The Talented Mr. Cantena
Ask anyone who knows him to describe Carmine Catena and three common descriptives come to mind: fun-loving, talented and incredibly intelligent. Catena's talents manifest in many ways: his uncanny ability to recite virtually any line from his favorite gangster movies or his willingness to share his love for music by plopping down on a nearby piano stool and gently coercing the keys to sound out a complex Mozart melody. But his skill extends far beyond personal interests. His stellar career in the advertising industry reflects his
special abilities, as well.
Reflections of days gone by
"In college I was a communications major, and I got my B.A. in that field because I was interested in public relations. What I found was that those types of jobs required a lot of writing, and I soon discovered that maybe that wasn't my thing," recalls Catena. "After college, my wife had been working as the director print services at Cunningham & Walsh, and she introduced me to one of her colleagues at Fairfax Advertising. I went to interview for a job there—for $9,000 a year—and I found that there were 30 people waiting to be interviewed ahead of me. I don't know how, but I got the job. It had been kind of a strange interview. The guy who hired me told me, 'I don't even know why I'm hiring you. I just like you.' Literally, I had no experience, but I guess we just hit it off, and he decided to give me a break."
In hindsight, it was Catena's big break into the ad industry, although his stint with Fair-fax lasted six months before he was called onward.
"I started out as a trafficker at the Wil-liam Esty Agency," recalls Catena. "In those days, it was one of the most profitable agencies in the U.S. They worked with all blue-chip clients like Nabisco, R.J. Reynolds and Datsun. I learned a lot while I was there—about trafficking and working on major accounts."
For more than two years, Catena faithfully trafficked for some of Espy's highest profile clients. But his hunger to learn inspired him to begin looking for new challenges. "[Ogilvy & Mather] was looking for an assistant production person, and I thought it sounded like it was right up my alley."
Catena landed this position, too. Almost immediately, he was assign-ed to O&M's American Express account. "At that time, American Express had more than 22 divisions that we were servicing. It was a huge, demanding account, and it was one that really taught me the craft of advertising," recalls Catena. "Fortunately, while I was working at O&M, I met a lot of people who took time out of their own schedules to teach me, mold me and ensure my own success. Frank Vergone, Jerry Finnegan, Tom Raikakos—they were just three guys who really took me under their wings and taught me the ropes."
After three years, Catena took a job as assistant production manager at Hill/Holiday in New York City. "That year—I think it was 1986—Hill/Holliday was named agency of the year. It had a hot, creative reputation, but after I'd been there for three and half years, things were a little shaky. It was a time when a lot of agencies were cutting costs and laying people off. Well, I thought my job was on shaky ground, but instead of letting me go, they let my boss go, and I was given the opportunity to run the production department, which had three or four people back then. Here I was, 29 or 30 years old, and I had become a manager," Catena remarks.
Hill/Holliday treated Catena well throughout the next six years he spent with the firm. He recalls, "They gave me a lot of opportunities to better myself and continue my education."
In time, Catena felt as though he'd outgrown his position with Hill/Holliday, and he moved on to Adler Peebles. "It was a busy place, and they were working with clients like Christian Dior and exclusive boutiques," he recalls. "These folks were doing some interesting things back then, like producing scented strips. I was there for three years when Hill/Holliday called. They wanted me back, and I think that was one of the best calls I've ever gotten. It was the ultimate compliment, that they wanted me back. And when I accepted, it was like coming home again."
Catena went home in 1997 and was appointed as Hill/Holliday's vice president/director of creative services. This spring, he was promoted to senior vice president/ director of creative services, but a more apt title might be jack of all trades. "Essentially, I make sure that the work continues to flow," Catena explains. And his approach is very hands on. Catena refers to himself a "trench guy."
"I like to keep my finger on the pulse of what's going on, so that about 70 percent of my time is devoted to managing our operations, but the balance of my time is spent on actual production work," he explains.
"I also have a lot of direct contact with our suppliers. They are my life line, in a way. I depend on them to educate me about new technologies, and I educate them about the demands the agencies face. Anytime I find myself in the office too much, I'll pop over to one of our supplier's offices to address production problems we may be facing and to solve the problems as a team."
A circle of friends
"I've known Carmine for almost 15 years," notes Frank Vergone, vice president, agency services, Applied Graphics Technologies, New York City. "I was always impressed with his willingness to listen and learn. He never took a know-it-all approach. He'd listen to what others recommended or proposed, and he'd act on it."
Reflecting on his career, Catena's learned many lessons: "This business doesn't tolerate too many mistakes," he warns. "Clients are always questioning your decisions. … I can really say that during my career—and thank God—my mistakes have been few and far between. … In addition to watching my own work, my eyes always have to be on all of our accounts, every day," Catena notes. "It is a fine balance, though, for I know I can't submerge myself completely in every account. I've had to learn—for my sake and for the growth of my employees—to delegate and only to intervene when problems come up."
Although Catena is a high-profile player in the agency space, he remains humble. He's an active member in many industry associations, such as the Advertising Production Club of New York (APC), the Graphic Communi-cations Association (GCA) and the Digital Distribution of Advertising for Publications (DDAP).
"I met Carmine through the APC," recalls Victor Basile, senior vice president/director of graphic services, D'Arcy Advertising, New York City. "He's incredibly intelligent and smart about the agency business. … It's nice to know that there are people out there who share a common vision and are willing to work hard to achieve some common goals."
"Carmine puts 100 percent of himself into this business," agrees Horan Imaging Solutions' Frank Maguire, Jr.. "He's also a great resource to many people. You can turn to Carmine if you have a problem, and if he doesn't know the answer to your problem, he'll find the answer."
"I describe Carmine as the god-father of the industry," remarks Brad Mintz, vice president/manager of graphic services for McCann Erickson, New York City. "He's the Mario Puzo of advertising. He's the story teller. You don't just say hello to Carmine. You hug and kiss. It's an experience unto itself. And you know that he's a guy that will go to the mattresses for you."
"I'm humbled and flattered to be inducted into the Hall of Fame," Catena confesses. "My schedule hasn't always been [conducive] to spending time out there and dedicating time to organizations, but I've tried to do it
anyway. Now that I think about it, I'm really glad that I made the time, but success is never something that has come easily for me. I realize that I still need to pay my dues and work even harder. I will always try to do my position—and my industry—justice," Catena continues.
"I owe thanks to a lot of people out there, all those people who went to bat for me. … And I certainly have to thank my wife for putting up with me. She put up with all those late hours and all of my mood swings. That's what advertising does to you—mood swings," he sighs.
-Gretchen A. Kirby