Jeff Goodby On The Spot

“Got milk?”, the Budweiser frogs and lizards—Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco has made an indelible mark on the industry and pop culture since it opened in 1983. Harvard-educated co-founder Jeff Goodby, a copywriter by trade, is an industry paragon; he, along with co-founder Rich Silverstein, was inducted into the One Club Hall of Fame last year. He was the IAF’s film as well as press and poster president in ’02, and will serve as chair for this year’s Titanium jury. The former newspaper reporter still finds time to read his hometown paper, the Providence Journal, every morning.

Q: What first got you interested in advertising?

A: In college, I would avoid studying by reading Graphix magazine and design magazines from Europe, and I really loved looking at Doyle Dane ads and intelligent copywriting that got inside your head.

But weren’t you a journalist first?

When I got out of school, I took a job as a reporter. I covered the statehouse and all these crimes and fires.

I can’t picture that; you seem too nice to be a bulldog reporter.

That’s probably why I’m not in it anymore.

Tell me about the first few weeks after opening Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein. What did it feel like?

Absolute terror, but I liked the feeling.

How long before you stopped being afraid?

I don’t know if it’s necessarily over.

What was your smartest business decision over the years?

It was really when we started putting emphasis on hiring the very best creative people we could get our hands on. In the beginning, we just believed we were so brilliant we could take almost anyone and turn them into a great creative, but after a while we realized we had to find people who were actually better than we were.

So you stopped being arrogant, in other words?

Yeah, I guess you could say we got a little bit of humility. That came about three years in.

OK, what’s the dumbest move you made?

Well one would have to be the day … Bob Kerstetter and Erich Joiner came to me with an idea that involved a parody of Jacques Cousteau. It was a very funny commercial about men on his ship not paying any attention to him because they were playing this particular Sega game. My lawyer told me it was risky to do this parody, but at this point in time, I didn’t realize how dangerous these things can be. And so we did it and it was very expensive.

I see you and Rich as complete opposites. Is that accurate, and if so, how does the partnership work?

That’s true, and I think it’s good that we’re not the same. Rich says all the time, and I think it’s true, we have absolutely nothing in common except for the take we have on creative work, which we always agree on.

Can you characterize the partnership?

I’ve heard of us referred to as the dysfunctional dad and the crazy uncle. I think that’s the best description.

I would ask who is who, but I think I know.


But just to be sure, give me three words to describe Rich.

Unstoppable wind-up toy.

And you?

Thinks too much.

What is the biggest change in the industry since you opened your agency?

That you couldn’t do it today. It’s very hard to start a small agency today. By the time we had 50 people, we were really pretty famous. A 50-people shop today would not be a big national story.

A few weeks ago, eBay fired you. Last week, it reported a 28-percent profit. How did you feel when you read those results?

It’s a hard business to understand sometimes. I think sometimes clients have to make a change for the sake of making change.

Do you think your agency has a certain advertising style?

Actually, I think one of the marvelous things about our agency is that our style is so disparate. There was a big period of real raw film for clients like the San Francisco Examiner and the Mill Valley Film Festival. And Skateboarding for Nike. Then we’ve done really beautiful things like HP and Häagen-Dazs, and even some of the ‘Got milk?’ commercials are pretty.

But to me, a lot of that is based on storytelling, even your humorous campaigns. You don’t see it?

Well yeah, we believe in stories, we believe that’s what engages people and gets them to pay attention and makes clients’ money go further. Storytelling is going to be what makes all this new media work.

Two years ago, you wrote an article for me about the business being fun. Do you still feel that way?

I think the business is still fun, but the question is, for whom? There was a period in the ’90s when I thought the funnest job would be an art director since things were getting so visual, that words didn’t matter. That didn’t exactly come true, but to a certain extent it did. And that’s what’s happening in the world of media planning. The great thing that Crispin did is the Mini campaign celebrated the idea of media planning. They used magazines in really unusual ways; suddenly, the role of media planner is really key again. What’s going on is that media departments in agencies are being hijacked and taken out, so that while all these agencies are talking about all these new creations, all these new media, they are actually allowing their media accounts to be stolen away.

But that’s the case within Omnicom as well. You have OMD and…

Yeah, it’s happening everywhere.

What’s the solution?

I think investing in media planning is the most important thing an agency can do right now. Taking it back. It has to be that media planning is the hottest part of the business.

Can you point to the best year of your career?

I hope it’s next year.

What do you do in your free time?

Paint and draw and play the violin, which is extremely painful for people.

What’s your biggest fear?

I think my biggest fear is that I will never have a great idea again, but that’s got to be everyone’s fear in this business.

Pet peeve?

People who get prematurely excited about things.

Why does that bother you? Because you think they won’t try to make it better?

Exactly. It makes them complacent.

Who is your dream client?

This is my chance to woo someone, right?

What is the last ad you wish you did?

I don’t covet other advertising, I celebrate it and hope it makes the next thing we do easier to sell.

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

Hey, you never ask anyone else that question in these things.

Well, I usually don’t do these interviews myself. Come on, answer it.

Probably to maintain a sense of humor against all odds.

Who would you most like to work with?

Dan Wieden. I would just like to see what it’s like. It would be better than he thinks, I bet.

You’re going to serve as president of the Cannes Titanium jury, which is all about nontraditional advertising. Are creatives paying too much attention to anything but TV ads? Is there too much hype?

I think the pendulum has swung too far. People certainly take a lot less delight in making commercials, and obviously, they are still really important. They’re still the fastest way to get emotion into advertising.

Do you think we’ll reach a balance eventually?

What’s really going to happen is that we’re going to see really creative stuff. One of the things people are thinking about in my shop, for example, [is] putting together a library of ‘Got milk?’ or Nike ads and putting it into on-demand categories on Comcast or something like that, because we think people will go watch it. I think that’s a model for the future; people will seek out advertising that’s good. And the people who can’t do the kind of advertising that people seek out will no longer be in the business, and that’s good for the business. There’s a lot of things happening right now that we’ll look back and say, that was dinky or quaint, like product placement. We’re not going to have to trick people into watching our stuff. It’s great to have a commercial on the air, but how do you get people to send it around on the Web? That’s the question.

What is your best characteristic?


If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

That I’m too patient.

What’s your daily routine before work?

I get up at 5 or 5:30 everyday and do some work. People are always sending me work overnight to look at. Then I paint and draw in the studio down the street. I rent a neighbor’s garage. Then I make breakfast for my kids, feed all the animals—which means the dogs and rabbits and cats—then take them to school and stop and feed our horse Tex with my daughter. Then I shovel all the horseshit into one corner and then I go to work and do that all over again.