Jeff Goodby warmed his creative soul at Hal Riney's American hearth.
"You never forget your first one," says Nina DiSesa, speaking not of a stein of St. Pauli Girl but her mentor Bill Westbrook, who in turn will never forget Harry Jacobs.
Tracy Wong looked to Gary Goldsmith, who was lucky enough to study under Roy Grace, Helmut Krone, Sam Levinson and all those good old folks at Doyle Dane Bernbach.
In Steve Rabosky's eyes, Lee Clow was the guiding star, but Clow himself surfed his way through awards books, then rode a wave of his own.
Today's creative gurus tell mostly fond tales of the people who taught them advertising. They stood at elbows, worked under watchful gazes and did ads over and over and over and over again before achieving the final nod. But now that it's their turn to pass it along, they're worried about the babies coming up. Advertising agencies have become insecure and defensive places,
some say, and the art of mentorship could be in jeopardy.
It's not that they don't have wisdom to impart. They have plenty. Westbrook, now creative director at Fallon McElligott, describes the legacy he inherited at The Martin Agency from chairman Harry Jacobs, who is still a great friend: "He was a mentor who didn't say a lot, and when he didn't say a lot, he said a lot. He taught me standards. He taught me that sometimes elegance is refusal. He was a great simplifier of complicated problems, and a great one for impact, especially visual impact. But you had to read between the lines. He was never openly critical. He would say, 'That's interesting,' and that would mean it wasn't."
Westbrook characterizes himself as a different kind of coach, someone who is as close as Jacobs was distant. "I'm always in people's offices, patting them on the butt and getting them back into the game," he says.
As the next rung down on the mentor's ladder, Nina DiSesa doesn't mention butt-patting. But she does say Westbrook is blindly supportive to creative
and the creative product. It's the creative product, he taught her, that is the most important thing, and it's worth sacrificing everything for. He also taught her how to break down barriers and let the mind run free. "At the time, I thought he was a magician," says DiSesa, now executive creative director at J. Walter Thompson/Chicago. She first encountered Westbrook when they worked together at Van Newman & Associates, a small agency in Columbia, S.C. He was working part-time while finishing a master's degree, and she was there because her husband was stationed at Ft. Jackson and she needed a job. She was doing mechanicals at the time. "He really encouraged me to write," she recalls. Later she wrote for him at Cargill Wilson & Acree in Richmond. Va. "If it weren't for him, I would not have gone into the business or had the mental attitude toward the creative product that I do," DiSesa believes.
Sometimes the greatest impact is a negative one. Tracy Wong, now of Wong Doody, Seattle, cites Gary Goldsmith (Goldsmith/Jeffrey, New York) and Ross Sutherland (the newly-named chief creative officer at DMB&B/New York) as his mentors. But the one who really sticks in his craw-uh, mind-shall remain nameless. "One day he walks into my office with a trade ad in his hand, something I did about blanket insulation that hangs from rafters in a warehouse. It was a spread with 80 to 90 percent picture, two lines of copy, a little logo. Sparse. He just chuckles. He's so amused with me, this ill-tempered, overly ambitious, wild-eyed kid. 'No, no, no, this is how you do it,' he says, taking out a little notepad. He draws the picture on one side, big headline, lots of copy, four insets on the other." "Look, kid, Bernbach is dead, OK? Get over it."
Wong didn't. He left. But he still remembers.
Some creatives, like Richard Kirshenbaum, are lucky enough to start out as true novices. Fresh out of school, he volunteered for a summer job working for the late Lois Korey of Korey, Kay & Partners. He was her secretary, answering the phone, bringing her coffee. This "bedecked and bejeweled" lady, known for her elan and wry sense of humor, helped him on the sly. She showed him what a great book looked like, explained what made things funny, taught him the skills of copywriting.
She even read his body copy. He remembers her poring over it one day while stretched out on the couch in her office, nursing a headache. She'd asked him to fetch her mink from the closet, and she had it spread over her like a blanket. "She did everything with a sense of style," he says.
Kirshenbaum also remembers telling her, after a year and a half (he calls that time his favorite year), that he was leaving. "She was applying her lipstick at the time, and she looked at me over the compact and said, 'The mother's always the last to know.'"
Chiat/Day's Lee Clow was an orphan in the mentor department, although he names Bill Bernbach as the major influence in his young creative life. Bereft of funds for school and not thrilled with the glory of Madison Avenue, Clow pored over awards books, which he says gave him the impetus to believe that advertising could be intelligent, smart, charming and interesting. He worked with Jay Chiat but he says Chiat was more taskmaster than mentor. "His job was raising the bar and making it better. I had to be my own source of how high was up. I had to create my own definition. He just said, 'Go higher.'"
Clow became a more traditional mentor, one who sees his responsibility as "coming in and finding the best thing on the wall, the kernel of the big idea." He is not a thumbs-up, thumbs-down critic.
Which didn't make him any less intimidating to Steve Rabosky, who had worshipped him from afar for years before landing a job at Chiat/Day. Rabosky, who studied everything Clow did, says the distinctive attitude, the "f--k you personality" of the ads made them leap off the page. Once he started working with Clow, his most vivid memory became "the thought that he was going to fire me, every day of the first six months I worked there. It was a very intimidating place."
When not concentrating on style, Rabosky noticed that Clow didn't always have all the answers. "He had to figure stuff out, too. I started to realize that it was as much hard work as anything else that leads to what people call success. I figured I may not be as intuitive or as articulate, but I can work as hard as everybody else."
Hard work-or was it overplanning?-was one of Hal Riney's messages to Jeff Goodby. "He had me map out every sound, every picture, every half second of a commercial," Goodby says. "I've had to lighten myself up." He also remembers Riney's advice, delivered while they were riding to a shoot together, to put together "a little band of people with whom you always work." The ensuing loyalty would breed top performance, better than on anyone else's jobs, Riney had declared.
Much of the value of mentorship comes with age, otherwise known as experience. Gary Goldsmith was 26 when he went to Doyle Dane Bernbach, the agency he listed 10 times when his alma mater, Art Center, asked him to list 10 places he wanted to work. Once there, he encountered a raft of creative gurus. "They were in their 50s and 60s," he recalls. "It was one of the few places where people their age were at the top of their profession. It was very inspirational. And they were still doing very good work. Just watching the way Helmut Krone worked ... he was not the most conversational person. He was so intent on what he was doing. And Roy Grace, the creative director at the time, had a tremendous effect on me. He was doing great work, he could really critique well, he had an instinct for how to make work better and he set up an environment where you could flourish. He gave you good assignments, then he kept pushing you."
Roy Grace, now at New York's Grace & Rothschild, is still pushing the young people. He describes the process thusly: work with them, give them a chance to fail, encourage them to take chances, nurture them for their failures, reward them for their successes. And he believes the process has changed not one whit in the past 25 years.
Unfortunately, other things have changed, in the opinion of some. Grace thinks today's advertising babies-tomorrow's creative stars-comprise a small clutch of really talented people who share the same enthusiasm, dedication and obsession with the craft as their predecessors did.
But no longer are they looking for a Doyle Dane Bernbach. Because they're competing with a huge band of freelance people-"gypsies of the creative industry," Grace calls them-no one is willing to invest in them. As a result, they "feel used, somewhat abused, disenfranchised, unattached, with no place to call home."
Goldsmith agrees. He fears the end of an era of creative seniors who are unthreatened, accessible, and willing to pass on everything they know. "Now systems are set up to milk people," he says. "You steal what you can and to hell with them. It's very different."
DMB&B's Ross Sutherland also thinks advertising's overall corporate culture has changed. People have become a commodity; there's no sense in identifying talent and working to keep it when they could be gone tomorrow and "they'll just ship in another busload of art directors."
Part of the problem is the insecurity bred by absentee ownership and huge holding companies. Individuals don't seem important anymore. Sutherland, who worked for O&M for 24 years, says WPP head Martin Sorrell "couldn't pick me out of a lineup, and he owns the agency. David Ogilvy still remembers the name of my son."
Young people, attuned to the chaos, are hard-pressed to find a David Ogilvy. Many of them are coming into the business believing it has always been this way, an industry where loyalty doesn't count. Rather than spending a few years trying to find an agency that is a good fit, they adopt an awards- and promotion-focused "I'm going to get as high as I can as fast as I can, at any cost" attitude. They become mercenary itinerants, and Goldsmith says he doesn't blame them a bit. "It's unfortunate, because most creative people like to find a place they can stay, where they can do good work they like and have a carefree existence." Several principals claim their own agencies are different from most, because they believe in the kind of nurturance they got and want to make sure it's available to the next generation. Roy Grace, for instance, says he won't hire freelancers. Richard Kirshenbaum thinks of Kirshenbaum & Bond as a "big university. We're professors here. Sometimes people graduate and leave and sometimes they become professors."
For those who do seek out the stars for guidance, chances are the stars are on the road pitching business or trying to keep it. Even though they claim mentorship is still possible, and at their agencies they try to hire and groom young talent, everyone is worried about having time to do it right. "We're running very fast today," says Kirshenbaum. "We have to push ourselves to get involved with young people."
"Everybody's too busy. A lot of survival or defense is being played," not "offense and nurturing," says Clow.
"It's kind of a shame," says Goodby. "It's really important for people to be teaching you that stuff. It sticks with you a lot more than when you watch from afar or read it in magazines. It's a lot better to have a person standing there