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Madboy's Journey to Adman

Richard Kirshenbaum on his new memoir, Andy Warhol, and his life in the ad game

Richard Kirshenbaum

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Being chairman has its perks. For Richard Kirshenbaum, the title holder at Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal + Partners, it means having time to create new brands (Rabbi Mints, Blackwell Fine Jamaican Rum), market a new restaurant (Kutsher’s Tribeca), and write another book. Madboy: My Journey From Adboy to Adman, which comes out this week, mixes family stories of growing up in Hewlett, Long Island, N.Y., with celebrity-studded tales from his 28 years in advertising.

What did you learn from convincing a Pontiac dealer to put Andy Warhol in an ad?
It was a lesson in perseverance and client service. Here I have the world’s most famous artist, and I call the client up on the phone. And I say, “You’ll never believe it. We have Andy Warhol, and he’s willing to do the campaign for free.” And the client says, “Who’s Andy Warhol?”... What I said was, “Why don’t you go home and ask your wife who Andy Warhol is and if she doesn’t know, then we won’t use Andy Warhol.” The next day, he calls and says, “Absolutely. Let’s use Andy Warhol.” When the commercial broke and Forbes interviewed him, he said, “The best idea I ever had was using Andy Warhol.” Which, to me, of course, sums up the entire client-agency relationship. [Laughs]

Is it bittersweet seeing your Kenneth Cole ads out there after so many years, knowing that you no longer get paid for them?
Never. I’m always happy when things endure. It’s one of the conundrums of the business. You do an incredible job. You create something well-known or famous. And then, in a certain sense, it’s a fee-related industry. On the other hand, if you do something well-known and famous, you get other business from it. So, I think that there’s a give and take.

You describe Donny Deutsch as like a big brother. Any sibling rivalry there?
No, not at all. Donny is one of the world’s great guys. He’s incredibly big-hearted, incredibly philanthropic, a great dad to all his kids. You know, he has a big personality. He has led the way for me and told me what to expect.

What’s your biggest pet peeve about the industry?
We give away so much before we get an account. And the larger the business, the more you have to spend and the harder it is to get. Architects and designers—they don’t design or build a house and then get the job. I’ve sort of always bristled at the new business process. Not that I haven’t done it. Of course, I do it with a smile.

What’s it like to have Liza Minnelli caress your hair?
Fantastic. Living in New York City people tend to become blasé about things. I was at this charity dinner, and when Liza came and sat down, no one said anything. I’ve always been very wide-eyed about living in New York and the people you meet here. And if I’m going to have dinner with Liza Minnelli, I’m going to tell her I’m a fan and she’s great.

You say advertising is in the glamour business but on the lowest rung of the ladder.
Generally speaking, people are gaming to get out of the industry to get into the more glamorous sides of the business. I’ve never felt that way. My mentor, Jerry Della Femina, [and I were] having dinner in East Hampton two or three years ago and I was talking to him about his varied interests. And he said, “At the end of the day, I’m an adman.” It was such a clarifying line for me. I’m an adman. I love the business.