The Life of Riney

Hal Riney has been described as a trailblazer, an iconoclast and a ruthless leader.
In a rare interview, he explains why he prefers to be a copywriter, a fly fisherman and a father.
Under a shroud of fog, the city shivers and the air is damp. On Washington Street, the tour buses pause to glance at a stately, white Victorian firehouse. Built in 1893, it is one of the few buildings to survive the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which makes it an ideal setting for its owner, who has built a life on an unshakable belief in himself. Sitting in his elegant top-floor living quarters, Hal Riney pauses in the quiet of late afternoon. The bourbon flows, shadows shift under the skylight. It’s been more than 18 months since he sold his company to France’s largest agency, Publicis, S.A. Contrary to expectation, Riney is still deeply involved with his agency.
“There’s been a lot of misunderstanding about the agency, my role in it and selling it. I never intended to stop working,” he grumbles, characteristically glancing over eyeglasses perched halfway down his nose. “As a matter of fact, I am under contract to keep doing exactly what I’ve been doing. I will be doing it for two more years.”
Riney isn’t ready to quit–just yet. Despite the criticism his new work for First Union is generating, he’s enthusiastic about writing many of the ads. “I was astonished by First Union’s mixed reviews. It’s a landmark campaign in the financial industry, where everybody is so conservative and trite,” he muses. “I think (First Union CEO) Ed Crutchfield has a lot of guts. The ads created some resentment I’ve never seen in this business before. It’s a major piece of work. In terms of the goals we had, it’s been phenomenally successful.”
Creating the First Union campaign is typical Riney: a one-on-one working relationship with a top chief executive; an execution more cinematic than focus-group cardboard; the reassuring smoke-creased voiceover. But someone must have mixed up the scripts. It’s as if the bankers from hell stole ‘It’s Morning Again in America’ from Riney’s archetypical small-town toddlers, brides with bouquets, cowboys and old folks. Instead, in the current financial climate of derivative near-disasters and feverish stock speculation, First Union’s dark, futuristic imagery–produced by George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic–seems especially fitting to Riney.
Consider it the predicament of expectations for advertising’s leading larger-than-life character. Once a personality-driven industry, the cachet of Madison Avenue is being replaced by an industrial park full of holding companies. In the face of that, Riney is the perfect foil: the rugged, Western maverick, the one-time model, as handsome in jeans as in a tuxedo, as comfortable writing ads in Reno’s bar to re-elect presidents as selling jug wine. His existence is more Hollywood than market-researched America. There is the 1982 airplane hijacking in Central America that occurred on his honeymoon. Riney stormed the plane’s exit, helping to free the other passengers. He is as likely to take up residence in a Sausalito houseboat as he is on the island he owns off the coast of Honduras.
But at 66, Riney is unwilling to live a life stuck in amber. After nearly half a century in the ad business, he wants to keep making ads, not a common choice among his peers. He’s earned the right to continue exploration of the medium. Riney’s probably written more commercials than anyone else–153 for Bartles & Jaymes alone–changing TV advertising in the process. While creatives today routinely use rock anthems as hack jingles, Riney may be the only one to have ever commissioned music for a spot–“We’ve Only Just Begun” for Crocker Bank–that became a pop phenomenon.
Now is a good time for him. During the past decade, he’s vacillated between distance and direct management of his agency, with disappointing results. The agency endured a churn of executives and a blow to its image with work Riney says should never have made it out the door. Many issues have been resolved with the hire of Scott Marshall as president and the return of Riney’s creative influence.
Riney’s shop was among the last independent gems in the industry. Over the years, he discussed combinations with then Chiat/Day and Fallon McElligott. Publicis was never a name in the mix, but ultimately made sense to Riney. At the Washington Square Bar and Grill in North Beach, a favorite Riney lunch spot, he explains his reasoning.
The Washbag is a slice of old San Francisco, where people like Riney take refuge from surrounding trendiness. Cloaked in dark wood and sports memorabilia, it’s a no-nonsense place where the waitresses know your drink. Taking his time with a Cobb salad and shots of Jim Beam, Riney muses over the choice of Publicis.
“First, we did it because I liked [Publicis CEO] Maurice [Levy]. Over the years, I had met a number of people from other interested agencies that I simply didn’t like,” says Riney. “His was a European agency without a big presence here, so it’s not like we’d become another one of a dozen agencies in an Interpublic or Omnicom. We felt there would be distance, independence and access to overseas resources.” Freed of management obligations and the pressures of ownership, Riney is back writing ads for Publicis Hal Riney & Partners.
Joe Pytka applauds that decision, calling Riney the real thing in an advertising world of franchised ideas. “Hal does things in a unique way because he’s not a student of advertising. He doesn’t look to re-create what’s already out there; he draws off life observation,” says the director who’s worked with him frequently. “There’s never been anyone like him. He is a complete iconoclast.”
Even Riney’s detractors concede his singular mix of talents. “He’s probably the best account man I’ve ever worked with, the best planner–he would hate that word–the best art director, the best copywriter,” says one former disenchanted creative staffer. “And he can be a pretty mean son of a bitch.”
Creatives in need of nurturing or support won’t last with him. The joke around the agency is: “Selling an idea to a client is the easy part. Hal’s the tough one.” Much is made of his indecipherable grunts, his lack of communication, his exaggerated understatement. Riney isn’t the sort to wander agency halls slapping backs. He maintains an aloof presence when staffers come to his office. Reviewing a concept that isn’t acceptable, he’ll say nothing, just peer over his glasses with an expression that asks, “Are you kidding me?” (If he likes an idea, expect a shake of the head and a muttered, “I guess that will be all right.”)
Those who don’t live up to Riney’s standards have suffered indignities beyond firing: Riney freezes them out, ignores them and holds back assignments until they leave. “It’s kind of cowardly, and it is sort of irresponsible,” Riney admits. “But it’s my way of avoiding the unpleasantness of telling people they’re not wanted, which I would never like to be told.”
“He doesn’t like stupid people, people who waste his time, people who think they have more talent than they do,” says Jim Magill, a former Riney senior account executive. “He can sense fear, and once he does, he loves to play with that.”
Riney’s shyness is often interpreted as arrogance, a trait he finds inexplicable in his line of work. “Even if other people or judges in awards shows or whatever have decided to anoint you, you never anoint yourself. That’s why you can’t have an ego in this business, because every morning you wake up to a problem that you’ve never had before,” he says. “If you’re a dentist, you are just going to drill another tooth. It might be a different tooth but it’s still the same deal. If you’re an ad guy, you did a good job selling wine coolers last week, but how well are you going to do on frozen chicken? You don’t know because you don’t know where those ideas came from in the first place. So you can’t count on them coming again.
“In my case, it is a result of having done this for 46 years. And certainly over 46 years, you better goddamn well have done something that was good,” he continues. “But if you ever had to look back and analyze how many bad things you did, or things that weren’t better than average, you probably would find yourself with a considerable amount of humility. I have done a lot of terrible work. I won’t talk about specifics, but we are servants. So 90 percent of the time, you are in a situation where you may have to compromise what it is you do. Anytime I have an advertising problem, I always want to make sure I come up with at least one idea I’m really proud of. I guess so I can satisfy myself that there was an answer to the problem–even if the client doesn’t buy it.
“There are some clients that have been historically associated with bad work, and agencies avoid them until they spend a lot of money. Gallo was certainly the worst of those, by most people’s estimation, but we found they would buy good work. When you discover something like that, it makes your life worse. Because you realize that there is a really good answer to almost any problem. If you don’t come up with one, for some reason, it is kind of humiliating,” Riney says.
Observes Riney alumnus Jeff Goodby of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners: “Before I came to Hal’s agency, I was competing with the copywriter next door, the guy down the hall,” he says. “When I got to Riney, I was expected to do the best possible work in the world. That’s the dividing line with him. If you don’t have that epiphany, you’re probably not going to work out.”
At lunch, Riney whips out paper and deftly draws his design for a complex of log cabins he’s constructing as a vacation spot in Jackson Hole, Wyo. He majored in art at the University of Washington and is a good cartoonist. Early in his career at BBDO, San Francisco, he worked as an art director, experience invaluable to his writing.
“Advertising is visual. I work with lots of writers who will write something and you ask them, ‘What are you seeing here?’ They respond: ‘I don’t know, I haven’t gotten that far,'” says Riney. “I can’t imagine working like that. I never write anything without seeing what it is going to look like when it’s done. We’re not writing essays. We’re not writing poems. We’re writing a piece of visual work.” After all, he grew up loving the subtlety of British film and character actors. He is known for charting storyboards that show every detail–including dialogue and voiceovers–displayed in precise increments on a timeline. His casting is equally painstaking. He once journeyed to an Eskimo village 30 miles from the Arctic Circle in search of talent.
“Production is the ultimate test of perfection. It’s a big problem we have right now because the industry has a lot of people who never produced a lot of film. They tend to hand over the execution of their ideas to directors and production companies,” Riney says. “You can approach production in two ways: You can say, ‘Here’s an idea to the director; whatever you want to make of it is kind of neat.’ Or you can start out saying, ‘Every base is covered, every thought is here, everything is described. We know what we want, we know what’s going to happen, we know what that expression is and you guys don’t.’ That’s the way I’ve always worked.”
Still, Riney didn’t begin his ad career with creative ambitions. Shortly after he landed his first job at BBDO, he moved from the mail room to conducting research for the agency, which had Revlon as a client. “I would go to some store and interview old ladies in black dresses and pearls as to how many lipsticks they were buying,” he laughs, rattling off his job credentials. “I was a good-looking kid. I dressed well, and I looked like an ad guy at the time.”
Next the agency made him a junior account person. It wasn’t for him, so he transferred to the art department, but Riney had a hard time finding good copywriting partners. Eventually, he tried his own hand at copy. “I had been a generally good student, and I speak English. So I figured I could write as well as anyone else,” he says.
In a few days of conversation at the Washbag, at home, at the agency’s new Embarcadero headquarters and at a chic restaurant that was not his choice, there is a refreshing absence of the words “brand” or “consumer” in Riney’s vocabulary. He’s brought the complexities and ambiguities of real life and emotion to a huckster’s medium by utilizing the soft sell, understatement and wry humor. People connect with his view of reality. Who could have predicted that consumers would send checks to Gallo to help Bartles & Jaymes’ Ed Jaymes pay off the second mortgage he took to finance his “mail order” Harvard MBA? Ed, of course, would use his education to determine, through testing, that wine coolers tasted good with every food but kohlrabi, “a turnip-like vegetable,” and candy corn. The spots are as much an example of Riney’s brilliant simplicity as they are a clever satire on business planning.
“The thing people should understand and don’t, or at least don’t acknowledge, is that creative people, good creative people, are different from others,” Riney says. “It’s an arrogant thing to say, since I am one of them. But the reason we exist as a business is because we have insights into how people are, how they feel and think. Nobody wants to hear that creative people are more sensitive or, in other words, smarter. But the fact of the matter is that planning’s never made advertising that stood out because of the planning. [It’s] the result of the instincts of the people who created it.
“Because we have clients who don’t want to deal with the implied uncertainties of somebody’s gut instinct, we use research to confirm our instincts or to justify an approach. So research has gotten a much greater share of the credit in our business than it ever deserved.”
Ironically, one of Riney’s more-overlooked successes probably would not have survived the rigors of a research-driven process. At Botsford Ketchum, San Francisco, where he worked after BBDO, he was the first to reposition potatoes as a good, low-fat source of fiber rather than sin food.
Riney’s seminal sense of a product’s essence is best displayed when he has a clean slate to work with, as he did in creating Henry Weinhard’s Private Reserve and Bartles & Jaymes from scratch. As a new General Motors brand, Saturn offered a similar exercise in crafting image as product.
“Saturn is a great experience because I, personally, got to exercise a lot of my own instincts in developing what the brand can do. With technology, as products become more and more the same, the tiny differences become more and more important. I think we have almost run out of things to say,” says Riney. “People have been bombarded with ads, and in terms of what human beings need, most everyone has everything. You can go out and buy a car with your eyes closed, and you would have a great car. So you look for little differences. Mostly, these differences lie in image.”
Which is increasingly the case with politicians. In his work for Ronald Reagan, Riney demonstrated that no one was better at compressing complicated ideas into 60 seconds. His “It’s Morning Again in America” never mentioned Jimmy Carter’s name, but viewers inevitably drew the reference to the former president’s disastrous Iran hostage crisis. Similarly, with the bear-in-the-woods commercial, Russia is never mentioned in the spot that supported Reagan’s defense policy. But it didn’t take long to connect the dots. “I like to ask people questions and let them make up their own mind, rather than tell them what to think. The message [behind “It’s Morning Again In America”] was, ‘Why would we want to go back to where we were four years ago?’ You don’t have to talk about the candidate’s achievements and all that stuff. They do that in speeches,” Riney says.
Riney doesn’t vote regularly and seems to have little interest in partisan politics. On a couple of occasions, however, he brings up Hillary Clinton’s defense of her husband’s infidelity. As a man whose own childhood was troubled, Riney finds her excuses absurd. More substantially, after a long career of observing human behavior, the adman finds Bill Clinton’s addiction to polling dangerous. “It’s scary. To create government policy according to polls is just frightening. You are asking the average person on the street to deal with issues that are so complex they couldn’t possibly make the decision.”
Riney is more of a Goldwater conservative with a Westerner’s disdain for big government. That stance reflects Hal Patrick Riney’s early need for self-determination. Growing up in Longview, Wash., in the shadow of Mount St. Helens volcano, Riney harbored a deep hero worship for his father. The elder Riney was a handsome, charming man who liked to drink and gamble and had an eye for women. He was a bit of a romantic and worked itinerant jobs as an actor, salesman, illustrator and newspaper reporter. His father was also jailed briefly for writing bad checks. When Hal was 6, his dad abandoned the family, leaving his son crushed.
After Riney’s father left, his mother went back to school for her teaching credentials, teaching in the winter and working as a forest fire watchman in the summer. A teenage Hal assumed his mother’s love of backpacking, and he would go off alone for weeks at a time, once trailed by a mountain lion.
“He’s always been demanding of himself, very demanding of other people. Certain kinds of success require that,” says Marcus Stevens, a stepson of Riney’s who is now a commercial director. “When I was 10, he’d take us out to fish. We’d be up to our necks in freezing cold water waiting for the dawn. With him, you had no choice. He was an interesting role model. It’s hard for a kid to approach things in such an uncompromising way. But I always knew that was the standard to be applied to everything I did. In a way it was good because everything else since then seems simpler.”
The agency has always displayed a full-size picture of a 5-year-old Riney next to a similar shot of a suspendered, middle-aged David Ogilvy, longtime friend, mentor and the man who spun off his San Francisco office to Riney in 1986. The official line is that it was the only shot they could find of Riney in suspenders. What is so striking about it is the earnestness of the child with the cowlick in his hair. Riney smiles intently into the camera, his tie is slightly askew; his buttoned-down collar is a sign of serious intent. In the fifth grade, with his mother raising the family alone, Riney decided he didn’t want to be a burden. He started delivering papers and bagging groceries–and he’s been working ever since.
Riney, now with a son, Benjamin, 12, and a daughter, Samantha, 10, waited till midlife before deciding he was ready for kids of his own–something he takes very seriously. The firehouse, which he bought from former California governor Jerry Brown between marriages, boasts sophisticated, overstuffed linen couches, zebra skin and sisal on the floor, Indian baskets and rugs, silver, mahogany bookshelves, a grand piano and ficus trees. But the real centerpieces for Riney are the baseball trophies, framed crayon drawings and pictures of his kids, who look uncannily like their dad. A good cook, Riney is at home in his imported German stainless-steel kitchen, where you’ll find him whipping up crepes with blackberries for his kids’ breakfast.
“The concept of abandoning your family is unthinkable to me, yet people do it every day. My dad was one of them,” he says. “But he was a wonderful writer,” Riney is quick to add about the man whose picture sits in his office. “I would get these wonderful notes, poetry and stuff in the mail from him when I think he was in jail.”
Riney detractors like to put him on the therapist’s couch to decipher his complexity. Yet, even critics speak of him with begrudging envy. The Hemingway parallel is inevitably mentioned: a man’s man who is good-looking, unafraid to drink and also likes women, fly fishing and hunting bears. Marshall says Riney isn’t all that complicated: “The definition of Hal’s character is an absolutely unvarnished truth that can be hard-edged, a little prickly. But partnered with that is shyness and sensitivity. That’s why his films are so beautiful, and why he’s good at dealing with business problems. He doesn’t deny or ignore them.”
By his own admission, Riney isn’t much of a pack animal and says that independent streak is partly to blame for the breakdown of his three marriages. “I love women. And actually, I get along with some of them,” he says. “I’ve been married three times before this, and I’ve never had a lot of conflicts with my wives. We’re all friends.” Riney married his fourth wife, Edie, about a year and a half ago. They were long-time neighbors on Telegraph Hill. Over the years, Riney would stop by her Union Square art gallery, where she dealt in contemporary realism. After they were both divorced, they became a couple. “We’ve known each other for 10 years, and we finally decided to get married, which was kind of a big surprise to my former wife, because they were pretty close friends,” Riney says.
Riney shares custody of his children, as does Edie, who also has a 12-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter. The Rineys are moving out of the firehouse once they complete their new Russian Hill home. Not everyone is thrilled. Ben Riney will miss the basketball court his dad installed for him on the ground floor.
Edie Riney is handsome, elegant and smart. She is as chatty as Hal is laconic. She’s a Buddhist who meditates, the kind of thing Riney usually turns into parody, but in this case tolerates. It’s her idea to lunch at the upscale Waterfront on the water’s edge, another thing Hal puts up with. (She likes it for the view.) Edie steals shrimp from Hal’s pasta and slides together her crab cakes and field greens onto one plate after the waiter declines the request for fear of damaging the presentation value. Their open affection is surprising–it’s not what you expect of a guy who doesn’t say good morning to people at the office.
Says one former associate, who remains friendly with Hal: “I haven’t seen him this happy in years.” Edie and [Scott] Marshall are largely responsible for that. But Riney’s happiness may, in part, also reflect his continuing fascination with communications, even after so many years. “Advertising is a matter of personal taste, and we get to exercise our personal taste with someone else’s money. We certainly do it with the best of intentions, with the expectation that it is going to produce a result that is positive or better. Or you’re out of business, you’re out of a job,” Riney says.
“That’s been one of the great things about being in advertising. You are reflecting what you think and are getting a chance to find out whether people agree with you. There aren’t very many businesses where you can take someone else’s $10 million, $20 million, $100 million and say, ‘Here’s what I think. Let’s do that.’ “