Chances

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This is a remembered summary ( I spoke without a script) of my remarks on Feb 6 2014 when accepting the Chicago Advertising Federation’s Silver Medal Award.

Thank you to the Chicago Advertising Federation for this honor. I am humbled to be part of a group of people who have received the CAF Silver Medal, many of whom are in this room and many of whom I have worked and learned from. Thank you to Rocco and Jill for their words and emceeing the proceedings and to Cheri Carpenter, Mary Markou and Tanya Graham for organizing today, to Ria, Andrew and Jack for their tributes, and to all of you who braved the Chicago weather and cold to make this occasion special.

In every life, and a career is just a part of life, chance plays a very big role. Luck matters. Some believe things are destined and “it is written” while others like TE Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia believes “nothing is written.”  But regardless luck and chance play a big role in life.

It is not this chance that I would like to speak about but rather about the chances that people took and the chances people have given me over the years without which I would not be here.

Let me start in the middle or at the beginning of my US life where the Graduate School of Business at The University of Chicago (now the Booth School)  gave me a chance to be part of a world class university by admitting me with no work experience and an okay GMAT score. I was only one of two people from India admitted that year, 1980, and one of a handful from outside the United States.

When I graduated with great grades only one of 35 companies I interviewed with called me back for another round. I did not have a work visa. I was from India. I looked and spoke like an Indian. A gentleman called Mike Kearns was interviewing for a company called Leo Burnett and because one of his friends in the agency, Sadru Patel, was an Indian he decided to overlook the lack of a work visa and call me back for a second round. But before the round Sadru and him prepared me to ensure that I had the best chance to get in. I interviewed with legends like Dick Hobbs (who was one of the driving forces behind the Leo Burnett Media department and who would help birth Starcom) and many others, all of whom voted to give me the chance to get a job. Without the chance that Leo Burnett and all those folks gave me, I would have graduated jobless and possibly returned to India.

In those days even if you were going to join the Client Services Department you would start in media and before you were “placed” on an account you sat in a large room called “The Pit.”  It was a big conference room which had a series of desks and one phone which Tony Weisman who had joined the same day and is now the CEO of Digitas in North America sat next to and barked out the names when the phone rang for one of us in “The Pit” to go do some thankless adding of numbers or spreadsheets (this being real spreadsheets since there were no computers).  My main job in “The Pit” was to work with the head of media research called Jayne Zenaty who showed me how to build the case for an emerging new technology called “cable television.”  That chance to see how you built a case for something that still was in its infancy turned out to be very helpful some decades later.

When I was finally placed on an account (Maytag and Allstate) I was fortunate to work with Don Amos who took a chance by taking me into his office and letting me know that I “did not fit”. What he meant was that while I was good at running the numbers and doing the buys, I could not speak about sports or culture or make others feel that “I fit.”  Today this advice would be considered “illegal” but Don did not just provide advice but took it upon himself to send me to college football games with his children, get me into the University Club and pick up all the social graces, cultural cues and nuances that mattered (and still matter) in corporate America. Don Amos took and gave me chances.

When I moved into Client Service on Procter and Gamble, my first boss Patricia Swindle who is here decided I had no writing skills and as far as I was concerned she became the Devil incarnate in that she would make me re-do memos at least 20 times (this was in the age of typewriters) until every word, every sentence and every selling point was as tight as possible. She gave me the chance to improve my writing skills. Others like Paula McLeod, Mary Bishop and Peter Husting threw me meaty and strange assignments that included observing and analyzing rat studies to build a case for an anti-plaque toothpaste. When going through these rat studies with corporate lawyers like Carla Michelotti who is also here, I wondered where I was and what I was doing. When would I work on a prestigious account and do glamorous things.

As luck would have it my next assignment involved trash bags. Glad trash bags. I moved onto this account owned by Union Carbide two days after the Bhopal Gas disaster to go work for a Client who was from the deep South and yelled at my account director with me in the room as to what he was thinking putting me on the account. Bill Haljun who was my director just said I needed to work under hostile conditions and hostile clients and here was my chance. He was a religious man and then said we should pray things would work out. His prayers worked and when I left the business two and half years later some long lasting achievements were (along with Warren Guthrie) renaming the company to First Brands, developing the first data driven way of allocating spot television spending to market results and learning how to make amazing ads with Kent Middleton who today is the longest serving creative still at Leo Burnett and who is also here in the room. I also was terrorized by an Account Supervisor named Mike Miller who was convinced that I was the worst presenter he had ever seen and so decided that I needed to rehearse and rehearse and present and present till I knew what I was doing. He did not say you will not present because you are no good but rather you will present till you become good. All these folks took and gave me chances.

I am not a fan of cats and dogs. So after rat studies and trash bags the Leo Burnett company decided I was to work on pet food and specifically on a brand , Amore, where the client did not believe in television advertising but wanted to explore this strange terrible second class thing called direct marketing. My bosses  Jeff Herscovitz and others insisted that I learn this direct marketing thing the Client was interested in. So mailing lists, de-duping, postage costs, databases were encountered rather than Hollywood TV shoots or working on McDonalds or United Airlines or Kellogg’s…But that would surely come when I became an account director….

It was time to be promoted but there were no positions since all the large accounts promoted from within. So Tom Collinger who ran the direct marketing department gave me the chance to be a director in his group though I really was not a direct expert. In some ways it was also seen by many as career suicide since the 34th floor was full of outsiders like Jerry Reitman and Tom Collinger spouting things about integrated marketing and data bases. I joined the “leper colony” and started to learn about these “dark second class” arts. Also got interested in a thing called Compuserve and Prodigy because the economics of direct marketing had a bunch of fixed costs like paper and postage which needed to be offset to make the economics work.

One day driving to a Client to present a direct marketing plan with Linda Wolf who would become the CEO of Leo Burnett but was then running the Fruit of the Loom account and was the head of new business I spoke about computers and technology. She asked me to go see Rick Fizdale then the Chief Creative Officer who was determining how to staff a new business pitch for IBM’s Personal Computer Business. The assignment was not a creative pitch but a 90 minute conversation about the future of computing and what we would recommend IBM market its PC. Rick gave me the chance to lead this pitch and I was armed with the first IBM Think Pad, went off to Forrester conferences and got to work with legends like Bud Watts ( creator among other things of the Rhapsody in Blue themed ads for United which we still hear today). We lost the pitch even though we had got the recommendation right (which was about empowerment and suggested that IBM stop thinking in silos and instead of giving us their PC business to put all their business together), they first hired an unknown agency for a few weeks and did just what we recommended with Ogilvy and Mather who had worked closely with IBM leadership at Amex where they all had come from.

In order to work on the IBM pitch I had left my direct marketing job and so I was now without an account and a new business loss. Bill Lynch and Rick Fizdale asked what I would like to do and I asked if I could start an Interactive Marketing Group. They were not sure what I was talking about but they said yes you can do so but you will have no staff. So I started the group with no staff, no account, no budget in a business where stature meant how many clients and budgets and people you controlled.

Jan Klug who was running a part of the McDonalds account called me and gave me the chance to pitch her Client about Leo Interactive to help them evaluate the Time Warner Full Service Test in Orlando in 1994. McDonalds hired us and we needed people to help us with content for this test and I was introduced to two young brothers, Adam and Eric Heneghan from Iowa who had moved to Chicago with a company called Giant Step Productions. We asked them to work from the Leo Burnett building. We then found ourselves recommending McDonalds to get out of the Time Warner test telling them that it was not going to work. The Client wondered if we were mad since we were asking our only Client not to do the only project that we were working on. We asked that they actually think about a company called America Online instead and a CD-Rom company called Broderbund to partner with.

In rapid order Carla Michelotti’s husband Bob Colvin then a senior agent at the talent agency ICM, introduced us to Broderbund and helped introduce us to folks that allowed us to create the first online live talk show called Oldsmobile Celebrity Circle on America Online. Bob and ICM took a chance on a crazy Indian guy spouting interactive marketing, a bearded savant called Tig Tillinghast and two strange looking Iowan folks which were the Leo Interactive Marketing Group.

Then came a flurry of gambles and chances that people took. Adam and Eric agreed to sell a majority of their company to Leo Burnett. Bill Lynch, Jim Jenness and Rick Fizdale allowed us to take Leo’s name off the door and make Giant Step the Leo Interactive Marketing Group and they let us leave the building into a loft in Greek town and fund things called a server room! And from this loft Clients like United let us launch them on the web and General Motors partnered with then sites like Hot Wired. And the person who helped us build the underpinnings financially was Frank Voris who later would be a driving force with Jack Klues behind another new entity called VivaKi…

3 years and 100 employees strong Adam and Eric taught me how to be an entrepreneur, how to make payroll and a lot of other things but we came to disagree with each other since I remained loyal to Leo Burnett (whose employee I was and which owned 75% of the company) while they cared about Giant Step and its future. I returned to Leo Burnett sitting in a fish stinking room above Catch 35 with nothing to do.

And then the phone rang and gentleman I know well said…”Hi this is Jack Klues. I am about to launch Starcom. Can I convince you to join me to help us on digital and the future?”. And thus was born Starcom IP. But I was not the first employee of Starcom IP. Rather an ex Starcom employee, Tim Harris, had been hired back from a company called Launch Media ( a CD-Rom music magazine run by David Goldberg now CEO of Survey Monkey and husband of Sheryl Sandberg) to help Starcom in digital. Tim Harris was pissed I was there but decided to give me a chance to be the President of Starcom IP (he was Vice President and the only other employee). And with completely made up credentials we got Miller Beer to take a chance on us. As we grew we hired folks in a most unusual way. The first hire was someone we thought was a online porn specialist called Steven Governale (he was not), the next was a pal of Tim called Jeff Marshall. Every one we hired had to be approved by everyone else and we took chances on the most unusual and most strange folks who left successful careers to take a chance on us. PJ Macgregor, Wendy Barsky, Sarah Cook, Andrew Swinand, Dan Buczaczer, Scott Witt, Chandra Panley, Christian Kugel, Courtney Acuff, Michael Zeman…..the list goes on and on. Today these folks are among the superstars of the Industry and they were great then too and took a chance with us.

And the chances and people taking chances grew as we become SMG and got people to give us chances to launch the first gaming agencies (Play), social expertise (Reverb), mobile expertise (Digits), futures think tank (SMG Next) and then came Publicis Groupe Media. And during a PGM board meeting we built a case for the future that the only way to win big in digital was to buy a company called Digitas or one called Aquantive which had a unit called Razorfish. While we went about doing that we were given the chance to launch a unit called Denuo which a gentleman called David Kenny (CEO of Digitas) called to understand better.

Soon Digitas came into the fold and we launched VivaKi which included Vivaki Nerve Center with Curt Hecht at the helm and in time included Performics and Razorfish and much more.

The chances continued when eight months ago I got a call from Maurice Levy when I was in China and was asked to Chair DigitasLbi and Razorfish. When I asked why he noted I was “acceptable” to the Pete Stein, Shannon Denton, Luke Taylor and Tony Weisman and the other CEO’s of the company. They gave me a chance to work with some of the smartest folks and best transformation marketing and technology agencies in the space.

But when it comes to chances that have been given to me the biggest chances were given to me by my parents who educated and grew my sister Moeena and I. Our parents were extra-ordinary people who grew up very poor and believed in education and made sure we had the best ones we could get. Jack and Frank had an opportunity to meet with them on a trip to India. Our parents always cared about doing the right thing and never forgetting where they came from and giving back. Our father would study under street lights, walk miles to school, could afford one meal and when he was successful always focused on the folks who studied today under lights and struggled to succeed.

My in-laws who I first met when I was twelve also took a chance by letting me marry their daughter but also were like another set of parents. Today my parents and my father in law all of whom got to live past 80 are no more but my mother in law is here to represent this era.

But when it comes to taking a chance not one has taken a bigger chance on me than my wife who probably decided to marry me when I was 12 or definitely before we were seventeen. She was the President of her school, one of the best students and the reigning beauty queen. Our daughters Ria and Rohini , when they looked at my picture from those days ( awkward) and not a very good student or a player of any sports still ask their mother…”what were you thinking mom…what did you see?”

Rekha typed my admissions form into Business School. Stood outside the station the first day I came home from work from Leo with my basket of apples. We had just enough money after paying the rent and grocery after my first check to buy a Mr Coffee machine which we kept for 25 years till it exploded. And a splurge was going to eat at the Burger King outside Esquire on Oak Street where we wondered how anyone could afford the stores. Today when Rekha occasionally goes there what we remember are the two of us eating our whopper and looking forward to a cut rate matinee movie. Rekha bet her life and future on me and she gave me the biggest chances and gifts including our daughters.

So here I am because of chances I have been given and people who have taken chances on me.

A  benefit of success  is the ability to give chances to people and taking chances on people.

Because the best thing you can do when given chances is to give other people chances…

5 responses to “Chances

  1. Absolutely amazing Rishad. Congratulations. You deserve all of this and more. Really an inspiration for our industry.

  2. Congrats Rishad. Thank you for sharing this great story and even stronger message. Best wishes for more incredible chances!

  3. Ritika Kharbanda

    Congratulations, Rishad! you may not remember me, but I came to meet you in 2003, when you used to be a part of Starcom IP and sat in the corner cube. Tom Deierlein, from NY gave me your name and asked me to contact you as I was looking for a job. At that point in my life, you gave me a chance (when I most needed it) by introducing me to the people at Starcom IP and ultimately hiring me. The rest as they say is history but to this day what I learnt at Starcom IP as helped me move up my career.
    You gave me a chance and took a chance on me…thank you!

  4. “Chance is perhaps the pseudonym of God when he does not wish to sign his work.” Anatole France

  5. Bravo sir! Admirable speech and career. Onward to other fortunate chances.

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