When Hirshberg joined 2-year-old Deutsch/LA as ecd in 1997, he was just 29, and the Marina del Rey outpost had only 10 staffers. By 32, he was a managing partner, running the agency with Mike Sheldon, a creative partner since their days at L.A.'s Fattal & Collins. Now, the two oversee a 280-person office known for its Mitsubishi work, Coors Light's "Wingman" ads, Real California Cheese's Happy Cows and DirecTV's Installer, among others. Hirshberg moonlights as a singer-songwriter and is soon to release an EP, Wish I Was Here, touted as "a peek behind the male veil" by his buddy Liz Phair.
Q. Is this a good time to be in advertising?
A. It's an interesting time. There's a lot of change. That's often hard for people. But there's also a lot of opportunity. We're at a time when we might have to reinvent the whole thing. It's incredibly interesting, because there is a new world that potentially needs to be invented, and this will be the generation of advertisers that gets to invent it, if we step up.
What's the work you're most proud of?
The criteria I'm always holding our folks up to is, "Will this become part of the popular culture? Will it transcend its own salesmanship and become beloved?" "Wingman" has done that, and the California Cheese and Mitsubishi ads have also transcended themselves.
How do you top something like "Wingman"?
It's a high-class problem, the kind you wish for. You have two choices: You can take a hard right and go in a different direction, or you can speed up—escalate, find a way to add to it. That can be done. We have a similar situation with our Happy Cows.
What does bovine bliss have to do with good cheese, anyway?
It is a fun assignment. When we sat down with California Cheese, it was one of the most daunting and freeing briefings we've ever had. "What's different about California cheese?" "Nothing." "Are there different varieties made just in California?" "Nope." They kind of smiled and finally said, "Look, guys. Here's the deal: Cheese is cheese. It's cheese wherever it's made." It is a wonderfully freeing assignment. By looking at the cheese, we were looking at the wrong thing. We looked at California. They're going national for the first time this year, and it's equally effective where people want a little piece of California. California is a powerful brand.
It came out a few months ago that Mitsubishi had unprecedented loan defaults by young men. Did the client put any blame on the ads?
Go back two years and read all the articles on how Mitsubishi is the only one who knows how to talk to the youth market and Toyota's having to open entire new divisions just to combat them—and Mitsubishi still sees that as an asset. But that, combined with a particular incentive for which Mitsubishi became known—zero interest, zero payment for a year and zero down—was fairly lethal. The campaign at its best has not been about "young," it's been about "youthful."
Do you remember your first ad?
An ad for the ABC Afterschool Special. But I guess you could say my first ad was when I was 11 years old. There was a jingle for Pete Ellis Dodge that anyone from California would know. One of the parents on the street where I grew up in San Diego produced that ad and grabbed all the kids on the block to be the singers. It ran forever.
Who had the greatest influence on your career?
My father, who is a car designer [the retired president of Nissan Design International] but taught me how to be a creative director. He talked about his work a lot and brought us into his creative process. It was dinner-table conversations. It was everything I deal with now: managing groups of creative people, selling work to a conservative audience, looking at things from a different perspective. Having an exposure to that was the best thing that ever happened to me.
What inspired you to get into advertising?
I was a real creative kid in a creative family, but I was schizophrenic. I played music, I acted, I drew and painted, I wrote. I remember discovering at UCLA that there was a place where all those things come together: advertising. I sparked to it more than fine art because there is a problem-solving element to advertising. I actually like the box: Here are the rules; here's what we can and can't do. Now figure out what's the most dazzling thing we can do within those confines. I'm very turned on by research and strategy. I do have an affinity for the business side of advertising. I like all that mess. I like all those realities. That leads to the best solution sometimes.
What's the last ad that made you say, "I wish I'd done that"?
That first AT&T Wireless ad Goodby did, with the dad talking to his daughter in the airport. It's lovely. I think there's an overpremium on comedy in our business. I looked at it as a consumer first and as an ad guy later, and that's when I know an ad's working.
What's the most underrated agency?
I'll tell you what I think the most underrated campaign is: the IBM work that Ogilvy has been doing over the years. Those guys have really nailed a very appealing and consistent voice for that brand.
What's the one important thing that people don't know about you?
That as both a copywriter and an art director, I am both dyslexic and color blind.
What's your personal motto?
It's a comedy, not a drama.
What's been the low point of your advertising career?
The fact that you guys did an On the Spot interview with Carrot Top before me.