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The mad man of Philly ad men

Gyro's Grasse says he's no "beast."

Steve Grasse : "I wanted to build my company like a band. And the best bands have carefully constructed images."
Steve Grasse : "I wanted to build my company like a band. And the best bands have carefully constructed images."Read moreBARBARA L. JOHNSTON / Staff Photographer

Since its inception 20 years ago, Philadelphia ad agency Gyro Worldwide has run campaigns for Boyds and Urban Outfitters and for international enterprises Budweiser, Camel and MTV. When it wasn't busy with those accounts, Gyro created its own, like the Sailor Jerry Rum brand and the Bikini Bandits film series.

That's pretty much ad business as usual - if it weren't for the fact that Gyro is so unusual.

Gyro, having claimed it invented certain unconventional marketing techniques, used drag queens and murderers to advertise South Street's Zipperhead punk clothier. It created a campaign against the United Kingdom seeking $58 trillion in reparations (for causing all of the world's problems, of course) as well as one for the fake luxury airline Derrie-Air. ("Weigh less. Pay less.") The firm has always had liquor and tobacco clients - taboos in the age of forced good health and new conservatism. And what the heck were the Bikini Bandits selling?

The answer: Steve Grasse, Gyro's CEO.

His reputation as an oddball, hothead and Libertarian is in full flower in Virus: The Outrageous History of Gyro, released in October. Although the book is written with over-the-top loftiness by a fake French semiotician (Harriet Bernard-Levy, Ph.D.) and has a faux publisher (Gold Crown Press; address, a Saskatchewan strip club), Virus proves that Grasse is one snarky hombre and a satirical conceptualist along the lines of Jeff Koons, Malcolm McLaren, Damien Hirst, Richard Branson and Gene Simmons - mad men, all.

Book or no book, Grasse's status has always been questionable in the eyes of local advertising, art and marketing mavens. Some doubt that he invented viral marketing, which encourages consumers to create hype through existing social networks, or guerrilla advertising - a practice that uses untraditional promotional methods. (The Derrie-Air campaign was created to prove that newspapers are still effective advertising vehicles. The ads, placed in The Inquirer and Daily News during the summer, resulted in more than 240,000 Web site views in one day and more than 200 news articles, Grasse said.) He's been called mean and vengeful. He's been called a braggart and a liar. There are former Gyro employees who wouldn't speak, on the recommendation of their lawyers, and rivals who said they couldn't chat on the record without fear of reprisal.

"When I moved to Philly, there were only a few 'Mad Men' whose reputations preceded them," says Matthew Vlahos, an independent advertising executive who until October was director of public relations at Red Tettemer, Gyro's rival Philadelphia ad firm.  To Vlahos, 28, shock tactics were Grasse's calling card.

"Gyro's a formidable adversary," he said.

Ben Woodward is a member of Philadelphia Space 1026 art gallery and the creative director for one of Grasse's new and unusual endeavors, Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, an Old City shop specializing in one-of-a-kind handmade items. Woodward first heard about Grasse through the grapevine.

"Before I got involved with Steve, I heard not to trust him and that he has a temper," says Woodward, 34. "Now that I work with him, I've learned that he does indeed have a temper, but that it has a very short burn."

Formidable, yes. Manipulative, true.

But this is the same Grasse who halted Virus' promotional campaign to take a Disney World vacation with his kids, who formed Art in the Age to sell quilts his mother sewed, and who recently joined Philadelphia's old-boy clubhouse the Urban League because he likes history.

"I think the people who make me out to be a beast never met me," says a soft-spoken Grasse, laughing about the terrible things he's read about himself.

In the end, the image constructed by the media works to his advantage - an advertisement for himself, if you will.

"It's a rock-and-roll thing. I wanted to build my company like a band. And the best bands have carefully constructed images."

Of course, Grasse doesn't care too much what the public thinks of him, especially in Philadelphia. His work as an artist and an advertiser is as much a theatrical punch line and a sport as it is a serious enterprise. "I think people are lazy and easily manipulated, and I like to experiment and see just how easily they are manipulated," says Grasse. The Philadelphians who've dissed him? "They're angry, bitter people."

Though Grasse has fun, Gyro was born of hard work, an ethic Grasse learned growing up in Souderton watching his father, Charles, in action when he owned Indian Valley Printing.

Grasse worked for his dad's company while at Souderton High, playing in bands like Hair Club for Men, and creating their art and promotion.

After studying up on the Sex Pistols' mercurial manager Malcolm McLaren, Grasse wanted in on the world of advertising and entrepreneurship. He went to Syracuse University for a year before landing internships that led him to British advertising giant Saatchi + Saatchi. "I wrote them a letter and told them I wanted to work for them in New Zealand," says Grasse. "They wrote back, told me I was strange, and said to go do it."

By 1988, Grasse had amassed an impressive reel of international ad campaigns.

So, he started Gyro.

The company commenced with major campaigns for MTV and Philadelphia Blue Cross. When Gyro created a campaign for Zipperhead in 1989, he caused an uproar using Charles Manson and Jeffrey Dahmer. Instead of fashion models, he used drag queens.

"I was still in middle school, but it's the stuff of legend - that serial killers for a 'killer sale'," says Vlahos.

But the ad campaign was soon yanked. Gyro even lost footing - at first - with the locals.

Yet it was then that Grasse realized he could make more of an impact nationally with zealous youthful advertising than he could locally. And although Gyro and Philadelphia have since made up (his client list of more than 25 includes Starr Restaurants and The Inquirer), Gyro, with 60 employees, still has more national accounts than local.

"That completely changed my worldview," says Grasse of the Zipperhead incident. "Before that, Gyro was a very traditional agency." Gyro's reputation was sealed, and it won national A-list clients like Coca-Cola and Budweiser.

Hence the legend - often debated - that Grasse originated these kinds of shock tactics."Did Steve invent viral marketing?" asked Cashman & Associates CEO Nicole Cashman, whose background includes a B.S. in design, merchandising and marketing from Drexel University. "I don't know about that. Al Gore says he invented the Internet," she says with a laugh. "But when guerrilla marketing was brand-new, without question, Grasse was one of its forefathers."

Cashman's marketing and advertising group has worked with Gyro and assisted Grasse in ventures involving Diesel Jeans, R.J. Reynolds, and Maxim's "Shock the Vote" events at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in 2000.

Although Cashman calls Grasse nontraditional and outrageous, she credits Gyro for putting Philly on the map in the ad world by tapping into its alternative youth culture. "I wouldn't have had as much success in this market if it hadn't been for roots Gyro laid down. This city's agencies were filled with old, stuffy men."

Grasse sometimes feels bad he's in the ad game.

"I'm in an awkward position," he says. "I happen to be good at something that I essentially despise. I look around me and see nothing but advertising and consumer culture gone awry."

In fact, Grasse thinks people should stop overspending - funny coming from a guy who sells things for a living.

This is what he likes about Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. It's about simpler times and being devoid of irony.

"I think being unironic in and of itself signals a sea change," notes Grasse. "Maybe Gyro doesn't need to be so shocking. . . . Maybe my true worldview - green elements, simple times - can finally show through."

Spoken like a true mad man. Er, ad man.