10 Legendary Quarterbacks and the Ad Agencies Most Like Them

A little game to kick off the NFL's 100th season

Anyone who knows me—because I typically won't shut up about it—knows I'm a huge football fan. Football nerd, is more like it. I wrote big, fancy word books about it and everything. 

Not so much college ball. I went to Franklin & Marshall, a Division III school whose team name was "The Diplomats." The mascots were played by students in colonial garb with giant, freaky Mardi Gras heads of Ben Franklin and John Marshall that made great targets for rocks, shoes and full cans of PBR. I loved F&M—great liberal arts school—but let's face it: A "Diplomat" is going to get his ass kicked every time by a Bulldog, a Cougar, a Tiger or a Gator. 

That's partly why I'm much more of an NFL guy. I grew up, and remain, a diehard New England Patriots fan. I'm also an ad guy. Which made me think: With another great NFL season beginning tonight, if the best-ever quarterbacks were advertising agencies, and vice versa. What would that look like?

That is, which personal, professional, athletic, on-and off-the-field qualities of the consensus top-10 NFL QB legends since the 1966 AFL-NFL merger (no leather-helmet guys) cross-pollinate with the most successful agencies?

Here goes:


10. Dan Marino

Prolific passer. Model of consistency—entire 17-year career with same team, the Miami Dolphins. Broke virtually every passing record while active. Never won a Super Bowl, however, so doesn't get the props that others further down this list get. And the dude couldn't run: had 87 rushing yards in his WHOLE CAREER. But in the '80s, he did one thing better than anyone—pass. His flash, precision, pizzazz and turbocharged aerial fireworks were unsurpassed. So, Marino is: 

Barton F. Graf

They were (sadly, past tense) as precise with pure, head-exploding, I-could-never-have-come-up-with-that-in-a-million-years-and-I'm-super-jealous! comedy as Marino was with his deep ball. Maybe they "couldn't run," either—i.e., they weren't exactly known for much beyond insane comedy—but who cares? The track record and respect are lasting. They were among the all-time greats, and like Marino, I'll miss seeing them doing their thing. Because they were very often, if not always, a mind-blowing fireworks show that also made you laugh with pure, shocked delight. 


9. Roger Staubach

Refined. Soft-spoken. A gentleman. A Navy man who served in Vietnam. Heisman Trophy winner. Led Dallas to five Super Bowls, winning two. A team-first guy to the extreme. Roger "The Dodger/Captain Comeback/Captain America" Staubach got started late as a 27-year-old rookie, his career delayed by military service. So he would be: 

Fallon McElligott

Why? Like Staubach, they started relatively late (1981) compared to the big New York or Chicago names. Co-founder Pat Fallon was the son of a Staubach-esque war hero. They've always gone about their business with a quiet but lethally effective dignity and a refined, old-school creative sensibility—every creative in advertising still reveres (or should) their work for Porsche, Time magazine, Rolling Stone, CitiBank; but they also redefined TV via the weirdo Swedish Miller Lite work and then-revolutionary (what's branded content?!) BMW Films. And on and on. Their cerebral approach was defined perfectly by the legendary self-promo headline: "A New Advertising Agency for Companies That Would Rather Outsmart the Competition Than Outspend Them." That's what Staubach did. Maybe he wasn't as "sexy" as some others, but for years he outright baffled the competition. 

And speaking of running, Fallon's Minnesota homeboy, Frank Tarkenton, gets a nod here because, like the elusive Tarkenton, Fallon ran circles around other creative shops. 


8. Brett Favre

Favre came into the league a good ol' boy from the swamps of Mississippi and never lost his gunslinger approach. Which made him one of the most prolific passers of all-time—a reckless-like-a-fox improvisor on the ground and an eventual Hall of Famer. But he also had some stumbles and down periods—pretty much everything after he left Green Bay (Jets, Vikings and other forgettable situations). So, Favre would be: 

Crispin Porter + Bogusky

Like Favre, CP+B started in the south (Miami). And like Favre did from 1994 to 2007—only QB to win MVP three consecutive years; 1990s All-Decade QB; Super Bowl champ in 1996—CP+B utterly dominated for a stretch (Agency of the Decade in the 2000s). Like Favre, who broke the mold of the statue-like, pocket QB, CP+B flaunted a reckless, DGAF, unconventional, improv, let-the-haters-hate style, first in Miami for brands like Truth, Mini, And1, then in Boulder for Domino's, Kraft, Burger King and AmEx. 

Questions remain about Bogusky's return: Will CP+B morph back into the powerhouse Favre-era Packers (the first NFL QB to pass for 500 touchdowns and 70,000 yards)? Or will they become the 2008 Favre Jets (when he threw a whopping 22 interceptions and harassed a female reporter with NSFW texts)? Knowing the talent there and Alex's ability to adapt and borderline shape-shift, like Favre magically eluding angry linebackers, I'd bet on Crispin at least making a better comeback than Jets Favre. Worst case, they'll be Vikings Favre. Think that's an insult to now mid-50s Alex and the gang in Boulder? Nope. People forget that in 2009, Favre threw 33 touchdowns and only 7 interceptions. At the age of 40, which is ancient for anyone not named Tom Brady. Stranger things have happened. 


7. Warren Moon

This guy just doesn't get the respect he deserves. Maybe because he came from the Canadian hinterlands—the Canadian Football League, leading the Edmonton Eskimos to a record five straight CFL titles. He went undrafted in the 1978 NFL Draft after two years at West Los Angeles Community College (where?) and two years at the University of Washington. But once he got to the NFL (after the Houston Oilers won a bidding war to sign him), he was very clearly on his way to Canton, Ohio. Between 1984 with the Oilers and 2000 with the Kansas City Chiefs, Moon was a nine-time Pro Bowler, passing for almost 50,000 yards and 291 touchdowns, and was indeed elected to Canton in 2006. So, which agency reminds me of "not as much respect as they deserve," perhaps because they started in a relative advertising hinterland? 

The Martin Agency

Sounds weird calling them underrated or under-appreciated like Moon, considering all their amazing work for Geico, "The World's BIggest Asshole" for Donate Life, Game of Thrones Oreo collaboration, and so many others. But like him, they started in an off-the-grid spot (Richmond, not Edmonton) and quickly proved they belong with the big boys and girls in NYC, Chicago and L.A. But unlike Moon, they've stayed in Richmond and just kept doing their thing at a Hall of Fame level .


6. Steve Young

A bit of a darkhorse candidate, admittedly. I could have easily had Troy Aikman or Terry Bradshaw (four Super Bowl rings each) here. But there's nothing harder in sports than replacing a legend. Which is exactly what Steve Young had to do in San Francisco, ousting the immortal but injured and aging Joe Montana in 1991. After a rough first year, Young exploded in 1992 and won the MVP, and after Montana was traded to the Chiefs, Young never looked back. Over the next seven years, until retiring in 1999, Young won a second MVP, six passing titles, made seven Pro Bowls, threw for 33,124 yards and 243 touchdowns, and rushed for 43 more TDs and 4,239 yards. Not since Tarkenton and Favre had there been such a true double threat. All of which reminds me of another darkhorse—or black sheep, as they call themselves: 

BBH New York

Like Young with Montana, they had to emerge from a large shadow—i.e., the mothership BBH London and creative legends like Sir John Hegarty. Like Young, they're perceived as smaller in stature—Young was "only" 6-foot-2 but his scrambling, scatback style made him appear scrappier than more recent QB giants like 6-foot-6 Joe Flacco and 6-foot-5 Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning; meanwhile, BBH is only about 75 people toiling in relative anonymity among the behemoth NYC shops. But the size, versatility and stealth that made Young a killer is also on BBH NY's side. Over the years, they've cranked out amazing work for big brands like Sony PlayStation, Google, Amazon, Axe and Macy's, and challenger brands like Seamless (now part of Grubhub) and most recently FanDuel. See? Double threat, just like Young. They've won with the sexy, long bombs and the scrambling running game of inches. 


5. John Elway

Elway was the first quarterback I ever remember refusing to play for the team that drafted him, the Baltimore Colts. In 1983, when Elway was drafted No. 1 overall out of Stanford, the Colts sucked. California boy Elway didn't want any part of that East Coast trainwreck. So he used his dual-sport skills—he threatened to bag football entirely and play for the New York Yankees—to force a trade to the Denver Broncos. Where he spent his whole 16-year career, making four Super Bowls, winning two, earning nine Pro Bowls, and retiring with a then-record 148 wins. He even won a Super Bowl as a general manager with the guy who's No. 3 on this list. But because Elway may not get the recognition of QBs 1-4 on this list, I'd say he's more or less: 

Deutsch 

Specifically, the L.A. office. Like Elway, it took heading west for them to really hit their stride, with iconic work like Volkswagen's "The Force" and other notables like Taco Bell "Breakfast Defectors," Dr Pepper, "Fansville" (which is about—duh—football!), the creepy-awesome Diet Dr Pepper "Li'l Sweet" campaign, Nest's "It Starts at Home" Oscars ad, Eminem's "fake pharma ads" album launch, rebooting Busch Beer, the pro bono "Art Heist for Good" for Water Is Life. But like Elway's football-baseball chops, the New York office is as legit as L.A.—rebooting Busch Beer; the pro bono "Art Heist for Good" for Water Is Life; etc.—making Deutsch an under-the-radar, dual-coastal baller, just like Elway.


4. Drew Brees

Brees started out a bit of a misfit. Despite a prolific college career as one of the most decorated QBs in Big Ten history, in the 2001 NFL draft he was dinged as being too small ("only" 6 feet even) from a very good but not perennial juggernaut football school (Purdue). So he was "only" a second round pick by the San Diego Chargers. After making the Pro Bowl in 2004, he tore his labrum and rotator cuff and was given up for dead by the Chargers, who had then drafted 6-foot-5 stud QB Phillip Rivers out of N.C. State to replace him. So he signed with the New Orleans Saints in 2006, and the rest, as they say, is history. Heading into his 14th season with the Saints, Brees leads all NFL quarterbacks in career touchdowns, passing yards, 300-yard games, completions and completion percentage. Super Bowl MVP, 12-time Pro Bowler, a Comeback Player of the Year, and coming off a season throwing 32 touchdowns to only 5 picks, Brees seems to be improving with age…just like: 

FCB

Once given up for dead like Brees and lumped in with other monolithic, legacy network agencies, IPG-owned FCB has made its own rousing comeback, boasting eye-popping stats for Burger King's "Whopper Detour" (FCB New York) and Glad "Torture Tests" videos (FCB Chicago); new-biz wins like GE Appliances, Kleenex, Hotwire. It's been a Brees-like resurgence for FCB, and like the Saints stud, it doesn't seem to be slowing down. 


3. Peyton Manning

This one's pretty simple. When he retired, Peyton was perhaps the most revered and famous QB to ever play the position. He held virtually every passing record in league history. And he was the most visible, gold-standard poster boy for the NFL itself, as well as the quarterback that other quarterbacks wanted to be, thanks to his sustained success, be it on the Indianapolis Colts or Denver Broncos. Much like... 

Droga5 

Work like "The Truth Is Worth It" for The New York Times is the advertising equivalent of Peyton's record-breaking 55 touchdown passes in 2013. Or the UNICEF "Tap Project." Or Sarah Silverman "Great Schlep." Or Marc Ecko tagging Air Force One. Or Prudential "Day One." Or Newcastle "If We Made It." Or Puma "After Hours Athlete." Or Honey Maid "This is Wholesome." Any one of them could be another Manning passing record. And when the Broncos miraculously poached Manning from the Colts in 2012, it was as groundbreaking, game-changing and shockwave-sending an acquisition for the NFL as Accenture snagging Droga was for advertising. After joining the Broncos, Peyton threw 103 of his career 539 touchdown passes and led Denver to two Super Bowl appearances, in 2013 and 2015, including their first win since 1998. Remains to be seen if Droga will thrive post-Accenture the way Peyton did in his three years post-Colts. But I wouldn't Vegas prop-bet against them. Maybe they'll relocate to Omaha! (Inside football joke.)


2. Joe Montana

Can't argue with Joe, arguably could be No. 1. All he did was win. National championship at Notre Dame. Four Super Bowl titles. Three Super Bowl MVPs. All the hardware you'd ever want. And he did it with both highlight-reel flash and pure, bootstrapping, blue-collar mental toughness and sheer force of will. Montana, therefore, would be: 

Goodby Silverstein & Partners

Not just because they both happen to be San Francisco (just a convenient bonus for me). But because, like Montana's 16-year career, the 30+ year-old GS&P's "career" has also included endless, highlight reel-level work like "Got Milk?", Budweiser frogs/lizards/donkey, Adobe's "Dream On" and countless others. And recent mega-wins like Pepsi, Tostitos, BMW and Xfinity. Really, this was a toss-up between GSP and the agency paired with the No. 1 QB of all-time. But I couldn't give Montana the nod because...


1. Tom Brady

What, you didn't think Brady wouldn't be my top choice? In the 2000 NFL Draft, he was a concave-chested, flat-footed, 6th round pick (199th overall) who was considered "less than optimal" and refused to let anyone change his mental makeup or force "the way things are done" on him, either. He kicked conventional training and recovery to the curb and created the TB12 Method and brand, based on the heretofore ignored concept of muscle pliability, which will keep him playing at a high level well past when human males are supposed to. Sounds a lot like: 

Wieden + Kennedy

Like Brady, W+K has given a middle finger to conventional wisdom and "the way things are done" for more than 30 years—independently and defiantly. Wieden has often resigned big, stupid clients who want to change them (and not vice-versa). And they just keep finding new, unconventional ways to, like Brady, keep winning with less. Not lesser talent, of course—many of the best creatives in the business are there, or want to be there—but more with brands that had been previously "less than," like Ford, KFC, Old Spice, and to some degree Bud Light (corn syrup debacle aside). And as AdAge noted in ranking W+K No. 1 on the 2019 A-List, their 52 new business wins in 2019 alone rival Brady's countless NFL/Super Bowl accolades as the most decorated agency ever. And like Brady, the unwavering standards of the Portland mothership has, by osmosis, made its "teammates"—global offices—superstars by association. New York, Amsterdam, London, Shanghai—virtually every W+K office is the best in its region or country. That's due to the Brady mentality that began in Portland back in 1982.

Which is why it's this quote in the AdAge piece from co-president and CCO Colleen DeCourcy (perhaps the Bill Belichick to the whole agency's Brady?) that melds the Wieden and Brady mindset: "You've got to approach every year like it's the first." That perfectly encapsulates Brady, too: the consummate winner, status quo flaunter and team leader who still takes nothing for granted, constantly hauling that "199th pick" chip around on his shoulder. Wieden, at least from my outside POV, also still acts like that—like it's '82, they're just a skinny, flat-footed agency still trying to get a shot at the bigtime.

Oh ... and Nike.

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Mark St. Amant
Mark St. Amant is a freelance creative director and author. See his advertising work, books and more at MarkStAmant.com.