It’s a funny thing, winning a lifetime achievement award.
For Rich Silverstein, who will be honored with the Lion of St. Mark at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity this month with his partner, Jeff Goodby, the award comes with some mixed emotions. The last we checked, neither was dead.
To hear Silverstein tell it, the two founders of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners are as close as they’ve been since setting up as an independent shop in 1983. They’re just a little astonished to still be here in 2019. And despite a career filled with highs—from creating the “Got Milk?” campaign and the Budweiser lizards to, more recently, the Peter Dinklage-Morgan Freeman rap lip-synch battle Super Bowl spot—they have no intention of slowing down.
Silverstein usually doesn't attend the festival, but he will be in Cannes to accept the award this month. He sat down with Ad Age to discuss his view from his California perch, far away from Madison Avenue.
Congratulations. How does it feel?
I’m kind of embarrassed. When I told people at dinner last night, who are not in advertising, and I go, “Well I’m getting this thing called the Lion of St. Mark,” and it’s like it’s from another planet.
You’ve eyed awards shows with a sort of healthy skepticism.
You go through different emotions. Do I want to win at Cannes? Yes. Do I want my people to win at Cannes? Yes. Do I want the clients to look good? Yes. Do I want my people to start thinking of Cannes before they think of the problem to solve? No. That’s the only thing I wish people would do is go, “OK, how am I going to solve the client’s problem brilliantly?” And when you do it brilliantly, you win at Cannes.
Has the role of these awards changed? Are they too important?
Right now, we have major clients asking to win at Cannes. That’s pretty remarkable. One client put it in the brief that they would like to win a Lion. That’s just never happened.
What did you say to them?
I said, “I can’t believe it. Well, we can’t let you down.” It’s daunting. It’s a little bit like the Super Bowl, when a client says they want to be in the Super Bowl. You go, “Yes. Uh-oh.”
You’re an avid cyclist. Do you bike when you’re in France?
It’s very funny you say that because I had a terrible bike accident about six weeks ago. I cracked three little bones and I’m healing now, and I told the PT and the doctor, “I have to walk on stage without crutches,” so I’m two weeks out from it. And today I started walking without crutches. No way am I walking on that stage with a crutch.
When will you get back on the bike?
As soon as my wife looks the other way. I do think it’s an idea-generating machine, I do. Maybe lots of athletics do that, but cycling has this amazing repetitive nature to it where your brain just thinks.
This must be a weird moment for you because obviously this is a big honor, but your career’s not over. Do you think about your legacy?
Carla, my wife, will divorce me if I retire, so I’m in this for good. But, I love coming to work because you’re solving problems, and you’re using your brain. It isn’t about retirement. And I turn 70 a week from now.
Are you kidding me? You look fantastic.
Well, thank you. But, it’s freaky to say 7-0. Freaky. And I never thought I would get to that age. I don’t want to think of myself as an age person, but someone who’s always relevant and vibrant. And advertising allows you to do it, so I’m a lucky person that way. So, do I think of the legacy? Yeah. Only recently did I go, “Wow, have we made a dent in this industry?” And I’m kind of always amazed that people think we have. It’s a funny thing about advertising: You can’t be complacent. When you walk in, you don’t know what the next day’s going to bring. It’s organizing or dealing with chaos. One moment people love you, and the next moment you get whacked in the head.
You’ve had moments where you guys are hot. You’ve had moments where you’re not-so-hot. What gets you through the not-so-hot moments?
Well, when we get Comeback Agency of the Year from Ad Age [in 2018], I get pissed! But it was right. Look, it was right. Where were we a couple of years ago? It’s like a ball team. The Warriors maybe will win this year, and that would be five. They’re not going to go forever, and the 49ers didn’t go on forever. So you’ve got to find a way to make the team strong again, and you have to reinvent yourself. The length of the agency has been about reinvention every five to 10 years. So there were times when we weren’t right. I think we’re on it now, but we’re never satisfied. I just heard today that we’re not going to hear until tomorrow about a new business win or not. And you just go, it’s like sports. We’ve got a game, and we’re going to play it. And we’re going to win. If we don’t win, we’re going to get up again and do it again, and do it again, and do it again.
Are you and Jeff still close?
Yeah, yeah. Like husband and wife. Jeff and I are never happy. Like we’ll go out to lunch, and we will bitch about things and want to fix things. I got pissed at Jeff the other day because we sent the videos out to Cannes, and I swear I was really happy, OK? After a lot of pressure we got it done, and Jeff writes me and says, “Well how about this?” And I thought, “Jesus, Jeff. It’s over. We’re done.” But that’s never going to change. That’s his personality, and it’s never good enough.
You guys have a track record of fostering talent, and you’ve had a lot of people who come through your doors who’ve become prominent leaders in their own right.
Yes. I think that the two things I’m most proud of is people that have had a job here and raised families, and that we have fathered and mothered many creative people to go on to do other things. I never think of myself as a mentor, but I think of myself as being extremely honest about what I’m trying to bring to people. Like just before [talking to] you, there were two presentations to me by two different creative teams. In one, they presented six or seven ideas and I hated them all, but I hated them all for reasons that they were just totally wrong for the client.
What was it like to go from being independent to being part of a holding company, Omnicom, in ‘92?
I remember Bruce Crawford, who was running Omnicom then, said, “I don’t know what we’re going to do with a California agency.” Because at the time no one thought about it. But we had spent our money: I think Jeff bought a piano and I’d put a downpayment on the house, so we couldn’t buy ourselves back. And then from that point they left us totally alone and have always left us alone. They have never told us who to pitch, how to pitch.
You do a lot of digital work and a lot of traditional work. There’s so much out there that is tech for tech’s sake. How do you do it in a way where you’re not just checking a box?
That’s really easy. We have never changed this idea of storytelling, humanity, humor. You just bring it into the new media. That’s what we try to do, even if it’s an online idea or a stunt. It’s always about humanity.
You guys have not been afraid over the years to take stands on political issues. Has that ever compromised your relationship with clients?
No. I’ve had arguments with people, very sweet arguments with the people from corporate America who clearly go, “Oh, he’s the liberal,” and they make fun, and they are very Republican. But I’ve been known to open my mouth a little bit too much because I believe you should say what you feel.
And after Nike and Colin Kaepernick, do you think more brands should take a stand?
Yes, I think a brand has the responsibility to the public to have a point of view. Everyone likes to point to Colin. But that is such a unique position where it all lined up. It was the perfect storm. He’s an athlete, he was a Nike athlete. He had this point of view about America. He took a knee and Trump went nuts. Everything lined up to have something very special happen. You can’t just do that for every client. It has to be correct, and they did it in the correct way and God bless them. I mean, they’ll probably win everything with that because you can’t get better than something that’s socially relevant, powerful.
Do you have a favorite project of all time?
No, that would be like saying, “Do I have a favorite kid?” That’s a Sophie’s Choice thing. No. You can’t.
What was the last piece of work that you touched?
I touch work every day. I mean, you won’t believe it, everything. I mean, my major work has been working on BMW [from the time we won it].
You got your start in the media, at Rolling Stone. What did you take with you from your publishing days?
I just took every job. It’s not like I was a rock and roll [guy]. When Jann Wenner hired me he said, “What magazines do you like?” And I said, Scientific American, because I liked the cover; I liked the graphic design covers. Then I threw myself at Rolling Stone, but I do believe that every job you take, you take something out of it that makes you better.
You were there in the wildest times of the magazine.
Really. And here is the funny part. I never took drugs, and when people would go out in the parking lot, I didn’t know what they were doing. I just worked. You know it comes from insecurity that you go, “Oh, I don’t know if I’m good enough,” and so you just keep working harder and harder. And then you realize everybody’s insecure.
Have you outlived that insecurity?
Yes and no. I can get up in front of 2,000 people and speak at Cannes and sometimes I go, “Holy shit, that’s going to be a lot of people.” But then I go, “Hey, they’re all the same, you know. No one’s any more special than you and everyone has insecurities.” You learn to go with your gut, and if you have confidence that your gut feels right, it will be right. That’s the part I learned. You have to be brutally honest with yourself, and that’s really hard to do.
Anything you want to weigh in on while you’ve got the mic?
I don’t know how I got here. That’s it. I just don’t know.
Well, you have.
And there was no reason when I was growing up that I would do this. When you grow up dyslexic, but you know you weren’t stupid? And some very successful people in business have had it. I think you’re wired in a way that you look at the world a different way. And it really helps you if you can channel it; it’s really powerful. But boy, I was not a good student.