Great Advertising 'Resonates in the Heart,' Says Hall-of-Famer Gerry Rubin

Rance Crain Sits Down With the Longtime Adman

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Gerry Rubin and I are the only two guys in the world to graduate from Evanston Township High School, Northwestern University and get inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame.

I went into journalism, Gerry majored in radio, TV and film. Gerry jokes that he had aspirations to be a waiter but he had difficulty memorizing the menu, so he wound up in advertising.

Gerry Rubin
Gerry Rubin

And that has worked out pretty well. He and his partner, Larry Postaer, founded their agency in 1986 when they left Needham, Harper Worldwide following its merger with DDB. The problem was that Needham handled Honda, and DDB had Volkswagen.

So Rubin & Postaer were given the opportunity to form their own agency with Honda as its main account.
But time was of the essence. Gerry said he made a presentation to the president of American Honda, Koichi Amemiya, "and I made it in haste because the transition from an independent Needham to a public Needham, with DDB was very, very imminent.

"And so I really didn't make a presentation. I came forward to him in openness, with my heart. I told him what was going to happen because of the conflict with Volkswagen, and he only asked me one question, and this is extremely telling. The question he asked me is: 'Do the people stay the same?' All he cared about was the people, because that's all that matters. The name on the door -- he didn't know who Needham was, he didn't know who Harper was -- and he didn't care. He wanted to know about the people. That's how you keep a relationship. And we're very, very blessed with the continuity of staff."

The agency, now known as RPA, endured an all-guns-blazing shootout this year, keeping Honda but losing Acura. Gerry reminded me that Honda sells 1.2 million cars a year, while Acura sells 160,000. Honda is No. 1 in a handful of major categories, "so was there a reason to change agencies? Probably not, and obviously they didn't."

But he admits that the Acura decision "may be something that needed to be done. Acura is still finding its way -- what are they going to be when they grow up? Are they going to be luxury, near luxury? It's vague in terms of the consumers' perception and understanding. So, of course, we regretted losing Acura. We wish Acura very much success, but Honda is at the core of our attention."

Gerry is of the belief that "everything communicates." But how does that translate into great advertising?
"For me, what makes great advertising is advertising that resonates in the heart. Resonating in the head, intellectually, is relatively easy to do. What does it cost? Where do I get it? Resonating in the heart is: How is that product or service compatible with me, my needs, my lifestyle?

"There's a threshold. There's a door. You walk in. If the first person you meet, for example, is a receptionist, and that receptionist, like the teller at a bank, isn't cordial, is chewing gum, or puts you off, your whole experience is going to be inconsistent with the delivery process.

"Another example is the salesman. If you're in a Honda store which sells on the values of being environmentally friendly, and the salesman may reek of cigarette smoke, or has just come from the back with cigarette in hand, what are you to think about the product and your reason for being there?"

One of my major criticisms of advertising over the years is that it is inconsistent. But Honda has maintained a clear and unique identity. How did they do it?

Gerry said the brand never overpromises what it can deliver. "We don't let the advertising overstate what the consumer ideally will experience during the test-drive process, because that's where you close. You don't close in the commercial. All the commercial does is influence you to come to the store. That's why there's salespeople.

"So if we overstate the value and virtues of the product, and the customer doesn't experience them in real life, we're going to violate the potential sale. So we consciously always understate and let the sales process overstate."

In addition, Gerry said, Honda always respects the customer. "We always maintain dignity and treat the customer with dignity. One of the ways we do that is we never disparage the competitor. We never do side-by-side tests. We let the product speak for itself. So that is really fundamental to our consistency."

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What's most fun, he told me, "is to watch young people aspire to be in our industry. … And one impression I like to make on them is that if they don't like the position in which they're starting, don't leave us. Find another position, because we post every one. And the reason I say that is your motivation may not be driven by that particular opportunity, but we have an investment in you, and you have one in us. Don't be premature about any departure."

To make employees feel appreciated, RPA has instituted the League of Extraordinary Associates. Every quarter the agency acknowledges a group of associates who have been nominated and voted on by their fellow associates, and for the occasion Gerry dons an orange cape.

"And I only wear this cape on this prestigious occasion. So there I am being my own Batman, but I guess when you're independent, you can do anything you wish to do, and that's what I do because that's kind of within my DNA."

Although Gerry and Larry have had many offers to sell out, they have no interest in becoming part of Corporate America. "I say that because America Honda did not have to assign us their business … and loyalty is so critical with the Japanese. So we never gave that a thought. On the other hand, we love the breakfasts with the Martin Sorrells and others, because we just want to see what we're worth. And we get some great food."

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