Rich Silverstein On The Spot

They’re all the rage now, but Rich Silverstein opened a boutique in 1983 before it was trendy. With partners Jeff Goodby and Andy Berlin, the San Francisco agency went on to create memorable advertising such as the long-running “Got Milk?” campaign and Hewlett-Packard’s “You +” campaign. Now a grandfather, the 56-year-old Yorktown Heights, N.Y., native rides his bike over the Golden Gate Bridge to the office every day to oversee work on clients such as HP, Comcast and Saturn. The co-chairman explains how the fabled agency is in the midst of remapping itself for the future. Q: Describe a typical day for you.

A: What’s amazing about the business is there’s no typical day. You come to work … mostly, I like to ride my bicycle to work so I’m all geared up, all fired up, and just what I think I’m going to work on that moment is changed to the latest crisis or the latest thing you have to work on. Advertising is fluid, and you have to be able to move with it.

How did you get interested in cycling?

Running kind of wears you down, and I’m a really bad swimmer. I think it was years ago I was training for a triathlon. I probably ride every day. I ride to work three days a week, and then I ride on the weekends. There’s nothing better than riding across the Golden Gate Bridge. Your head is clear and you’re coming up with ideas, and you look forward to going to work and leaving work.

What inspired you to get into advertising?

I was a young art director at Rolling Stone. I grew up as a graphic designer, went to Parsons School of Design, so I knew what brochures and logos were. Then I got into magazine art direction and for some reason, I thought that the ads that were coming in to publish were pretty cool. I didn’t know anything about advertising, and I talked my way into Bozell & Jacobs in San Francisco by saying, “Just give me six months, and I’ll prove I can do it.” I just fell into it. Somehow I’m a survivalist. I went to the place where I thought I could do best.

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

It has to be believing Andy Berlin’s totally convoluted spreadsheet that Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein could make a living.

And did it?

It did, but not because of that spreadsheet! It was really good old-fashioned, smart work done for any project you could get, and you toughed it out.

What about the dumbest?

We’re too conservative to make dumb decisions, but that’s going to change. You have to make some to move ahead faster.

How will the agency change?

By the end of the year, it will be a pretty different agency. The world is changing so fast, we have to change with it. The agency is going to, I believe, reinvent itself. It’s funny. We were the agency that launched TiVo. At first I thought it was a very interesting product, but I didn’t see the significance yet. Then all of a sudden, it’s, “Oh my God, it’s the death of advertising.” Then I realized, all it is is a really cool piece of technology. Advertising’s not going away, it’s actually exploding. And what an opportunity for smart agencies, because we make content. We make little movies. We make little shows that can be any length. That’s what we do. That’s our creative talent. I think it’s so wide-open and exciting.

How does the agency prepare for that?

It’s [about] having smart media people, smart planners, creative people who like to do all kinds of different things. I don’t look at a hire and ask, “What does your reel look like?” It’s very important to have someone make an amazing piece of film. But it’s also important if you get the best graphic designer in the world. It’s using as many arrows as possible in the quill. You don’t look for the traditional art director and writer; you look for unique, talented people in any form. They could be musicians, artists, poets, it doesn’t matter.

Describe your relationship with Goodby.

I don’t know. I think it’s my longest relationship—it’s longer than my relationship with my wife, Carla. We’re so different in the way we approach life and dealing with people. And we’re 100 percent in sync in how we approach the work.

How are you different?

I’m pretty direct. You know where you stand with me the second you’re talking to me. There’s nothing left in me, nothing behind anything. It’s like, “This is how I feel, this is what I’m thinking.” And with Jeff, you leave thinking, “Now, did he mean that it wasn’t funny enough, or it was funny enough?”

What is the last ad you saw that made you think, “I wish I could do that”?

A Honda spot in Europe, in London, for the long road trip, singing the song and changing all the Hondas. I’m a car freak. I love racing and motorcycles and cars, and I thought they handled it really well. And I’m jealous.

What’s your biggest fear in life?

To stand still and be a dinosaur. My biggest fear would be, “Oh yeah, they were really good once.”

What’s your biggest pet peeve?

Sloppy work. Also, people do not know how to be polite in movie theaters.

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

That’s a whole issue for therapy.