Catching the Smile Train

Sometimes Hitting It Big in Advertising Just Isn't Enough

By Published on .

Working for years in advertising, Brian Mullaney opened his own shop and rode the crest of the mid-1990s technology wave. After selling the $100 million shop, though, he had to figure out what to do next. Here's what he found.

They told me there's no such thing as a boring product.

And I believed them.

Brian Mullaney is the co-founder of the Smile Train.
Brian Mullaney is the co-founder of the Smile Train.
I was fresh out of college, a junior copywriter trainee at Young & Rubicam. I worked on everything: Jell-O, Birds Eye, Ford, Ruffles, Burger King, Miller beer, Kodak, Ronzoni.

Single and determined to improve my $15,000 a year starting salary, I worked every night, every weekend trying to become the next David Ogilvy. I traveled everywhere -- to factories, focus groups, stores, conventions, trade shows, sales meetings, farms, paper mills, shopping malls -- trying to learn everything I could about every product I ever tried to sell. I learned why some potato chips have green spots, why Miller beer is darker than Bud and what the inside of a nuclear power plant looks like.

But after years of working hard trying to make mundane, everyday household packaged goods interesting and exciting, I stumbled across a product that actually took my breath away: computer software.

It was 1987 and even though I didn't know how to use a computer, I did know enough to be the first to volunteer for that new-business pitch. Nobody else at JWT wanted anything to do with it. A tiny, ugly, $5 million mainframe software account called Computer Associates that ran most of their ads in ComputerWorld.

After winning the pitch, I barged into my boss' office to complain that the office manager said there was a nine-month wait for a PC. I argued that we would look pretty silly submitting ad copy to a computer client that had to be written on an IBM Selectric. "You want a PC?" JWT Chairman James Patterson asked me with a pained look on his face. "Take mine. They suck."

I stood up, and walked over to his desk and unplugged his IBM XT with a floppy disk drive and walked out without saying a word. Like they say, when they say yes, hang up the phone.

Two years later I quit JWT and started my own agency with my art director partner, Mike Schell. Our firm, Schell/Mullaney, specialized in high-tech products and services. Three months after we started our business, we won that ugly little $5 million dollar account, Computer Associates, from JWT. And we worked night and day over the next seven years and grew our agency into a $100 million shop. CA was our flagship client, which we handled in 70 countries and 90-plus languages.

It was worth all those late nights and cold pizza. Because in 1996, we sold our agency for more than we ever dreamed. Lucky? For sure. But did we make our own luck? I think that the saying is very true: The harder you work, the luckier you get.

Now at this point, I had a big decision to make: Start another agency or another business and try to make some more money, or do something else. I was 36 years old and confused: too young to retire and play bad golf, too old to do another start-up.

Thankfully, at this point I stumbled across another product that would change my life. As a volunteer for a medical mission group, I somehow ended up in China, in an O.R., watching a surgery on a very young, very poor 9-year-old girl who had lived her entire life with a cleft lip. After watching her surgery and carrying her out to the post-op ward, I waited with her father for her to wake up. When she woke, a nurse handed her a mirror and I'll never forget watching her stare at that mirror as nine years of tears streamed down her cheeks.

That surgery didn't just change her life, it changed mine.

I decided to leave advertising and co-found with my client and friend, Charles Wang, the chairman of Computer Associates, a children's charity called the Smile Train.

This year the Smile Train will provide free cleft-lip and -palate surgery for 125,000 children in 78 of the world's poorest countries. To raise the more than $100 million we need to pay for those surgeries, we do quite a bit of advertising, direct mail, PR, promotion, events, etc.

I still write all our ads, much of our direct mail, jingles, videos, etc. We even conceived of and produced a documentary that won an Oscar last February. (Like they say, you can take the boy out of advertising...)

I never became the next David Ogilvy.

But not a day goes by that I don't appreciate all that I learned on Madison Avenue. And I feel very fortunate that I ended up finding a "product" that I really believe in.

Brian Mullaney is co-founder of the Smile Train, an international charity that provides cleft-lip and -palate surgery to children in need as well as cleft-related training to doctors.

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