Founded: 1988 as Ellis Verdi & Partners
Gross Billings: $220 million (2006 est.)
NAIC: 541810 Advertising Agencies
DeVito/Verdi is an advertising agency that believes in shock techniques to win the attention of consumers jaded by commercial clutter. Based in New York City, the agency offers a bracing dose of Big Apple attitude to put across the message of its clients. DeVito/Verdi believes the first duty of advertising is to be noticed and that strong reaction, negative as well as positive, is the result of strong work.
IN-YOUR-FACE ADVERTISING: 1988–95
The agency, originally Ellis Verdi & Partners, was founded in 1988 by John Follis and Ellis Verdi. By early 1989, when the name was changed to Follis & Verdi, the fledgling agency had five clients and annual billings of nearly $2 million. In 1991 it added Sal DeVito as a partner and creative director and became Follis/DeVito/Verdi. Interviewed by Warren Berger for Advertising Age's Creativity in 2001, DeVito recalled that, prior to his entry, he had told an Adweek reporter, "'I'd like to start my own agency if I can find an account guy with brains and balls.' They printed 'brains and guts.' When that article came out, Ellis Verdi was the only guy who called. He got me drunk and talked me into it."
Ellis Verdi, who handled the business side of the agency, had left his job as an account executive at Grey Advertising, Inc., to work out of his own Manhattan apartment. DeVito, who was also freelancing, had put in time as a creative director for several agencies and had won an award at Cannes in 1989. (DeVito's copy, for Beneficial Corporation, started with a voice saying "Banks don't give everyone who applies for a loan a hard time." As a photo of deceased Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos appeared, the voice continued, "Marcos borrowed $5.75 billion." The voice concluded, "We think it's wrong when it's easier for someone like him to get a loan than it is for you.")
Both native New Yorkers, Verdi and DeVito did not hesitate to display the abrasive side of their urban heritage. They walked out on their first prospective client, South Street Seaport, yet still won the account. Soon after, they turned down a $16 million account because the job lacked creative scope. (They bought out Follis, who then opened his own shop, in 1993.)
Follis/DeVito/Verdi made its first splash in 1991 after winning an assignment from the Manhattan discount clothing retailer Daffy's Inc. Two young agency interns, formerly students of DeVito's at the School of Visual Arts, created an ad, often found outside subway stations, with the copy, "If you're paying $100 or more for a dress shirt, may we suggest a jacket to go with it?" The visual part accompanying it displayed a picture of a straitjacket. An advocate group named National Stigma Clearinghouse demanded that Daffy's stop running the ad, even picketing the store, but the daughter of the chain's founder told Matthew Goldstein of Crain's New York Business, "With a name like Daffy's, you cannot take yourself too seriously. To cut through the clutter, you very often have to be 'in your face.'" A follow-up ad for Daffy's began, "This shirt has a suggested retail price of $125." An accompanying line drawing showed the sleeves making an obscene gesture, followed by the conclusion: "We have a suggestion for whoever suggested it."
"In your face," was exactly the operating principle behind a Follis/DeVito/Verdi ad. According to Goldstein, Verdi maintained that the essence of each agency ad was: "You are out of your mind for not trying our client's product." The firm followed the Daffy's campaign with an ad for No Excuses jeans and sportswear that showed 17-year-old tennis prodigy Monica Seles vamping in a music video as if she were Madonna, Janet Jackson, or Paula Abdul. Alluding to her disappearance from Wimbledon to turn up at Donald Trump's lush mansion in Florida, she declared, "I'm not going to Disney World" and ended the 30-second spot by entering a limousine bearing the license plate TRUMP.
More cheeky DeVito/Verdi ads soon followed. A spot for Planned Parenthood displayed the unwrapping of a condom followed by the punch line, "It's easier than putting on a diaper." An ad for Linen 'n Things Inc. showed a fruitcake, perhaps the classic scorned Christmas gift, thrown into a trash basket. (DeVito/Verdi then received a letter from a Texas advertising agency on behalf of a food client demanding that DeVito/Verdi stop "attacking fruitcake.") The initial print and billboard ad for TimeOut New York, the entertainment listings weekly that began publication in 1995, proclaimed "Welcome to New York. Now Get Out." (In other words, get out of your hotel room and start seeing the city.) A television spot for Car Max, Inc., a chain of used car dealerships, that showed people mugging before a camera continued with the voice-over, "Pay more than you have to for a used car and you'll look even more ridiculous than you do on your driver's license, if that's possible." Another commercial for Car-Max warned viewers of sleazy auto salesmen in a more metaphorical way, by depicting a spider devouring a helpless fly caught in its trap.
DeVito/Verdi's 15-second spot for the optical chain For Eyes Optical Co. of Coconut Grove Inc., aired for the Academy Awards presentations, featured the captain of the Titanic on the bridge, squinting. When an officer asks, "Captain, what's that up ahead?" the captain peers forward again and replies, "What's what up ahead?" For Advertising Age columnist Bob Garfield, the epitome of the agency's bad taste was a television spot for clothier Britches of Georgetown Inc. that showed six pallbearers load a casket into a hearse while the voice over intoned, "You're going to be wearing a suit for a lonnnng time. Dress comfortably … while you can." (The last laugh was on the client, however, since it subsequently went out of business.)
COMMERCE PLUS POLITICS: 1996–2000
In 1997 DeVito/Verdi provoked the ire of New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani with an ad promoting New York that described the magazine as "Possibly the only good thing in New York Rudy hasn't taken credit for." Giuliani then fell into the trap of giving the ad, and the agency, free publicity by having the posters removed from city buses, only to have the action reversed in court. DeVito told Hank Schlesinger of Shoot, "The majority of advertising is invisible. You look at what someone spends for a piece of advertising and it doesn't get noticed. But for the same amount of money you can do an ad that will get noticed. It's really up to the agency to deliver that work."
We Search for Truth. Our philosophy is based on a view that our job is to capture a truth either about the product or the consumer that will resonate. What works, and we have proven it time and time again with all of our clients, is the need to find and hit a consumer nerve that resonates as valuable, truthful and unforgettable.
By the summer of 1998 DeVito/Verdi had won the award given by the American Association of Advertising Agencies for most creative small agency in the nation four years consecutively. The firm had 48 employees and annual billings approaching $60 million. New York clients, in addition to Daffy's and TimeOut NewYork, included Digital City, a community-based online service of American Online, Inc. The agency countered the perception that it was only suitable for New York by citing national advertising for Circuit City Stores Inc., Office Depot, Inc., MTS Inc.'s Tower Books subsidiary, Canon U.S.A., Inc., Empire Kosher Poultry, Inc., and the American Stock Exchange LLC. For Canon copiers, DeVito/Verdi initiated in 1996 what proved to be a long-running campaign evoking a vanished world where poor quality copies did not matter. These ads, still running in 2003, all included the line, "If it were that easy, you wouldn't need us." To introduce Circuit City to New York, DeVito/Verdi featured ads that included derelicts who wiped motorists' windshields with grimy rags or squeegees in hopes of a tip and men selling videotape recorders from the back of a truck, all intended to provide a commentary on the city's unique style of retailing. Before the year was out DeVito/Verdi won a contract from Office Depot, one valued at $40 million or more a year.
DeVito/Verdi anticipated locking horns with Giuliani again in 2000, when the mayor was expected to run for the Senate in opposition to Hillary Clinton, whose campaign employed the agency to create television spots. Prostate cancer forced Giuliani out of the race, and DeVito/Verdi took aim at Mrs. Clinton's eventual opponent, U.S. Representative Rick Lazio, with an ad featuring a picture of an ostrich with his head buried in the sand to illustrate the Clinton campaign's contention that Lazio was ignoring economic problems in upstate New York. Recalling working with the candidate to Berger, DeVito said, "She has a side to her that's fun. When we were showing her the work, she was cracking jokes—that's what I liked about her. But it was tough working on that campaign. If you think there's a lot of politics in advertising, imagine what it's like in politics."
STILL STIRRING THE POT: 2001–06
From the founding of the agency, DeVito/Verdi devoted 10 to 15 percent of its time to pro bono work, tilted toward the liberal side. In order to draw attention to racial profiling by police, a print advertisement for the American Civil Liberties Union paired a picture of Martin Luther King, Jr., on the left with Charles Manson on the right, with the copy kicker reading, "The man on the left is 75 times more likely to be stopped by the police than the man on the right." For the Pro-Choice Public Education Project's print campaign, the agency ran a photo of a back alley with the caption "Patient Recovery Room," one of an abandoned car called "Abortion Clinic," and a third of a soiled bathroom titled "Operating Room."
The destruction of the World Trade Center twin towers in 2001 inspired a different sort of public service project. For The Advertising Council Inc.'s "Freedom" campaign, DeVito/Verdi contributed four TV spots, three of which focused on what life would be like in the United States without freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom to read. The fourth, titled "Main Street USA," opened with an image of a working-class block in Bayonne, New Jersey. The accompanying voice over said, "On Sept. 11, terrorists tried to change America forever." The picture then fades out and is replaced by one of the same street with each house flying an American flag. The voice over says, "Well, they succeeded."
- The agency is founded as Ellis Verdi & Partners.
- Sal DeVito joins the firm, which becomes Follis/DeVito/Verdi.
- With the departure of John Follis, the agency becomes DeVito/Verdi.
- The agency receives free publicity when one of its ads is removed from New York City buses by Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
- DeVito/Verdi wins an award as best small creative agency for the fourth straight year.
- DeVito/Verdi crafts ads for winning New York senatorial candidate Hilary Clinton.
- The firm's annual billings have reached an estimated $134 million.
- DeVito/Verdi's annual billings have reached $170 million.
- DeVito/Verdi ends the year with $220 million in billings.
DeVito/Verdi named two executives as partners in 2001 and formed a division to specialize in public relations. The firm had 64 employees and annual billings estimated at $134 million. By the end of 2003 these numbers had grown to 80 and about $170 million a year, respectively. Among the clients and products it was promoting were Canon copiers, Grey Goose vodka, the Hotwire travel web site, Court TV, and the Meijer Incorporated store chain. DeVito had told Stuart Elliott of the New York Times that "I really try to sell the product, believe it or not," but this did not, in his estimation, mean losing his edge. For a back-to-school Meijer commercial, DeVito/Verdi started with a phony scene of a child expressing delight at receiving a ruler, then switched to type on the screen that scrolled, "This is a dramatization. Your kids will never get this excited about school supplies. So why pay more than you have to?" An ad for New York's Mount Sinai Hospital challenged the reader with these words, "If you can get into the city to see a show, you can go into the city to save your life."
After winning an award for a commercial in a 2004 Colorado senate campaign, DeVito/Verdi returned to the local political scene the next year with ads for unsuccessful Democratic party mayoral candidate Ferdinand Ferrer. One television spot, featuring Ferrer supporter and African-American spokesman Rev. Al Sharpton dancing to salsa music "was panned in political circles as message-free," according to Ben Smith of the New York Observer, "and to some, verging dangerously close to minstrelsy." Another, showing what Smith described as "an animated George W. Bush sharing a horse with Mayor Michael Bloomberg," had sexual overtones, in the opinion of a spokesperson for the mayor. Verdi, in an e-mail, responded that "When you see that voters were disregarding the existence of a challenger, more extreme measures were necessary."
The number of employees in DeVito/Verdi's quarters on Manhattan's lower Fifth Avenue had grown to about 100 by 2006. DeVito was directing the two-person copywriter/artwork specialist teams that actually produced most of the firm's work. Smith reported that "dozens of shiny industry awards are piled ostentatiously into shopping carts."
In early 2007 DeVito/Verdi became the advertising agency of record for Sidney Frank Importing Co., Inc., which formerly had owned Grey Goose vodka. Besides its ads for Grey Goose, DeVito/Verdi had created broadcast commercials for Frank's Corazon tequila. The firm was given the assignment of handling all media planning and buying for Sidney Frank Importing brands, including Corazon, Michael Collins Irish whiskey, Jacques Cardin cognac, and a new ultra-premium rum from Barbados, Tommy Bahama.
Berger, Warren, "DeVito/Verdi," Communication Arts, January–February 2004, pp. 72–79.
——, "Sal DeVito," Advertising Age's Creativity, October 2001.
Dill, Mallorre, "Pro-Choice Campaign Is a Challenge," Adweek (Southwest edition), April 9, 2001, p. 22.
Elliott, Stuart, "DeVito/Verdi on the 10th Anniversary, Makes Some Changes." New York Times, July 18, 2001, p. C14.
Garfield, Bob, "New Image Shown, but Do You Buy It?" Advertising Age, April 7, 1997, p. S16.
Goldstein, Matthew, "Packing Punch Lines," Crain's New York Business, February 23, 1998, pp. 3+.
Lauro, Patricia Winters, "Advertising," New York Times, February 12, 1999, p. C6.
——, "Advertising," New York Times, May 30, 2000, p. C10.
Lippert, Barbara, "Seles Makes Her Excuses," Adweek (Eastern edition), September 23, 1991, p. 38.
Lucas, Sloane, "DeVito/Verdi's Double Take," Adweek (Eastern edition), June 29, 1998, p. 4.
Messina, Judith, "Big Chain Plunges into NY with First Ad Campaign," Crain's New York Business, November 24, 1997, p. 4.
Schlesinger, Hank, "Kiss My Ads: That's Right, DeVito/Verdi Is Talking to You," Shoot, June 19, 1998, pp. 46+.
Smith, Ben, "Sharpton Dances and Madison Ave. Raids Campaigns," New York Observer, February 9, 2006, pp. 1, 10.
Teinowitz, Ira, "Verdi Sells N.Y. on Sen. Hillary," Advertising Age, November 27, 2000, p. 24.