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HOW I DID IT

How I Did It: Donny Deutsch

As another very confident man said, It ain't bragging if you can do it.
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As told to Sasha Issenberg

Donny Deutsch joined his father's small ad agency in 1983, around the time the elder Deutsch was starting to think about selling. Donny talked him out of that, then went about remaking the company in his own rebellious and energetic image. Deutsch Inc. has counted as clients Tanqueray, Pfizer, Ikea (for whom Donny designed a controversial campaign featuring a gay couple), and, during the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton. In 2000 Deutsch sold the company to the Interpublic Group (he remains chairman and CEO; Deutsch Inc. had $3.16 billion in billings last year) and turned a portion of his restless ambition toward media. Last year, he launched a CNBC talk show, The Big Idea With Donny Deutsch, about which he says, contentedly, "some people like it and some don't." He has floated the idea of running for mayor of New York City. Here Deutsch, who is 47, shares some of what he's learned over two decades in the business world -- including some of the insights he is gathering for a book of advice to be published next fall: Often Wrong, Never in Doubt.

I went to Wharton as an undergrad. When I was there, I knew I wasn't into finance. I knew I wanted to do something in the creative world. I went to work for Ogilvy. I was an account executive. I wasn't into it. I was still a kid, not taking it seriously -- and partying at night. They should have fired me.

I was born into the lucky sperm club: My father had an ad agency. My father wanted to sell the company, and I told him not to. I'm still not sure why; I just knew. Instead of being an account guy, I wanted to work on new business. I said, "Put me in a corner," and started off getting accounts for myself. Instead of trying to take over a business, I was building an agency within an agency.

My philosophy is to always find the smartest people you can. Hire people smarter than you. From the beginning, I was able to attract bright young people. I always looked for a fire in somebody's eyes. I was always looking for the arc in somebody's career. I want them to do their greatest hits here. When I see talented people, I always look for potential greatness. If I have to hire a CEO of Deutsch, I don't want someone who's already been a great CEO someplace else. I want someone who wants to be a great CEO here. That's why we've always gone from within.

I have yet to meet a genius in my business. Actually, I've yet to meet a genius in anything. Once you realize there are no geniuses out there, you can think, "I can do that." One reason I've succeeded is I have that naive sense of entitlement.

When I sold the company a few years ago, I couldn't figure out why I was doing it. The reason is that I wanted to create a new mountain for myself. I thought I had won the ad game. Opening more offices, growing 20% a year, didn't turn me on.

I had done TV -- whenever they wanted "the ad guy" they came to me -- and I always felt I was really good at it. I had co-hosted Kudlow & Cramer, and I thought, "Why not me?" When I have met the most supersuccessful people, almost without exception they have that "Why not me?" sense of entitlement. You could line up thousands of other people with the same skills, but it's that extra bit of "Screw it, I should be doing that." Of course, just saying you think that doesn't mean it will happen. But without saying it, almost axiomatically it can't happen.

The show? It's what people talk about: You're talking about politics, and then you're talking about pop culture. The ultimate compliment I've received is people who know me say, "You're being yourself."

If you lined up my skills -- my drive and taste level -- they're perfect for advertising. More than anything, I have both a business and a creative head. I don't think you can be a brilliant CEO without that balance of business and creativity.

When you work on a political campaign, you don't set the strategy. That's done by the consultants. For Clinton, we executed production. Mandy Grunwald and George Stephanopoulos saw our Ikea work in Washington and asked, "Who did the Ikea ad?"

There's an old idea that certain accounts pay the rent and others are a creative showcase. Four or five years ago, at the bottom of the food chain were pharmaceutical accounts. We had Pfizer, Novartis -- those are huge pieces of business. I thought, This is the next thing: You're helping people to be healthy, saving lives. Shouldn't that be a source of the best creative?

There are all these stories about "the pitch." I've never sold something to a client. If you show clients good business solutions, they will sell themselves. I've never pushed something down a client's throat.

A lot of agencies are constructed as different profit centers -- sales promotion, PR, database management -- that work as standalone units. Ours are all under one roof, not siloed; we were one of the first to do it this way. We have always been one profit center, so you don't have the different profit centers competing.

As you get larger, it's easier to maintain your culture. You have a bigger toolbox. Walk through this space -- I think it's the most interesting workspace in Manhattan. I couldn't afford to put people in here 20 years ago. I think the larger you get, the more ability you have to hold that culture -- as long as you have the same set of values.

We've always had this rebel spirit. Nike is the dominant sneaker brand -- almost a monopoly -- but you still think of it as a rebel upstart. Now we're the eighth or ninth agency in the country, but people see us as outsiders. We're always pissed off. It's in our brand culture.
Last updated: Jun 1, 2005




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