There are times when it all seems a bit surreal to David Angelo. “I’ll be driving in L.A.,” he says, “and I’ll turn to Skip and say, ‘Who are you? What are we doing out here?’ ”

A 6-foot-high slingshot, made of redwood, resting meaningfully in the lobby of his office is a potent reminder. Angelo and Skip Sullivan are trying to get ad agency david andgoliath off the ground.

“I can’t believe I didn’t do this earlier,” says Angelo, 38. But that’s the benefit of hindsight. A few years ago, the Bay Area native, considered one of the top art directors of his generation, seemed perfectly happy in New York. He held a prized executive creative director post at Cliff Freeman and Partners. The Knicks were doing well. Slingshots were the last thing on his mind. But in late 1998, after four years at the shop, Angelo left to make a new start.

“Cliff gave me an environment where I could succeed,” he says. “But at some point it’s no longer just about producing ads. You begin to ask: ‘What’s the next challenge?’ ”

Freelancing kept him busy for a while. But the bigger task was to come many months later—and 2,500 miles from New York.

At its U.S. base in Irvine, Calif., Kia Motors was enjoying record sales in 1999 with the help of quirky ads from Goldberg Moser O’Neill. The creative talent at the San Francisco shop, however, was constantly in flux. “We went through about 14 creative teams in the year after Mike Moser left,” recalls Dick Macedo, Kia’s evp of marketing and sales. “So we asked ourselves two things: How do we find the talent? And how do we find the stability?”

Hiring another agency wasn’t the answer—the creative drain was endemic to the industry. Kia had to find a new model.

Through a recommendation from its promotions agency, Kia found David Angelo. His résumé was solid. A decade earlier, in his first agency job, he had helped craft DDB’s lauded “Hey, you never know” ads for the New York Lottery. He had moved to TBWA\Chiat\Day and then worked on Lexus at Team One Advertising. His Cliff Freeman work, including campaigns for Fanta, Prodigy and Little Caesars, had been celebrated. Kia executives were impressed. Without asking him to pitch in any traditional sense, they approached Angelo with a highly unusual proposal: They would help him create his own agency—and then give him Kia as his startup account.

The idea, says Macedo, was to create a stable relationship from scratch by giving Angelo the creative freedom and personal vested interest he would need to be committed.

“It’s like building an agency around [Hal] Riney 20 years ago, or a movie studio around [Steven] Spielberg,” Macedo says. “It’s a gamble to put all your eggs in one basket with a Spielberg type, but that’s life.”

“To custom-build a place that could work was a bold move,” admits Angelo. He contacted Sullivan—who had been Team One’s management director on Lexus when Angelo was there in 1993—and the two spent the next four months working with Kia to develop a structure and assemble a staff for the new venture.

Last fall, with the process complete, davidandgoliath opened with Angelo as chief creative officer, Sullivan as chief operating officer and Kia as its flagship client.

Nine months later, the collaboration is clicking. “They’re a huge advocate of great work,” Angelo says. “They urge us to take the creative even further.” That encouragement is evident in the ads. A jealous girlfriend dumps trash on her boyfriend’s car. A couple accidentally inflates a raft while driving. A guy protects his precious wheels with a leaf blower. It’s a subtle, playful tone—picking up where GMO left off—and it suits Angelo just fine.

“Humor has always been part of what I do,” he says. “I put the consumer hat on and figure out how I would like to be talked to.” The new work may be even quirkier than his past efforts, he says, “but it retains a sense of bigness. Whatever it is, I like it. It has a good vibe.”

“The ads got a standing ovation at the dealer meeting,” Macedo adds. “What other criteria do you need?”

Kia signaled its confidence by expanding the initial assignment, Angelo says, from 10 TV spots and a handful of other ads to 28 spots, six radio campaigns and “a ton” of print and outdoor work. Billings, he says, have mushroomed from $50 million to $190 million. (Kia’s policy is not to comment on budget figures.)

Angelo plans to stick with what’s working on Kia—a style he says is comical but not self-indulgent. “My mom will call me and say, ‘I just saw the ad with the big fat guy falling on the cushion. I couldn’t stop laughing,’ ” he says. “That’s great. She’s one of the people we’re trying to reach.”

More generally, Angelo is counting on his well-documented energy to carry the day.

“David and I did really good work together,” says Freeman. “He has great enthusiasm, and I found him to be lots of fun.”

“He’s unbelievably passionate,” adds Kevin Roddy, an associate creative director at Fallon who worked as a writer under Angelo at Cliff Freeman. “He would always be getting involved—sometimes too involved, which might have rubbed people the wrong way. But he does it to make the work better.”

“He’s more involved in the big picture, in the business side of things and making sure the creative fits with that,” Sullivan says. “He was doing ad campaigns. Now he’s finding solutions to business problems.”

The shop’s structure, meanwhile, which is still being put in place, centers on outsourcing. The agency is using Saputo Design for graphics and collateral work and Optima Media for media planning and buying. It is also negotiating with direct marketing and interactive firms that would handle those duties. The aim is to be both nimble and strong, Angelo says—to offer, as the name suggests, the quick reflexes of a David and the resources of a Goliath.

“The idea is to assemble what we call ‘best-of-breed specialists’ to work on the brand, while we’re the keepers of it,” Angelo says. “That does three things: You get the best talent. You keep a consistent tone. And there are less layers and less overhead.”

“It’s the wave of the future or we wouldn’t have done it,” Sullivan says. “It gives the client access to senior talented resources, and it doesn’t create these huge organizations.”

The agency’s own staff numbers about 40—including many who have worked with Angelo before. Account director Mike Dillon and media director Flettene Parks Neal both came from TBWA\C\D. Tom Saputo, the head of Saputo Design, used to run the design group at Team One. “If a person can survive and do well at a place like Chiat, they’ll do fine here.” Angelo explains.

The shop does plan to add clients “when we have Kia operating in a fine-tuned way, and when we’re ready to deliver the kind of product we should,” says Sullivan. Angelo says he doesn’t want to get “too big,” but admits the slingshot is aimed at larger shops. “Big agencies are burdened by layers of bureaucracy and an old way of doing things,” he declares. “And [when] the result is mediocre work, clients deserve better.”

You give them better, he contends, by following the advice of people like Freeman—a man he cites, along with Bill Bernbach, as a major inspiration. “Cliff knew all along I wanted to do this,” Angelo says. “He told me, ‘David, it’s hard. But just be about the creative.’ ”

Angelo believes he can.

“I like to think if I put the same amount of energy in, I can get the same results I’ve achieved over the last 10 years,” Angelo concludes. “I see those years as stepping stones, as building blocks. It starts now.”