Q&A: Eric Hirshberg

Eric Hirshberg describes his decision to leave Deutsch/LA for Activision Publishing as “very emotional” because “it’s hard to leave not just a job you love but a company you had a hand in building.” But the pull of becoming a client-side CEO at a company that creates games that he loves playing was simply too strong to resist. So, after nearly 13 years at Deutsch and 22 years in advertising, the 42-year-old creative leader will take the reins of the largest operating unit of Activision Blizzard — with $3.15 billion in net revenue last year — on Sept. 7.

In an interview with senior reporter Andrew McMains, Hirshberg discusses the challenges of crossing over to the client side, what he’ll miss about agency life and how he broke the news to the 420 staffers at the Marina del Rey, Calif., office of Interpublic Group’s Deutsch/LA.

Adweek: What did you say at the all-agency meeting announcing your move?
Eric Hirshberg: Before I even told everybody what the opportunity was, I told them how much this place means to me and how I never thought I’d be anywhere else. I never saw myself leaving, and I would certainly never leave to go to another agency. This is the only place I ever would want to be in advertising. I think it’s the best place to be in advertising. It was the nature of the opportunity that was so unique that finally drew me (to Activision). . . . What we all know how to do in advertising is understand consumers, know what makes them tick and then create something that’s compelling to them. And to be given the opportunity to do that on a completely new and different playing field — but one that I’m equally passionate about as a consumer — was just unique. Usually when my phone rings with job opportunities, it’s either to go to another agency or to go be a marketing client. This is a chance to step so far into a different experience. . . . It became one of those deathbed “What ifs” for me.

Different story if it was a company that didn’t make something that you’re passionate about?
Absolutely would have been a different story. That is the only reason this kind of a move is possible. I’m essentially a creative being. And yes, I’m someone who has built a business, knows how to lead people and manage a bottom line as well. But I’m here in the world to create. The fact that this is a company that is in video games and that video games . . . have become such a meaningful segment of our popular culture was definitely part of the draw.

How long have you been playing video games?
Almost my whole life. I think I’ve owned every gaming console. Everyone had an Atari 2600, fewer people had an Intellivision and fewer still had a ColecoVision. This is something that I’ve been a fan of for a long time.

But will you love it as much once you’re exposed to the inner workings of the business side of it?
What you’re saying is undeniably true about everything and it’s true about advertising. If all you knew about advertising was [from] watching the Super Bowl, [then] that’s the most fun you could have at work. And if you knew every argument, the pain, all the blood sweat and tears, debates and near-death experiences that went into making each and every one of those Super Bowl commercials, you would feel differently. But I’ve always derived joy from being a part of creating something that matters to people, that has an impact on business and that you’re ultimately proud of at the end of the day. To me, if you’re proud of the finished product, it excuses all of the pain. It’s almost like childbirth.

Some people from the agency world become CMOs, but I can’t recall any agency executives who have become client CEOs, at least recently. You might be a test case.
The attraction to me was to find the common threads between what we know how to do in this business and another company that is a very creative company filled with very creative people. And if you believe in the fundamentals that understanding the insights about your consumer, understanding their voice, understanding their mind-set is the epicenter of all things that matter to them — everything you create that matters to them — then that should be applicable. I believe that and I believe that creative people are creative people and creative companies are creative companies. My hope is those abilities will translate to a different industry.

What will be the biggest hurdle in making this transition?
The biggest challenge is the same everywhere: you’ve got to stay humble, know what you don’t know and then know when to take a deep breath and do something differently. I don’t come from the gaming industry to be sure. But I feel like with our PlayStation experience I’ve sort of have been gaming adjacent for a while and gained a lot of insights and experiences within how the Sony PlayStation game works.

What are your thoughts about leading a unit of a public company?
We’re so used to, in our business, dealing with the reflective pressures that our clients are under. Feeling the pressure of what Wall Street thinks, feeling the pressure of quarter-to-quarter growth will not be anything new to anybody in advertising. Maybe [as a client] you’re a step closer to the nucleus, but anybody who works in this day and age in any sector of business or marketing knows that [pressure]. So, obviously [direct exposure] is going to be a new piece of the puzzle to me.

Deutsch/LA is in a good place, you’ve got an enviable client list — why leave?
It was honestly the toughest decision that I’ve had to make in my professional life. It had to do with the once-in-a-lifetime nature of the opportunity. How many times do you get a chance to take what you know how to do and try to apply it to something totally different but that you’re equally passionate about? That’s a fairly rare occurrence and it was one that I felt like I could not pass up. But I did not do it easily, lightly or without a lot of trepidation.

Can you envision yourself coming back to advertising or once you leave, are you out for good?
(Pauses). I guess my answer would be, never say never. I love this business.

How did the conversation with Activision start?
I knew (Activision Blizzard CEO) Bobby Kotick personally as friends for a couple of years. . . . It was in the context of the business world that we met. And through the context of that friendship, a couple of different possibilities were floated, but it wasn’t until he decided I would be right for this that I really started thinking about it seriously.

How long a courtship was this?
A couple of months.

What will you miss most about agency life?
What I’ll miss most about Deutsch is the culture, the people and the environment. The people here are not only the best in the business, they are true friends.

What was the biggest lesson you learned on the job?
Trying to strike that balance that we have between great creative and really caring about the business strategy, the results. Bringing those two worlds together, building a culture where those two things were really equally embraced and finding people who were capable of equally embracing them. That applies to a lot of business.

What was your biggest mistake?
(Pauses) There are so many — too many to list.

How would you describe your management style?
My management style has always been to put people first, to never forget how hard it is to ask someone to create something great and give people the support they need to do it. The other management style I have [is best described by] a line here, “It’s a loud family dinner.”

We’ve always embraced a lot of voices in our process. We’ve always tried to not be a top-down culture. That means a great idea can come from anywhere and also so can a great comment about someone’s idea. By being open-minded and allowing a lot of people to have a voice, for me it always makes the ideas better, not worse.

You talk to Donny Deutsch about making this move?
Of course.

What was his advice?
We had a really productive conversation. Donny has always been a great friend as well as a great leader. He saw both sides and gave me great advice. He obviously wanted me to stay at the agency, but he also obviously saw the uniqueness of the opportunity for me.

What did you learn from him that you’ll carry with you?
Donny built the Deutsch brand through sheer force of will, through sheer power of his personality and his ability to draw great people to him and to then let them spread their wings and do great work. That’s the thing I’ve learned from him.