As told to Warren Berger

He's helped launch splashy start-ups such as E-Trade and injected momentum into established brands like Hewlett-Packard and Saturn. But Jeff Goodby, the 52-year-old co-founder of the San Francisco ad agency Goodby Silverstein & Partners, may be best known for two little words he penned for a local campaign promoting a generic product. Goodby's "Got milk?" line did what so much of his advertising has done for the past 20 years: Got attention, got people thinking, got sales rising. These days, GS&P produces $900 million worth of advertising annually as part of the Omnicom Group, a global holding company. But Goodby remains an independent thinker and an advertising maverick.

I got interested in advertising because I couldn't find a job on a newspaper. I decided to try advertising, and opened the Yellow Pages and started with A. I'd find myself visiting Al & Joe's Advertising one day and BBDO the next. Along the way someone advised me to create a resume of myself that would show a sense of humor. So I did a parody of an encyclopedia entry of myself, as if I were dead. And that got me a job at J. Walter Thompson.

The idea of starting an agency came up while I was working on a freelance project with my partner Rich Silverstein and another partner, Andy Berlin. Berlin had this primitive spreadsheet program and ran some numbers on it to figure out whether we could actually pay rent and the phone bill if we started a little company of our own. According to the spreadsheet, it seemed like we could. But I'm sure if we looked at that spreadsheet now we'd think it was really shaky ground to start a company on.

We were so worried about running out of money. We really lived frugally. For example, we pitched Honda scooters at the time, and we didn't win but ended up keeping a scooter. And we used the hell out of that thing to go all over town. It got really good gas mileage.

To try to get attention we started looking for things we could do that might be controversial. We took on the account of an obscure local football team with the old USFL. The guy who owned the team was an entrepreneur with a lot of chutzpah, so we had him go on the radio and challenge the San Francisco 49ers to a game. This got so widely ridiculed that it worked.

Then I was lucky enough to meet Will Hearst, the grandson of William Randolph Hearst, at a local business luncheon. He was publisher of the San Francisco Examiner at the time and invited us to compete for the account. The idea we presented was a parody of the film Citizen Kane, which was of course a damning indictment of Will's grandfather. Nevertheless, he liked it and even agreed to act in the commercials, playing the tortured figure who ran the newspaper. The campaign really got a lot of notoriety, and we were on our way.

We got a call one day from a company called Omnicom and their CEO at the time, Bruce Crawford, who wanted to discuss buying the agency. This happened when we were experiencing some friction in the partnership because of differing visions of where the agency should go. We felt there was a possibility we might soon split up, and then we'd end up in court trying to value the company. Or, we could sell to Omnicom -- making it easier to split things up.

Obviously, there were concerns that if we sold to a holding company, we would be coerced into doing things we might not want to do. But we looked at other agencies Omnicom had bought, and it didn't seem like it was trying to force those companies to change. Crawford was very pragmatic about what would be right for us and lent us a lot of good advice even before the deal. And we realized this guy could be a real asset to us, a mentor.

I went through long torturous episodes in trying to explain this sale to the staff. They were afraid everything would change. We made sure the company continued to have Rich's and my name on the door. [Berlin left the agency in 1991, after the sale.] And we tried to show everyone that we were still going to make business decisions on the basis of whether we were doing good work and having fun. We still pitched the accounts we wanted to pitch and resigned the ones we didn't want to work on. And Omnicom didn't interfere. When people saw this, gradually they were fine with it.

I should say this, however. When I look at the sale strictly from a financial standpoint, if I had to do it again I'm not sure I would. I think we could have made more money had we stayed an independent company. Then again, we might not exist now.

A couple of years later, we did the campaign for the California Milk Processors Board. We started looking at milk from a lot of different angles, but one day in a focus group a woman said, "The only time I notice milk is when I run out of it." So we decided to focus on making people paranoid about running out of milk. The idea was to tell stories in which milk was the missing element, and I thought the words "Got milk?" would be a good punch line at the end. I think the reason that line works is because it strips away everything extraneous. What also made it popular was that other people could rip off the phrase for their own purposes. I knew this campaign had gone mainstream when I was driving around and saw a video store sign that said, "Got porn?"

I have always taken kind of an environmentalist approach to advertising. I view it as being like architecture in that people have to walk by it every day, look at it, and live with it. And so when you're creating advertising I think you have a responsibility to those people. Advertising should assume a certain intelligence and sense of humor. And it should be something you wouldn't mind your kids seeing.

Warren Berger writes frequently about advertising and is the author of Advertising Today, a look at two decades of ad campaigns.

Published on: Jul 1, 2004