Keith Reinhard On The Spot

Four years ago, Keith Reinhard, 70, listened to President Bush disclose how amazed he was that “people would hate us” during a press conference a month after 9/11. Inspired, Reinhard, chairman of DDB Worldwide, had the agency study America’s image and formed Business for Diplomatic Action, a private-sector group, to help improve the U.S.’s global standing via international business. Initiatives include a “World Citizen’s Guide” for Americans abroad and an “Out-recruit Bin Laden” program. The challenge has its doubters, he admits, but so did the plans for Omnicom and DDB Worldwide. Q: What is the global perception of America today, and why does it need to change?

A: We are still admired for our diversity, for our technology. We’re still seen as a reasonably attractive travel destination. ‘Land of opportunity’ still comes up. Although recently a study showed that in 23 countries, when people were asked where would you advise a young person to go for the best life, only India named the United States. Australia was first, then Canada, then U.K., then Germany and then finally the United States.

What has the research told you about the causes of anti-American sentiment?

Disagreement or lack of understanding of U.S. foreign policy but, number two, is the arrogance and insensitivity of American people. That we can fix. When you think about the resource and reach of American multinational companies, the number of people, even U.S. nationals working overseas, 2 million people, the number of travelers, 60 million trips outside the U.S. every year by U.S. citizens, now that’s a tremendous, potentially powerful diplomatic core.

Does the world still want our products?

The desire for American brands is starting to show some deterioration. For example, 37 percent of British intelligentsia say they have stopped buying American products because of the cultural identity of the U.S. In G8 countries, 18 percent of the general population have said they avoid American brands.

But is the solution advertising?

It’s not an advertising solution at all. Our strategy at Business for Diplomatic Action is really four parts. Strategy one, sensitize American businesses and American people to the problem and its implications. Strategy two, change, modify, transform those attitudes and behaviors that still need to be changed on the part of Americans. Those two strategies are internal; the second two are external. The third is to build on the positive perceptions that still exist and find ways to amplify the things that people really like about the U.S., and the fourth is to build new bridges of cooperation, mutual respect and understanding. In our case, it’s building business-to-business bridges.

How do you “out-recruit” bin Laden?

So far the idea is going into the recruiting areas and providing intensive, high-quality, free English-language training for some of these young people who, according to the Muslim experts we work with, are still fascinated by the American idea but have no access to it.

You’ve found some resistance among business leaders. Why?

I don’t think advertising people are credible. I think they are seen as superficial, and that’s not a surprise; we’ve been dealing with that all our lives. I think as we get more corporate representation on our board, that will help. Another reason is there is still some denial that this is really a problem. One ex-CEO, highly regarded, said in a forum at Yale after I made my presentation, ‘With all respect to my friend Keith, I think this situation is all about Iraq and what’s going on there, and as soon as that’s resolved, this will all go away.’ So there’s that. There’s also an understandable unwillingness for any CEO to say, ‘This is hurting my business,’ because of what Wall Street would do. Also, we haven’t shown them in specific enough terms what they can do, and we’re making progress on that now.

Besides exchange programs, what can agencies do?

If we can get a grant … for example, if somebody thought it was a good idea to measure awareness among Americans of the problem. We did a qualitative study late in 2002, and I took the video of people saying bad things about Americans in nine cities and interviewed 100 people in each city and one out of four said, ‘Who gives a shit?’ One guy from Texas said, ‘The other countries are chicken crap. Who cares?’ That’s one out of four. That can be measured. Only one out of 10 said this is a problem. Okay, what does it take to make that two out of 10 or three out of 10? Those are measurable things, but that would cost some money. That could be a role for advertising, to sensitize the American public to this problem and the implications.

How did you get into advertising?

Growing up in this little town in Indiana, no one had heard of advertising, but I was fascinated by jingles on the radio. I was a stock boy for a small grocery store that didn’t have enough space to put up all of its posters that came in from Kraft and General Mills, so I would take them home. Betty Crocker was my first pin-up girl, I think. Then I took a correspondence course, that “draw me” ad. I did the little drawing, sent it in and of course got a letter back that said, ‘You are really gifted.’ By lesson four or five, we did advertising layout. That opened my whole world. Then when I was in high school, a kid moved into our town from Detroit. One weekend he took me to visit his uncle. He worked for an advertising/art studio in the Fisher Building. We went and watched him, and there he was doing airbrush illustrations of Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles. I said, ‘That’s it. I’ve got to somehow be in advertising.’

Who has influenced you most creatively?

[Bill] Bernbach. He was the Picasso of our business.

What’s the smartest business decision you’ve ever made?

In retrospect, putting Needham and DDB together. There were a lot of people who thought that was a dumb decision, but in retrospect, it was the smartest business decision.

What is your greatest accomplishment?

DDB Worldwide.

Give me three words to describe yourself.

Passionate. I’m grateful for all the good fortune I’ve had. I think naive. … I’m not as naive as I seem, but I’d like to be thought of as visionary. Optimistic. If I hadn’t been a little bit naive, I never would have done the merger, because people who had thought about it and were smart and sophisticated said, ‘It’s a bad idea.’ I think it was Buckminster Fuller who said, ‘Dare to be naive.’ It’s always been a very important concept to me. Especially when you are trying to do something creative. If your mind is polluted with knowledge, sometimes you can’t see the simple solution. I wasn’t smart enough to know that the merger could not be done.

What’s the most important thing you learned from your parents?

My dad died when I was just 4. My mom was 27 years old when she was widowed with two sons, one six months old, the other just turned 4. So she had to go to work. She was an early working single mom. What I learned from her was the value of hard work, thrift. She was also a very religious woman, so I learned the importance of faith. My grandfather was my surrogate dad; from him I learned about salesmanship.

What is your biggest fear?

I’m concerned about the future of our country. I really don’t think we’re headed in a good direction. When you look at the fact that we’re number 24 out of 29 in education, that the rest of the world is getting tired of us and dislikes us—even the fact that our kids may be the first generation whose life span is shorter than their parents because of the obesity problem—my greatest fear is what kind of country my kids are going to inherit.