How to find an agency that will deliver five-star creative

Anthony Bourdain, in case you just got back from Planet Zog, is a New York City chef whose rise to fame and fortune as a best-selling writer (Kitchen Confidential, Cook's Tour) and TV star (the video account of the latter book is running on The Food Channel) began when his mom insisted he send an article he'd written to The New Yorker.

Anthony Bourdain, in case you just got back from Planet Zog, is a New York City chef whose rise to fame and fortune as a best-selling writer (Kitchen Confidential, Cook’s Tour) and TV star (the video account of the latter book is running on The Food Channel) began when his mom insisted he send an article he’d written to The New Yorker.

The magazine, unaccustomed to publishing unsolicited manuscripts from cooks, nevertheless published it, and the rest is history. It was, of course, a wonderful piece, being an account of what not to eat in restaurants, and when not to eat it. It was the kind of stuff every cook in the world would take for granted as drop-dead obvious truth, but stuff even dedicated foodies haven’t sat down and thought through.

It struck me that someone should do the same for people who are hungry for brilliant advertising based on sound strategy, but haven’t really sussed out how to go about finding someone to do it for them. So I volunteered.

There are so many similarities and parallels between a hot chef and a hot creative director, and between crummy, overpriced food and embarrassing and shockingly expensive advertising, that to concoct a convoluted and overextended metaphor should be really easy.

Let’s assume you’ve just blown into town looking for someone to make you a marvelous meal. We’ll also take it your boss in Osaka or Frankfurt hasn’t insisted everyone round the world has to take every meal at the International House of Pancakes because he plays golf with the principal shareholder and gets a corporate rebate at the end of each year. So what should you do, and what should you not do?

You may be tempted to dine at a place whose name is known round the world and will be familiar to everyone at your club when you get back home and tell them where you went. Moreover, nobody ever got fired for expense account dining at the Hilton, or at the International House of Pancakes for that matter. However, it is unlikely anyone will suspect you were served the best meal you’ve ever had.

Places like the Hilton and Howard Johnson are huge and presumably profitable. They exist for a purpose, but that purpose is not the execution of memorable and magnificent meals. And Mr. Hilton and Mr. Johnson don’t work there any more.

You might seek out a restaurant run by a chef you just read about who was cited for an award by a jury of fellow chefs. But you should remember that chefs are a jaded and easily distracted bunch, and quite capable of being momentarily amused by cheeky, daring oddities, and less than thrilled by mere, predictable excellence. It might be a trip, man, but don’t be surprised if those little black things are lark’s lungs, and the tentacles on the shrimp’s head are still twitching as you’re cutting into the tail.

Let’s hit the biggest restaurant in town? Why not, it must be good, it’s BIG! Well, it may employ hundreds of cooks and waiters and bartenders, but only one of them will sauté your chicken or refill your bread basket or mix your martini. Your problem is knowing which one is doing your stuff. There are bound to be a few pros on the staff, either on their way up, or on their way down. And there are going to be people who were driving a cab yesterday, and who haven’t figured out where the hand soap is yet. If you don’t pick your servers by name and track record, your chances of getting assassinated chicken, stale bread and a watered-down martini go ‘way up.

Wal-Mart hires greeters, and restaurants hire seaters. (We’ll quickly credit Gary Prouk for this one.) The person who shakes your hand and once a year buys you a ninety-cent Sambuca on the house is unlikely to know or care how fresh the snapper is.

In any town, the most interesting restaurants tend to be local one-offs, started and run by people who are brave and possessed about cooking, too passionate and driven to work for someone else, and skilled or lucky enough to survive. To find these places, you have to ask around. Talk to the locals who love great food. Listen to what they say. Get names. Go where they go. Talk your way into the kitchen.

Okay, enough. In restaurants as in ad agencies, if everyone liked the same thing, there wouldn’t be enough to go round. I guess branch office agencies sometimes serve up great work, and revolving hotel chain restaurants occasionally deliver a great meal. But wherever you go, find a dish or a campaign that knocks you out, and then find out who did it. Go see ‘em. Find out what else they do. Get names. Talk to the cooks. Nothing else matters, and much of what doesn’t matter seriously gets in the way.

Barry Base creates advertising campaigns for a living. He writes this column to promote the cause of what he calls intelligent advertising, and to attract clients who share the notion that many a truth is said in jest. Barry can be reached at (416) 924-5533, or faxed at (416) 960-5255, at the Toronto office of Barry Base & Partners.