Keith Reinhard on Creativity, Agency-Client Bonds and the Hamburglar
Keith Reinhard serves as chairman emeritus of DDB Worldwide. In a career spanning more than half a century, he has worked as a writer, art director and creative group head, and held key roles in agency management.
Transcending the Mad Men paradigm, Reinhard has shaped consumer tastes and stoked the engines of media and commerce on a global scale.
He's father to the Hamburglar, and along with his creative team birthed McDonald's brand-defining "You Deserve a Break Today" campaigns in the 1970s, plus the unforgettable "Two-all-beef-patties-special-sauce-lettuce-cheese-pickles-onions, on a sesame seed bun" mantra woven into copy and jingles. "Just Like a Good Neighbor, State Farm Is There'" was his idea, too. Keith also worked on Volkswagen, Polaroid, Amtrak, Xerox, Mars and General Mills, to name just a few. On the business side, Reinhard helped merge Doyle Dane Bernbach and Needham Harper Worldwide into the DDB network, which he led as chairman and CEO for 16 years.
We spoke with Reinhard about the challenges plaguing the industry today, the importance of agency-client trust, his favorite campaigns and the return of his beloved Hamburglar.
Muse: What's your take on the state of creativity today and the trust between an agency and client?
Keith Reinhard: I'm sure it varies from those clients who see their agencies only as interchangeable suppliers chosen for the lowest price, to clients who value their agencies as trusted partners. It was encouraging to see some examples of the latter on stage at the Clios this year. In the long term, the only clients that will value their agencies as long-term partners are clients who understand the value of long-term brand building. I doubt that such clients represent the majority of advertisers today. In part, that's because we have failed to make a convincing case for the value of building brand loyalty over time, which has always been a brand's best defense against price competition.
As for the state of creativity in general, the fragmentation of media channels makes it difficult to establish and maintain brand integrity and instead, encourages one-off messages hastily prepared on a low budget, subjected to instant A/B testing, and placed by algorithms as interrupters on every available social media channel. While that seems like a condition more conducive to mindless repetition of breathless product claims than to brand building, there are notable exceptions. One of my favorites is DDB's award winning apology campaign for Skittles—a prime example of contemporary creativity at its best. The brilliant multi-channel idea is absolutely on-brand and true to Skittles idiosyncratic personality. During a "press conference" on Twitch and TikTok, a Skittles "communications director" apologizes individually to thousands of protesters for replacing the lime-flavored green Skittles with a green apple flavor thirteen years ago. He promises to restore the lime flavor, at least for a while. The social media campaign was augmented by other media including a huge sign in Times Square where Skittles apologized to individual tweets.
I've also been impressed by Sakara Life, the plant-based food delivery service founded by two young women in 2011 that is now a $150 million powerhouse. They've given their brand a clear purpose with a distinctive brand personality that connects with viewers with advice like "make love, not dinner."
I believe the level of creativity will rise in the future as young creators and their clients begin to realize the difference between a click and an emotional connection, the difference between creating a buzz and creating a brand, the difference between a one-off stunt and an enduring brand story and the big difference between big data and a big idea.
As for the state of creativity in television, I didn't see any Super Bowl commercials I wished I had done. But then again, I’m not the target audience. At least the Rabbit Hole commercial for Tubi used storytelling to get my attention, built suspense and then paid off with a promise of free movies. All without borrowing interest from a celebrity. That in itself was refreshing.
What were some agency/client trust/bonds you experienced in your career?
When Tom Morrill, State Farm's chief marketing officer in the '60s and '70s, was asked if he'd ever consider a new agency, he said he would not. Instead, he said if he needed fresh thinking, he would ask us for new ideas or even new people. But he had no interest in going through a search process or acclimating a new agency to the insurance business that we, his trusted longtime agency partner, knew so well. Tom's confidence in us laid the groundwork for a relationship that lasted for more than 60 years.
To shake things up in the Washington-Baltimore market, Fred Turner, CEO of McDonald's, once granted us the freedom to try any new idea we wanted if we stayed within the budget and didn't do anything illegal. Turner startled us by saying, "Don't bother to show me storyboards. I trust you. Just show me the finished work." This level of trust motivated us to work even harder to deliver a remarkable product, which we did. Fred liked it and ran it with success.
A strong bond of trust with Anheuser-Busch figured importantly in that great client supporting the offbeat, off brand "Wassup" campaign for Budweiser, which August Busch IV said brought more value to the brand than any other single idea in the brewery's history. It won the Grand Prix in Cannes in 2000.
What's the biggest challenge facing the industry today and how can it be overcome?
It might be the lack of time. The time to think, time to shape an idea and let it grow, time to let it work in the marketplace, time to work together, time to care, time to rest and reflect. I have no idea how to overcome our obsession with speed.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your career?
By far the biggest challenge I faced was merging two creative agency networks into one in the mid-eighties. I was CEO of Needham Harper Worldwide but my idol was Bill Bernbach, who had revolutionized the industry when he founded Doyle Dane Bernbach in 1949. After Bill died in 1982, my dream was to combine his agency with Needham to establish a new global creative force built on Bill's legacy. As part of the creation of Omnicom, we found a way to do this but as an observer wrote in the New York Times after our announcement, "Mergers are hell!" I understood what he meant as we started to put the agencies together. Turf battles had to be resolved in major markets, client conflicts had to be dealt with and differing systems had to be integrated. But thanks to the resolve of a top management team that shared a vision, we were able to create a common culture grounded in a shared belief that creativity is the most powerful force in business.
What's something that exists now that you wish existed earlier in your career or you're happy it didn't exist earlier on?
Google could have helped us earlier. Back then, finding answers to questions took a lot more time.
On the other hand, I'm glad we didn't have the science and technology that today claims to instantly determine an ad's effectiveness. As Bill Bernbach said: "However much we would like advertising to be a science, the fact is that it is not. It is a subtle, ever-changing art, defying formularization, flowering on freshness and withering on imitation." Today's instant A/B testing makes it impossible for a good campaign to "wear in" and would almost certainly have killed Volkswagen's game changing "Think Small" campaign which, when launched, was met by skepticism from both consumers and dealers.
What were some of your favorite campaigns to work on?
There are so many—Volkswagen, Polaroid, Amtrak, Xerox, Mars, General Mills. But I'll highlight three.
McDonald's was a great client. They understood the value of making emotional connections with their customers. In 1971, we created their first national advertising campaign by focusing on the McDonald's experience instead of just their hamburgers. Our kick-off campaign, "You Deserve a Break Today," encouraged people to take a little respite from their daily routines and enjoy the food, folks, and fun at McDonald’s. We followed the initial campaign with another customer focused effort, "You, you’re the one," which also made it into the Madison Avenue Songbook. The Big Mac jingle, "Two all-beef-patties-special-sauce-lettuce- cheese-pickles-onions-on-a-sesame-seed bun," created by my team in the '70s, is still remembered today. While I personally gave birth to the Hamburglar, working with the team to create McDonaldland, home of the Grimace and all the other characters, was truly a blast.
I also loved working on all the Anheuser-Busch brands starting with "Head for the Mountains" for Busch Beer and then all the work we did for Bud Light and Budweiser. As with McDonald's, great advertising is only possible when you have great clients. Anheuser-Busch was one of the best. They proved that big time when they bought and supported the aforementioned "Wassup" campaign for Budweiser, a campaign that went viral before we knew what viral even meant and won the Gran Prix at Cannes in 2000.
State Farm was one of my favorites. In the '70s, new research pointed out that State Farm's most important competitive advantage was the fact that their agents had their offices in neighborhoods where people lived, in contrast to competitor companies who often housed their agents in big buildings in a business district. This insight led to our creating a long running campaign, "Just Like a Good Neighbor, State Farm is There." We contracted Barry Manilow to write the tune to which we wrote three verses—one for car insurance, one for home insurance and another for life insurance. The jingle is no longer used but I'm pleased that "Jake from State Farm" is still using our tag line.
As the person behind the Hamburglar, are you excited to see his resurrection in ad campaigns?
As the father of the little burger bandit, I'm pleased to see he's up to his old tricks and still getting by with a limited vocabulary. Robble.
What "Mad Men" experience can you share with us?
Things were different back then. In the early '70s, I was head of the creative department at the Needham agency in Chicago, and I noticed that a young woman had joined us as a trainee in the account executive department. I wasn't directly involved in her accounts, so I had never met her. But I remember thinking it was good that we were finally going to see at least one woman become an account executive. Then one night when I was working late, this young woman burst into my office and breathlessly asked if she could hide under my desk! I said "Uh, yeah, I guess so, but why are you hiding?" She named a figure in agency management and said, "I think he's been drinking, and he's chasing me down the halls!" This promising young trainee hung out in my office until we could assure her that the halls were clear. She then went on to become the agency's youngest senior vice president, heading up accounts like General Mills and McDonald’s. A few years later, the amazing Rose-Lee Simons, became my amazing wife.
Anything else you'd like to discuss?
In a recent meeting, Vincent Gardner, composer and lead trombonist for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, was asked by a young musician how to become great. Gardner advised the young man to "seek out the oldest person you can find who's doing what you want to do. Tapping into that person's experience will be the very best way you can become great."
Gardner's counsel made me wonder if today's advertising industry might be well advised to embrace or re-embrace generational inclusion along with the commitment to gender and racial diversity. As a young copywriter, I learned a lot from mentors who were in their forties and fifties. Yet, as of a few years ago, an IPA Excellence paper stated that staffers over the age of 50 represent only 6 percent of ad land's workforce. By comparison, 22 percent of professionals in finance were over 50 and a Writer's Guild survey showed 50 to be the median age of Hollywood screenwriters. When last I checked, consultants range in age from 40 to 60 which may be why they have the kind of access to clients' C-suites that is often denied to ad agencies. Does it matter that today's advertising industry, unlike other professions, undervalues experience? I think it might.