Keith Reinhard on freedom to fail, understanding Asia and how agencies can survive

Keith ReinhardIn an exclusive interview in Cannes today, advertising icon Keith Reinhard, one of the founding fathers of what is now DDB Worldwide, talked to Mumbrella’s Robin Hicks about freedom from fear, his favourite ads of all time, winning back McDonald’s and why the most important thing in advertising is passion.

Who is the most powerful person in advertising today?

If you’re talking about power, then you have to say people like John Wren [Omnicom’s CEO], Sir Martin [Sorrell, WPP’s boss] and Maurice Lévy [head of Publicis Groupe], who is becoming more and more aggressive and acquisitive.

But I’d like to think that creative power lies in the minds and the hands of names that we do not yet know. The young people who are in a way naïve – they don’t yet know what can’t be done, so they just go ahead and do it.

If there was a Time magazine Person of the Year, it would be the 23 year-old creative who will be showing the world amazing things with new technologies that we don’t yet fully understand.

What’s been the most memorable moment of your career?

There are positive and negative memories that stand out.

The best memory I have is probably in 1986, when we formed Omnicom.

This allowed me, along with some talented mates, to create DDB Worldwide [from the merger of Doyle Dane Bernbach and Needham Harper Worldwide].

I had that dream for a long time. We tried in so many ways to ensure that the legacy of Bill Bernbach could live on.

Some people thought was a bad idea. That Bill should be left to rest in his grave. But I felt for so may years that his insights into human behaviour and his observations on creativity could not be surpassed. They deserved to be institutionalised. They could apply to different markets and brought to life in another time. And I think that has proved to be true. His vision is even more relevant today than it was then.

It was the first three-way merger the industry had seen. And it almost didn’t happen. Saatchi & Saatchi were trying to buy DDB out from under us, and it came down the last vote on the board. We had a better idea for how it should work, but Saatchi’s had more money. When the final vote came through on a Friday at midnight, it was the most exciting time of my career.

In terms of creative work, the most memorable moments were when I was selling a campaign that I so much confidence and faith in, but so much trouble getting over that last obstacle.

There were the Volkswagen and Anheuser-Busch campaigns over the years. And ‘You Deserve a Break Today’ redefined the eating out experience for Americans. It almost became unpatriotic not to take your family to McDonald’s.

But of course there were bad memories too.

In 1981, after 10 years of doing image building ads for McDonald’s, we were fired. And it was totally unjustified.

I was about to light the candle on my daughter’s birthday cake when I got the call. It was her first birthday. The phone rings and it’s the CMO. He said they were going to move the account.

From that moment, I vowed to bring the account back to DDB. I called the CEO and said you’ve gone from being our biggest client to our biggest new business prospect.

In July 1997, we retained our status as lead agency for McDonald’s. It had taken two or three attempts to win it back. I moved to Chicago to personally take charge. So if we didn’t win it, it was all on me.

The day before the pitch, we created a video tape of how the pitch would run, so we could adjust things if need be. It seemed totally spontaneous, but we knew exactly what we were doing. We knew after 15 minutes of our presentation, that we’d won it.

What’s your favourite ad of all time?

The snow plough for Volkswagen [which won a gold at Cannes in 1964].

It changed advertising forever. Nobody had ever thought to tell a story in 60 seaconds that didn’t mention the product until the end. We asked a question that nobody was asking: did you wonder how the person driving the snowplough gets to the snowplough?

The other one I love is not by us.

I was first American president of the Cannes Lions jury. In that time, there was one jury for film and press. That year, 1984 [for Apple], created Jay Chiat, Steve Hayden and Lee Clow, was the grand prix winner. It only ran once during the Super Bowl, and is the best single example of how to create impact. Impact is the blow to the mind that readies it for the sale. I didn’t even know I needed a computer until I watched that commercial.

How do you define your legacy?

I am more interested in what could and should happen, rather than what has happened. I would hope that there are some people that found inspiration, fulfilment and reward in DDB and an environment characterised by freedom.

Phyllis Robinson was Bill Bernbach’s first creative director, and when asked what DDB was like, she said it was like being freed from jail. I wanted to find a way of moving from one office on Madison Avenue to 200 offices in 90 countries by emphasising the idea of freedom – which is essential for a creative.

It’s an interesting experience to go around our offices in Seoul, Shanghai and Mumbai trying to provide a sense of freedom in the workplace – a freedom from fear and a freedom to fail. Management by intimidation has no place in the workplace. If people want to try things that will fail, they should be allowed to. Creative people are the most insecure people on the planet. That’s why we have these awards shows. We’re never sure that we’re worth anything.

I also wanted to instill a freedom from chaos. When management says one thing, but does another, the agency will break down.

And lastly, a freedom to be different. Although we have shared values the world over, we must celebrate difference. We need to celebrate and recognise the dignity in diversity. Let people be who they are.

Sometimes college kids ask me why they should go into advertising. The simply answer is, the people you work with. In Washington, government people are grey bodies of trembling flesh, taking notes and nodding in unison. Advertising is a stimulating and enriching environment.

People say advertising is a dying trade. What’s your view?

First of all, we’ve heard this for at least 30 years. I was laughed off the stage in Manhattan near the end of last century. Madison Avenue was dead, I was told. But we’re still here.

At the same time, we really need to think about to evolve. We need to stay dynamic. We need to get clients to brief us on business problems instead of 30-second TVCs. Our creativity is capable of solving problems way beyond the television or the computer screen.

We have the knowledge of a company like IDEO, just without the engineering. We need clients to use more of our creativity – and to pay for it. That’s a real problem. We are fighting to get paid for the hours we put in, and we don’t have the time to sell bigger ideas beyond advertising.

We create brands, and we are increasingly owning brands. We should be saying to clients, give us a business problem and pay us for how effective our ideas are to solve them. We need to find ways to get paid for the IP we generate.

Going to Terespol? You have time to eat one Big Mac.

Going to Terespol? You have time to eat one Big Mac.

But we’re making progress. Last year, McDonald’s won 16 lions, 14 were from DDB – and almost all were agency initiated.

We produced a train time table in Warsaw that calculates train times in terms how much time you have to eat McDonald’s food. And in Stockholm, we created a digital billboard that allowed people to play a game with their phones to win free stuff.

I don’t deny that agency people get caught up in the day to day. But the reason we are is because of our clients, who don’t always grant us freedom from fear – they use it as a motivator that creates a pressure and a focus.

DDB has always worked with Volkswagen. Can a client be with an agency for too long?

If the agency gets tired and stops being fresh, yes. Rosser Reeves [a legendary creative at what was then known as the Ted Bates agency, now Bates CHI] once wrote ‘I will beat you with the third best campaign, because you keep changing and I won’t.’ It can dangerous to change things too quickly. If you’re not building on anything, you’re starting over – and that’s economically foolish.

You need to keep brand integrity. VW is like a person, a lovable underdog. The little guy you want to win. We’ve kept that fresh for 60 years. But we don’t work on VW everywhere. Deutsch handles the account in the US, and they’ve captured that unique personality through the use of humour, irony and wit in storytelling. We don’t have the business in Brazil either.

By contrast, look at what’s happen at Avis. I went to a Google event last year called Re-brief. They brought in some legendary creatgive people to say how they would re-imagine a brand in the age of the internet. One was Paula Green, who wrote ‘We try harder’ for Avis, which lasted 40 years.

When I saw the video of Paula and the new marketing director for Avis discussing how she would approach it, I thought this is going nowhere. I thought, I’ve seen that look in a hundred meetings – she wants her own campaign. Then they announced that they had dropped We Try Harder. Who, in this day and age, doesn’t want a brand that tries harder?

Does the West understand Asia?

I don’t think so. A lot of us are trying to study and learn about China, and I’ve been going there for 20 years. My preference was to have people from that market doing the creative work and taking Bernbach’s ideas and finding out how they apply in their culture.

I remember being struck by the work in Japan in the 1980’s. One ad portrayed light bulbs in the form of flowers. There were no words. Operatic music sounded and a flower opened. I don’t think we could have done that in the West. I don’t think that idea could naturally have come out of our culture.



However, years later, I took another look at the work in Japan. What I saw were bad imitations of the worst kind of P&G advertising. Imitation always produces weaker work than the original. But to do bad imitations of less than excellent advertising? I thought what a shame.

Now, look at the Coca-Cola #Cokehands work that won a grand prix last year for China. Because of the use of red, it only made really wonderful sense to the Chinese. We could not have thought of that in the West. Great advertising emerges from your own culture. If we tried to imitate the work that is coming through in China, and  countries like India and Korea, we couldn’t.

Do you have any advice for young people entering the business now?

It’s clichéd, but if you think you could be happy doing anything else, don’t get into advertising.

There’s talent, which God gives you. There’s nothing you can do about the size of your gift. There’s skill, which takes practice. But passion is the main things. You have to have that. If you follow your passion, you will succeed.


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