"The only place I could get into was York College, and that was situated under the L subway line in Jamaica, Queens," Mr. Siegel recalled. "They had to stop teaching when the trains rolled by."
One fateful day, with his fare sitting quietly in the back, Mr. Siegel talked about his dream of writing a novel. His passenger, who happened to work at the Case & McGrath agency, made a suggestion: Take a shot writing ad copy.
"I got this interview," Mr. Siegel said. "I had completely the wrong attitude. I said to the guy, `Jeez, I'm not really that interested in advertising. . . . I really want to write books.' " Mr. Siegel assumed that the interviewer was a personnel manager but he turned out to be Gene Case, the agency's principal. Mr. Siegel got the job.
"Gene gave me a break. Apparently, someone had taken a chance on him when he was younger. I guess he was passing on the favor."
Today Mr. Siegel, 46, is exec VP-executive creative director at the New York office of BBDO Worldwide, where he has been working for the past 20 years. He was boosted recently from senior VP-senior creative director.
Mr. Siegel is the man who made failed presidential hopeful Bob Dole an advertising legend, via the famous Visa check card ad in which Mr. Dole is caught trying to write a check without ID. More recently, he was responsible for helping make tennis pro Anna Kournikova an ad icon in Charles Schwab & Co.'s "Smarter Investor" campaign in which she talks candidly about her assets.
"Jimmy turned out to be quite a find," said Terry Scullin, VP-creative supervisor at BBDO. Mr. Scullin hired Mr. Siegel in 1980 for the BBDO print department from Case & McGrath. "He was one of those guys who was always looking for an opportunity to do something new and different, something challenging. And even back then, his writing was impeccable."
When BBDO pitched Apple Computer in the early '80s, Mr. Siegel was loaned out to Charlie Miesmer, creative director, who was in charge of the pitch. Mr. Siegel wrote two spots that helped the agency win the Apple business, and Mr. Miesmer asked him to stay on.
In his new position, Mr. Siegel now takes creative charge of Visa, Schwab and parts of the Frito-Lay account, including its Tostitos brand. He becomes one of four top creative executives at the agency, including Mr. Miesmer, who report to Ted Sann, co-chief executive and chief creative officer.
"Clients really like him. He's a charming, engaging guy who really does great work," Mr. Sann said.
Coincidentally, Mr. Siegel is publishing his first novel next spring, a mystery thriller called "Epitaph" from Warner Books. He already has finished a second book titled "Mercy" and is working on his third, "Derailed."
"It's about a midlife crisis taken to extremes," Mr. Siegel said. "The hero is an advertising executive. It's my most overtly commercial work." But is it autobiographical? "Everything is autobiographical," he said.