No One Knows What It’s Like to Be the Adman

Peter Arnell is just looking for a little understanding.
——

PETER ARNELL KNOWS how to deliver a message.  For 30 years—since he was barely above legal drinking age—he’s been cooking up design, marketing, and branding strategies for such blue-chip companies as Johnson & Johnson, Reebok, Unilever, Electrolux, Home Depot, Pfizer, and Donna Karan. And the message he seems anxious to convey today, as he entertains a visitor in his firm’s new digs on the 36th floor of New York’s 7 World Trade Center, is that Peter Arnell—one of the most successful ad men alive, a hard-charging corporate-image mogul who has been called a guru and a genius, the commander-in-chief of what’s thought to be a $25-million enterprise, a designer who has created household objects, iconic logos, Super Bowl television commercials, and a cute electric automobile for Chrysler called the Peapod—is misunderstood.

“If I had a conversation with anyone about the fact that we engineer cars here, do you know I’d probably get shot in the street?” he asks, flashing an impressively whitened smile that projects conspiratorial bonhomie and disbelief in equal measure. “There’s such a high level of jealousy and envy around a lot of the work—not of me, but of what we do here.  Always.” And why is that?  “Because of the speed with which I move into an industry, people get nervous. They tend to just say, ‘That’s not possible—so, therefore, it’s baloney.’”


Now 50, and slimmed down from 400 pounds a few years ago to a whippet-like 150 thanks to a Spartan diet, Arnell is always recognizable by his trim Tom Ford suits, Corbu-inspired eyewear, and impeccably maintained stubble. The concept of “not possible” fails to register with him. As head of Arnell Group, he’s known for working across multiple disciplines (design, branding, marketing, architecture, and photography are among the skills in what he calls his “large, powerful toolbox”); for probing how these disciplines can entwine to create new forms, strategies, and products; and for occasionally rubbing people the wrong way. Case in point: a pair of perceived missteps that have brought Arnell more attention—and more criticism—than he’s ever received over the course of an enviably high-profile career.

First, there was the leak in February of a confidential memo that appeared to outline Arnell Group’s rationale for tweaking Pepsi-Cola’s longstanding “wave” logo into a broad smile not unlike Arnell’s own, an initiative whose price tag was reported to be $1.5 million. The 27-page design-strategy document—titled “BREATHTAKING”—hit the web and spread like an outbreak of avian flu. Tricked out with impenetrable pitchspeak (“The Pepsi Ratio is aesthetic geometry”), a multi-page breakdown of the logo’s so-called “perimeter oscillations,” and illustrations of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, the brief became a magnet for abuse. There were the usual snipings of the Gawkersphere, plus outright derision in the upstanding pages of Advertising Age (“Michael Phelps wasn’t the only one hitting that bong”), the Guardian (“gibberish”), and Fast Company (“one of the most ridiculous things ever perpetrated by somebody calling himself a designer”).


In the meantime, PepsiCo’s sister company, Tropicana, announced it would be pulling its brand-new Arnell-designed juice packaging from market shelves. As part of a $35-million makeover, Arnell—who reportedly eats 20 oranges a day as part of his diet regimen—had gone for an updated look swiped from Vignelli’s playbook: sans-serif font, clean lines, lots of white space. If you’ve ever seen a bottle of Method hand soap, you get the idea: housewife-friendly high design. But Tropicana’s loyal sippers were outraged, finding the understated new cartons generic and demanding that the old packaging, with its signature orange punctured by a straw, be returned. Following a 20 percent drop-off in sales, they prevailed.

The bloggers and magazines again piled on, calling this the biggest about-face in American business since New Coke. (One aspect of Arnell’s redesign will remain: a dimpled screw cap that resembles an orange half.) Arnell jokes that BrandWeek has now taken to calling him Peter “Tropicana” Arnell.  “I’ve been with Pepsi for eight years. Isn’t it funny that no one knew that? And Tropicana has gotten more attention than any brand in the entire brandscape in the last three months. I mean, it’s really—it’s magnificent,” he says, and lets loose a cackle at the irony of it all.

But still people aren’t getting it, he insists, equally amused, defensive, and unbowed as he reels off rapid-fire talking points: The Pepsi document, Arnell says, was not a pitch for the new logo but rather part of a presentation on creating outdoor pavilions—taste-test pods for a new generation of Pepsi Challenges. And in the case of Tropicana, the brouhaha had nothing to do with him. “See, that’s what everyone is missing. It was a shopability issue. You like Grovestand, and they didn’t want to do Grovestand anymore. So you went to the store to get Grovestand, and it wasn’t there. What does that have to do with design?” (Requests for interviews with Tropicana representatives for this story went unanswered.)

With a sweep of his hand (note the pancake-sized wristwatch), Arnell takes in the entire office: the glass walls, the Barcelona chairs, the incredible views that sweep from Weehawken to Ground Zero, and the shelves groaning with art books. “People don’t know that I live in a library,” he says. “I mean, how would anyone know that I have 78,000 books here?” And then there’s the impressive office archive, containing objects of Arnell’s fascination and obsessive research, including Tropicana packaging from around the world and what amounts to the entire history of Pepsi spun out in glass, plastic, and aluminum: foam-covered bottles from the ’70s, pull-tab cans from the ’60s, and on back to the turn of the last century. “‘You mean it’s real?’” he asks mockingly, affecting the astonishment of a benighted Arnell skeptic. “‘He has every bottle from every year and he did his research?’ And it just gets them more mad out there. You understand? It’s all real. That’s what people can’t cope with.”

I I

HERE ARE SOME THINGS you should know about Peter Arnell. He was born in Brooklyn and raised on Shore Boulevard in Sheepshead Bay, four blocks from the famed seafood restaurant Lundy Brothers. He graduated from Brooklyn Tech in 1976. He may have graduated from Columbia architecture school, but that fact is disputed. He interned with Michael Graves and has authored or edited 19 books on architecture and photography. He has been married to his wife, Sara, a former Vanity Fair staffer and Arnell Group’s chief strategy officer, since 1988. They have three teenage kids and a mansion in Katonah, bought from Tommy Mottola for $18.3 million in 2001 and filled with Arnell’s assorted collections: Japanese action figures, cars (including the Benz Patent Motorwagen, the first automobile), the longest G-scale model-railroad layout in the world (four-and-a-half miles of track), and those little round specs, 1,600 of them, all from the same Parisian maker. A statue of Darth Vader loomed over the reception area at Arnell Group’s old Prince Street headquarters, which many—including Arnell, presumably—thought fitting. He is friends with Martha Stewart, Rudy Giuliani, and Frank Gehry, who says of Arnell, “He’s the Energizer Bunny.  He just keeps going and going. He has an incredible wealth of knowledge, reads everything, and knows everything.” (Arnell has a permanent office at Gehry Partners in Los Angeles.) He adores Diderot and La Fontaine and actually reads them. He listens to Mozart and Haydn while working. The paintings of Gustav Klimt make him cry. He likes to make these facts known in conversation: “The problem is that, in the commercial arts, a lot of that stuff is just pooh-poohed,” he says.

The question of whether or not Peter Arnell is “real”—as opposed to say, a master of illusion, a showman, a high-flying charlatan, a manic dilettante—seems to obsess a particular class of design snob, not to mention Madison Avenue observers. But making the rounds with him at Arnell Group, which is part of the Omnicom Group empire, you get the feeling that he represents a certain kind of reality to those who work under him. As he moves around the thrumming newsroom-like space, with row upon row of designers punching away at CAD programs, there’s a sense that his very presence excites the electrons in the atmosphere. He shuttles from station to station among his 180-strong staff, looking over shoulders and offering advice, direction, and corrections, asking after family, inquiring about a recent bout of the flu, cracking jokes, stopping every once in a while to clutch at his BlackBerry whenever it emits its “When You Wish Upon a Star” ringtone. Arnell Group looks like a highly ordered business (“Just look at the fucking people! Have you ever seen something like this?” he proudly exclaims), yet one with a generous amount of creative chaos under the surface. It’s all stoked by Arnell, who operates at one setting: overdrive.

Nightmare stories about working for him abound. In 1999, four female employees brought a harassment suit against him. (The action was settled out of court.) In 2007, Gawker tagged him as one of New York’s Worst Bosses, and insiders say Arnell—whose considerable charm is said to turn into abusive rage at the slightest provocation—might be secretly pleased by the designation. Speaking on condition of anonymity, one former associate referred to Arnell’s personality as “classic Jekyll and Hyde.”

Rushing outside to enjoy a cigar in the relative peace of his Jeep Commander—conveniently parked at the entrance to 7 World Trade and, at 15-and-a-half feet in length, a far cry from the Lilliputian Peapod—Arnell admits to being “hard-driving.” He grabs a torch lighter off the dash and aims its blue flame at the end of an already half-smoked Zino Platinum (he owns a 50 percent stake in the company). “I mean, I’m just relentless about my work,” he says. “People want that level of precision, and want that level of focus, and want that discipline, in any company.” Arnell often doesn’t knock off until between two and four in the morning, occasionally heading out to the Rockaways after a long day to fish for striped bass until dawn before returning to the office. You can imagine that dealing with mortals—people who like to sleep or spend weekends with their families—can try his patience. “We talked about working together, melding our ideas,” Gehry says. “I failed at it. I couldn’t keep up with him!”
But the ferocious pace has paid off.  While many superstar designers are content to whip up limited editions for Design Miami or gaudy renovations for boutique hotels, Arnell is helping to create objects that will be used by millions of people around the world. The sheer ubiquity of his work is staggering: all of those Pepsi billboards along interstates, the rows of Tropicana cartons at supermarkets, the ads and posters for the newly renovated Fontainebleau hotel in Miami Beach, various offerings from Chrysler (where he holds the title of chief innovation officer), the line of household items for Home Depot that includes his award-winning, much-ballyhooed Home Hero fire extinguisher. “We’re doing everything at the same time,” Arnell says. “And we tend to act like licensed professionals much more than artists.” In other words, Arnell Group is no rarefied atelier. When asked about the designers who have inspired him most, Arnell cites Peter Behrens, Norman Bel Geddes, and Raymond Loewy—heavyweights who collaborated with (and even shaped) major corporations and virtually wrote the rules for how design and business go together.  His ultimate dream is to design trains, just like Loewy once did for the Pennsylvania Railroad.



I I I

ARNELL’S FOUR-TOP at the uptown Sant Ambroeus café is situated under a series of framed playbills from La Scala, within eye- and earshot of the nearby baristas and bartenders. Along with his favorite sushi spot, Hatsuhana, he comes here with ritualistic frequency. It’s 8:00 P.M., and the Jeep Commander is parked outside. An office manager has joined us, contributing smiles and nods and keeping tabs on what’s going on back at HQ through her BlackBerry. Arnell is heading out the next day for a lightning circumnavigation that will take him to Milan, London, Tokyo, and back again, the kind of trip he completes about once a month to check in on clients, pursue projects, and gather inspiration.

He orders a tomato cut into eight portions and a piece of fish, no oil. He’s wearing an eye-catching pair of $1,200 black-onyx bulldog cufflinks from Alfred Dunhill, which brings up a subject that is very important to him as a design professional: style. Arnell credits André Leon Talley, the Vogue editor-at-large he calls “my mentor,” for impressing upon him its importance. “People don’t care about the design of the iPod,” Arnell says. “They care about style. When people say they love design, they love things they think are beautiful.” It’s a curious point, one that both deflates the pretensions of capital-D design while elevating the entire practice to the loftiest aesthetic realms. (His own pursuit of beauty at Sant Ambroeus will lead him to return his post-dinner espresso twice before perfection is achieved.)

Arnell Group is clearly humming along. The Peapod electric car for Chrysler, with a smiley-face front grille and Aeron-like seating, was released on Earth Day. The car has created much-needed buzz for the troubled manufacturer, but the recession is on Arnell’s mind, and he wonders if the beauty he seeks—and the radical brand overhauls he’s famous for—could be on the ropes. “In this kind of turmoil, in this economy, I think people just want things to be stable,” he says, as he restlessly scratches away with his ever-present pen on a sketchpad. “Evolution in design is going to be creeping forward at a very low speed.”
Low speed, of course, isn’t Arnell’s strong suit. He thrives on the friction and upheaval brought about by velocity and reinvention. Ironically enough, what’s getting lost in all the blowback from Pepsi and Tropicana is that Arnell’s revamps weren’t half bad. In fact, they’re arguably better than the originals. Since 1991, Pepsi’s graphics have essentially said “arena-football franchise,” and Tropicana’s mish-mash of green and orange type was reminiscent of an Orange Julius stand. Perhaps for Arnell, the most embarrassing thing about these public stumbles is that the projects will now be associated with him, not with his clients—his litmus test for good design. “The moment they get in the public’s eye,” he says of his creations, “they’re the brand’s product. Not mine.”

Arnell calls for the check and trains his ever-present Sony Cyber-shot on the two self-portraits he’s been drawing on a drinking glass and a chocolate-dipped meringue. “I mean, that’s huge,” he says. “What I just told you is huge—I don’t own all the things I build, the companies that I do them for own them.” Message received:  Peter Arnell brands his clients, and not—despite the little round specs, the stubble, the talk of Diderot and Klimt, the high-profile friends, and the occasional headlines—himself. Peter Arnell is the anti-brand brander: Like the leaked Pepsi document, you don’t know whether to believe it, but it’s somehow impossible to ignore. And that turns out to be a strong branding strategy indeed. *

Mark Rozzo is a freelance writer living in New York.
Photography by MARK MAHANEY

COMMENT