David Angelo started his career as a junior art director in 1989 at DDB New York, followed by stints at Chiat/Day and Cliff Freeman & Partners before starting his own shop, David&Goliath, in 1999. The 55-year-old got a late start in advertising but has worked on a range of clients in his nearly 30-year career, including Coca-Cola, Lexus, Michelin, Reebok and the New York State Lottery. Here, the American Advertising Federation Hall of Achievement inductee 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.

I grew up in San Leandro, which is a blue-collar neighborhood right outside of Oakland, California. My father was a highly decorated Marine who fought in the Korean War but also suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder. So our upbringing was a bit of a war zone as well, dealing with his alcoholism, among other things. But he was very hardworking and passionate, and instilled in me two values that I carry till date: Never forget where you’re from, and always give a hundred percent of your heart and soul to whatever you do.

When I was about to graduate from high school, I got expelled. I had a friend who was a tow-truck driver and loaned me a car. Another friend of mine got a hold of the keys and started doing donuts in the school parking lot. I didn’t have a license, I didn’t have insurance, I’d been driving around this stolen car and my parents could get sued. So I cut class to try to stop it. I was all set to attend art school, and just like that, I lost my grants, scholarships and all hope that day. I made a mistake and paid dearly for it. I was so mad at myself that I decided I wasn’t going to be an artist anymore.

For the next 10 years, I worked the graveyard shift at a local spirit distillery, which was a division of Seagram’s. Somewhere in the middle, I decided to go back to school. That’s when I became interested in advertising. I began studying the ad business, reading the ad trades and designing layouts while working the conveyor belt. I would go to class during the day, intern during the afternoons, and work the graveyard shift at night. I guess I needed to get kicked out of high school to realize that I didn’t want to be an illustrator and realize my destiny. Eventually, I graduated at the top of my class from the Academy of Arts, the school I was originally supposed to enroll in.

When I finished school, someone sent me a postcard that read “Do what you fear, watch it disappear.” It was this mantra pushed me to take on my biggest fear: moving to New York City. I thought about interviewing at Hal Riney and Goodby but being that close to home wasn’t challenging enough for me. So in 1989, I packed my bags and moved to New York to work at DDB, where the first brand I worked on was ironically Seagram’s Crown Royal J.

Walking through DDB’s doors was surreal. I couldn’t believe that I was at the same place that had created all the great ads that I had hung on my bedroom wall, like Avis’ “We try harder.” I knew I had found my place; I felt at home. The highlight was the “Hey, you never know” campaign for the New York Lottery, because it was so reflective of my own life. That and the spot we worked on for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, before he ended up winning. Because that one taught me that people are brands too.

One of the lowest moments for me was when I was at Chiat/Day and working on Reebok, and then they fired us. And then, of course, I was fired too. It had nothing to do with anyone in particular; it was just a very difficult account, and they had a reputation for being tough. It’s never a good feeling to get fired. And it stung even more because I had gone there and left a job that was instrumental for me. I had won all these awards, and I couldn’t understand how I could be fired. But at the end of the day, it’s a game of numbers. You can never connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect the dots looking back.

My outlook on life, and advertising, is to live your truth and inspire others to do the same — whether you’re a person, a brand or a country. And those are the values my dad instilled in me. Any time a challenge hits you, you can either choose bravery or fear. And those who win, choose bravery. I believe that most brands today have lost sight of who they really are. Instead of trying to compete with each other for the sake of bottom line, they need to go back to the core of who they really are.

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