Rob Schwartz On The Spot

A snoring steer on Yellow Pages’ “Bulldozer” billboard inspired Schwartz’s dream of working at Chiat/Day. Today, the 38-year-old copywriter is ecd at TBWA\Chiat\Day in Playa del Rey, Calif., where he spearheads creative on the global Nissan account. A New Yorker, Schwartz moved west in 1992 to join Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos but was let go after six months when Infiniti moved to Chiat. “I thought, ‘I hate those guys—but I want to be those guys,’ ” says Schwartz. Six years later—after a term at Team One, where he was acd on Lexus—Schwartz became one of them.

Q. What do you think of Fuse’s parody of the iPod work in its latest advertising?

A. In some ways it is a badge of success. The work is so famous and part of the culture that people want to participate, sometimes for evil and sometimes for good. We’re trying to make all our brands famous, so if people are pimping the work, we’re at least out there doing our job. As to the legal aspects, I’m sure our business-affairs people are looking into it.

Who has most influenced your career?

Without question, Lee [Clow] was my biggest influence before I even knew him. When the Nynex Yellow Pages campaign came out, with the sleeping bull on a billboard, I was mesmerized. When they revealed it was “bulldozing,” that was a magic moment for me. I wanted to work at the agency that did that. Today, I would still argue that “Turbo Z Dreamer” and “Road to Rio” is the bar by which I measure all Nissan work. When I started working at agencies, I would seek out [ex-Chiat/Day staffers]. I didn’t have the confidence to think I could get a job at this agency.

What have you learned from Lee?

In any assignment, whether it is a T-shirt or a huge campaign, Lee defies convention in that he wants the highest common factor. I learned from Lee, when you look at any assignment, “How big can we make this? How wonderful can this be? How can we bring something powerful to the world, and not just let it be paid noise?”

And from Tom Cordner at Team One?

Two important things. The first is energy. Tom was like ricochet rabbit, bouncing around. And Tom was a direct manager. I try applied explosions of energy. And I’ve turned directness toward clarity. I always tell people, “Clarity before poetry.”

What inspired you to get into advertising?

I wanted to write the Great American Novel. I was very influenced by Fitzgerald and Salinger. I graduated from the University of Michigan and found that it was not only hard but lonely. So I set that aside and went on an Outward Bound in the Maine woods. When I came out, I took a horrible job working on the JK Lasser tax guides. There was a woman there who thought my writing was funny. She had a friend who teaches advertising at the School of Visual Arts. I ended up taking a couple of classes and really liked it and made it my mission to get into advertising any way, shape or form I could. I got a job at a boutique, Altschiller Reitzfeld.

What was your first ad?

We had this client, Restaurant Associates. They owned Mama Leone’s, a couple of fish places, a steakhouse. You would always have to come in and do a menu ad. You’d spend all morning coming up with 50 to 100 headlines, things that were wonderful, things that were stupid. One I remember was for a fish restaurant: “A lot of fish, not a lot of clams.” Looking back on it, I’m utterly embarrassed that you are going to print it.

What work are you most proud of?

In some ways I don’t feel I’m there yet, but I am proud of being a part of turning Nissan around on five continents.

What’s the most underrated agency?

There is something happening at GSD&M in Texas. I look at something like the AARP campaign—imagine getting that brief. They’ve done a nice job of making AARP the kind of company I wouldn’t run from. And the consistency, charm and personality of the Southwest Airlines work is admirable.

What’s your biggest fear?

That I won’t have the cojones to do the right thing in a situation. [As] a creative director, you have to do some tough stuff. My fear is that I’ll see something and be reluctant to say it because I don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, and the fact that I didn’t reveal that truth will be detrimental to what we’re trying to do.

What are your management principles?

I have two. I’m a big believer in “Lead, follow or get out of the way.” I’m like Phil Jackson when he was with the Bulls. I’m with all these great players; it is my job to see that they are playing to their potential. In some cases, I’m the leader. Sometimes there’s a brilliant idea, and I’m not needed. A good example of that is Jerry Gentile and his team on PlayStation. The second [principle] comes from Eastern philosophy: If he works for you, then you work for him. A lot of creative directors kick back, fold their arms and say, “OK, what have you got for me?” I’ve always thought, What can I do to help this writer come up with a brilliant idea?

Do you have a motto?

Kick ass or get your ass kicked. A “Schwartz-ism” is a way to describe a situation in an unexpected or cogent way. For instance, I was looking at a reel of a director who was supposed to be so super, and I turned to the producer and said, “I’ve seen the magic, and the wand is small.” Another one: A creative team came in and said, “We’ve got a great idea, and we want this director, and this is how it should look,” and I said, “Guys, you’re scraping barnacles off a boat that’s yet to be built.”