Ron Berger On the Spot

A copywriter whose ad career began in the mailroom of venerated New York agency Carl Ally, Berger went on to co-found Messner, Vetere, Berger, Carey in 1986. Now, with The Boys of 2nd Street Park, the CEO of Euro RSCG MVBMS Partners is also a filmmaker. Berger, 53, and Dan Klores, president of PR shop Dan Klores Communications, made the documentary after reminiscing about the friends they played basketball with as kids in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. It debuts Sept. 28 on Showtime. The pair are now working on a second film, The Winner, the story of boxer Emile Griffith. Q. Why was Brooklyn so special to you?

A. Brooklyn is one of those places that, you talk about brands, it’s one of those romantic brands. For all of us at that point in time, a really wonderful place to grow up. Although quite frankly, I think when you listen to the way that the guys in the film describe it, it got even more wonderful looking back 30 years.

How did you get people to share so much?

Dan did all the interviews, which was tremendously valuable. These guys were willing to share some really difficult stories in some case. I think because he was a long-term, lifelong friend of theirs, they spoke more as if they were filling in an old friend on what had happened in their lives as opposed to simply telling an interviewer.

Why has a documentary about a group of friends from Brooklyn attracted attention?

At first glance, people say it’s about Brooklyn or it’s about basketball or it’s about the ’60s. Those are all just metaphors for life. It’s about the decisions that you make, and about the ones that go right and the ones that go wrong. It’s about love, and it’s about loss. Everyone takes away their own little story from those stories.

What did you learn from the process?

It was clearly the challenge of weaving a number of stories that had arcs to them. The discipline of working in 30-second time frames came in handy in the sense that just because you have more time, [it] doesn’t mean you need to use it. Oftentimes in advertising, you have to make an edit really quickly. You don’t get the naturalness of the way somebody actually talks, lives and breathes, because you don’t have the time. Having that freedom to not cut out because you have to was a lesson—there’s a tremendous power in the naturalness of those performances.

Give me three words to describe Dan.

Crazy. I mean, really crazy, brilliant and generous.

Now why is Dan really crazy?

He’s just one of these people that when you think the car is going down the road in one direction, then he gets in the car, he wants to turn the car around. I tend to be very logical. I look at a situation, understand it and say, “OK, here is why I think this is what we should do, and let’s do it.” So when somebody sort of just irrationally—or, in my opinion, irrationally—changes it, you know, it’s crazy. But in his mind it’s not irrational, because he’s got an equally thought-out reason why he wants to turn the thing around.

How does the business today compare with when you started out in advertising?

The opportunity for great creativity is as strong today, and the opportunity for big, creative ideas is even greater because of all the opportunities in terms of media, in terms of technology. But the business of advertising is a very, very difficult one, and the influence of being part of a publicly held holding company has shifted the conversation to the business of it and put the creative part of it, the exciting part of it, back a few notches.

Which work are you most proud of?

The most well-known campaign I did was the Dunkin’ Donuts “Time to make the doughnuts.” It ran about 12 years and won a lot of awards. It became one of those lines that everyone said, because it captured their own feelings about whatever they did for a living—it was always time to make the doughnuts. [Also], the “Survivors” commercial where it showed people who had survived life-threatening accidents in a Volvo. The reason I’m proud of it is that it’s unbelievably honest. If you’ve ever talked to anyone who has been in a life-threatening accident, they want to do the small things—the walks on the beaches and the playing with the grandchildren. And that’s what the commercial was—it attempted to capture those small moments, those intimate things.

Why did you chose to tell Griffith’s story as your next project?

It’s a pretty interesting life story. He was six-time world champion in the ’60s and ’70s who was best known for killing someone in the ring at Madison Square Garden in 1962. Even though we were 13 years old, we vividly remember the fight and the consequences of it. Similar to The Boys of 2nd Street Park, the power of the film is the story of the generation that is told through their stories.

Do you have another career ahead of you as a documentary filmmaker?

As long as I enjoy it, I’ll keep doing it. It’s great from the agency point of view—so many times, creative people who start running businesses lose their hands-on thing, and this is my hands-on thing.

If you weren’t in advertising, what would you be doing?

My answer over the years would have been a basketball coach. There’s tremendous metaphors between what I do now and coaching a team—that’s what a CEO or creative director is. They’re like a coach in terms of how they have to inspire people and challenge people and be difficult with people at times, and there’s no one way to do it.