Legends: The Mad Man’s Next Act

He used shock ads (Charles Manson, anyone?) and a punk attitude to flip the city’s advertising community on its ear. So why is Steven Grasse now trying to return Philly to the days of the powdered wig?

LONG BEFORE THERE was Mad Men, Philadelphia had its very own Mad Man.

Steven Grasse, born and raised in Souderton and educated at Syracuse, arrived in Philadelphia and set up shop in 1989 after internships at U.S. ad agency offices in Bangkok and Hong Kong and a first job in New Zealand. For a while he ran his upstart ad agency out of his father’s Bucks County printing company and his own apartment. Eventually, Grasse settled what he optimistically called Gyro Worldwide in a grungy and chaotic office that took over an empty bank building in the then-nascent neighborhood called Old City. Grasse hired only 20-somethings like himself, and became the Don Draper of outrageousness.

At first, the agency, where he teamed with his New Zealand-born first wife, Emma Hagen, won promising accounts with some of Philly’s big and bland corporations. It quickly lost them after developing a series of posters for the small, edgy, family-owned clothing store on South Street called Zipperhead. The posters featured portraits of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and mass murderer Charles Manson and the catchy slogan “Go a little crazy now instead of a lot crazy later.” Though the actual campaign never got much farther than some posters stuck up around local campuses, the ads — and outrage over them — garnered Gyro a ton of free publicity, including an article in the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times.

“Somehow the press got hold of it and it went all over the world. And suddenly we had protesters in front of our office,” Grasse says. “Our traditional clients all fired us. Comcast was a client. They fired us. Blue Cross was a client. They fired us. You know — ‘You guys are too hot to handle.’ But then we started getting phone calls from people like Budweiser and Coca-Cola. It instantly put us on a national stage.”

Gyro went quickly from too hot to handle to just plain hot. And Steven Grasse continued to develop his punk-rock persona. He kept his head shaved, shunned suits, talked trash about the older “fat asses” of the Philadelphia advertising community. He was an advertisement for himself, combining the personal grandiosity espoused by his favorite author, Ayn Rand, with the in-your-face alt-authenticity that was a specialty of Svengali music manager Malcolm McLaren (Sex Pistols, Adam and the Ants), whom Grasse calls “the man I’ve based my whole career on.”

Despite Grasse’s hip, self-aggrandizing persona, as the years passed, the business coming in to Gyro got more and more traditional: Oak Tree clothing, Mademoiselle magazine, Union Bay, Hanes. Nan Duskin was a short-lived client, Puma a long-term staple. Though Grasse didn’t smoke, his company developed a comprehensive campaign for Kamel Red cigarettes. Yet as he accrued success — and a million-dollar townhouse on Delancey Street — Steven Grasse got more outrageous.