Independence Day for Siltanen as he sets out to make a mark

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"There was just no way this house could hold the two of us/

I guess that we were just too much of the same kind."

-Bruce Springsteen "Independence Day"

The lyrics came to mind during a long talk with Rob Siltanen, as he struggled to articulate his relationship with Lee Clow and explain the decision to leave the agency where his life turned around.

This was just days after the formation of Siltanen, Los Angeles, and the young creative was still dealing with the aftershocks of his action. "It's been absolutely crazy," Siltanen said by phone from his home in Manhattan Beach. "I'm like a zombie right now.

"I worked until 3:30 last night, finishing up stuff at Chiat/Day. I got probably 200 phone calls the first day and another 200 over the last two days. Clients calling from all over the country; agencies big and small, wanting to buy me. I haven't even opened my doors yet."

Understand upfront that Rob Siltanen rarely shies from an opportunity to boast about his talents. But while that brash approach can turn some people off, his credentials justify the cockiness. He was given creative control of the Nissan account, TBWA/Chiat/Day's most profitable, at 25; created the famous "Toys" spot for that automaker a few years back; and wrote the Emmy-winning "Genius" spot that kicked off Apple Computer's "Think different" campaign.

In recent years, Siltanen was widely seen as the heir apparent to Lee Clow. But when Clow took on a global role at TBWA, Siltanen wasn't named creative director of the flagship office. So he decided to strike out on his own.

His new shop opens with one client, a Web start-up that will sell arts-and-crafts supplies and spend some $15 million on ads. It's far from the megabudgets of TBWA/Chiat/Day clients, but Siltanen is nothing if not self-assured.

"This could conceivably be a $100 million agency in a couple of weeks," he says. His ambitious long-term goal: "To build the best creative agency in the country, and to start by trying to build the best creative agency in Los Angeles." That title currently belongs to his former agency.

To understand what drives Rob Siltanen, it helps to know his story. As a child, he bounced around the Pacific Northwest. At 19, he married his girlfriend and had a baby, working in a sawmill while studying at the University of Oregon. Siltanen got his degree, but his marriage fell apart. With encouragement from a professor, he landed an internship at a local ad agency, working nights as a janitor to pay his bills. "It was a very difficult time for me," he says, "a very emotional time."

Deciding he had nothing left to lose, a "dirt poor" Siltanen headed to Los Angeles, where he managed to land an $18,000-a-year job as a copywriter at BBDO. He jumped from there to Ketchum, from Ketchum to Chiat/Day. When he arrived, he says, "I was like, `This is home. All I need to do now is focus on the work.' "

Creative directors usually work late and sleep in, but Siltanen and Clow are both early risers, and they began to spend a lot of time together. "Lee would sit and look at my work every morning . . . He guided me . . . Oh, man, he had so many different roles," Siltanen says.

As Siltanen's talents grew and his talents sharpened, his confidence soared. Clow, meanwhile -- already held in high regard -- became a true advertising superstar.

Siltanen believes Clow will "go down in history as perhaps the greatest adman who ever lived." But his remarks as he discussed Clow revealed the complexities of their father-son ties, and Siltanen's need for a personal independence day. "Our relationship, as we both started doing famous work, changed. We had differences of opinion. I guess I'd kind of grown up and said to Dad, `Hey, I know what I'm doing.' "

At 36, Rob Siltanen is only a little more than a decade removed from his nights as a janitor, yet it seems like another lifetime. He's still in touch with his teen daughter, Chelsea, from his first marriage. He and his second wife, Ruth, have two young sons, Joseph and Sam, and are expecting their third child. Now Siltanen faces his greatest career challenge, armed only with ambition and a passionate belief in his abilities that may just be enough to carry him over the hurdles.

"In my mind's eye," says Siltanen, "10 years from now there's going to be a Siltanen, Los Angeles, and -- I'll tell you what my dream is -- it's going to be something that's considered very special."

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