Don Schneider On the Spot

The executive creative director at BBDO grew up in Massapequa, Long Island, where his high school political science teacher was Alec Baldwin’s father. Which Schneider says was not a factor in casting Baldwin three decades later for the voiceover of GE’s “Imagination at Work” campaign (he was instead inspired by Baldwin’s narration in The Royal Tenenbaums). Schneider, an art director who has logged 23 years at BBDO, is lead creative on Pepsi and also sits on the New York shop’s 20-member board of directors. At home in Bedford, N.Y., where he lives with his wife and three kids, Schneider relaxes by playing guitar and classical piano in his music studio. Q. What inspired you to get into advertising?

A. My dad loved commercials. I remember him standing up and pointing to the TV after seeing the VW “Snow Plow” spot and declaring, “Now that is a great commercial!” I remember thinking, “Gee, how hard could it be to do that?” My mom actually worked at BBDO in the ’40s as an administrator. I got in the old-fashioned way: I knew someone.



What was your first ad?

It was for Wisk. I did an overhead shot of a washing machine spinning back and forth. It was a print ad. I thought, “If this is my future in advertising, it’s going to be kind of bleak.” It turned out not to be the case.



Who had the greatest influence on your career?

Ted Sann and Joe Pytka. Unless you know those guys, you think they’re at opposite ends of the spectrum of humanity. They share one important thing. They cut through the bullshit to the core of what’s valuable about a commercial or a campaign. Ted uses a scalpel; Joe uses a broad sword. But they’re both big-picture guys.



How does it feel now that your former partner, Michael Patti, has gone to Y&R?

Michael is a great writer. And my friend. We had an unbelievable run together. With Michael, it was me and him in a room, trying to do it all. And most times it was successful. Now I’m trying to be more inclusive, trying to involve more people in the work. I like to make a point of having my clients know there’s a roomful of people giving 200 percent effort to their account all the time.



Does that mean you won’t hire a partner?

That means we’ll have to see. It’s something that’s evolving right now.

What was it like working with Madonna on Pepsi back in 1989?

She was the hardest worker on the set, and we worked pretty damn hard. Unlike some celebrities that you can’t get out of their trailer for five hours, she was there and ready at the assigned time. [Pointing to a framed set of lipstick prints with her autograph in his office] That’s her DNA right there. She used to call me Don Juan. I had no romantic attachment to her though.

How do you get past a creative block?

Not giving up. But it relates back to BBDO’s motto: “The work. The work. The work.” My motto is, “The work. The weekend. The work.”



Why?

Working to the point of exhaustion is short-sighted and counterproductive. You eventually see people writing commercials about two guys writing commercials. That’s when you know you’ve got to let these guys go home and live a life. I believe people have to get out and live in order to have some clay to work with.



Name one person you’re dying to work with.

I would say Eric Silver. He’s the funniest guy out there, and I think we share a sensibility, even though I’ve never met the guy. Outside the industry, Spock from Star Trek. He’s the perfect creative guy. He sits there with a smug, slightly disgusted look on his face while everyone runs around in circles, wasting emotional energy. Then he has the perfect solution.



Give me three words to describe yourself.

Innovative guitar player.



And three words that others might use?

Mediocre guitar player.



What’s the last book you read?

The Life of Pi. It’s about a young boy trapped on a lifeboat for about 90 days with a ravenous Bengal tiger with no food and water. It reminds me of working here on the weekends on a new-business pitch.



What is the biggest advertising mistake you’ve ever made?

I mistook a can of Spraymount for deodorant.



What was your most recent creative coup?

Probably GE. We convinced them to let us solve a problem for them in an interesting way. They wanted to change their image from dishwashers and lightbulbs to one of a high-tech, diversified company. For example, a jet engine is a fascinating piece of hardware. But connecting it to the imagery of man’s first flight at Kitty Hawk is magic. In this new campaign, we’re always taking a higher platform. For every piece of hardware there’s an idea.



Is there a product you wouldn’t work on?

Hand grenades or anything even remotely associated with incontinence.



What’s your worst fear ?

A large asteroid colliding with the earth.



OK, what’s your second-worst fear?

A smaller one.