King Richard’s 20-Year Reign

NEW YORK Richard Kirshenbaum has serious chutzpah. Now 46, married and the father of three, he started Kirshenbaum Bond + Partners with Jon Bond 20 years ago.

The New York agency where Bruce Willis researched his role in this year’s Perfect Stranger celebrated the anniversary with an exhibition of its work at the Paley Center for Media (previously the Museum of Television and Radio) and orange T-shirts emblazoned with “20 Years of Serious Chutzpah.”

The co-chairman talks about his favorite clients, the importance of having a good lawyer and his dating advice to Hilary Swank.

Q: This year KBP turned 20. What have been the high points and low points?
A: I always say it took us 20 years to become an overnight success. We’ve created a dynamic and growing business and are having the best time we’ve ever had in 20 years. The low points in this business always have to do with the difficulties, e.g. making hard decisions like having to let people go or losing a piece of business. In a downturn you have to let people go and it’s a bummer.

MDC Partners just upped its stake in KBP from 60 percent to 100 percent. What are you going to do with the infusion of money?
We waited a very long time to do a deal with someone. KBP has always innovated and incubated and looked toward the future. We were one of the first agencies to become integrated and build it from the ground up. Whether it’s growing another division in the agency or buying something for the agency, we’re very interested in multiculture and new technologies. Anything from how to communicate with consumers to communicating in a more interesting manner with consumers. When I got into the business 20 years ago, the Internet wasn’t invented.

What new technologies are you interested in?
As the world continues to grow and expand, from a technological point, so will offshoot companies. I couldn’t imagine 20 years ago what an interactive company would look like without the Internet. It’s hard to tell because maybe it hasn’t been invented yet.

You never replaced Rob Feakins, the former ecd who left a year ago, and you function as KBP’s CCO as well as co-chairman. Why haven’t you put a new ecd in place yet?
I developed something called the Baskin-Robbins approach to creative directing. Instead of one cd who is expected to oversee everything, I have a number of senior-level cd’s who are different flavors. It’s a much more entrepreneurial model. Someone working on a beauty business account is very different from someone working on the Mohegan Sun account or financial business like Edward Jones. We like to match up creative talent with personal interests and passions. Those things go into who is running a specific piece of business. Eight months ago I brought in Izzy [Isidoro DeBellis]. He’s been promoted to cd of the network. His role is to make sure the standard of work across the network is superior, and he’s been doing a fantastic job of helping me to find the right flavors to put on business and make sure work is up to snuff.

Which piece of work or campaign are you most proud of?
We’re proud of so much, I don’t know if I can point to one. We’ve influenced a lot of companies that have become successful marketers. We’ve influenced them in terms of their levels of success, whether it’s Kenneth Cole, Coach, Snapple, Moet & Chandon or NetJets, the recent work on Panasonic. We’ve helped engineer a sense of vision and entrepreneurial attitude and a certain level of chutzpah for those clients. People still say to us, “What exactly did you do for Target?” We’re the agency that helped them pioneer the use of the Target logo without the word target under it. How much is that worth? I would say a lot. We’ve invented a lot of things over the years: street stencils, advertising on fruit, the pop-up store. In many ways we created reality TV with Snapple commercials that were very real. We invented the Hennessy martini. We’re a very inventive culture.

Who has been your best client?
We always cite Schieffelin & Somerset [now part of Diageo and LVMH]. Hennessy was our first major breakthrough client. Penn Kavanaugh [then president and chief executive officer of S&S] looked for new agencies and helped shepherd them.

Who has been your worst client?
I don’t want to say. I will tell you the traits of the worst clients. There is a quadrant of clients: smart and nice, dumb and nice, smart and mean and dumb and mean. The only clients we’re not interested in are the dumb and mean ones. There are some clients I haven’t respected intellectually, and that’s OK, but when they’re mean to the agency, that’s unacceptable.

What advice would you give to anyone just starting out in the advertising business?
You have to have a can-do and positive attitude. You’re in a service business. I can’t tell you how many creatives I’ve worked with who are pissed off and have bad attitudes and blame the client. They’ll never go anywhere. There are too many people with bad attitudes, and it’s about having a great attitude. Also for people in the business for a long time and thinking of starting a business, now is the time to do it. Everyone is doing a StrawberryFrog or an Anomaly, and that’s been done. We don’t need another agency called Dirty Dishrag. That’s the next trend for agencies: to put their name on the door. You have to be a character, be interesting. This business has gotten too vanilla.

‘Us Weekly’ named you as one of the 25 most stylish New Yorkers. What fashion advice would you give young creatives?
Invest in a really good pair of shoes and a good haircut. Some creative people play at being creative and look like they rolled out of bed. We’re still in a client-service business. You have to put yourself together.

You and Daniel Rosenberg wrote a book called Closing the Deal: Two Married Guys Reveal the Dirty Truth to Getting Your Man to Commit. The back flap includes a favorable quote from Hilary Swank, who is now divorced. Any updated advice for her?
She should get another copy of the book.

Bruce Willis spent time in your office researching his role in Perfect Stranger. What’s the best and worst part of having a movie star in your office?
You never know who’s going to be behind the door when you open it here. When people saw him, they were like, “Oh. It’s Bruce Willis.” They treated him just like he’s a client. I once had Paula Abdul in my office doing high kicks. It’s not unusual. There is no worst part.

During the anniversary party at your offices, you set up a confession room for employees to anonymously confess. What’s the most embarrassing confession you heard?
It was a chutzpah room, so people could talk about great chutzpah moments. Some people said, “What’s chutzpah?” And someone else said, “I think it’s a Jewish thing.”

What was the most shocking?
Let’s just say, creative people like to have fun.

Where do you get your creative inspiration?
A lot of what I believe in is finding the human truth in things. The new campaign for Panasonic is about bringing back family time, and people really relate to it. I’m a creative explorer: I try to expose myself to as much art and fashion as possible.

What was the last viral ad that KBP did not work on that you passed on to other people?
The last one I really liked was “Tea Partay” [for Smirnoff]. It was well done and really funny. It was true. Even the casting was true.

How do you get past a creative block?
You have to force yourself to put something on the paper. It’s easy for creatives to be blocked. They go to a movie or they work on it later. The hardest part is putting it on paper. I still like using legal pads first [to write down ideas]. I’m really opposed to looking at awards books. Anytime I see creative people flipping through awards books, it makes me angry. You’ve got to face the blank page yourself. One of the exercises I tell people about is give yourself 10 minutes and free associate 10 things on paper. A bad idea can lead to a great idea, or a stupid idea, or it can prompt something in someone else.

Who has influenced you most creatively?
My father. My father was always 20 years ahead of his time. He was one of the first to actively collect photography and do yoga and drive an import. He and my late mother, they always brought me to museums. If you want to influence young people, you have to give them creative inspiration at a young age.

What’s the smartest business decision you’ve ever made?
To invest in a really great lawyer early on and have everything done properly. Creative people, very often their lives are a mess. We always did things professionally and always went to the best. Rick Kurnit has been our lawyer for 20 years

And what’s the dumbest?
We opened an office in San Francisco a number of years ago, and I learned that unless one of the founders of an eponymous agency wants to live there, I don’t see it working. You really can’t oversee the office and the creative product if you’re thousands of miles away and your name is on the door. Most of the well-known agency people will tell you that at one point they want to open an office somewhere else, and it always has issues or problems.

Which campaign would you want to do over if you could?
I’m about the future. I’m not about looking back. For our 20th anniversary I was happy to look back, but I would never go to a reunion. I couldn’t even think about what I would do over creatively. I think you always should work with the best talent. It could be established or upcoming, but they should be the best. Every time I’ve settled—either the client didn’t have the budget or I couldn’t find an incredible up-and-coming talent—I’ve been disappointed with results. You’ve got to work with the best and it doesn’t always have to do with how much money you have.

You and Jon have both taken equity in clients as part of your compensation. Some paid off and others, such as bigvine.com and ricochet.com, did not. What do clients have to say to you to make the equity proposition worthwhile?
The world is changing, and clients who have entrepreneurial businesses like working with entrepreneurs, so we’re well suited to work with them. Clients who are entrepreneurs like agencies being incentivized. If you take a piece of equity, very often you have to make an investment and write a check. I wouldn’t say it’s a main driver, but it is something we’re open to.

Julie Roehm and Wal-Mart just dropped their respective lawsuits against each other. You and Jon had been named as people who would give depositions. What did Roehm’s lawyers want you to testify about?
I am at a complete loss as to why we would even be mentioned. But KBP always makes for great press.