SANTA ANA — In an industry that calculates its annual billings by the millions, 27-year-old Sakol Mongkolkasetarin, a graphic designer who runs a one-person advertising agency from his Santa Ana apartment, figures that his billings for all of 1994 will probably total $200,000.
But Thursday night, he competed with some of the big-money ad firms of Southern California and came away with four of the industry's Belding awards. That was twice the number bestowed on hip Venice Beach agency Chiat/Day, creator of the Energizer Bunny campaign, and Mongkolkasetarin was the third-biggest winner of the night.
"I don't think I want to miss it now," he said with a huge smile Thursday afternoon as he paid a visit to his biggest client and prepared to car-pool with friends to Los Angeles for the posh awards ceremony. This ad whiz drives a white 1981 Toyota Corolla.
Mongkolkasetarin and his firm, Acme Advertising, were honored for his work for Pacific Snax, a Newport Beach snack food company that makes puffed rice in the shape of popcorn, flavored with caramel or Cheddar cheese. "Imagine if Uncle Ben married Orville Redenbacher," says one of the winning ads.
The company also makes Jurassic Snacks, to be released with the video version of the movie later this year. Mongkolkasetarin's newspaper ads for the dinosaur snacks will tout them as "65 million years in the making. But don't worry, they're vacuum-packed."
He will also begin working later this spring on a snack package linked to the upcoming "Flintstones" movie starring John Goodman and Rosie O'Donnell.
The designer said he stumbled upon what makes good advertising after he was laid off by one of Orange County's most prestigious ad agencies, Cochrane Chase, Livingston & Co., when it shut down in 1991.
"I couldn't find a job, so I decided to find my own clients. I had friends who needed ads," Mongkolkasetarin said. "When the client happens to be someone I know personally, there is a connection. You have a chemistry, and good work happens that way."
Featuring cherubs, halos and corncobs, the designs for Pacific Snax's packages "give an image of a higher plane of eating" that the company desired for its health-conscious snacks, said Jerry H. Ludeman, senior vice president of sales.
Mongkolkasetarin has one other client, computer peripherals maker Triam.
Together with Thursday's top two winners, also small agencies, Mongkolkasetarin's victory supports a popular belief that the very best advertising ideas in the Los Angeles area are being created by small agencies.
Mongkolkasetarin also employs old-fashioned courtesy. "He is always polite and on time, and when he says he will have the work done, it is done," said Roya Cuentara, chief financial officer of Pacific Snax. "He takes criticism very well."
A native of Thailand, Mongkolkasetarin moved to Southern California when he was 6 and has returned to Bangkok just once, to attend his grandfather's funeral in 1991. He asks that people call him Sakol (SAY-koh) rather than attempt his last name (Mon-GOL-ka-say-TAR-in).
Though he says his Thai background remains an important influence, Mongkolkasetarin identifies himself primarily as a Southern Californian. Until recently, he said, he jogged, surfed and rode his bike to an office where he briefly sublet space. But life has gotten more hectic, Mongkolkasetarin said. "I gave up running, sold my board, and my bike is hanging in the closet," he said.
He comes from a family of creative people. Father Stitaya Mongkolkasetarin, a free-lance architect, emigrated from Bangkok in 1968 with his Chinese Vietnamese wife, Am, a dressmaker who has a shop in the Little Saigon area of Westminster and Garden Grove. Their children came to the United States four years later.
Stitaya Mongkolkasetarin was laid off from a job with Fluor Corp. in 1991, and Sakol, the oldest son, decided to start a family business.
His father took a second loan out on their house to pay for $10,000 worth of computer equipment. The four brothers--Sakol, Jsada, Kreangsuk and Sumith--turned the living room of the family's Fountain Valley home into a studio and opened for business in January, 1992.
During their first year, the brothers, who called themselves the M Group, billed about $42,000. The brothers have since gone on to other ventures, Sakol has renamed the firm Acme Advertising, and he has repaid his parents, in part by designing award-winning direct-mail ads for his mother's business. Mongkolkasetarin has also done design work for Balboa Bay Beverage Inc. and Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Inc. in Newport Beach.
His agency's reputation spread after it developed a creative series of public-service ads for the local chapter of the American Cancer Society. One ad compares the dangers of cigarettes to those of drugs by picturing marijuana, tobacco and poppies.
In 1993, the M Group won gold, silver and merit awards from the Orange County AdClub. It was a finalist last year in the Advertising Club of Los Angeles' Belding awards. And it won merit awards from the Art Directors Club of Los Angeles and the New York Art Directors Club.
Mongkolkasetarin graduated from Cal State Long Beach in 1990 with a degree in graphic design. He was an assistant art director for 18 months at Cochrane Chase, where he met Richard Damian, chief executive officer of Pacific Snax.
"The reason I got into this," he said, "is that not just one person sees my work. Millions of people see it. That's what satisfies me."
* GROWING THREAT: Tiny ad shops' coups send message to giant rivals. D14