Hal Riney, One of Ad Industry's True Creative Giants, Dies at 75

'Whatever Success I've Achieved Has Come From Pretty Much Doing the Opposite of What I've Been Told'

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SAN FRANCISCO (AdAge.com) -- A different kind of agency. A different kind of adman.

That was Hal Patrick Riney, who died from esophageal cancer March 24 at age 75. A study in contrasts, he decried the client-coddling of what he called advertising's "suits," yet at times epitomized the drinking, cussing "Mad Men" era. He was a cantankerous curmudgeon who could bring tears to the eyes with a commercial about depositing money in a bank. He was a creative titan whose outsize ego was counterbalanced by an "aw shucks" alter ego.

Hal Riney Christmas card
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Self-portrait: Hal Riney presented himself in one of his infamous storyboards.

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"Whatever success I've achieved has come from pretty much doing the opposite of what I've been told or expected to do," Mr. Riney told students at the Academy of Art College during one of his last public-speaking engagements.

Within the American heartland, Mr. Riney tapped a wellspring of patriotic emotions that helped elect Ronald Reagan and gave the country a collective chuckle over two old codgers selling Bartles & Jaymes coolers. On Madison Avenue, he shattered the prevailing notion that great creative was centered in New York with proof positive that it could spring from elsewhere.

Golden voice
Along the way, he spawned a new generation of strong-willed creatives who disdained the suits, meetings, trappings and formalities that marked advertising. His art, though, transcended simply creating spots -- his mellifluous voice marked hundreds of voice-overs for commercials, his own and for other agencies, giving them that tinge that is quintessentially Riney.

"He was able to take the mundane profession we're in and make it poetic, funny, memorable," said commercial director Joe Pytka. "Nobody's done what he was able to do. Nobody's even close."

Growing up poor in a small Washington state logging town, Mr. Riney worked his way through college and, armed with a degree in art, wound up in the advertising business. He puffed Marlboros, downed bourbon and tooled around in a Bentley, all the while perfecting the art of commercial persuasion and wrangling tough marketing challenges and even tougher clients, such as the legendary Ernest Gallo.

When Mr. Riney took time off, he could be found on his island off the coast of Honduras or fly fishing or shooting ducks or other animals, depending on the season.

He married five times. Sometimes he would lament the money he lost in all those divorce settlements. When asked why he continued to marry in an age when fewer were doing so, he responded that he guessed he was just old-fashioned and wanted to do the right thing.

What'll it be?
The independent shop Mr. Riney founded in 1985 was an anomaly. At big, old-line agencies, new employees might have been concerned with health forms and other administrative minutiae on their first day, but at Riney, one of the first questions posed to new hires was what they drank so they could be properly accommodated at the agency's 24/7 open bar.

Raucous holiday parties sometimes were preceded by a round of firings and a scathing talk from Mr. Riney about the poor state of the agency's creative work. Still, at other times, if creatives left to go their independent way, Mr. Riney quietly helped, as he did in the case of his most famous offshoot, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners.

"He was tough. He was funny. He was very generous," said Paul Mimiaga, a copywriter at Publicis & Hal Riney who worked with the agency founder for more than two dozen years.

Mr. Riney believed marketers were obliged to give the consumer something back for the home TV invasion, be it a laugh or a virtual hug or cry. If consumers liked an ad, they liked the brand and would buy it. It was that simple.

At a time when an ad's headline was written first, and the art director was called in to illustrate the copy, Mr. Riney started with the illustration, then added copy. This approach worked even better when TV became the dominant medium in the mid-1960s. For each spot, he would turn a sheet of paper horizontally and sketch and plot out each second of sound, dialogue, voice-over and camera angle.

'Lipstick on a pig'
He also was a master presenter, with a habit that kept eyes focused on him: He would make it appear he was about to light a cigarette, striking a match, grasping it between his fingers until the flame came millimeters from singeing his fingers.

Mr. Riney had no illusions about business. He told the art students he had to sell the idea of GM building Saturns in a plant in Tennessee, although he knew the cars coming from Spring Hill would be not much different from any other. And when Saturn called a review in 2001, one executive who worked at the shop recalled Mr. Riney saying, "There is only so much lipstick you can put on a pig."

When a client, the now defunct Crocker Bank, wanted to sign up younger customers, Mr. Riney said he "fell back on one of the basic tenets of advertising: 'If you don't have anything to say, sing.'" A songwriter came up with "We've Only Just Begun," later a pop hit recorded by the Carpenters, which Riney turned into a cinematographic tour de force with beautifully shot tear-jerking wedding scenes. The ads were soon killed, however. "There were too many young people running around in the bank with too little money," he said.

No matter how beautiful the result, Mr. Riney's internal commercial "sausage-making" wasn't pretty and was itself the stuff of legends. He started every project by having the staff do extensive research on the marketer's history with a goal of finding a kernel of truth and building a whimsical story around it, said Mr. Mimiaga. It was a grueling process, with the perfectionist Mr. Riney fastidiously detailing everything down to the size, shape, color and logo for coffee cups used to serve visiting clients.

Taskmaster
Some said he was harder on himself than he was on his employees, but that doesn't mean he was particularly easy on them, either. Work was gingerly presented to Mr. Riney. He would pause, giving it his undivided attention. Then he would say, "Where's the idea here?" Or tell the writer, "I like this. Why don't we get somebody funny to write this?"

As one former creative at the shop put it: "Hal was a great fisherman -- he'd reel you in and play you on the hook."

Typical is an episode described by Jack Rooney, a Riney account director who is now president of Ogilvy, Chicago. Developing a newspaper campaign for O'Doul's, Mr. Riney outlined a concept; the assignment was given to an art director-copywriter team that produced 25 renditions. Mr. Riney "ambled over to the couch in his office to look at them. Suddenly, he yelled 'Fuck!' and kicked the couch with his exceptionally wide English shoe," Mr. Rooney recalled, shouting, "Futura Bold! I hate these sans serif typefaces!"

Mr. Riney demanded the offending art director be brought into office, but luckily for him, he happened to be out that day. Nevertheless, another art director -- who did not work on the project -- was sacrificed, called in and soundly chastised about typefaces until the Irish temper flamed out.

Hard-fought accolades
This, shall we say, lack of appreciation for his employees wasn't necessarily lost on the boss. Mr. Riney realized his agency employees suffered a dearth of compliments, so he initiated a once-a-year distribution of the "Hal Riney compliment certificate" at the annual holiday party. "He was as hard as he was soft," said Rich Silverstein, co-chairman of Goodby, Silverstein.

By the late 1980s Mr. Riney was the talk of the ad world. He was featured as one of the year's most fascinating business people in Fortune in 1987 and in a New York Times Sunday Magazine piece in 1986. Some marketers became desperate to meet him; they'd call and say they'd give the agency business, no questions asked, if Mr. Riney would write the ads, recalled David Verklin, CEO of Carat Americas, who stayed at Riney for 11 years.

Hal Riney
Still, during those years, Mr. Verklin began to see in his boss signs of a tortured creative. "He had a love affair with fame -- yet he had a pressure to deliver against his legacy that tortured him," said Mr. Verklin. It also didn't help that over time, Mr. Riney's work became pigeonholed and the term "Rineyesque" entered the ad-industry lexicon as meaning saccharine "waving fields of wheat." Nor was the agency successful in grappling with the challenge of "turning Hal the man into Hal the agency," said Mr. Verklin.

By the time Mr. Riney was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame in 2002, he was delighted that "Madison Avenue finally recognized this enfant terrible," said Publicis Groupe Chairman-CEO Maurice Levy. But the award also sent Mr. Riney into the doldrums because he feared the honor signaled his career was over, said Mr. Levy, the man to whom Mr. Riney finally sold his shop in 1998. Mr. Levy claimed he never regretted buying the agency, but said, "I cannot say I am happy with [its] performance," especially in the years following Mr. Riney's departure.

Perhaps Mr. Riney himself summed it up best in his talk with the art students when he called creativity "a gift and a curse." Still, he exhorted them. "Have faith in your feelings," he said. "I had faith in mine."
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