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Feb 9, 2014, 11:36pm EST UPDATED: Feb 9, 2014, 11:56pm EST

Meet DeVito/Verdi, the New York agency
that’s shaking up the Boston ad scene

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presence. But now that such an effort is under way, he says the agency is looking at possibly
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staff is based in Manhattan.)
This hasn’t necessarily been easy, breaking into Boston. The potential clients in Boston often
have entrenched relationships with agencies that go back for years. Unlike in New York, the ad
folks here will regularly see their clients at functions, on the street, or at the ballgame.
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partner Sal DeVito. “Boston is a little bit insular, as a business community. … But it’s a very
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Herb Chambers tells me he picked DeVito/Verdi because of its memorable work for Legal Sea
Foods. Chambers says he wanted a campaign that would stand out amid all of his rivals’ car ads,
one that would be more memorable in part because it’s more unusual.

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If you’ve lived in Boston, you probably haven’t heard
of DeVito/Verdi. But there’s a good chance that you’ve
seen an ad from the New York agency.
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its succession of offbeat Legal Sea Foods T ads that
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behind the near-ubiquitous Herb Chambers ad campaign that’s been under way for nearly two
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numerous local ad shops?

That was certainly a motivating factor behind Suffolk’s choice, as well. Greg Gatlin, Suffolk’s
vice president of marketing, tells me DeVito/Verdi’s unconventional approach was appealing to
Suffolk. Gatlin says the agency also had a clear track record of creating ads that developed an
emotional connection with people. The university didn’t necessarily set out to pick an agency
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other industries other than higher ed was a plus, not a minus, in Suffolk’s case.
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for New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital that can practically make you laugh and cry at the same
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The Suffolk campaign is still taking shape, as the agency’s research hones a message about what
makes Suffolk so special. Verdi says stakeholders are being asked what they would miss about
Suffolk if the university disappeared. A theme is emerging around how the school has provided
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other ideas in play as well.
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Verdi never sold out to one of the big multi-national conglomerates. “It’s a rare thing right
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So far no one is complaining, at least publicly, about all the Boston business pulled in by two guys from New York. While most
restaurant ads feature diners and steaming hot plates of food, DeVito/Verdi’s newest Legal commercial straps chief executive Roger
Berkowitz to a lie detector machine. His answers suggest that anyone who calls Legal a chain of restaurants must be a “complete
moron.”
Conventional ads for auto dealerships tell viewers to “come on down” to the lot, promising rock-bottom prices and easy credit. The
Chambers spots push the company’s five-day money back guarantee on all used car purchases — featuring a baby who only cries in
the new family car, a dog that refuses to get in, and an unimpressed teenager.
“They’ve broken out of that sea of sameness,” said Judy Neer, chief executive of Pile and Company, a Boston firm that matches companies with marketing agencies.
DeVito and Verdi have been in business together since 1991. DeVito said they paid their first three employees in veal parmesan
sandwiches. The firm’s first office was the size of the bathroom in their current space on 5th Avenue.

A still shot of an ad for Legal Sea Foods has chief executive
Roger Berkowitz strapped to a lie detector.
But their luck started to change later that year when a Daffy’s discount clothing campaign in New York led to boycotts from a
mental health advocacy group. The ad read: “If you’re paying over $100 for a dress shirt, may we suggest a jacket to go with it?”
with the image of a straightjacket.
The ad controversy led to more retail clients. Over the years the agency has worked for everyone from New York magazine to the
American Civil Liberties Union and Hillary Clinton during her first Senate run.
Chances are you have never heard of Sal DeVito and Ellis Verdi, but you’ve probably been insulted or amused by their work.

“The worst thing is to not get any reaction,” Verdi said. “Tell me if you can find a better piece of advertising than a huge demonstration in front of the store. Our work has an emotional impact to it. Others don’t.”

The New York ad men have been the brains behind the controversial Legal Sea Foods advertisements — from the “fresh fish” that offended
MBTA workers with snarky billboard comments, to a campaign that upset some Christians by adding the word “Legal” to the religious fish
symbol.

Chambers, the car dealer, said he had grown tired of the nearly identical commercials from one dealership to the next. “They become a blur,” Chambers said. “If they are a blur to me and I can’t remember who is advertising what car at what price, what is the
value of the advertising? I need advertising that cuts through the clutter.”

Now their agency, DeVito/Verdi, is calling out pretentious colleges and pompous students in ads for Suffolk University. It took shots at Yankees fans in a recent spot for car dealer Herb Chambers.

He got that with the DeVito/Verdi ads that began running earlier this year. Much of the campaign casts Chambers as a straighttalking dealer who is not your typical car salesman. “Don’t like car dealers?” he asks in one ad. “Great. Neither do I.” In another
Chambers says, “I don’t want to sell you a car. I want to sell you your next three cars.”

The head-turning irreverence of the campaigns seems to appeal to Boston sensibilities. DeVito/Verdi now has more clients in Massachusetts
than in New York. Besides Chambers and Suffolk, Fallon Health, Bernie and Phyl’s, Tribe Hummus, and City Sports have all signed on since
last summer.
“We’re raising the bar here,” Verdi said.
Mike Donahue, executive vice president of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, said DeVito/Verdi’s growth in Boston is a
“shot across the bow” to local agencies — and “will make agencies think about what they are doing and how they can get the same kind of
ink.”
DeVito/Verdi competes with similar-sized Boston agencies such as Allen & Gerritsen, which represents Friendly’s Ice Cream, and Connelly
Partners, which counts the Massachusetts State Lottery among its clients. It also goes up against smaller local firms such as Conover Tuttle
Pace, the agency for the Boston Red Sox, and Full Contact Advertising, which does work for Cumberland Farms.

But some of the advertisements took the idea too far for the longtime Boston businessman. He pulled one ad that claimed the
dealership gives everyone but Yankees fans great service after New Yorkers complained.
Nonetheless, Chambers likes that the spots got people talking. “They are making comments about it, which they had never done
before,” he said.
Others, like Berkowitz, seem to welcome criticism. The chief executive of Legal Sea Foods said he never intends to offend people
but he likes “pushing things right to the very edge.” As a result, Legal has become a creative outlet for the agency.
“He’s not really afraid of doing anything,” DeVito said. “Sometimes we get nervous of what he wants to do. That’s not the way it’s
supposed to be. If he gets phone calls, he doesn’t mind. I think he applauds it.”

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Suffolk hired DeVito/Verdi, a midsize ad agency in New York with a record of creating clever,
attention-grabbing campaigns for Legal Sea Foods, to help the university stand out from the pack of
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Boston colleges.
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Fifty-four percent of undergraduates are in-state residents, and 69 percent of alumni live in
Massachusetts.
Despite its working-class roots, Suffolk ranks among the more expensive universities in
Massachusetts for undergraduates, according to a recent Globe analysis of tuition expenses.

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Boston school portrays itself as “a university
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stuck up in the air.” Another describes Suffolk as a school for
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“rely on their will to succeed, not their father’s
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During the 2012 to 2013 academic year, the “net” tuition cost at Suffolk was $31,263 — a figure
that takes financial aid into account. That net tuition figure puts Suffolk on par with the likes of
Boston College and Boston University.

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The edgy new campaign that brands Suffolk as a school for the
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common student
will be launched Friday with ads in print,
radio, television, online, and inside MBTA trains. It is the first
university-wide marketing effort at Suffolk in eight years.

The net tuition costs at elite universities like Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
are much lower, thanks mostly to income from huge endowments used to offer generous financial
aid to students.
One of the new Suffolk ads points out that its law school has produced more Massachusetts state
judges — 119 to date — “than Harvard, Yale, and Columbia combined.” Another draws attention to
30 of the 76 radiation therapists employed by Mass General Hospital being Suffolk alumni.

Earlier this month, the university decided to freeze salaries for
the coming fiscal year due to an anticipated $11 million
revenue shortfall and a “challenging enrollment environment.”
Administrators expect a smaller-than-anticipated law school
class, a slight decline in the ranks of their new undergraduates,
and flat graduate enrollment.
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“Most people know Suffolk is here, but if you polled people
and asked them about Suffolk, they might not have anything
very specific to say,” said James McCarthy, the president of
the university. “What we’re trying to do is deepen awareness
and tell people who we are and what we do and the type of
students that we have.”

One recurring theme: The school’s history serving local students who may not have received a
university education otherwise. Suffolk began in 1906 as an evening law school educating young
immigrants in the parlor of founder Gleason L. Archer’s Roxbury home.
“Suffolk came to be the place where smart, hard-working, dedicated people could get an education
and do something with it,” McCarthy said. “These were people who came from the Boston
neighborhoods. That’s still the case.”

Suffolk University,
a smaller school surrounded by some of
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the world’s most famous colleges, is launching a new ad
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campaign that takes a sharp poke at academic elites and
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snobby students.

The ad campaign aims to give the school of fewer than 9,000
students a clearer identity in a region where it can be
overshadowed by better-known colleges and universities.

The agency interviewed students, alumni, administrators, and others to “uncover the truthful
essence of the school,” said Ellis Verdi, president of the agency.

Devito/Verdi, a New York agency,
created the tongue-in-cheek ads to

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help Suffolk University stand out
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from the pack of Boston

colleges.

The only television commercial in the campaign is a scene from the 1954 film “On the Waterfront,”
in which actor Marlon Brando utters the famous “I coulda been a contender” line. The scene is
followed by the words: “Be a contender.”
Verdi hopes the cumulative message of the campaign is that students with passion and desire can
receive a great education at Suffolk. If it’s successful, he said, the university will move up a few
spots on students’ lists of potential colleges and make others consider it for the first time.
“After you see the ads, you’re not going to call up Suffolk and say you want to go there, and I don’t
expect you to,” Verdi said. “But I do expect you over time to have a more positive predisposition to
the school.”
Taryn Luna can be reached at taryn.luna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @TarynLuna.
© 2014 BOSTON GLOBE MEDIA PARTNERS, LLC

The television ads, which will have no actors, are to debut Friday,
featuring YouTube videos of real-life acts best described as ill-advised.

The latest advertising campaign from Legal Sea Foods embraces an inside joke at
the restaurant company, a standard response to dumb things people say and do.
The punchline: People making foolish choices aren’t eating enough fish. The new
Legal ads take that idea and run with it, playing up the virtue of fish as “brain
food.”
A series of television ads will debut Friday, featuring YouTube videos of real-life
acts best described as, well, stupid. There are no actors, simply people who went
on the Internet to post their ill-advised choices — licking an icy pole or driving
into a garage door — and then gave one of New England’s most popular
restaurants permission to broadcast them in prime time. “Fish is brain food,” the
spots declare. “We have fish.”
Print ads, following the same “brain food” theme, debuted in June publications.


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