow here? Not when it’s served by “one of the best storytellers in America.”

Back at the photo shoot, the two creatives show their latest effort, a campaign for Alon USA, the Dallas-based American division of an Israeli energy company. Built around two-page magazine and newspaper spreads offering a frank take on the responsibility of energy providers, the work uses strong portraits of people, including company CEO Jeff Morris, and the headline, “I am the problem. I am the solution.” Says Shallcross: “The entire message—how Alon is working to produce efficient fuels that have the least impact on the environment—is too complicated to tell in any ad, so our goal is to drive consumers to their web site.” The work is powerful and, according to Krause, the client is so enthusiastic that the ads may also run in Israel.

But, will jimbobkrause succeed? Can they become the next Richards Group? Well, somebody’s gonna do it someday, and I believe that in spite of—and partly because of—the crappy times we’re working in, these guys have a reasonable shot. But then, I believed in Muhammad Ali through every comeback fight. 

Like I said, we’ll check back in a year.

In more than 35 years as a copywriter and creative director in New York and Dallas, Spencer Michlin has created advertising in all media for Pepsi, Frito-Lay, Ford, the brands of Proctor & Gamble, and many more. His work has won virtually every advertising award. He can be reached at [email protected]