Rich Silverstein is an ad industry legend. But legends are made, not born. The co-creator of the “Got Milk?” campaign never intended to go into the agency world. Silverstein began his career in graphic design and ended up falling into advertising by chance.
Here, the Goodby Silverstein & Partners co-chairman and creative director tells us in his own words how he got into the business and shares some of the biggest lessons he has learned along the way.
On his first job
At my first job ever in high school, I worked at a hardware store in Yorktown Heights, New York, and gave everyone the wrong equipment — the wrong screws, the wrong nails. I was a junior in high school. So I wasn’t very good at it.
On how he stumbled into advertising
I went to the Parsons School of Design, and I wanted to be a graphic designer. At that time, the heroes were Milton Glaser at Push Pin Studios and the editorial magazine designers at Esquire. That was what I was drawn to. I only stumbled into advertising. While going to Parsons, I interned with designer Dick Hess of the Push Pin Studio era. Then, I came to San Francisco and became an art director and designer at Rolling Stone magazine and an art director at San Francisco magazine. There, I started noticing that ads were coming through that I had to put into the magazine, and I thought, oh, they look kind of interesting. And I thought more money was being spent in advertising than in editorial. I had no training in advertising. There were no advertising schools then, so I talked myself into a six-month program at Bozell & Jacobs San Francisco.
On his mentor Hal Riney
After my first stint in advertising at Bozell & Jacobs, I spent every year-and-a-half at a different agency in San Francisco until I found the right balance. I spent the next five years hopping from one agency to another until I met Hal Riney. He was the first person that I’d met in advertising who really got it. He got storytelling, he got craft, he was a son-of-a-gun. He was pretty tough on people, but he was one that taught me the craft, how important talent was, who should be in the spot, pacing, everything. I learned a lot from how he and his art director Jerry Andelin worked together, mostly through osmosis. He taught me that god was in the details, which is something I believe to this date.
On his partner Jeff Goodby
It was Hal that brought us together, and ultimately we would end up doing business together. I clicked with Jeff. We’re very different people, but we really clicked. I would say one thing, he would say another, we could riff off on each other, and it was easy. It was the first time that a writer could be a partner. I can’t write very well, and when I would say an idea to Jeff and visualize it, he could put it down in words in half an hour. To this date, if we go to lunch, and we start talking, we’ve got an idea in minutes. It’s like a comedy team. It’s a yin-and-yang relationship: He’s got the words, and I’ve got the eyes.
On his definition of advertising
I’ve never totally embraced the concept of advertising. For me, it’s really been storytelling, graphic designing and good writing. If I go back to my roots during the time of Esquire Magazine and Push Pin, those are the aesthetics I’ve taken back to advertising. I still believe that I am a designer and an editorial art director that I started out as. I think it’s less about advertising and more about storytelling.
On whether advertising is still a lucrative career
It’s a much-maligned business, but advertising has just gotten more and more interesting because of what technology has done and allowed us to play in. We have all these things to play with, and it’s overwhelmingly interesting. We didn’t have that when I started off. You could only make a print ad, a commercial or a radio spot. Nowadays, it’s a giant sandbox to play in.
On what it takes to succeed in advertising
We’re lucky that we have a job where we get to use our brains every day. It’s a very difficult industry because it’s very hard to please people. If you do your job well though, people will want to see it. But if you do it badly, they can shut it off. I have a great heart for people who try. It’s not about long hours; it’s about how much you care. You must have some intensity; it gives you focus. You should be like a pitbull. You should not give up; you should instead take things and wrestle them to the ground. Also, don’t stress about ideas. Just go take a walk or go for a bike ride; it’ll come to you.