My good friend Jack Lindquist, the former president of Disneyland, once told me, “I tried to retire, but I wasn’t very good at it.” That’s what makes this such a momentous day. In addition to being my birthday, it’s the day I finally retire from advertising. For real this time.
(Jamie says I’ve retired four times in the 22 years we’ve been together, but she exaggerates. Slightly.)
I showed up bright and early for my first day at DJMC Advertising in Los Angeles on August 2, 1971. In other words, I’ve been writing ads and commercials for more than 46 years.
Oddly enough, I always wanted to get out of advertising by the time I was forty because it’s a business for the young and no one wants to hire a 40-year old copywriter. Uh-oh. Looks like I’ve overstayed my welcome by twenty-nine years.
I had some incredible, inspirational bosses who gave me opportunities I probably didn’t deserve. Tried to be as good a boss to others as they were to me, but probably failed. Gave a lot of very talented young people their first jobs in advertising and watched them go on to become great successes. Won an award or two. Started two ad agencies and was a partner in a third one. Been through insane corporate buy-outs that would have made J.R. Ewing’s head spin. Had three ulcers and about a thousand stress-related migraines and even more sleepless nights. Had the world’s best business partner for more than twenty years. I still love him like a brother. Had some other partners I wouldn’t piss on if they were on fire. Had some great clients who are still friends and some horrible clients who were also horrible human beings. Did a lot of great work and a bit of embarrassingly bad work, too. And I had the pleasure of working with a lot of smart, quick-witted, hilarious people and laughed more than anyone deserves to laugh in one lifetime.
I got to work on some great accounts (in no particular order): McDonald’s. Toyota. Pizza Hut. Australian Tourist Commission. Burger King. Continental Airlines. Toshiba. Yamaha. Apple. El Pollo Loco. Orange County Transit District. Shimano Biking and Fishing. Thermador Appliances. Vans Shoes. Mercedes-Benz. Aquarium of the Pacific. House2Home. National Car Rental. Alamo Rent-A-Car. Red Bull. Santa Anita. Tahiti Tourism. Thomas Bros Maps. Turtle Island. Centex Homes. Tenet Hospitals. Holiday Inn. Chevron. Pacific Gas & Electric. Not to mention dozens of others.
It’s been a heck of a ride.
I’ve always said that advertising is the best business in the world. And the worst. Here are a few stories to demonstrate that both halves of that equation are true.
Although each of these stories may sound downright bizarre if you work in a “normal” business, I could, if pressed, probably come up with a couple dozen equally crazy, but true tales. And the thing is, so could anyone else who’s ever worked in an ad agency. It’s a business full of quirky, odd, sensitive individuals who probably would have starved to death if they hadn’t stumbled into it. And I include myself in that category.
How I landed my first job at an ad agency. When I was in high school, a very good friend, an incredible artist, a guy much smarter than me, frequently insisted that I should go into advertising.
“Your brain just isn’t wired like normal people,” he said. “You gotta go into advertising.”
I didn’t know what that meant because the only thing I knew about ad agencies was that Darren Stevens, a character on the Bewitched TV series, worked at one.
After high school, I enrolled at our local community college. This was during the war in Viet Nam, so I needed to take 15 units every quarter in order to stay exempt from the draft. One quarter I was three units short, so I thumbed through the course catalog to find a course, any course, that was available at a day and time when I had a hole in my schedule.
I ran across “Introduction to Advertising” and thought, This sounds interesting and maybe I can find out what my high school buddy Richard was talking about.
After about three weeks, I had a completely different thought. Do they really pay people to do this? I can do this. It was a defining moment in my life because I began searching for universities that offered four-year degrees in advertising.
After much searching through college catalogs, I finally decided on the University of Oregon. For a few reasons. One, it did, in fact, offer a degree in advertising, something that was pretty rare back in the late 60s. Two, it was located in a small town (Eugene, Oregon) while the other two west coast schools that offered similar degrees were located in Seattle and Los Angeles, big cities where I never would have been comfortable. And three, because Eugene was a small town, I assumed I could land a job as a disc jockey at one of its local radio stations.
Two years later I graduated. I had gotten pretty good grades in my advertising courses, especially the writing courses, and received really positive feedback from my professors. So I was convinced (or perhaps deluded into thinking) that I was the program’s top graduate that year.
In fact, my ego got the best of me and I thought of myself as a first round draft choice and just knew that Los Angeles ad agencies would line up for a chance to hire me.
What a moron.
I applied at 183 agencies before I got a return phone call. It came from Bob Colombatto, the creative director at a great little Los Angeles ad agency called Davis Johnson Mogul & Colombatto. Did he call because the college work I sent him was so brilliant? No. Did he call because I was the top graduate from the University of Oregon’s advertising program? No. Did he call because he thought of me as a first round draft choice? No.
He called because I had, in fact, worked as a rock ‘n roll DJ at an Eugene radio station called “KASH, The Big 16” and because my stage name had been “Omar Goodness.” He noticed this silly nom de radio on my resume and thought it was funny and that’s really the only reason he hired me.
“I don’t really have a job for you,” Collie said when he interviewed me, “but I really like that Omar Goodness thing. So I’m going to give you the worst job in the agency. You’re going to be the agency go’fer. If you do a good job as the go’fer, I might give you the worst creative assignments in the agency, the ones no one else wants to do.”
“I’ll take it,” I said, as if I had any other options.
“Oh, one more thing,” he added. “Jim deYong is dead. I’m hiring you because of that Omar Goodness name, so you’re going to be known as Omar Goodness from now on.”
And I was. None of my co-workers had any idea who Jim deYong was. As far as they knew, I was just the skinny new kid with the funny name.
Here we are 46 years later and I still have friends who call me Omar.
My first creative assignment. I’d been the go’fer at DJMC for a couple months when Collie asked the entire creative department to gather in his office. He was generous enough to invite me.
He opened the meeting by announcing the exciting news that DJMC had just been invited to pitch the Lay’s Potato Chip account and that he wanted each of us to come up with ideas.
“I’m sure you all understand what the strategy should be,” he said.
In fact, no one understood. There were blank stares all around.
Collie was clearly dumbfounded by our ignorance.
“Seriously? None of you know what I’m talking about?”
More blank stares.
“Potato chips. C’mon. What’s the first thing you think of when you think of potato chips?”
More blank stares.
“Sex. It’s obviously sex. When you think of potato chips, you think of sex.”
More blank stares, so Collie continued.
“I want to be the first agency in the world to use the word ‘fuck’ in a commercial. I want advertising that oozes sex.”
I didn’t know it at the time, but everyone else in the room thought he had lost his mind. I was still young and innocent and doubting my creative director, a partner in the agency, the guy who gave me my first job, never occurred to me. He was a living, breathing god to me. So while everyone else left his office doubting their boss’ sanity, I left determined to follow his orders to the best of my ability.
After all, I both feared and worshipped Collie. He was a remarkably charismatic, handsome, blond Italian guy. He loved the creative process and screamed his approval as easily as he screamed his disappointment. There was never any screaming in the deYong house, so it took me years to understand that his screaming was a sign of enthusiasm, not anger.
A week later we all returned to his office to present our ideas. Well, to be really honest, there were not many ideas presented. Even the most experienced people in the creative department admitted that they were baffled by Collie’s marching orders.
But not young Omar Goodness.
Collie went around the room soliciting ideas from copywriters and art directors and eventually worked his way around to me.
I hadn’t known enough about advertising or sex to realize that Collie’s strategy was one of the craziest I would ever be given during my career.
So the first thing I had done after that first meeting was to look up the word “potato” in the dictionary. When I saw Merriam-Webster’s definition it screamed out, “This is the answer. This is exactly what Collie is looking for.”
It said a potato was “a long, edible tuber.”
That lead me to create ads and radio scripts that used the term “long, edible tuber” as a euphemism for penis. Although my concepts didn’t use the word “fuck” as Collie had requested, they reeked of sex without actually saying anything about it. Everything I wrote sounded filthy without really being filthy.
As I presented my ideas to the rest of the creative department, Collie sat behind his glass-topped desk and a smile slowly spread across his face. When I was done, he looked around the room and said, “That’s what I’m talking about. Omar’s the only one who understood my strategy.”
And the next day I was promoted from go’fer to junior copywriter.
But just between you and me, I came up with these ideas not because I understood his strategy, but because I was afraid to admit that I didn’t understand it.
Oh, by the way, the potato chip account ended up hiring some other ad agency.
What a bunch of long, edible tubers.
How I got my second job. After eighteen months at DJMC, I decided it was time to move up to a bigger agency and better job. So I set up an interview with the creative director at Clinton E Frank, the largest agency in Los Angeles, located just a couple blocks down Wilshire Boulevard from DJMC.
I showed up at the appointed time with a portfolio of ads I had done at DJMC. As the creative director thumbed through my work, he seemed to dislike everything he saw. I was a smartass kid and this was the first interview I had set up and to be absolutely honest, I thought his criticism was unfair and it pissed me off. I don’t need this, I thought to myself. If he criticises anything else, I’m walking out of here.
Sure enough, he turned the page and criticized the next ad.
“Fuck you,” I blurted out.
“I like your attitude,” he said. “You’ve got guts. When can you start?”
I walked out thinking, Wow. I just got a job at the biggest, best ad agency in Los Angeles by telling the creative director to fuck himself. This is a very strange business I’ve gotten myself into.
The day I screamed obscenities at a roomful of clients. We had a very big name high tech client for whom we had done great, award-winning work for a number of years. They were by far our largest client.
After a couple years of advertising bliss, they fired the marketing director who had hired us and hired a new one. Coincidentally, he was the former president of the agency we bested to win the account and his agency had gone belly up after losing the competition to us. So he came into the job with a grudge against us and made our lives just as miserable as he possibly could. Almost overnight it went from being a wonderful experience filled with trust and mutual admiration to one of gut-wrenching stress.
One day this vile man asked us to make a presentation to a group of about twenty people — we had never met half the people in the room and didn’t have a clue who they were nor what their roles were — and it was in that meeting that the stress finally boiled over and I erupted.
After I finished my presentation, I opened up the meeting to questions and a young woman I had never before seen asked, “Why do you always do such tacky work for us?” Remember, this came after several years of remarkably good work that had won every damn advertising award and readership study in the world.
I lost it. Just plain lost it. I erupted into a tirade filled with the worst language you can imagine. And it wasn’t a short eruption. I went on and on and on and eventually my vocabulary distilled itself down to about four choice words repeated in a variety of combinations. Everyone in the room fell into a stunned silence. Except me. I just kept ranting and raving.
At one point the evil client attempted to calm me down by saying, “Please, Jim, there are ladies in the room.”
“Where?” I snarled. “I don’t see any (expletive deleted) ladies in this room.”
Men’s mouths dropped open in shock.
I continued in this “colorful” vein until I just plain ran out of steam. I was bright red, drenched in sweat, exhausted. At that point, I realized the meeting could not possibly continue after my outburst, so I walked out of the conference room and slammed the door behind me.
When I got outside, however, I realized that my partner was still inside the room. I also realized that I had just insulted and demeaned our largest client and that my business partner was probably sitting on the other side of the door figuring out which method he was going to use to kill me. And finally, I realized that I couldn’t go anywhere because he had the keys to our rental car. So I did the only thing I could do — I threw open the door to the conference room, stormed back inside, and sat down.
The client attempted to regain control of the meeting by looking at my partner and saying, “Do you have anything to say?”
It was a great moment. For all his flaws, I must admit that this partner had an incredible flair for the dramatic. With all eyes on him, he slowly picked up all the papers scattered before him and began tapping them on the table — first horizontally and then vertically — in order to get them all squared off. The room was absolutely silent. Then he stood up and took a step toward the door.
“Where are you going?” the shellshocked client asked.
“I’ve known Jim for ten years,” he said. “In all that time, I’ve never seen him get mad, much less lose control like he did today. If this is what you’ve done to him, I cannot imagine what you’ve done to the rest of our people who work on your account.”
“The money you pay us isn’t worth it,” he concluded. “We quit.”
I could have kissed him.
The day the client uttered the most obscenity-laced sentence in the history of the English language. Joe Van Poppelin, may he rest in peace, was a tall, disheveled, profane man who served as marketing director for National Semiconductor. Most people lived in fear of him, but for reasons I can neither explain nor comprehend, he took a liking to me.
Joe asked us to create a corporate ad campaign, but didn’t really know what he wanted and couldn’t give us any direction. We created and presented campaign after campaign over a period of months and he rejected each and every one of them. He took the blame and admitted that it was one of those unfortunate situations in which he wouldn’t know what he wanted until he saw it. So I flew up to Silicon Valley one day to present him with Campaign #10. He hated it and erupted with what may be the most profanity-laced sentence in the history of the English language.
“Fuck! You fuckin’ fuckers are tryin’ to fuckin’ fuck me.”
I started laughing at his limited vocabulary. Then Joe started laughing. Before long we were both laughing so hard we couldn’t catch our breath.
When he could finally speak again he said, “Let’s just forget the fuckin’ corporate campaign. I don’t know what I fuckin’ wanted anyway.
The day I learned that public speaking is fun. During my first eight or nine years in the advertising businesss, I didn’t speak. I was advertising’s answer to Harpo Marx. Yet I had somehow become a partner is a very good little ad agency while remaining completely mute in front of clients. (I was also insecure enough to think that my opinion was probably wrong, so I followed the advice of Mark Twain, who said, “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”)
I was happy to let my business partner do all the speaking and he was equally happy to do it. As a result, he was invited to be one of the keynote speakers at our largest client’s important international sales meeting. Hundreds of this client’s dealers from around the world traveled to Calabasas, California to attend this confab.
The morning of his speech, my business partner called me, sounding as if he were on his death bed. “I’m supposed to speak at Vector Graphics’ big sales meeting today,” he wheezed, “but I’m so sick I can’t even get out of bed. You have to give the speech.”
So this is what it feels like to see your own death, I thought. I was unable to speak in front of three people, so I was absolutely terrified at the prospect of getting up on stage in front of hundreds of them. And what the hell would I say to fill my 30 minute time slot?
“No problem,” my partner coughed. “I made complete notes for my speech and you can find them on a yellow pad on my desk.”
I went to his desk. I found the yellow pad. But his “complete” notes consisted of about ten words. Not enough to fill 30 minutes, but few enough to fill me with terror.
But I had no choice.
I supplemented his sparse words as much as I could in the few minutes remainiing before I had to leave for the meeting. Then I got in my car feeling as if I were driving to my own execution.
A couple hours later, I got on stage shaking like Michael J Fox in a snow storm. I began speaking. Much to my surprise, my opening line drew a huge laugh. So did my second line. In fact, everything I said got loud laughs and even louder applause.
I stretched the speech out as long as I could, then looked down at my wristwatch and realized I had only filled about ten of my thirty allotted minutes. After another brief moment of panic, I said, “I’m sure you have lots of questions about your ad campaign, so let’s open this up to questions.”
Hands flew up into the air. I called on one dealer, who stood up and asked his question in heavily-accented English. In a desperate attempt to fill a few more seconds, I said, “Where are you from?”
“Italy,” he responded. “Can’t you tell?”
“Sorry,” I said, “but I couldn’t see your shoes.”
Maybe not the funniest ad lib ever, but the room erupted in laughter. It was an incredible, almost orgasmic experience. Every time a dealer asked a question, I gave an answer that elicited laughter and applause.
When it was over I got an extended standing ovation. The next speaker reluctantly took his spot behind the podium, looked over at the client, and opened his presentation by saying, “Do me a favor. Don’t ever make me follow this guy again.”
Hey, I thought, this public speaking isn’t so bad after all. And I’ve never again been afraid of speaking in public. In fact, I now look forward to getting up and adlibbing in front of an audience.
The fart that lost us an account. We were invited to pitch a one-time big name company whose reputation had grown a little tarnished over the years. The agency went all out — we did research, crafted a strategy, created potential ad campaigns.
The presentation was a tour de force. We blew them away. The clients were high fiving us and each other and they did everything except say, “You win.” We were sky high when the meeting wrapped up and the marketing director escorted us out to the lobby.
We’d been in the presentation for hours, so before we went outside to climb into our car, my partner asked where the restroom was. The marketing director said, “I need to use it, too, so follow me.”
A few minutes later we all got into the car, still high fiving each other. Until, that is, my somber partner announced, “Stop celebrating. We’re not getting this account.”
Of course, staccato protests erupted immediately.
“What are you talking about? Best presentation ever. They loved us. They love everything. It’s a done deal. We got it. Why would you say we’re not getting it.”
“The client led me to the men’s room,” he said glumly. “I was standing at one urinal. He was standing at the next one. And then he farted. He’s not going to give the account to an agency he farted in front of.”
Sure enough. Someone else got the account. Someone the client didn’t fart in front of.
The case of the purloined presentation. This story is so bizarre that you may not believe it, but I swear it’s absolutely true.
We were doing another new business presentation for a huge account located in Silicon Valley. The entire agency worked day and night for weeks to put together the kind of great presentation expected by such a prestigious client.
One of our top employees was a very smart, very dedicated woman who was married to a lunatic. Let’s call her Mildred and let’s call him the Lunatic. He was demented. Seriously demented. I could tell you unbelievable stories about him ad nauseum (with the emphasis on nauseum), but the story about this new business pitch will suffice.
Back in those days I had a girlfriend in San Francisco. After weeks of hard work our new business presentation was complete, so I flew up to see her the night before the presentation. All the agency’s other key personnel were going to fly up the next morning and I was to meet them at the client’s office.
My cell phone rang at about eight o’clock that night. When I answered, my business partner said, “You won’t believe this, but Mildred took our presentation home tonight and the Lunatic stole it when she wasn’t looking. He’s angry because she’s been working too many hours and ignoring him. He left home and won’t bring the presentation back.”
Much to my partner’s consternation, I started laughing.
“What are you laughing at?” he asked.
“We all knew he was crazy,” I said. “but I’m 400 miles from home and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Luckily, the Lunatic returned to his limited senses late that night and returned home with the presentation. His horribly chagrined wife brought it to our meeting the next morning. But he continued to make her life miserable as long as she worked for us.
This is just one of the many reasons I thank god for a sweet, rational wife like Jamie.
Watch out for pedestrians. Our agency lived and died on doing great, memorable creative work. We landed Times Mirror VideoText, one of the very first “internet” companies. It was a small account, but Times Mirror was a big name in Southern California and we had high hopes that we could land a bigger piece of the Times Mirror empire if we did a good job on this small start-up division.
My business partner and I went in to present the ad campaign we had developed. What you want during a creative presentation is a client who’s laughing and smiling and interacting and validating your work as you present it. In this case, however, the client remained absolutely silent during our presentation. It’s never a good sign.
So when we were done presenting, my partner looked questioningly at him and said, “Well? What do you think?”
“I don’t like it,” he said.
My persistent partner said, “Why? What don’t you like? Let’s talk about it.”
“I want advertising that’s more pedestrian.”
We were both a bit stunned. We’d never heard a client say anything like that. In fact, it was a bit inconceivable to us. My partner assumed, rather reasonably I must say, that the client didn’t know the meaning of the word he had just used and tried to give him a graceful way to back away from his criticism.
“Let’s just make sure that we agree on the definition of pedestrian,” he said. “I think pedestrian means dull, boring, ordinary.”
“That’s exactly what I meant,” the client replied.
“There are lots of ad agencies that can give you dull, boring advertising,” my partner said after a few moments of stunned silence, “but we’re not one of them.”
And with that, we walked out of Times Mirror without an account.
The Thing. We were invited to pitch Sea World, a major Southern California advertiser. We were still a relatively small local ad agency and clearly the dark horse because all the other finalists were huge national agencies.
The client wanted to celebrate Shamu’s birthday. Maybe his tenth. Maybe his twentieth. Could have been this twenty-fifth. I really don’t remember.
Once again, we worked day and night to come up with a presentation. We put together great creative work and a brilliant strategy. Three of us drove down to San Diego to do the presentation — me, my partner, and our smartest, most senior account executive.
My partner did all the introductions and then lead off the presentation. He killed. He was charming and persuasive and the kind of guy clients just want to hang out with. I got up and presented all the creative. It killed. It was the kind of smart, clever work that clients love to be associated with. Then our senior account guy got up to present our Shamu birthday promotions. He was also in the middle of killing it when he suffered a horrible brain freeze and did the unthinkable — he just plain blanked out on Shamu’s name.
It was absolutely painful. This really smart guy stood there stuttering and stammering and sweating, but just could not remember Shamu’s name.
So out of desperation he finally blurted out, “Here’s how we’re going to celebrate the birthday of…of…of…The Thing.”
Yes, he called Shamu, Sea World’s most famous resident, for many years the face of the amusement park, “The Thing.”
I looked in horror across the table at my business partner. His face was buried in his hands as our senior account executive plowed onward, repeatedly referring to Shamu as “The Thing.” When he finally looked back across the conference room table in my direction, he surreptitiously lifted one finger and drew it across his throat, because he knew that we had just committed marketing suicide.
Needless to say, we did not land the Sea World account.
My last campaign. Six months ago, a client from about twenty years ago tracked me down and asked me to create an ad campaign for a large regional bank. About ten days ago, she asked me to create six more ads to extend that campaign. It is the final creative assignment I will ever accept.
And with that, I would like to offer thanks to the great bosses who taught me and inspired me, the terrific clients who took giant leaps of faith when they approved the creative ideas I came up with, the talented employees who always made me look a lot better than I really was, and all the good friends I’ve made along the way.
But I’m not done yet. I need to thank three people by name.
I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Richard Witt, my high school buddy who correctly observed that my brain isn’t wired like most people’s and urged me to go into advertising. If it weren’t for his voice echoing in my head, I never would have taken that “Introduction to Advertising” class.
I also want to thank “Huckleberry” Chuck Clemans, the remarkably clever, creative disc jockey who showed a geeky teenage farm boy that it was possible to make a living being creative.
But most of all, thanks to Dan, my brother and longtime business partner, who has put up with my outbursts and my quirks for all these years, who always kept me calm in times of stress, who never failed to amuse me, who I trust with my life and my wife, who reminded me that hard work is its own reward, and who made me a far better person just by being my friend.
I couldn’t have survived and thrived for 46 years without every one of you.
Postscript: Jamie just read my rough draft of this story and said, “Does this mean you’re going to be home all the time?”
Nice. Real nice.