Legendary Adman Richard Kirshenbaum on Life and Strife Among the One Percenters

The roster of media mavens, moguls and boldface names spotted today at Michael's.

lunch at michaelsI was eager to meet my Lunch partner at Michael’s this week because, as he so astutely wrote in his monthly column for the New York Observer, we are in the midst of  ‘The 1% Summer,’ with plenty of media attention being given to Park Avenue primates and the skinny strivers of the Upper East Side. Legendary adman, serial entrepreneur and prolific chronicler of the social customs of the wealthiest New Yorkers, Richard Kirshenbaum proved to be a delightfully witty dining companion who had far too many interesting anecdotes about life among Manhattan’s true movers, shakers and spenders to be contained in one column. But I shall try.

Diane Clehane and Richard Kirshenbaum
Diane Clehane and Richard Kirshenbaum

Fresh off a trip to France and Italy (“I haven’t partied like that in a long time”) where he sipped rosé with the private jet set and met with his tailor in Naples, Richard arrived at noon on the dot sporting a natty bespoke jacket in a summery plaid, monogrammed oxford shirt and white jeans, looking as if he’d moored his yacht on 55th Street.

Apparently Richard is a firm believer in that old chestnut, ‘write what you know.’ In his new book, Isn’t That Rich? Life Among the 1%, he clearly has. Published last month by Jane Friedman’s company, Open Road, the book (there’s also an e-book) has been getting plenty of attention, including a lengthy piece in The London Times yesterday, much to Richard’s great delight. The compulsively readable tome is a collection of his wittiest and most clever columns, as well as several new essays on what it’s like to be really, really rich—and still often be left wanting more and more. Among my favorites: ‘Billionaire Buzzkill,’ where he writes about the woes of mere millionaires who are, believe it or not, engaged in the great divide between the ‘haves and have mores’ and ‘Frozen,’ about the high cost of high maintenance. “In the last ten years there has been an increase in the level of overt aspiration that is shocking,” he told me as he nibbled on his watermelon and nectarine stone fruit salad.

Richard’s style in his columns and his new book (which he wrote while immersed in his tub) is a mixture of gossipy fun and a healthy dash of wry social commentary, although he says, “I don’t judge, I merely hold a mirror up to both sides.” He also engages in somewhat of a guessing game. He never names names in his pieces, choosing instead to give his subjects intriguing monikers like ‘The Impossibly Blonde and Glamorous Socialite’ and ‘Recently Divorced Hedgefunder’ which, of course, only adds to the fun. “It works two ways,” he explained in describing the reaction he gets within his social set. “People either ask me ‘Is that my kid?’ or, they’ll tell me something [juicy] and then say, ‘But that’s off the record.'”

Unlike many of the send-ups offered on what he calls “the golden triad of Park Avenue, Sagaponack and St. Barths,” Richard gets all his intel and insights from the inside, as evidenced by the bumper crop of über-rich Manhattanites that filled the Lotos Club for a swanky soirée for the new book earlier this summer. “I have friends with old money, new money and no money, which makes for some really interesting dinner parties.” I’ll bet.

Isn’t It Rich is his third book. Richard has also penned the business tome Under the Radar; the relationship guide Closing the Deal and a memoir of his adman years, Madboy (Love the title!) which was an Amazon bestseller. But he still considers himself first and foremost “an adman” which, in fact, is how I first came to meet him back in the ’80s (we were both clearly child prodigies) when I was a lowly assistant for Donna Karan and Louis Dell’Olio when they were designing for Anne Klein. I clearly remember Richard’s arrival in the office that day with his leonine locks and adman swagger. He’d come in search of new business for his advertising agency, Mad Dogs & Englishmen. Alas, he didn’t get the business, but he continued to send me what I thought were some of the most creative media kits I’d ever seen at the time.

A few years later, he co-founded the Kirshenbaum Bond + Partners agency, where his company was an early adapter of the pop-up store and high-visibility guerrilla marketing. At the time of its sale, KBP was the largest independent ad agency in the United States, with $1 billion dollars in billing. See, I told you he knows what he’s talking about. In 2011, Kirshenbaum launched NSG/SWAT, a branding agency that works with entrepreneurs and emerging companies. He currently employs “an army of millennials” and in describing the dynamic in the office told me, “I’m a digital immigrant, they’re digital natives,” making the point that there is as much to learn from the up-and-comers as there is from seasoned vets. Richard told me about a dinner he had with another Madison Avenue icon (and fellow Michael’s regular) Jerry Della Femina and his wife Judy Licht at the time of KBP’s sale. When they were discussing their respective business interests (Jerry’s restaurants and Richard’s Blackwell Fine Jamaican Rum among them), Jerry told him ‘never forget you’re an adman’ and, said Richard, “I never have.”

As we finished up our chicken paillard, Richard reflected on some of the other great advice he’s gotten throughout the years. When he was writing jokes for Joan Rivers (“I got $6.00 a joke”) in the ’90s she told him, ‘A joke on a joke cancels itself out.’ Said Richard: “She taught me there can only be one punchline.” Of author James Patterson (they worked together at JWT) Richard told me, “He invented the two to three page chapter. I learned a great deal [from him] about catching people’s attention. He understood most people have an attention deficit.”

But certainly not Richard. He grew up in a middle class home in the Five Towns area on Long Island, under the watchful eye of a mother who “had a parochial point of view.” She made sure her son sent handwritten thank you notes and kept his voice down in restaurants. That’s how this adman/author/social historian learned just how fortuitous doing the right thing in the right place with the right people can be. From his perch on the Upper East Side where he lives with his wife Dana and their three children, Richard is something of a modern day Nick Carraway (without the angst): “We are still fascinated by Gatsby and Daisy because even though they are so screwed up in many ways, they are still very alluring.”

Here’s the rundown on today’s crowd:

1. Charles Grodin and pals

2. Fashion maven Mickey Ateyeh

3. Andrew Stein and Missy Hargraves

5.  Herb Siegel

6. Marshall Brickman and Judy Collins (yes, that Judy Collins) with Diane Sokolow

7. Bookseller Glenn Horowitz and a young gent we didn’t recognize; Second seating: Producers Alan Zweibel and Beverly Camhe

8.  New York Social Diary’s David Patrick Columbia with, we’re told, a gal from California who won a lunch with him. Score!

9.  Susan Schnabel

11. Squire Rushnell (Love the name!)

12. Bisila Bokoko and pals

14. Laurie Haspel Aronson owner of Lipsey’s & Haspel with her colleague Rob Abruzzino

15. James Prentice

16. Legendary lenswoman Pamela Hanson

17. Vin Cipolla, president of RGV and Susan Freedman

18. Norman Kappler

20. LVMH’s Pauline Brown

21. Ira Bernstein

25. Michael Christiansen

26. Steven Haft

27. Richard Kirshenbaum, Dini von Mueffling (who was kind enough to arrange today’s lunch) and yours truly

29. The Wall Street Journal’s David Sanford and Lewis Stein

Diane Clehane is a FishbowlNY contributor. Follow her on Twitter @DianeClehane. Send comments and corrections on this column to LUNCH at MEDIABISTRO dot COM.