Goodby and Silverstein Revisit Their Greatest Hits, and Notorious Misses, in Cannes Talk

30 years of great work, and unforgettable stories

CANNES, France—Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein told some great stories from their 30-plus years together at a seminar before an adoring crowd at the Palais here Thursday. And true to form, it was a funny and honest talk, with the creative partners recalling almost as many failures as successes—punctuated by an abounding gratitude for what they've accomplished, and the people they've met along the way.

They began, for example, with the topic of getting fired—something Goodby, Silverstein & Partners has endured many times over the years.

"The last time I was on this stage, I was here with Joel Ewanick, my client at GM," Goodby said. "We were both fired within months. He used a really bad word that starts with M and has a lot of letters in it. That got back to Dan Akerson, the CEO of GM, and that was a really bad thing," he added with a chuckle. (The word was motherfucker, and it was hardly the only profanity uttered in their 2012 seminar, which was lively—apparently too much so.)

Not that getting fired is always the worst thing in the world. But it can be frustrating when you feel like you're doing good work for a client.

"We've done some of our best work before being fired. It's just a rotating thing," said Silverstein. "The new CMO comes in. It doesn't matter how good you've been. You're on the chopping block."

The pair then told three funny firing stories.

E*Trade
"I met the new CEO. It wasn't even the CMO," Silverstein recalled. "I thought, of course we're going to continue with them. We did great work. And the first thing he said to me was, 'Thanks for destroying my company.' So, we didn't continue with that guy."

 
Logitech
"We lost it after doing this wonderful spot [with Kevin Bacon]," Silverstein said. "And I've never seen another spot from this company. So you never know what's going on in the world." The Logitech spot was actually a tie-in with Google TV, which Silverstein jokingly dismissed. "Who has a Google TV out there? I don't think it worked. And who has the Logitech mouse? I hope Google's not in the audience," he added with a laugh, "because we are available for work."

 
NBA
Goodby then ran an NBA spot from GS&P, which never aired, that used CGI to show a LeBron James jersey getting unburned—celebrating his return to Cleveland. "It certainly had something to do with us not getting any more assignments from those people," he said. "I think the mood of it was just not right. If you're a basketball fan, I think you enjoy it."

 
Adobe
In the case of Adobe, GS&P actually turned around what seemed to be a broken relationship.

"In this case, we quit. If you can't get fired, you might as well quit," Silverstein joked. "We weren't doing any good work for them. The process was broken, and it was frustrating. They had this product, this great brand that we knew we could do something for. I always say that I called the client and said, 'I quit.' But actually Robert [Riccardi], our partner, went in person—and the CMO threw a stapler at him. But then I got a call from Shantanu [Narayen], who was the new CEO of Adobe, and it all turned around."

He then showed "Dream On," the Adobe spot that won gold and silver Cyber Lions here earlier this week and is in the running in the Film competitions, too.

"I'm not saying you should quit, but sometimes you've just got to," Silverstein said. Goodby added, "And then sometimes good things happen."

 
Electronic Arts
The pair told all sorts of other stories, reflecting in particular on early work they loved, beginning with Electronic Arts and the famous "Can a computer make you cry?" print ad, which focused on the game developers themselves.

"We said, 'Let's make these guys into rock stars,' " Goodby said. "For the first time, these guys became stars. And they flocked to EA to work for them, which was a big part of their success. I went to the 25th anniversary of Electronic Arts a couple of years ago, and people came up to me, the engineers, and said, 'I work here because I saw that ad and I wanted to be a part of that.' "

 
Porsche
After a slide titled "99% of winning is just showing up," Goodby told the story of scoring the top prize—along with $100,000—at the Kelly Awards in 1996 for the Porsche campaign that included the famous "Kills Bugs Fast" ad. But the GS&P creative who showed up at the ceremony wasn't allowed in because he was underdressed.

"We won $100,000, and Wieden + Kennedy went up and got our award," said Silverstein, adding jokingly: "And I think they kept the $100,000."

Goodby also told the story of the time Erich Joiner, at the time a GS&P creative, and the photographer John Claridge managed to crash a Porsche 996 while on visit to Germany to photograph it.

"They had one of the four prototypes of the 996 in the whole world, so this is a very expensive car," Goodby said. "I got this call from the guys, who said they had crashed the 996—and that I had to tell the president of Porsche about that. So I called up the president of Porsche, Rich Ford, who said, 'Is anybody hurt?' And I said, 'No, I don't think so.' And he said, "Oh, OK. Well, that happens all the time, don't worry about it!' "

 
Norwegian Cruise Line
They also ruefully recalled the infamous all-agency cruise that GS&P took at one point in the '90s after accepting a barter agreement one month when Norwegian Cruise Line couldn't pay its bill. The agency staffers got notoriously rambunctious on the trip, to put it mildly.

"We had to write letters of apology to the cruise line and give some free cruises to a couple of people," Silverstein said. "We were terrible. There were chairs thrown off. Food fights. We had six special rooms, and we had this brilliant idea that each room would have its own special liquor concept. It will never happen again. We burned the film that we had."

Goodby added: "I was in my cabin, and this guy appears in a white Norwegian uniform and hands me an envelope. I open it up, and it's from the captain. And it's a form letter, and it says, 'The captain requests the pleasure of your company in his cabin to discuss …' And there's a blank, and it says, '… the behavior of your company.' "

At least they did some great work for the client along the way.

 
Got Milk?
Goodby, of course, is perhaps best known for writing "Got milk?" in the early 1990s, and he told the origin story of the line—and the surprising negative reaction from some staffers to winning the account.

"People wonder whether 'Got milk?' was written on a napkin. Everybody says that. It never was," Goodby said. "It was a meeting with the client, and one of our planners came up to me and said, 'We're going to talk about what happens when we run out of milk. What should we call that?' And I said, well, why don't we call it 'Got milk?' And she said, why don't we call it, 'Got enough milk?' And I said, no, call it, 'Got milk?' "

"I thought it was the stupidest fucking line I'd ever heard," Silverstein interjected. "I thought, that is so Goodby. That is so esoteric. This is the best part, though. Mike Shine and John Butler, who used to work for us, came into my office and said, 'You guys have sold out. Milk?! You guys are gonna pitch milk?!' "

The pair soon left to start up Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners, which of course has gone on to great things of its own. "They went off and killed it in their own agency," Goodby said. "It didn't hurt them to not like milk."

Then they showed the "Got milk?" ad that started it all:

 
Budweiser
They also talked at length about the Budweiser frogs—and how the agency's attempt to kill them off, at the client's request, actually extended the campaign.

"I thought maybe there could be a couple of animals that wanted to kill the frogs because they were jealous of them, and that we could do something on the Super Bowl," Goodby said. "I suggested that we do it with raccoons."

"Thank God we didn't listen to you," said Silverstein.

"But we did like 65 of those commercials afterwards because it was so much fun to see Louie the Lizard be crazy," said Goodby.

Silverstein then reflected on the lack of great campaigns these days. "As an industry, we're making a whole bunch of one-offs," he said. "Interesting. Brilliant. But there's something about a campaign that's lasting and interesting and has an arc. Why are we watching great shows on HBO? Because there's storytelling and an arc and we get to know these characters, and you push it. I wish we'd get back to some of that."

 
Comcast Xfinity
While they showed mostly older work, at the end they did screen this year's "Emily's Oz" spot from GS&P's New York office—one of our favorites as well. "We're really proud of this," Goodby said. "It was done by Paul Caiozzo and the New York staff, and it's terrific stuff."

 
Above all else, Goodby and Silverstein come across as humble, self-effacing leaders—proud of their successes, if always a little wary of them, but just as proud of their staff, even when they leave—as often as not, to start their own places.

Looking back on their career, Goodby even said flatly that a lot of their success came simply by chance.

"You walk into the right room at the right time. You meet somebody. Somebody introduces you to somebody else," he said. "As I tell people, it's not a complicated business. If you have great clients and great people and you put them together, great stuff can happen. That's still true. And we've been incredibly lucky to meet great people throughout the years."

"It's shocking to us," Silverstein added. "We're only doing this because this is what we know how to do. And we care about doing a good job, and the craft, and treating people with respect. And then you realize, Oh my god, these people are coming into your office every day and they have families and they have to put the kids through school. And you go, Holy shit, we're just a bunch of idiots!"

Said Goodby: "One time I made the mistake of telling the company, 'We're just making this up as we go along.' And [former GS&P president] Colin Probert said to me, 'Don't say that anymore! It's scaring people!' But it's all too true …"