An Ad Agency With A New View Three-year-old Gyro Is Making A Name For Itself As Cutting Edge. Some Would Say The Edge Cuts Too Deep.

Posted: February 22, 1993

This is the Temple of Hip.

It used to be the First Pennsylvania Bank at Third and Walnut. Now it's filled with a dozen young advertising people, several of them dressed entirely in black. Black T-shirts, turtlenecks, stretch pants. Black black black.

Generation X has taken over.

Its members have turned the teller's cages into the art department. The brick-tiled main lobby is decorated with a pink couch and Oriental rugs. Ad mockups and CDs are scattered about the rear office, which once was elegantly wallpapered with a 19th-century military scene.

Somewhere amid the clutter is their bible: Ray Gun, a California magazine so fresh it changes its logo every month and its typeface every page.

This is the home of three-year-old Gyro Advertising, owned and staffed by men and women who all are under age 30 and who are quickly making a name for themselves as a brash, cutting-edge agency that has done clever work for such mainstream clients as PBS and Comcast Metrophone.

Now, their most audacious - some would say offensive - campaign is about to make its way onto construction sites, college campuses, telephone poles and anyplace else posters can be stapled or pasted. The posters - for three area Zipperhead T-shirt and leather boutiques - feature news photos of mass murderers Jeffrey Dahmer and Charles Manson.

Next to a photo of Dahmer, who killed 17 young men, the poster says: "Go a little insane now not a lot of insane later. Zipperhead. Extreme Clothing."

The Manson ad says, "Everyone has the occasional urge to go wild and do something completely outrageous. When you fight this urge it builds up within you until one day you snap. Zipperhead. Extreme Clothing."

Steven Grasse, who founded the firm with his wife, Emma Hagen, says the ads speak to their post-baby boom generation, which has been dubbed Generation X.

He said reactions to the ads have ranged from, "Wow, that's killer," to, ''Oh my God, that's inappropriate."

"Look at our target audience," said Grasse. "They're the 18-to-25 MTV crowd. They've seen it all. . . . It's the media generation." For these people, he said, it's not enough to have an attitude: "You have to prove it and be taken seriously."

Unlike the "pseudo-marketing" of Pepsi and Coke, he said, this type of ad ''cuts through the clutter." Grasse, a square-jawed man with moussed-back hair, said, "The alternative scene has gotten so mainstream, we've got to start looking at what the next wave is. Sooner or later, McDonald's is going to have Pearl Jam singing their new jingle."

Grasse says it's important to consider all of the Zipperhead ads. The two killer ads are part of a broader campaign by Zipperhead, most of which uses the slogan "Keep an open mind," with provocative portraits. There are two beefy skinheads in a laughing hug, a stripper in a chain halter covering up with one hand, a cross-dressing man clutching the stripper to his chest.

Those ads, Grasse said, have gotten a "fantastic reaction. . . . They're nice fashion ads. A little wild, but no one's been offended by them."

The "killer ads" tie into a "killer sale" and "killer contest" Zipperhead is planning for next month, said Margarita Passion, general manager of the three stores. She said the ads are "very tongue-in-cheek," adding, ''We're not trying to offend anybody."

But, even sight unseen, the ads drew a strong reaction from a few ad-agency executives who were asked about them. "They're not on the edge - they're over it," said Brian J. Gail, president of FCB.

"I think it's in really bad taste," said Lonny Strum, president of Earle Palmer Brown & Spiro Inc. and chairman of the area council of the American Association of Advertising Agencies. Such ads, he said, "do a disservice to the industry."

Deborah Spungen, executive director of Families of Murder Victims Inc., said the ads were "offensive to victims." Her daughter Nancy was stabbed to death by punk rocker Sid Vicious in 1978.

Grasse acknowledged that the killer ads were extreme, "but I think people will get the point. We're not trying to say, buy some crazy clothing and you won't have a mental-illness problem." He said the Philadelphia ad community was the most conservative in the country. "It's like working in Romania," he said.

Anthony Vagnoni, editor of Advertising Age's Creativity, a monthly magazine, said Gyro fit in the "in-your-face school" of advertising, producing bold, irreverent, "borderline-tasteless" ads that could offend. But the killer ads might overstep even the usual boundaries for those firms, he said.

Those ads, he said, represent a "really questionable use of notorious figures."

As an attention-grabbing strategy for the firm, he asked, "what better way to put yourself on the map than to expropriate the images of mass murderers in your advertising?" But Vagnoni questioned whether the ads would serve the client, doing what ads usually should do: impart meaningful information about a product and generate sales.

Grasse says Gyro - named for a gyroscope, because it has "such a fast turnaround" - knows where to draw the line, and would not have recommended a campaign such as this for any of its clients but Zipperhead.

If Gyro's sense of humor is misunderstood, it wouldn't be the first time. Last summer, the agency produced a billboard near the Benjamin Franklin Bridge for Eli's Pier 34 Seafood Restaurant: "She gave me crabs, so I asked her to dance."

The ad came down in a month after it got a "generally negative reaction," said restaurant owner Eli Karetny, who nevertheless considers the agency ''very creative."

Much of its work is considerably more mainstream. Gyro recently completed a series of four 15-second TV spots to raise money for the Public Broadcasting System. One of them shows a man's hand petting his pet rock.

"Between now and March," the announcer says, "maybe we'll spot the next big fad and get wildly rich so we won't have to ask for your support. Then again, maybe not." The ad concludes: "You make it happen with your support."

"I thought their work was excellent," said Christina Mazzanti, the manager of video promotion for PBS.

The agency also landed the account of Robert Stock Ltd. for silk clothing on the strength of a blind pitch letter that one company executive found so hilarious she picked up the phone and called Gyro.

"We'd love to send you more samples of our work," the letter said. ''However, before we do so, we'd like to make sure you are the right person to send it to. If you are that person, please stand on top of your desk, open your office window and sing "Wild Thing" in the ancient language of Sanskrit. The samples will then magically appear to you in three to five days."

Such pitches helped to gain the agency $5 million in billings last year and a projected $13 million this year, Grasse said.

Grasse, who was reared in Souderton, Montgomery County, where in high school he was voted class clown, has broad ambitions. "We have no interest in being a local agency," Grasse said. "We're thinking nationally, and the way to do that is to have a niche."

He said his generation needed to be spoken to on its own level. "I don't think some 40-year-old guy in an ivory tower can do that," he said. "No amount of focus groups can help you do that. You've got to be one."

Which, of course, raises the question of what happens on Sept. 19, 1994, when Grasse turns 30. "I think I can effectively pull this off until I'm 35, and then change the focus," Grasse said.

"Hopefully," said Hagen, 25, his wife and the firm's creative director, ''we'll all be so rich we won't care anymore."

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