Keith: The Road to Madison Avenue, Part One.
By Wendy McHale, Publisher
Beginning today, the MadAve Journal begins our week-long coverage of Keith Reinhard's life, MadAve career and on-going global projects, in the age of Obama.
We did this based on our experience of him and the simple fact that there are so many others in our business who have not had the same opportunity. Late last year, Mr. Reinhard shared several stories with editor Tim McHale which have only been told once or twice, mostly between the people who were there at the time.
Since hindsight is 20/20, after the interview it appeared evident to us that Keith's background appears almost mirror-like to the life, times and goals that our president elect has espoused.
For those not aware of Keith's accomplishments, here are just a few. He's the torchbearer of the legendary creative revolution on Madison Avenue during the 1960s. He created the first McDonald's campaign. He co-founded Omnicom. He's Chairman Emeritus of DDB Worldwide, reputably the world's most creative agency. Click HERE for more.
Today's portion of the interview covers how Keith created the path from the Indiana corn fields of his youth to Madison Avenue.
However, perhaps most relevant to us is that Keith has taken the skills that he's honed on Madison Avenue and created the Business for Diplomatic Action (BDA), a global organization which serves as the private sector connection for public diplomacy efforts by the US government. Inspiration for the BDA came one month after 9/11.
A challenge? For sure. However, over the next 5 days, you'll learn first-hand that when Keith applies his will, he always finds a way.
Tim: How's it going?
Keith: It's going very well, thank you!
Tim: Before we talk about the business, tell me a little about yourself. Where did you grow up? How did you become interested in the advertising business?
Keith: I grew up in a small town in northeastern Indiana called Berne. It was mostly populated by Swiss Mennonites and had a population of 2,000 or so. Many years after I got into this business they still thought, "Advertising? What is that? It's writing the classified ads in the back of the Berne Witness - Indiana's only tri-weekly newspaper, isn't it?"
Tim: A tri-weekly!
Keith: The joke was that they called it that because they would "try every week to get one out!" (laughs). That was their understanding of advertising. Or perhaps it was the local billboard sign painter. That was advertising to them. They had no idea what I was doing. This was a town with seven churches and seven furniture factories. My dad worked for the Dunbar Furniture Company as an upholsterer, so my family understood the furniture business.
Keith: Dunbar was one of the really high-end furniture lines. It was in the homes of Hollywood stars and luxury liners and so forth. And they were making things like cocktail tables, but because it was run by Mennonites, they weren't allowed to call them cocktail tables, so they referred to them as a case goods number.
Keith: My dad died when I was three years old. After he passed away, my mother brought up my brother Ken and me. Through a series of experiences Ken became a very good furniture designer. He's won these top prizes all over the world. He's got the factories producing his designs in Italy and in the American Midwest. My mother always said she had one son who was really successful because he was doing furniture and my other son is "in New York and he does advertising - Ah whatever."
Tim: That's great!
Keith: By the end - she passed a year ago at 95 - she inevitably understood what I did because people would tell her, "Oh, I saw your son on television." "Oh Ken?" "No Keith!" (laughs). Or, "I saw your son being quoted in the Wall street Journal." Something like that, so she started to get the idea that maybe I wasn't totally out of it.
Tim: What attracted you to advertising as a career?
Keith: I really am not sure, but from my earliest recollection, I was fascinated by brands and by logos and by posters.
Keith: We were very poor. After my father died, my Mom had to go to work and I had to work after school on whatever jobs I could, just to help out. One of my early jobs was as a stock boy in a grocery store. This was way before checkout lines. We had clerks come and help you with the merchandise. But it was a very small store - the only one in the town - and they bought goods from Kraft and General Mills. All these companies had posters but the grocery store didn't know where to put them in the store, so I took them home. Betty Crocker was my first pin-up girl.
Tim: Betty Crocker?
Keith: Yes, I'd say, "Wow, that's really cool. That's almost like art."
Tim: I love it!
Keith: Later on, as I learned everything I could about advertising it occurred to me that at the turn of the previous century it was really very much like Jules Cheret in Paris, who put pictures with these types of notices along the boulevards of Paris.
Tim: Today they are really valuable.
Keith: Yes, the merchandisers who sold products to the grocery store produced in-store display ads that were very much along those lines. I was fascinated by that.
Keith: I worked summers weeding on my hands and knees in the fields pulling weeds out of the onion and dill rows. Every Tuesday a huge white truck would pull up to the truck farm where I was working and load all the dill and onions and tomatoes. And there was a V8 vegetable cocktail juice logo that just blasted right across this truck, and I said, "That's really cool!" And I thought, "That truck is going somewhere." Maybe to Ohio, I don't know, but it is going somewhere and something will happen. There's another world out there.
Keith: However, we didn't have art class per se in the high school. Music was very important because of the church. My grandfather was my surrogate dad. He said, "Okay, you have to learn an instrument. I'll buy you any instrument. But you have to learn one. So you can choose which instrument you would like to play." What he had in mind was trombone or trumpet or whatever that I could play in church. So I chose drums because I knew they were not allowed in church. He stuck by his word and I started playing in a few jazz bands and stuff.
Keith: In 9th or 10th grade in high school, by then I had an interest in art. There was a teacher who taught me what she could. She told me about an art competition which was sponsored by Scholastic magazine. It was to be judged and held in Indianapolis. So I figured, "Why not enter?"
Keith: I didn't have a gift. I really didn't, but I had ambition and persistence, so I entered every category, like hand lettering, pencil drawing, water color, two or three deep.
Tim: That's brilliant!
Keith: The last time I checked, I held the state record for the number of gold key awards.
Keith: I'm sure it no longer exists and if it does somebody has wiped out my record, but for a long time I was the winner of the most gold keys because I entered everything. I'd be really embarrassed to show you the work, if indeed it still exists. I'm sure it doesn't.
Tim: What happened then?
Keith: Then a kid moved into our town from Detroit. He was a year older than me, but he moved in a block away from where I lived and he had a driver's license. One weekend he took me to Detroit to visit his uncles and cousins and to see the Red Wings. It was a Saturday morning. We went to a commercial art studio in the Fisher Building. His uncle did ads for General Motors. He was working with an airbrush and doing drawings of the Pontiacs and Buicks and whatever. I thought, "I can't believe this guy is earning a living doing something that cool!"
Tim: Detroit must have been awesome then.
Keith: It was. Years later I was interviewed on one of the radio stations who had studios in it. It's art-deco. It's a really cool building. During the interview, all those memories rushed back from my first visit there. Because going there from Indiana to the Fisher Building, that was quite something.
Keith: It was then that I decided that I'd really like to be a part of that business. I knew no one in the business and there was no possibility that I could meet anybody. One day I saw this ad on the back of Popular Mechanics with the headline, "Draw Me." It invited a person to draw the profile of the girl in the ad, and then send it off to the Art Instruction correspondence course in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where they would evaluate your talent which was always like, "Oh! You are so good."
Keith: Yeah exactly. Their response was always, "You're brilliant." They sent a salesman to Berne, Indiana to try to talk my mother out of $600 to take this correspondence course in commercial art instruction. Lesson 4 was "Advertising Lay Out" and there it was.
Keith: My gosh, I was so excited. So that was, I guess, how I got interested. Then, after I graduated high school, I had a small scholarship from the local Rotary Club to the John Herron Art School in Indianapolis, Indiana. But the summer before I was to enroll, the McCarthyites closed it down.
Tim: So this is the 50's?
Keith: Yes. I graduated from high school in 1953. I missed my opportunity to go to school.
Tim: What did you do?
Keith: Right after my high school graduation, I, with three of my high school buddies took a 1929 Ford pickup truck and converted it into an early SUV. We built bunk beds on the back, painted it turquoise blue, named it "Asthma" and set out for New York. Over the Pennsylvania Turnpike and up to Jersey. But we were kicked off the Jersey Turnpike because we could not maintain minimum speed.
Tim: I love it!
Keith: So we said, "How do we get to New York?" and they said, "There is this road called Route 1 or whatever" and... I'll never forget coming out of the tunnel seeing Manhattan for the first time. But I had no connections here and my three buddies wanted to go back to school in Indiana. They were totally intimidated!
Tim: How long did you stay?
Keith: About 4 or 5 days. After that, back in Indiana I bummed around in various edges of the advertising business. I got my first job in Fort Wayne, Indiana in a commercial arts studio that worked for local agencies. I was really an apprentice.
Tim: It was a start.
Keith: Yeah, I was paid nothing, but my job was running errands and watering plants and developing photos. I had some photography experience because I worked part time after school for town photographers. I knew how to mix chemicals, and develop negatives and make prints and stuff. But there were a couple of guys there, illustrators and layout guys, who sort of took me under their wing and really I learned a lot.
Keith: After a year and half there I said, "Well, they are always going to remember me as the apprentice". So I left and went to the biggest commercial art studio in the world at that time; the Kling studio in Chicago. It's no longer there but it was an early TV studio. Television was still very black and white, but Kling was making television commercials for some of the agencies which included Needham, Louis and Brorby.
Tim: In Chicago?
Keith: Yes. I had learned a little bit about animation. The Kling artists would do the animation. I would then shoot them frame by frame. The commercials were usually for local department stores.
Tim: Were they the storyboards or produced commercials?
Keith: I was shooting the produced commercial.
Tim: So you were just filming that essentially.
Keith: Yeah. Did you ever see an animation stand with the two pegs and the cells, and you put down and you shoot three of this frame and three of that frame, etc.?
Tim: It's like Walt Disney...
Keith: Yeah exactly. But Needham, Louis and Broby was one of the really big, good agencies in Chicago at that time and their creative director would come over and everybody would bow and make a big fuss over him. Years later he was actually reporting to me at what was then Needham, Harper and Steers. But at the time, I was working for the art studio, trying to a job. "Can I get an interview?" The answer would be "No." I didn't have any connections so I they wouldn't give me an interview.
Tim: Then what?
Keith: I took a little side trip to South America did some photography and cinematography for a touring group of basketball players.
Tim: That sounds interesting.
Keith: It was. Then after I came back I heard about an opportunity at Magnavox, who was looking for somebody to start a communications department. They were working for the government. They were doing SONAR equipment for the navy and the air force and submarine detection...
Tim: That is a serious business...
Keith: Yes, because everything was classified, they wanted everything in-house. So they ask me to build a communications department.
Keith: I started with three people and ended up with 26. We were doing sales brochures, training films, sales films, all kinds of proposals and presentations to the government to try to get government contracts mostly, and to other subcontractors and for training films for the Navy.
Tim: How old were you?
Keith: I was in my early twenties
Tim: You were getting great experience
Keith: Yeah.... and I was head of the department, which was called the Technical Publications Department, but it included film and everything else. That gave me a lot of experience in terms of building a team and dealing with all the different kinds of media.
Keith: Then one day a guy from a small agency in Bloomington, Illinois that was doing Magnavox consumer work for their electronic organs said, "Would you ever think about joining an advertising agency?" and I said, "Bloomington, Illinois, I don't think so!"
Tim: What was the name of the agency?
Keith: It was called the Biddle Agency. By this time, I was married with one child. Upon looking closer at the agency it seemed like a better opportunity than I originally thought, so we moved from Fort Wayne to Bloomington.
Keith: I was assigned to the State Farm Insurance account to do all their promotions, conventions and advertising. The agency is no longer there but State Farm is, which became my doorway into the agency business!
Tomorrow: The creation of Omnicom.