Come Sunday, Richard Kirshenbaum will be watching the Super Bowl closely, not only for the game, but because the commercials are his livelihood. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One On 1 profile.
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It's not unusual to love a television show. But advertising executive Richard Kirshenbaum picked a career, based in large part on the character Darren from the old 1960s TV show "Bewitched."
"I saw Darren, who worked at McMann and Tate, this agency, with all these, you know, flip the boards for clients. Got married to that cute little blond wife and had a great suburban life, and to me that was very appealing," says Kirshenbaum.
The co-founder of the ad agency Kirshenbaum Bond and Partners, Kirshenbaum also has a smaller boutique firm that affords him the opportunity to get involved in other projects, like the downtown restaurant Kutsher's Tribeca and Blackwell Fine Jamaican Rum.
He is best known for highly successful advertising campaigns like Wendy the Snapple Lady.
"When I first discovered Wendy the Snapple lady in the mail room, she was a character, and I just fell in love with her because she was larger than life," says Kirshenbaum.
A 1987 ad for Kenneth Cole put Kirshenbaum on the map.
"We had seen an article in the paper about [former First Lady of the Philippines] Imelda Marcos buying all those shoes and we came up with this ad that said: 'Imelda Marcos bought 2,700 pairs of shoes, she could have at least have the courtesy to buy a pair of ours,'" says Kirshenbaum. "At the time I was working for another agency and before we really started our agency, I remember I was sitting in my office and my creative director came in and gave me that original ad down on the table and said: 'Why can't we do ads like this?' I said, 'I did that ad,' and quit and we started the agency the next day."
Kirshenbaum's youthful look belies the fact that he has been in the business for more than 25 years.
When he and his business partner Jonathan Bond started out, they got a lot of press and were labeled "ad brats" in a New York magazine article, a moniker they had to overcome.
"I think people assumed because we were called the 'ad brats' that we weren’t gracious and that maybe we were brats, so I think it took a lot of time and effort to actually overcome that feeling," says Kirshenbaum.
It's ironic, because Kirshenbaum prides himself on a "honey, not vinegar" approach. So don't go looking for any behind the scenes dirt in his latest book, "Mad Boy: My Journey From Adboy To Adman."
"I wanted the book to be a really positive book. I'm not a mean-spirited person, and so therefore there were certain stories that I decided not to include in the book," says Kirshenbaum. "I don't say negative things about people, it's just, you know, it's not who I am as a person anyway, so it wasn't untrue to who I was."
Things were a little more dramatic in the 2007 Hollywood thriller "Perfect Stranger." Bruce Willis played an advertising executive and shadowed Kirshenbaum to prepare for the role.
Willis repaid the favor in the film and said, "You're a spy for Kirshenbaum, right? You."
But Kirshenbaum says one TV show is primarily responsible for heightening the profile of the advertising business, "Mad Men."
"Not 'til 'Mad Men' really came out did people really get what we do," says Kirshenbaum. "Seriously, I knew a lot of friends who were somewhat envious of glamorous shoots and the creative parts of the business. But I think that the mainstreaming of the advertising business has really brought the advertising benefits, I say, to the popular culture. And it's not just skinny ties and great suits."
Kirshenbaum grew up on Long Island. He remembers his parents lovingly, but it was a grandfather, a 6-feet-4-inches tall NYPD officer known as "Brandpa" who affected Kirshenbaum's career choice.
"He was the kind of guy that was out of 'Guys And Dolls.' He spoke, women were 'dames,' and he always had a cigarette hanging from his lip and he was a total character," says Kirshenbaum. "If you had to have a beer, it was Anheuser-Busch, and if you wore a shirt it was Van Heusen and just, everything in his life was very black-and-white and very defined when it came to his brands. So I think that got me interested in the advertising business."
After graduating from Syracuse University, Kirshenbaum read about a woman in advertising, Lois Korey, who had previously had been a comedy writer. Rather than send her an ordinary resume, he wrote up a comedy monologue about being unemployed, with two endings.
"One was a little risque and the other one was that I would work for her and be very successful. And I remember showing it to my mother at the time, my late mother, and she said, 'You can’t send a woman like that something like this.' Which of course made me do it even more," says Kirshenbaum. "So I promptly went to the mailbox and mailed it and literally the next day I got a call from her."
The good news was the next day he got the job, but there was some bad news.
"Then I found out that the salary was for free," says Kirshenbaum. "And I remember calling my parents on the phone, 'I have this amazing job, it's great.' And they of course were, 'What are they paying?' and I said 'Well, that's just it.'"
Kirshenbaum's days of working for free didn't last long and he quickly made a name for himself in the business.
The journey has introduced him to a wide array of places and people.
"We out of the blue received a call from Andy Warhol from the studio at the time, saying he wanted to be in the campaign, he loved the campaign idea," says Kirshenbaum. "Honestly, whether it's Andy Warhol or a manufacturer from Cleveland, if you're not equally excited about both those people, again, it may not be a business for you."
Kirshenbaum's work still has a hip reputation.
He is married with three children and has a house in the Hamptons but mostly lives in the Upper East Side building he actually dreamed of living in while working nearby at his first job out of college.
His real life has echoes of the one he saw on "Bewitched" so many years ago.
"Being a creative person in a more suburban environment in those days wasn't as accepted in those days," says Kirshenbaum. "Having the ability to dream is also having the permission. And permission, sometimes you need to have someone guide the way for you. So it was nice for me in those days, sitting in front of the black-and-white television in those days, and dream about something that I guess I'm doing now, which I love."