Walking down a San Francisco street one day, Jeremy Postaer came upon a family intersection. On one corner was a Honda billboard, which belonged to his father, Larry. On another was an Altoids billboard from his brother, Steffan. "And then there was this small thing I'd done for The San Francisco Examiner," Jeremy recalls.
His father stores poignant moments, too: watching Steffan's ad go by on the side of a bus; finding all three names on an awards annual index page. "I tore one of them out," he says. "I was pretty proud of it."
The Postaers-Larry, a principal at Rubin Postaer & Associates; Steffan, a Leo Burnett writer/creative director; and Jeremy, a Goodby Silverstein art director-are one of a handful of ad families that have passed the Gold baton of award-winning ad talent from one generation to the next. No one knows quite how it happens, but genes, environment, and good ol' Oedipus all seem to play a part. The combination produces some interesting situations: young aspiring copywriters and art directors who find themselves competing not only with their peers but with their father's work as well, not to mention their reputations. It can be hard enough for any son to win his father's respect and admiration; harder still when you're in an industry where Dad is an acknowledged creative star.
Bill Westbrook, Fallon McElligott creative director, never thought Tripp, his 30-year-old son and a Fallon McElligott senior writer, would go into advertising. "Never. And I can't even believe an AE came from my loins," he adds, referring to other son Cabell, 25, an assistant account exec at FM.
Tripp did investigate television broadcasting: too boring, uncreative. A summer internship at The Martin Agency, under the watchful eye of Bill's surrogate ad dad, Harry Jacobs, produced different results. Yet Bill had his doubts. "If anything, he pushed me away," says Tripp Westbrook of his father. "He pretty much told me, 'You better make damn sure this is what you want to do. Either you'll love it or you'll hate it.'*"
Meanwhile, Harry Jacobs' son, Chris, now 28, was also sampling the business-under Bill Westbrook's watchful eye. Although Harry, Martin Agency chairman emeritus, likes to tell about "trading sons," he never figured his son for an advertising writer, either. Now at Hampel Stefanides in New York, Chris was an all-American basketball player who excelled in math and history. "It just didn't compute," says Harry. "He's very stubborn and independent-I figured he'd be a lawyer."
Chris did think about law school. But like other sons, he found no career choice that could compete with the excitement he perceived in his father's profession. The kids seem to absorb it from hanging around the office during summer holidays, from listening to the talk, from watching passion at work. Chris cites memories of hanging out with talents like Westbrook, Cabell Harris and Mike Hughes: "I didn't have to rely on my first creative director to give me high standards," he says. "I'd had them for 20 years."
Carmichael Lynch art director Rob Burnham, 27, remembers helping Dad do ads around the kitchen table on Saturday mornings. For Pat Burnham, now McKinney & Silver CD, advertising was always a family affair. His son and daughter and his wife of 30 years all contributed.
Not that the kids were always sure exactly what their parents did. They just knew it was fun. Says Jeremy Postaer, "It seemed like my father goofed off all day and then got to go to the Indy 500."
Early warning signs
In most cases, the boys showed early aptitude. The Postaer sons collaborated-for the last time, notes Larry-on comic books. Stan Richards, Richards Group founder, remembers son Grant, now a Goodby Silverstein art director, drawing incessantly between the ages of 4 and 10. "It was the same thing I did as a little kid," he says. "It was clear he had fun putting images on paper."
But talent didn't always emerge early. Pat Burnham was once very worried that Rob might attempt an advertising career. "When he was real little, we'd go to the grade school for the parent/teacher thing," Pat recalls. "I'd walk in the room, and all around would be these nice round pumpkins. Then there'd be a square one, shittier than all the rest. His motor skills weren't too good yet."
Rob's motor skills improved sufficiently to get into Art Center, where he worried incessantly that fellow students might recognize his dad, then creative director at Fallon McElligott-of course, they all knew but politely didn't mention it. But, like the other dads, high-profile Pat never pushed. "His idea of pushing is standing behind you yelling, 'Yeah, that kicks butt,'*" says Rob. "He's just a great cheerleader."
Not that the dads were worry free. Harry Jacobs worried about how Chris would feel if he turned out not so talented, and about how he would like a business that was changing rapidly and might be very different in his generation. "He probably tried to discourage me," Chris says. "It's a pretty brutal field."
Pat Burnham worried that Rob would end up "in a mediocre place putting up with frustrations like I did for so many years." Larry Postaer say he "passively discouraged" his sons, though they don't remember it that way. They remember him as being encouraging "without being weird about it," says Steffan, and he was happy they didn't end up as deadbeats like some of their high-school druggie friends. But Larry figured Steffan would be writing short stories and novels and Jeremy would be painting (he has an MFA) or playing his guitar in a jazz trio.
"To this day, I kind of wish he'd pursued fine art," says Larry. "I'd like to see the family name in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But he's doing well. They beat us out for Hewlett-Packard-I'm feeling the pangs of parenthood here. But I'm still in shock that they ended up in the business."
Bill Westbrook says he both worried and discouraged. "You know, this is a wicked mistress, this business," he once told Tripp. "It's very rewarding at best, but at worst, it's damning. It takes your weekends, your nights, so much out of you. And if you don't give it everything, you won't make it." So much for fatherly advice.
Gifts from the gods
Those who followed their sires through advertising's pearly gates arrived not only with a decent portfolio, but also with other legacies. One, ironically enough, was humility. Growing up around great work, they breathed high standards and consumed large doses of reality. "By default, I learned to do it the right way," says Chris Jacobs, who noticed how quickly his creative colleagues at Portfolio Center developed inflated egos. "That wasn't a problem with me. I knew it was mostly garbage. I wasn't very good."
Rob Burnham remembers attending his father's graduation from Minneapolis College of Art & Design, not to mention the art school parties in the early '70s, and says it was "cool growing up" in the business. After spending teenage summers at Fallon McElligott mounting hundreds of show entries, Rob now "gets it bigtime," says Pat. "He understands what a concept means, and how you get it past a client. When he describes a shoot, I wish I'd written it down."
"I knew a lot about the bullshit stuff beforehand," adds Rob.
Other dads also marvel at their son's precocious conceptual talents. Meanwhile, the sons complain about having had to choose a craft. For most, the line between writing and art direction was blurry at best. Rob Burnham, who admired the seamless way his dad did ads, still hates the separation. Writer Chris Jacobs says he "just sort of picked"; Dad says he would have made a good art director, too. Grant Richards says he started out as a writer but figured art directors got to have more control. "I work with writers now, so I guess that makes me an art director," he says.
Sibling rivalry probably sent the Postaers, just 15 months apart in age, in separate directions. Not to mention environments: Goodby for art director Jeremy, Leo Burnett for writer Steffan. Ý26
Sons ó24 In some ways, sons have noted the zigs in their father's lives and chosen zags. Bill Westbrook says he's proudest of the fact that son Tripp left home to seek his fortune in faraway California; until moving to Minneapolis a few years ago, Bill had spent his entire career on the East Coast. "When I grew up, I didn't ever really leave home," he says. "I was struck by Tripp's fearlessness, his heart and courage."
Grant Richards, self-described as "overly cynical" in contrast to his "eternal optimist" father, says he is not the lifelong entrepreneur his father is. He prefers smaller agencies, and he too, left "home"-The Richards Group-to pursue other opportunities, something he recalls his father "kind of wishing he'd done" at a certain point in his own career.
Several sons mention the importance of seeking more balance in their lives than they believe their fathers had. Tripp Westbrook says he made it a point to study how his father conducted himself both personally and professionally, de-scribing his dad as "unbelievably driven, almost to the point of being obsessed. I'm not obsessed," Tripp insists. "I enjoy advertising tremendously, but I'm not willing to do it at the expense of my family. I'm more concerned about the quality of life."
Sometimes the legacy is genetic. Pat Burnham says Rob looks like him-minus a few pounds-acts like him, talks like him. Bill Miller, a copywriter who has partnered with both, once told Pat, "It's just like working with you. Except better."
"People accidentally call me Pat," Rob admits. "Happens a lot. Twice yesterday."
The Icarus factor
As careers budded, most dads kept hands off. Some offered portfolio advice, but few made phone calls, preferring-and thinking it necessary-to let their sons make it on their own. Steffan Postaer said his help consisted of being allowed to use Rubin Postaer's cardboard and graphics room.
For the most part, recognizing how ego-driven the business is, the sons have kept their distance. This isn't necessarily easy; the business is also small. "Incestuous," says Harry Jacobs. "It's all intertwined." Which is why Bill Westbrook was very concerned about joining The Martin Agency as creative director when Tripp was already working there. They had several discussions about how the move might affect Tripp's future. "He said if I felt strongly that it would screw me up, he'd stay away," says Tripp. "I saw it as he cared enough to make that kind of sacrifice." Bill became the boss, and Tripp learned-"it was weird at first"-to call his dad by his first name. "He learned to give me the same kind of shit he'd always given me," Bill says, chuckling. "He joined in the Bill harassment." But he recognizes how difficult it is to ignore the whisperings of other insecure creatives ready to pounce on the N-word. "Unfortunate but true, the onus is on the kids to make it work," says Bill. "The pressure's on them. There's not much a parent can do."
The situation arose once more when Tripp was offered a post working for FM in New York (he works out of the offices of Fallon McElligott Berlin), where, while he reports to group heads, his work still has to pass muster with his father. Tripp, who toyed momentarily with calling himself Bob Smith, says he wouldn't have taken a job at FM in Minneapolis, but this arrangement seems to be working, and he treasures the rare but genuine compliment from his old man.
The notable exception among this group is Grant Richards, who worked for his dad for 10 years, never calling him anything but Dad. When he started, the creative department was only about a dozen people, and father and son had daily contact. Grant says it was weird at first, not to mention an extra burden to prove himself, but eventually he was able to forget about the family ties. "There was no magic point when that happened. After seven or eight years, I'd been there longer than most of the others. It was like I was part of the furniture." Stan says Grant's talent made his acceptance at the agency easier. But eventually parting ways was difficult for both, and both doubt they will work together again.
Rob and Pat Burnham talked about Rob coming to work at Fallon McElligott when Pat was there, but they didn't think it would be right. (Rob says if he'd done something wrong, Pat would have grounded him and sent him to his room.) It was even touchier after Pat had left under a cloud of controversy and Westbrook, FM's new creative director, asked Rob to become his first hire. Rob called his dad, who gave his blessing.
Few sons admit feeling directly competitive with their dads, possibly because the standards they've set seem unreachable. "I can't compete. There's no way," Rob says, remembering shelves and shelves of awards from his childhood, and how his dad would throw up his arms and say it was just luck. "I remember finding a box of awards in the garage one time and asking him if he knew they were there. He didn't. He quit ordering Clios years ago."
Harry Jacobs says it was a proud moment when Chris walked onto the stage to receive his first One Show pencil, but Chris had a different take. "I thought, Well, that's one."
Competition is a tricky issue in the Postaer family, where the agencies father and son represent occasionally go head to head in new-business pitches. "None of us are hacks, and that's saying a lot," says Steffan, who inherited his father's chutzpah, confidence and affinity for wordplay (but got less hair). But he has to do "hard stuff, like cereal," according to brother Jeremy, while Jeremy, says Steffan, gets to work for "the shining pearl of advertising. It's easier to hit a home run in that environment."
But after proving himself over and over, Steffan says he has reached a point where it might be plausible to join the ranks at Rubin Postaer. He could make a good case for himself, he thinks, even though advertising is not your typical family business, where custom dictates turning over the reins to the successive generation. His brother simply can't imagine it.
And father Larry harrumphs. "I would never hire them," he says. It may seem plausible to take them on, but it's simply not possible. "This is not a hardware store. It's an ego-driven business. The two of them would last five minutes together, and the three of us would last maybe 15."
Nevertheless, the family ties are powerful ones. Steffan's dream: to see all three at the Kellys next year, himself with Johnnie Walker, Jeremy with Bell helmets, Larry with Honda.
"I'd be proud if somebody said, 'You're just like your father,'*" he adds. "I