Chain of Thought

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The following article appeared in the February 2005 issue of Creativity.

From left: Gerry Graf, Rich Silverstein and Hal Riney
Photo by Darryl Estrine

Recollections on teaching, struggling and learning from some of the industry's most influential creative leaders and the mentors who showed them the way.

Hal Riney on Rich Silverstein

What was your first impression of Rich?

My impression was mostly of both Jeff (Goodby) and Rich because they worked as a team.

Didn't you put the two of them together?

They more or less ended up together. They were hired at slightly different times, as I recall, but they became a team fairly quickly.

Were you hard on them? Rich said that you pretty much put him through the wringer.

No, I don't think I ever did, really. In the case of a lot of people who have worked for me, I have not approved of much of the work that might have been submitted, but I think that didn't happen very much in the case of Jeff and Rich. I made suggestions as I'm wont to do, but I don't really think they needed much teaching from me. In many ways, I think they're both better than I am in this business.

Do you have any thoughts on what's important to being a good mentor?

Well, I don't really because I'm not really sure what that means. Rich [named me because he] was searching for some answer to your question as opposed to really thinking of me as a mentor. Obviously I was the boss, and established to some degree the standards, but I think it would be wrong to suggest that I helped him in terms of his creativity to any great degree, because I think it was already there. Very frankly, I don't consider myself much of a teacher. A lot of people seem to think so because I get lots of letters that suggest that, but I suppose I tended to teach more by example than anything else. That was both a blessing and a curse because quite often people would try and imitate the kind of stuff I might be doing, rather than doing their own thing. In most cases, Jeff and Rich created their own style and direction, which was fine with me. We didn't need two of me in the same place.

Rich Silverstein on Hal Riney

What was your first impression of Hal?

He charmed me, because Hal's great at charming people when he wants to. And then, everyone had told me all kinds of stories about him and how tough he was and how scary it was going to be, but then I thought, I got along really well with him. And there's always this joke, you get along good with him and then he hires you and you see him the first time in the hallway he doesn't even say hello to you.

Did that happen?

I was lucky enough for some reason in that I think Hal liked me. I'm kind of a hard worker and I think somehow he respected me for that, even as a young kid, but then he also respected Jeff Goodby. So that's how I met Jeff. The first week he said "Rich, this is Jeff Goodby, Jeff this is Rich Silverstein, you're going to be working on this thing called Billy Ball, for the Oakland A's." He put the team together, me and him, my first week.

What was he like as a mentor?

He's the ultimate father figure. He demanded excellence and if you didn't perform you'd be ignored. It was like he was the master, you never talked down to the master, and we were the interns, that old trade school thing like the Renaissance. The only reason Jeff and I went off and did our own work is eventually we didn't want to do the master's work, we wanted to do our own. But we soaked up everything Hal had to offer.

He didn't seem to think of himself as a mentor, that perhaps it was by example that anyone learned from him.

If he doesn't think he was a mentor, he was. He would come in and look at our rough cuts and tell us what was wrong. One time he looked at a cut and said, "We've got to reshoot the last scene." And Jeff and I were devastated. Stuff like that, where god is in the details, you messed it up, there are repercussions and you had to fix it. It wasn't OK to say it was good enough. It had to be better and I'll always remember that.

Gerry Graf on Rich Silverstein

What's your most vivid or telling memory of having Rich as a mentor?

I showed him a rough cut once. He said "I laughed when you read the script, but I'm not laughing now." He sent me away to go figure out why.

What's the most valuable lesson he taught you?

Rich is not the type of mentor who spouts words of wisdom. He spouts, but not words of wisdom. Once you gain his trust, he expects you to figure things out on your own. He won't do the thinking for you. He wants you to make a decision and stick with it. He will also allow you to fail. It's probably the best way to learn your craft. Once you fail, you'll be twice as prepared the next time. But you really only get one chance to drop the ball. If he recognizes talent he makes you do all the work to develop it.

Do you feel you've applied anything he taught you to the way you mentor the creatives you work with now?

Yes. I've tried to let the creatives here at Chiat develop like I did at Goodby, Silverstein. I lead by example but try to let them figure out the problems on their own. Although I think I have a harder time dealing with the failures.

Anything else we should know about your experience with Rich?

One thing I will always remember is if I had a lot of passion for an ad, and Rich hated it, he would usually let me present it. The trust that he had in me made me work a lot harder. He didn't like the E*Trade "Broker" spot when I presented it. He didn't like it when the client bought it. He didn't like it when it won some awards.

Rich Silverstein on Gerry Graf

Do you remember your first meeting with Gerry?

I had seen Gerry and his partner David Gray's Snickers work and so I called them in. The first year I called them the Snicker boys even though I worked with them every day, I didn't know who was Gerry, who was Dave, who was the art director. I didn't know anything.

What were they like as a team?

I remember when we were having a review, they brought all their scripts in, an amazing stack of commercials they hadn't sold and I felt terrible. They said, "We've done nothing." I said, "Give it some more time." They had tried their hardest on Polaroid, nothing, they couldn't sell anything. But in the end, they hit a jackpot on E*Trade.

Do you think you helped them out a lot?

I don't know if I had to do too much to help them. I helped to sell their work. I believed in it so strongly. I don't know if we've ever printed this story, but it's true. When Gerry and Dave presented this idea they had about a monkey that was going to dance in a garage-"we just wasted $2million dollars"-I said, "That's brilliant!" When the client wasn't going to buy it I said, "The agency will pay for the shooting of this commercial." But ultimately, the client produced it.

What were some of your initial impressions of Gerry?

What I liked about Gerry is that he loved advertising. He would take the old fashioned tried and true advertising approach and make it modern. He didn't come in with one commercial, he came in with ten. He was so confident. I'd just be laughing. And more than anything, his degree of finish was really impressive to me. He really got that god is in the details also.

Do you you think you were a mentor to him?

No, same as Hal. No. You don't think that way. When you like someone and think they've got talent, you only want to help them. I don't think you're mentoring them.
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