Grand Illusion

Eisner Communications: Where image trumped reality

National recognition preceded collapse of Baltimore ad agency

February 11, 2007|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,Sun reporter

In a muggy hotel banquet room two years ago, Steve Eisner stood at a podium clutching the validation of 30 years of toil: a golden statuette in the shape of four letter A's.

It was an O'Toole, given by the American Association of Advertising Agencies, to the most creative, mid-size firm in America. Whatever those in the audience believed, Eisner took the award as the realization of his dream to transform a prominent but entirely local advertising agency into a powerhouse capable of competing with Madison Avenue.

It had been an audacious ambition, one that many thought impossible for a company with a ZIP code outside New York or Los Angeles.

But Steve Eisner had always believed that the reputations of many New York firms were burnished by style and hype as much as talent and know-how. If he could deliver the goods, he was sure Eisner Communications could land the coveted jobs that usually went to the glamorous firms. In that way, his firm would be exactly as one of his clients once described it to him, "Madison Avenue without the hokum."

That one-pound statuette showed how right he had been. Steve Eisner could swim with the sharks.

But the euphoria of those moments in Bermuda didn't last even two weeks.

Twelve days after his return home, the news broke that America West was moving to acquire US Airways, by far Eisner Communications' most prestigious account. A merged company wouldn't need two advertising firms, and sure enough, Eisner Communications soon lost an account worth $20 million a year.

Losing US Airways began the unraveling of the homegrown company, a process that would take less than two years, ending finally in November when Eisner Communications abruptly closed its doors. Fifty people were put out of work and debtors lined up to collect on at least $3 million worth of unpaid bills.

The merger triggered the collapse, but it also exposed a company that was never as grand as its image. Such contrivance is the stock and trade of the advertising business, which often ballyhoos clients beyond their actual worth or capabilities. But few outsiders suspected that the reality of Eisner Communications was itself so much less than its owner's representations, that in its disappearing act, it would prove itself full of sliding doors and false bottoms and overinflated claims. No one understood how much Steve Eisner's spin had been directed at his company.

"At some point," said one of his former employees, who like some others did not want to be identified for fear of antagonizing future employers, "the spin went too far."

In the end, said Jonathan Helfman, a former employee who did speak on the record, Steve Eisner's company proved as much artifice as he had perceived in New York firms. "In reality," Helfman said, "it became hokum without the Madison Avenue."

Modest beginnings

In 1968, Henry W. Eisner, Steve's father, bought S.A. Levyne Co., a small advertising firm for which he had worked the previous 22 years.

Henry was a concentration camp survivor, and, according to press clippings as well as those who knew him, a soft-spoken man little given to braggadocio. He worked hard, but his goals were modest - to compete successfully in the Baltimore area.

Steve followed Henry into the business, but not before an apprenticeship in New York with a high-profile company, Doyle Dane Bernbach. Still in his 20's, he returned to Baltimore in 1978 to take his place at what was then called Eisner & Associates.

His time in New York equipped him with grand aspirations for the firm, then housed in a four-story townhouse in Mount Vernon. He wanted to retain the homespun character of a local firm, but to compete on a national playing field.

"I represented a much broader vision for the company," Eisner, now 51, said in a recent interview.

Steve Eisner became president of the agency in 1983 and later bought it from his father. His wife, Sara, whom he met in college, worked alongside him. In 1992, he named her a vice president.

Under Eisner, the company expanded from 12 employees to 120 at its peak in the 1990s. He added new divisions, including a public relations arm and a subsidiary specializing in Internet advertising. He bought out a small company and formed Underground Eisner as a separate division, and he created Beverly & Eisner Communications to target African-Americans, Hispanics and other ethnic groups.

By the mid-1990s, Eisner Communications was one of Baltimore's largest advertising agencies. But it didn't realize Eisner's main aspiration until 1996 when he won the company's first national network television account, which was to create commercials for the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds.

The campaign promoted the idea of vacationing by recreational vehicle and slogans invented by Eisner - "Go RVing - Life's a Trip" and "Wherever You Go Life's at Home" - earned the firm attention and praise. By the late 1990s, Eisner Communications began receiving brief mentions in The New York Times.

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