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Arnell Group was a creative agency which offered strategic brand planning, product and logo design, event and entertainment marketing as well as traditional advertising for several major clients. For most of its existence, the Omnicom-owned company was above all a vehicle for the diverse talents of its founder, Peter Arnell. However, its future was left hanging in the balance in early 2011, following his dismissal by Omnicom managers. He was replaced as CEO by his ex-wife, Sara Arnell, previously chief strategy officer, and Arnell Group struggled on for another two years before finally closing its doors in March 2013.
Peter Arnell began his career working for architect and designer Michael Graves. In the early 1980s he left to set up Arnell/Bickford, a partnership with architect Ted Bickford, initially to design architecture books for the publisher Rizzoli. Arnell/Bickford began handling instore design and promotions for Donna Karan's DKNY diffusion label mid-decade, and added a clutch of other fashion clients to their portfolio in DKNY's wake. Bickford left the company in 1993, the same year DKNY took its marketing inhouse. Arnell recruited his wife Sara as his new partner in the renamed Arnell Group. They sold a 55% stake in his agency in early 2000 to Interpublic's Draft, becoming AG Worldwide. A year later Arnell bought back the shares and then sold on the whole business on to Omnicom.
For years, Peter Arnell enjoyed a reputation as one of the industry's most highly regarded strategists, although his no-holds-barred self-confidence could take some getting used to. The Wall Street Journal once compared him to Darth Vader. An eccentric and larger than life figure, he was renowned for regularly reducing assistants to tears. Punishments ranged from excessive verbal abuse to being forced to do push-ups in front of the whole office. One employee was forced to sit under a desk for the duration of a staff meeting. Numerous other rumours spread through the industry earning him the title of "New York's worst boss".
Yet Arnell was also an obsessive perfectionist and creative whirlwind, personally managing every aspect of any creative project he took on. He designed logos, shot photos, filmed ads, art directed buildings, all with the same boundless energy and uniform skill. Sometimes described as Omnicom's "secret weapon", he was often drafted in behind the scenes to provide strategic assistance on brands handled elsewhere within the group. With an encyclopaedic knowledge of art and culture, and an opinion on just about everything, Arnell was certainly one of the major characters in the modern day industry.
The range of projects tackled by the company was varied to say the least. Projects included the concept and design of Reebok's spin-off brand Rbk and Listerine PocketPaks. In 2006, the agency established a speciality unit to design and develop innovative home interiors products for retailer Home Depot. Its first such project, the sleek HomeHero fire extinguisher, won several design awards. Another group unit, Intellectual Capital Group, is an entrepreneurial development business which co-launches niche businesses. One such was a range of healthy snacks for boxer Muhammed Ali's Greatest Of All Time (GOAT) venture, co-produced with Mars. In perhaps the most personal design job he ever undertook Arnell even remodelled his own appearance, shedding almost two-thirds of his immense body weight to go from 400 pounds to under 150 pounds between 2000 and 2007.
One of Arnell's first major missteps was the promotional partnership it negotiated in 2002 between singer Celine Dion and auto manufacturer Chrysler for the launch of the latter's Pacifica car. The year before, a similar arrangement with rock band Aerosmith had been a big success, but the launch campaign for the Celine Dion-endorsed Pacifica flopped, generating intense criticism from dealers. The planned three-year campaign was suspended after a single year, and Arnell was dropped by Chrysler. The relationship was patched up in 2008, when the agency was reappointed, and Arnell himself named as chief innovation officer. Subsequently, he was responsible for the concept and redesign of Chrysler's Peapod electric vehicle, unveiled in 2009.
Arnell also had a longstanding relationship with PepsiCo, and was responsible for the global introduction of a striking new set of can designs for the company in 2006. More recently, he oversaw another lavish reinvention of that company's brands and packaging in late 2008 and early 2009. This project was less well received, especially after Arnell's own extensive and undeniably pretentious brand strategy document was leaked online. Although much of the backlash came from within the industry, even consumers were outraged by repackaging of Tropicana juice, said to make the product look less like a national brand than a retailer's private label copy. With sales starting to fall within a few weeks of the relaunch, the change was compared by some pundits to the famed "New Coke" fiasco of the 1980s. PepsiCo subsequently reverted to the old designs for most Tropicana products. In another widely lampooned move, he persuaded Gwyneth Paltrow to launch her lifestyle blog and product range under the name "Goop".
As a result of this and other problems, as well as the departure of several clients, Omnicom appear to have lost patience with their one-time inhouse genius, and he was dismissed in early 2011, although his ex-wife Sara Arnell, then chief strategy officer, was retained as agency CEO. A lawsuit followed, in which Arnell sued Omnicom for the return of many of the "cultural artefacts" he had accumulated during his time at the agency. After two years lying low, Arnell himself resurfaced in 2013 as a marketing adviser for clients including vitamin company GNC. His former agency struggled on, but following the loss of key account Belvedere vodka at the end of 2012, Sara Arnell took the decision to shut down the business, with Omnicom's approval, in March 2013.
Last full revision 15th March 2017
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