The Crazy Genius of Brand Guru Peter Arnell

It's a gray Wednesday morning and I'm chasing Peter Arnell through the streets of midtown Manhattan. We're supposed to be going for a walk. But Arnell doesn't walk. He dashes—from Brioni, which does his tailoring, to Hatsuhana, his favorite sushi restaurant, to the Seagram building, where he offers me an impromptu lecture about the building's architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Arnell wears a gray Tom Ford suit and his trademark Corbusier-style eyeglasses. He puffs on a Zino Platinum cigar—a brand he helped create—and talks to just about everyone. Rounding a corner, he spots a bagel vendor who's selling Tropicana orange juice. He rushes over, picks up a carton and asks the vendor what he thinks of the new packaging. "I designed this," Arnell says. "How's it selling? Is it doing well?" The vendor raves about the new design. "You see that?" Arnell says as we're walking away. "That guy loves it. Why can't he have a freaking blog, right?"

Actually, the word Arnell uses is not "freaking," and he's using it a lot. Last year his "brand architecture" company, the Arnell Group, won a contract from PepsiCo to redesign the Pepsi logo and create new packaging for Tropicana, a PepsiCo brand. The new Pepsi logo drew mixed reactions. But the Tropicana boxes, which debuted in January, drove people nuts. Customers said the box was so different that they couldn't find Tropicana on the shelf anymore. They missed the familiar orange-with-a-straw picture. The blogosphere lit up with criticism. One blogger called Arnell "the Bernie Madoff of brands." People started comparing the situation to the 1985 New Coke disaster. In February, Tropicana announced it would revert to the old packaging.

That fiasco will cost Tropicana some money, but it could do even more damage to Arnell, who's been called one of the great brand impresarios of our age. "Peter is an artist—he's a genius," says Steve Stoute, a former partner at Arnell's firm who now runs a rival branding firm. "The characters on 'Mad Men' have nothing on Peter Arnell—they're not even close." Over the past two decades his agency has done high-profile work for clients like Samsung, Banana Republic, McDonald's, Home Depot and Pfizer. That iconic ad for Donna Karan's DKNY line, with the giant letters and the black-and-white photographs of New York? That's Arnell.

Yet despite his achievements, some rivals dismiss Arnell as a pompous, pretentious, phony intellectual—a fraud, basically. That criticism seemed on target when, in the midst of the Tropicana controversy, someone leaked a 27-page memo Arnell wrote for PepsiCo crammed with so much pseudo-intellectual claptrap—references to the Mona Lisa, the Parthenon, the golden ratio, the relativity of space and time, magnetic fields, "perimeter oscillations" of the Pepsi logo, the "gravitational pull" of a can of Pepsi on a supermarket shelf, the rate of expansion of the universe—that some thought it might be a hoax. It wasn't. In the small and catty world of advertising and design, Arnell's stumble has been cause for celebration. The schadenfreude on Madison Avenue hangs so thick you can practically taste it.

Still, even people who don't like Arnell (and there are many) will admit, grudgingly, that he is a terrific salesman—the name P. T. Barnum gets mentioned—and that he has done some wonderful work. Arnell shoots his own photographs and directs his own TV commercials. He designs logos. He designs stores. He helped revamp the Fontainebleau hotel in Miami and is helping design the $3 billion Fontainebleau resort in Las Vegas.

But in fact Arnell's greatest invention may be himself. Over the years Arnell, 50, has turned himself into a powerhouse brand, wrapping himself in myth and packaging his personal narrative with the same flair he brings to a Super Bowl ad. The remarkable story of Peter Arnell is one of a bright kid from Brooklyn who starts out with little more than a high-school diploma and a huge dose of chutzpah, talks his way into the advertising business and ends up becoming a huge success, with a stunning Manhattan office and a mansion on an estate in suburban Katonah, N.Y. Wherever he goes, he is trailed by smartly dressed junior executives who carry his canvas bags and write down everything he says in meetings.

Right now, however, this nearly perfect life is being marred by that freaking juice box. Arnell claims it doesn't bother him. But when you spend some time around him, you quickly realize that (a) he's extremely insecure, (b) he knows this mess has damaged him and (c) he wants to move past this as quickly as possible. That's probably why he agreed to let me spend two days following him around. He'll address Tropicana, then bury it with a blizzard of information about everything else he's working on. Smart marketing, no?

We meet for breakfast at Sant Ambroeus, a restaurant on the Upper East Side. Arnell talks. And talks. And talks. About his grandfather, his childhood, his work with the Special Olympics and his work with the 9/11 tribute center. He talks about Caravaggio, and Haydn, and Mozart. He talks about losing 250 pounds, going from 407 to 152 pounds in 30 months by eating the exact same food every day—carrots, cucumber slices and steamed cauliflower, dipped in mustard and sesame seeds.

There's a quick stop at a video-editing studio, where Arnell tinkers with the color of Kyra Sedgwick's hair in an upcoming Tropicana commercial. Then we hit the streets on foot. Outside Federal Hall, Arnell stops to chat with a busker. As he does this, another man approaches the busker. Arnell asks the man if he's a tourist. The man says no, he lives in the West Village and works in advertising. Arnell introduces himself. "Oh, my gosh!" the guy says, then gushes about how much he loves the new Tropicana packaging. Arnell swears this is not a setup. But who knows what's real and what's stagecraft? The entire day is a form of theater, with Arnell in the lead role and his underlings serving as supporting cast.

Arnell's wife, Sara, works at the agency as its "chief strategy officer." Arnell says she has told him to tone down his swearing when he's with me. Nevertheless, he swears constantly. "I'm a street rat from Brooklyn," he says, by way of explanation. The Arnells have three children. He collects toy soldiers and model spaceships and antique eyewear. He owns 1,600 pairs of eyeglasses, all fitted with his prescription. "Have you seen his house? It's a museum," says Martha Stewart, a friend and neighbor. Having done advertising work for the New York Fire Department, he's managed to get a fire-department badge and radio, and has outfitted his Jeep Commander with flashing lights. Two former business associates, who requested anonymity to avoid damaging their relationship with Arnell, say Arnell carried a handgun in an ankle holster. (Arnell acknowledges only having a gun permit and says stories of him carrying it at work are "inaccurate.") He also carries a Sony digital camera, and he snaps pictures constantly—75,000 in the past 12 months. An assistant uploads and catalogs them. Arnell devours oranges, about 20 a day, which turn his hands yellow. When he's done with one bowl, an assistant whisks away the peels and brings in another.

Arnell grew up in Sheepshead Bay, down on the southern end of Brooklyn. His father, a mechanical engineer, changed the family name from Abramovitz to Arnell. His maternal grandfather, a Jewish immigrant from Russia, was a fishmonger in the Fulton Fish Market. As a boy, Arnell sometimes went to work with him. He remembers crossing the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan at midnight, seeing the skyscrapers. "That bridge," he says, "was like a gateway to a fantasy land." He graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School in 1976 and was working odd jobs when he attended a lecture by the postmodernist architect Michael Graves. He introduced himself and talked his way into an internship at Graves's offices. There he met Ted Bickford, a Princeton architecture student. Soon Arnell and Bickford started collaborating on books about artists and architects. In the early 1980s Dawn Mello, then the fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman, hired them to create ads.

Their big break came from Donna Karan, who was launching her clothing line. Arnell went to the Fulton Fish Mar-ket and shot a black-and-white photograph of the Brooklyn Bridge, the view he remembered from childhood. The ad was more than a hit—it defined the brand. Later, Arnell created the famous DKNY logo with the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline. "Peter was extraordinarily instrumental in launching the company," Karan says. By 1985, the Arnell-Bickford agency was booking $4.4 million a year, and Adweek was touting the 27-year-old Arnell as a rising young star. Business rolled in: Anne Klein, Bank of America, Chanel, Condé Nast, Consolidated Edison, Ray-Ban, Rockport, Tommy Hilfiger. Arnell became known as someone with fresh ideas whose eccentricities are worth tolerating. "The first time I met him, I didn't think I could work with him," says Micky Pant, chief marketing officer at Yum Brands and former marketing boss at Reebok. "But over the years I've learned to respect his instincts."

Those instincts are on display during the afternoon I spent in Arnell's brand-new glass-wrapped office space on the 36th floor of 7 World Trade Center. There are white-leather couches, a 105-inch flat-panel screen, amazing views of Manhattan and the harbor. Arnell works at a conference table, surrounded by staffers. They watch in silence as he examines paper samples for a book he's producing. There's a meeting with a team to talk about building a train. There's a phone call with someone named Jay. Arnell puts the call on speakerphone. In case I don't recognize the voice, he stage-whispers to me, "It's Jay Leno." Afterward, he calls Ben Silverman, co-chairman of NBC Entertainment, and Rudy Giuliani, but can't get them on the phone.

Arnell has been compared to movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, meaning you could fill a book with horror stories about his cruel behavior—screaming at people, even hitting them. "He has this remarkable capacity to be both the most intoxicating character—lovable, brilliant, seductively intellectual—and then turn on a dime and be staggeringly cruel," says a former business associate, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of alienating Arnell. This person recalls Arnell humiliating employees by making them get down and do push-ups in front of clients. "He is unencumbered with any sense of morality. Until you experience it firsthand, it's just completely and utterly unfathomable."

In 1996 Arnell was sued by four women, former assistants who claimed he had abused and degraded them; the suit was settled out of court. But even afterward, Arnell's behavior continued to offend. A woman who worked for Arnell years later says he still delighted in bringing assistants to tears. "Everybody cries, without exception," she says. A spokesman says "the lengths of these tales are greatly exaggerated." Arnell says some employees have been with him for more than a decade, and why would they stay if he's so awful?

Advertising Age estimates Arnell's firm booked revenues of about $25 million in 2007. (They haven't worked up 2008 numbers yet.) The firm employs 170 people and bills itself not as an ad agency but as a "multi-disciplinary brand and product invention company" that "examines the space between brand assets and consumer desire" to "help brands capture and realize differentiation by exploiting a unique emotional dimension." No wonder Arnell says his leaked PepsiCo memo—with its references to Euclid and Pythagoras, and Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian man—makes perfect sense.

Arnell also can't understand the kerfuffle over his work for Tropicana. "Can you imagine such mishegoss over a freaking box of juice?" he says. "I can't believe that for the rest of my life I'm going to be known as Peter 'Tropicana' Arnell." He says Tropicana overreacted to complaints. "I have my own perspective on it. But it's not my brand. It's not my company. So what the hell? I got paid a lot of money, and I have 30 other projects. You move on." (Neil Campbell, president of Tropicana North America, says Tropicana will continue working with Arnell.)

Later, when we're sitting outside Arnell's office in his Jeep Commander, so Arnell can take a cigar break, he says a lot of the backbiting comes from people who are jealous of his success. "Who else is winning business in this economy? You expect this when you're in my business."

On day two Arnell meets me in a Chrysler skunk-works building outside Detroit, where engineers are working on a little battery-powered vehicle called the Peapod. Arnell has overseen development of the Peapod and even put his initials—as in Peter Eric Arnell—into the name. He says it's not a car, but rather a new category he's invented, called a "mobi." He describes its design as "a mix of Darth Vader, a bullet train, and a Citroën deux chevaux." With no air conditioning and a top speed of 25 miles per hour, the $12,500 Peapod is basically a fancy golf cart. Arnell hopes people will buy them for doing errands around town. He wants to call customers "peaple" and has designed a line of accessories: pens, flashlights, T shirts, baseball caps, shopping carts, picnic baskets, yoga bags, gardening sets. He's even designed fragrance inserts that create an aromatherapy experience while you drive. "I would argue this business could be hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars," he says. His counterpart at the meeting, a veteran Chrysler engineer, just nods and says, "Uh huh."

We move on to Chrysler headquarters in Auburn Hills, Mich., where Arnell meets with a team from a small software company that develops programs for Apple's iPhone and iPod. The Peapod has an iPod dock in its dashboard. The software guys have created a "green meter" application that would let the iPod keep track of how much carbon you're saving by driving a Peapod rather than a regular car. The meeting quickly turns weird, however, as Arnell, chomping oranges and spitting out seeds, starts expounding on Magritte's "Ceci N'est Pas une Pipe," dadaism, Meret Oppenheim's fur teacup at the Museum of Modern Art, the way Martha Stewart examines the leaves of a flower, the logo for the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, the style of Yves Saint Laurent dresses, wristwatches, polar bears stranded on ice floes, the Web site of Jenny Craig. The poor software guys, who've never met Arnell and didn't know what to expect, just sit there looking befuddled but trying their best to play along. "You say garden, but I say Versailles," Arnell says. "You see what I mean? What's the aspirational currency? Are you tracking me?" They nod. What else can they do? They've scored a meeting with the chief innovation officer at Chrysler, a guy who can greenlight their project. So what if they have no clue what he's talking about? It's their job to sit there and listen.

It's not mine, however. I have a plane to catch. Which is a good thing—if I stay much longer I fear that my head might explode. Either that or I'll burst out laughing. After I leave it occurs to me that the way to understand Peter Arnell is to think of everything he does as a kind of high-stakes performance art. Not just the commercials and advertisements, but everything—the meetings, the memos, the celebrity phone calls, the crazy brainstorming genius shtick. When it works, it works. Who knows why? You can study it, but you can't explain it. So Peter Arnell seduced PepsiCo into forking over millions of dollars, and gave them a memo about perimeter oscillations and the gravitational pull of a soda-pop can. Is that nuts? Probably.

But guess what? While the new Tropicana box fizzled, Pepsi says Arnell's new logo for its soda cans is working. "Our business momentum has really changed," says Burwick, PepsiCo's marketing boss. "Customers like the new design. Our bottlers like it. We're happy with the work." I keep remembering something Arnell told me when we sat down to breakfast in New York. "It's all bulls––t," he said. "A logo on a can of soda? Please. My life is bulls––t." Did he really mean that? Maybe. Or maybe, like everything else, it was all just part of the act.

Inside the Mind of Pete Rarnell
With little more than a high-school education, Peter Arnell has created a reputation as a visionary adman. Often featuring stark black-and-white photography, his campaigns stand out. A selection:

On the Map
Arnell's most iconic work, the DKNY campaign— featuring building-size murals—was "extraordinarily instrumental in launching the company," says Donna Karan. It branded Arnell himself as a genius, too.

The Box Is the Ad
This Samsung microwave image became an unlikely hit.

Stamped in Steel
ConEd and the New York City Fire Department are two clients from the less glitzy part of Arnell's portfolio.

'Gravitational Pull'
The redrawn Pepsi logo resembles a smile. Rivals delighted in Arnell's pretentious pitch memo that leaked—but PepsiCo says sales are up.

Reebok's Revamp
"Terry Tate: Office Linebacker," which Arnell did in 2003, is one of the most popular Super Bowl spots of all time.

Out of Juice?
The new Tropicana carton was heavily criticized for looking too much like a generic store brand.

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