Deutsch North America’s CEO Mike Sheldon is hanging up his cleats. It’s not a retirement, per se, but a move away from Deutsch in Los Angeles after 22 years.
During his tenure, the Michigan native has presided over highs and lows. Most notably, Sheldon is credited with turning Deutch’s then-nascent L.A. operation into one of the staples of the market, taking it from a handful of people to, at its peak, a 600-plus juggernaut. The agency continues to create standout work for brands, including high profile campaigns for Taco Bell, Dr. Pepper and others.
On the downside, the agency split from Target, yet won the Reebok business shortly after that. Additionally, after nine years—and being credited with reviving Volkswagen’s fortunes with breakout work including the oft-referenced “The Force”—Deutsch and the carmaker ended their relationship.
Yet with all of the ups and downs (common in any agency), Sheldon, who spent six years at TBWA\Chiat\Day pre-Deutsch, remained upbeat and steadfast in his mission to build and retain a positive outlook and culture. Adweek caught up with Sheldon to find out a little more about his time at Deutsch and what’s next.
I’ll start with the predictable question. Why now?
Mike Sheldon: It’s a confluence of events. I’ve been doing this for 22 years, and I turned 60 a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been talking to [IPG CEO] Michael Roth about this for a while and want to see what else is out there. I’m not ready to go feed pigeons on a park bench. I want to see what the universe brings. I still have a lot of energy and interest in new and exciting ventures, and I figured after 22 years at Deutsch and 37 years in advertising, maybe there’s something else out there for me.
What would you say, outside of the obvious things like technology, are the most significant changes you’ve seen at Deutsch L.A.?
We’ve always been about investing ahead of revenue. In the future, it will be the same. You have to stay ahead of the business, or you’ll get run over. We got into digital production years ago, and started Steelhead [Deutch’s in-house production company] a few years ago. Experiential is now huge, analytics are as well. The future is going to be like the past: Unless you stay ahead, it will get the best of you.
How does an agency “stay ahead”?
For us, it’s having rock-solid clients like Taco Bell, Keurig Dr. Pepper and H&R block that appreciate the partnership and long-term commitment and depths of understanding that an agency can have into a client’s business and provide value way beyond any marketing communication. Then some clients want a TV spot or need to spend time looking at their consumer base. You have to go with the flow since there aren’t a ton of AOR relationships. I keep telling everybody to think of yourself as the ultimate Swiss army knife because that’s what we need to be a good, successful agency moving forward.
You’ve touched on a couple of successful points in your tenure. Aside from those, what would say is another significant accomplishment?
By far, the idea of kindness. There are a lot of really good people in this business—brilliant and creative people. But that has to be combined with being kind and putting your employees first and, unfortunately, making some of those difficult decisions like walking away from a prickly client. It doesn’t get talked about much in this business, but being good to other humans is a business asset.
Anything you would have done differently over the past two-plus decades?
I thought that I could have started an agency at one point, but it was never in the cards or the right things for me. I used to think that I should have done that, but looking back, I’ve realized how much I’ve enjoyed and valued my time here.
One of the tougher times for the agency was the end of the VW relationship. What did you learn from that?
I’d be less than truthful if I didn’t say it was a kick in the gut after nine years of really great results, fantastic work and a great brand point of difference. But that’s advertising. That’s what we signed up for. There are a lot of things that you can’t control, and the best advertising executives have a short memory. So while that stung, nine months later, it’s a distant memory, and we’re on to all the work that’s currently filling up the plate. You can’t take that stuff too seriously, personally or emotionally—it’ll eat you alive.
What’s your view on the agency world today?
It’s a tougher time than it’s ever been in the business, but it’s also kind of a mind game now. You have to stay positive, keep pitching and pushing. Anybody that reads too much of the press or gets bummed out about anything is dead because this business is just unforgiving. So it’s staying ahead. It’s innovating, it’s adding new divisions. It’s not being afraid to invest and keeping both feet on the gas. Otherwise, there’s just too much gravity pulling things down right now. Clients will always pay for ideas, great execution and results-driven communications.
What’s next for you?
I’m going to keep the aperture wide open. I have purposely not overplanned this. My goal is to see what the universe brings in. That might be taking a bike ride on a random Tuesday, consulting, bringing in a direct-to-consumer product to life, or another type of product to life. I really want to stay open.
Is Lil’ Sweet, Diet Dr. Pepper’s mascot, the most underrated ever?
I think he might be. But, in all seriousness, we love Lil’ Sweet, and that brand continues to defy gravity year after year because it’s the coolest, weirdest campaign in the world.