A buzzer labeled "Kowloon Wholesale Seafood Co." and a chalkboard with Chinese-menu specials identify the Santa Monica, Calif., offices of Secret Weapon Marketing. With its retro '60s CIA ambience—and Jack in the Box antenna-balls on everything that will hold them—this second-floor hideaway has been Dick Sittig's nerve center since he left TBWA\Chiat\Day in 1997 to open his shop. His 22-person staff works on three accounts: Ikea, Activision and Jack in the Box. Propping his feet on a coffee table, Sittig smiles and says, "I'm really happy here in my own little orbit."
Q: What's the Kowloon Wholesale Seafood Co. facade about?
A: It's an example of my trying to be too clever by a half. We're called Secret Weapon; ideas and creativity are our secret weapon. I thought, if we really were secret, we'd have a false front, like retro-James Bond, an Asian import-export front.
You studied economics and finance at USC. How did you get interested in advertising?
We had a class in marketing, and we had to create print ads for a product. I really loved the process. Later, I met a guy named Bud who invited me to a party with other advertising people, and they all seemed to be having a lot more fun than I was: The ad industry rewarded both business acumen and being a wise guy. So I took classes at night, put together a book, offered to work for free.
What is the smartest business decision you've made so far?
We never have more than three clients; it's a pretty unique business model. Clients never get lost in the shuffle. It's the difference between a private bank and Bank of America. Would you rather use a bank that handles millions of customers with thousands of dollars, or a bank with 1,000 customers with $100 million each?
In what way did you shift Ikea's target demo in your first work for the retailer?
From everyone who drives a Saab to everyone who drives a Ford. The [Crispin Porter + Bogusky] commercials were entertaining to the advertising community and to the Saab-driving, indie-film-watching, soy-eating crowd. But that award-winning TV work was not getting the results that Ikea wanted.
The Jack in the Box spots are hugely popular. Who is that behind Jack's pale, bald head?
All I can tell you is, Jack is always the same person—whose name is Jack—unless a stunt is involved. Jack doesn't do his own stunts.
In a recent radio spot, a restaurant employee says that Jack "intimidates" him. Is that your intention for the character?
Intimidating is part of Jack's persona—a Trump-ian, or actually a Branson kind of thing. He's a larger-than-life celebrity CEO.
What current ad trend do you find most disappointing?
This phenomenon of bashing TV commercials as being anachronistic. If I hear that again, I'm going to puke. Are people confused about what business we're in? We're in the persuasion business. Period. TV commercials are still very persuasive tools.
How do you get past a creative block?
I used to take long drives, hundreds of miles south, with a pad of paper to scribble. The sound of the car, the action of driving would occupy just enough of my brain to keep it stimulated. Now, I have some really talented creative people working for me.
Did you ever want to write novels?
The closest to that kind of creative writing I got was in the fourth grade. I'd fill in the blanks of my workbooks with the least appropriate things. I really never understood about work, though. I thought a job was something painful you endured.
My dad sold Venetian blinds. I don't think he had a passion for it, but he had a family. Dad did the same thing for 30 years, then retired; two years later, he died. I realized you'd better enjoy what you do every day.
What's the last book you read?
God's Debris, by Scott Adams, the guy that does the Dilbert strip. But this particular book is not funny, and it's really thought provoking. You can finish it in a day, and it will make you think for the rest of your life.
What was the last CD you bought?
I download singles. All my taste comes from riding around in a Camaro in high school. I don't want to have to walk into the store and ask for an REO Speedwagon album. My wife—she's a classically trained pianist—turns me on to new music. I like pop music. OutKast. Macy Gray.
What was the last movie you saw?
The Incredibles. If you have a 5- and 9-year-old, your choices are limited.
Are your kids pretty media savvy?
They have both been known to boo commercials they don't like.
What would you be doing if you weren't in advertising?
Find someone to draw the pictures, and write a political comic strip.
What would you tell someone just getting into the business?
Never take a job for money. Always take a job for the opportunity to do better work and learn. And if your work is going to be funny, it needs the discipline of having a funny script. Rarely does it work the other way—being funny only when it's performed.
Describe yourself in three words.
Focused. Midwestern. Lucky.