Keith: From Making Change to Making Omnicom, Part Two.
We began yesterday with Part One of "Keith: The Last Mad Man," a five-part series covering the life, times and plans of Keith Reinhard.
Today's portion of the interview picks up from when Keith got his first job in an advertising agency and all the way up to when he co-founded Omnicom. Wait 'til you read it!
Later in the week we expect you will be even more impressed when you learn about what Keith is doing now as president of the Business for Diplomatic Action (BDA), the global organization which serves as the private sector connection for public diplomacy efforts by the US government.
Tim: Tell me about your experience in Chicago at Needham.
Keith: A friend of mine introduced me to a creative director he knew there and I was ultimately able to get my foot in the door. I wasn't sure though that the interview went all that well. In the meeting, I showed the creative director my art samples and everything. His response was "Have you have ever thought about writing?"
Keith: I said, "Is this sort of a backhanded compliment of my book?"
Keith: Here I am. By now I'm 29 years old, have been trying to getting into the agency business for 10 years and I am starting as the oldest beginning copywriter in the Prudential Building!
Keith: When I started at Needham, they gave me a little booth, a little chair and a typewriter next to the coffee machine and the soda machine, so all day I was making change instead of doing what I was hired for.
Tim: Oh boy.
Keith: I didn't know what I was doing. The first assignment was to write 26 humorous radio commercials for State Farm Insurance. Radio ads written by an art guy. I sort of didn't know much about radio advertising, so I went to my supervisor and said," Give me some tips about writing humor because what's funny about insurance?"
Tim: That took some courage.
Keith: His response was on the stern side. His said, "You go type until you laugh." When you laugh bring it to me, if I laugh its funny, I don't laugh go back and type." I couldn't make him laugh, but the account executives on the account did.
Keith: One day my supervisor went on vacation. The account group came and said, we had to show something to the client; so they told me to show my work to him. The client laughed so we had a sale. They assigned Chris Ford, Harrison Ford's dad as the producer. He took me to Hollywood and made these commercials with real talent. We won some awards. So then my career started to feel like "Okay."
Tim: Writing humor is hard too, no doubt.
Keith: Yeah. Then, my work started getting noticed and various people began asking? "Who is the kid who is doing those State Farm commercials?" and "Can we get him to do some work on Mars Candy, like Milky Way for example.
Tim: And radio was still the media, wasn't it?
Keith: Yeah. Then things started going a little better. Pretty soon I was a supervisor. The great thing was that I knew everybody in the agency because I had made change for them all (laughs)!
Tim: They were obviously very grateful!
Keith: From there I moved up the ranks to creative director etc... and by 1980 I was made the president of the Chicago office of what was then, Needham, Harper & Steers. In 1982, Paul Harper asked me to take over the company to succeed him. He and Bill Bernbach knew each other and previously had talks about merging.
Keith: However, Bill was distracted and was totally smitten by Mary Wells. The idea that there could be a merger between Well Rich and Bernbach was something he was very interested in. He jokingly said they would call it William and Mary (laughs).
Keith: But the talks between Paul Harper and Bill Bernbach went nowhere. Bill died in 1982. I met him a couple of times and we talked on the phone. There were some ideas that I could come to New York, or start up a new DDB office in Chicago. They had a small office working for Crackerjack, and I wasn't really interested in doing that. Because without Bill, DDB was on a decline. They were losing business and their work was not living up to the revolutionary standards that they set in the 60's.
Keith: But I still thought that the ideas Bill gave the industry and the brand that he built deserved to not only live, but be expanded and experienced around the world. Clients everywhere deserved to have the benefit of those insights into communication and into human nature. So I had several talks with the then DDB management, but we couldn't make anything really happen.
Tim: Got it.
Keith: I had talks with The Allen Company to consider the idea that maybe I could buy DDB.
Keith: My passion was to take the insights of Bill Bernbach and bring them to life in a media landscape he could not have imagined, in a world he might not have even approved of. He was wary of international. How could he be sure that DDB Dusseldorf was doing good work if he wasn't there to see it? Even though he opened an office in Germany for Volkswagen and then a few others, he himself was not necessarily an internationalist.
Keith: On the other hand, my thinking was "We have all these ideas and insights and philosophies and a brand that still has equity. Let's take it over and bring it to life in a new world. We couldn't make that happen until Allen Rosenshine and I began having a series of breakfast in late 1985. We discussed the possibility of a three-way merger at our series of breakfasts at the Stanhope Hotel, opposite the Metropolitan Museum.
Tim: Great. Then what happened?
Keith: As CEO of Needham-Harper which was the number 16 ranked agency globally I knew that we were not going to be able to really survive in that position. There was going to have to be an industry consolidation. I foresaw a two-tier industry made up of 7-8 companies at the top and numerous boutiques at the bottom. The real vulnerability was if you were in the middle.
Keith: My executive committee at Needham spent several weekends on saying, "Okay, who were the merger partners possible at that point in time, 1985?" And what would make sense, what would the client list look like? I still have a notebook full of all those possibilities Needham Harper and Bates, Needham-Harper and this, Needham-Harper and that etc... I tried to imagine what would those look like. I said, " You know what? My heart is Needham and DDB." DDB and Needham. So Allen and I started having breakfast to see if there was anything between BBDO and Needham.
Tim: The Saatchi's were well entrenched already. They were just sucking up everything.
Keith: They were. And they wanted DDB.
Tim: Okay. Got it.
Keith: Allen and I were both copywriters who had risen to head our companies and we were roughly the same age. We agreed on a lot of things, but we were just as different as any two people can be. I'm a kid from the Midwest and he's born and bred New Yorker.
Tim: That's great!
Keith: We started to think about. I said, "You know Allen, I think we agree on where this business is going but my heart is really... I want to merge Needham with DDB" He said, "That's interesting." We've been talking to DDB too." And there were a lot of other people involved, I mean people from Needham and BBDO in Germany had gotten together. So there were a lot of people involved, but the short of it was we said, "What if we had a three-way merger." That was such a big idea that the lawyers and the naysayers couldn't stop it.
Keith: So we started having these three-way discussions with Needham and DDB and BBDO in late '85. And we had them in secret places. We had most of the meetings across the street in the hotel, but we kept changing rooms in case some savvy journalist got wind of it and said, "Please hook me to the BBDO room" or something like that. So we kept moving and I kept forgetting the room numbers and stuff. It was very interesting.
Tim: That's great!
Keith: We had one meeting in Chicago. I still kept an apartment in One Magnificent Mile. It was a Palm Sunday in 1986 and we said, "Wait a minute, Charlotte Beers has an apartment here, she'll see us in the lobby." So we had to bring people in during the wee hours in the morning to have the meeting there. We went through account by account. Which clients would probably stay? Which clients would not? What were we going to do about redundancies? And so on and so forth.
Tim: You guys really weren't trained M&A specialists, so you were making it up as you went along.
Keith: Absolutely. It was decided that Allen would be the head of "Omnicom" which we didn't have the name for, but what turned out to be "Omnicom". I wanted the name of something with two A's at the beginning so our stock would always be listed first, but we couldn't think of anything.
Keith: We thought of Aardvark, but (laughs) that didn't seem like a good name for a holding company. But anyway we didn't know what the name was, but we knew that Allen Rosenshine would have to be the CEO of the holding company. I wanted to realize my dream of bringing Needham and DDB together as one to create what is now DDB worldwide.
Keith: So the weekend before April 26th we had to call every client of all three agencies because two of the agencies were public. And we had to wait till the stock market closed on Friday and get everybody before Monday morning. We had some of our young people keeping track on chalk boards. Like, "Okay we called the head of Pillsbury, what did he say? We called General Mills, what did they say? What does Anheuser-Busch say, and so forth. There were "conflicts" between what we were calling DDB Needham and BBDO, but we were arguing that there wouldn't be conflicts because they would be separate agencies. So April 26th we surprised the world.
Tim: I remember. How did it go down?
Keith: The BBDO board voted for it first. The Needham board was second. It was the toughest sale that I've ever made in my life. There were people who were very much against it. They felt that the marketing wars of the future could be fought from the trenches along Michigan Avenue, and "We didn't need any of these New Yorkers..."
Tim: Yeah, Needham was pretty strong about itself.
Keith: We started our board meeting at 6 o'clock in the evening and finished at 4 o'clock in the morning. We had a sale finally. I had lots of caucuses and lots of that going on, but the DDB board meeting was Friday night and the Saatchi's came with large bags of money...
Tim: That day?
Keith: Well, when people around town heard the rumors, I was getting calls from all kinds of people. People like Bob Jacobi and Alex Kroll said, "We've just heard that you are going to do something really bad. That's really bad."
Tim: You're kidding.
Keith: No I'm not. But we were on a train that wasn't going to be stopped. But the Saatchi's came with more money to DDB and I, of course, was not in that meeting. We were hanging out at Needham offices by the Lipstick Building and waiting for the vote. Someone joked that we were waiting for the white smoke! Finally, late that night, it came and we broke out the champagne.
Tim: It must be so exhausting...
Keith: According to what I was told, it was Joe Daly, who was then the CEO of Doyle Dane Bernbach who said, "Look, Allen and Keith and that group have a better idea. They don't have more money, but they have a better idea." And we got the vote. Then civil wars broke out all over the world, because Needham had an office in Australia, so did DDB. London, Toronto, Hong Kong, all around the world. We couldn't be in all those places, so people there declared, "Yeah there is a merger and I'm going to be the boss." "Oh no, I'm going to be the boss and who is going to be the creative director." So that took some real doing. It was more than a year...
Tim: So you guys then had to travel around the world, putting out fires and explain the situation and ramifications to each agency?
Tim: On an account-by-account basis?
Keith: And on a city-by-city, country-by-country basis. It was something I would want to do every 800 years.
Keith: The great news of course was that the dream was empowered. You can't let go of the dream that one day there would be a worldwide creative force. Young people would never know about the agony we went through to build it.
Tim: It would last longer than just an agency that had dominant figures and then disappeared.
Keith: Somebody said, "Well who's the new Bernbach?" I said, "There would be a hundred Bernbach's." They would have different names, but they would be attracted by his philosophies, by his ideas and by the work, and they will come to us and they will join us and they will build on these philosophies and translate them into their cultures and their markets.
Tim: What was the message you used to get everyone to go along with it?
Keith: How did we sell them? We let t hem know that, "We are not going to buy you and change you We are attracted to you because of what you are doing." We were able to make the case that it was so much in concert with Bill's philosophy of creative revolution.
Tim: But it had to be magnetic, because it was alluring for them to be cynical.
Keith: Well, it was, .but for a while we had to go through a period of double branding. And of course some were because of the egos and everything else, but that's okay; they were buying into the Bernbach philosophy. That was the key. You would visit offices and see pictures of Bill and his quotations and stuff like that on view and the little gray books that we had of his sayings and so forth. It was about setting creative standards and building culture.
Tim: That sounds so cool.
Keith: Building a culture is very creative in itself. We said the stronger the culture the less need for structure. As consolidation happened in industries everywhere, we would have a prospective client in the 1990's say that they needed our organization chart. We said, "We don't have an organization chart." They would be, "Oh! You have to." So we drew one that was like me at the bottom and it looked like a tree. It looked like a tree because that's where the growth takes place; that's where the action is. We are the juice there, we send up the food and we send out the nourishment, and so it was kind of cool.
Tim: That is great.
Keith Of all the things that I've tried, the creation of DDB Worldwide along with some very able and talented associates is the thing that I'm most proud of. It was Buckminster Fuller who once said, "Dare to be naïve." And I was naïve and I continue to hold to that philosophy. It applies to what I am up to now, the Business for Diplomatic Action (BDA). If you know everything there is to know, you might not try to do it. But if you don't know it can't be done, you just might try it. With a little luck it might work.
Tomorrow, the creation of McDonald's first ad campaign.