For Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein, there was no massive bolt of lightning or an “aha” moment when the two were put together as a team at Ogilvy & Mather by the legendary Hal Riney in 1980.
“I walked in the first day, and the first thing Riney says is that Jeff and I are going to be working on this thing called Billy Ball. And that was it,” recalled Silverstein.
“I don’t know why [Riney put us together]. Not a clue,” added Goodby.
Yet from that simple moment, Riney unwittingly created a duo that has endured for decades, led breakthrough work for brands at the agency they founded with Andy Berlin, Goodby Berlin & Silverstein (which became Goodby Silverstein & Partners in 1994 when Berlin left), and are considered two pillars of West Coast creative leadership that includes the recently-retired Lee Clow and Dan Wieden.
To honor their work and leadership, the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity is honoring Goodby and Silverstein with this year’s Lion of St. Mark, the annual award that recognizes creative achievement and service to the industry and has included the likes of Sir John Hegarty, Wieden, Clow, Bob Greenberg and David Droga. Last year, Piyush and Prasoon Pandey of India received the prestigious award.
“It’s a wonderful honor,” Goodby told Adweek. “The people that you’re in the company of is impressive and you hope that’s what people would think of you.”
“We never had the giant client … we never had an Apple or Nike, and we watched Dan (Wieden) and Lee (Clow),” added Silverstein. “They’re gods, created great work and are my heroes. But we’ve always been this underdog, scrappy, bizarre, small firm.”
While on the surface, Silverstein’s observation may ring true to a point, the fact is that the agency, and Goodby and Silverstein in particular, have carved out decades of consistently interesting and compelling work without relying on a signature style.
“Even back in the 1980s, I thought it was important to do things differently every time so that people never saw the same thing twice,” noted Goodby. “Clients come to you and say ‘give us one of those,’ and it’s never as good the second time.”
When looking at the range of their output, there is no real thread other than a sincere desire to create work that doesn’t pander to the lowest common denominator.
“I think that we try very hard to approach people at their very best and give them credit for being intelligent, having a sense of humor and a whole life around them,” said Goodby.
“I don’t think we take ourselves too seriously,” added Silverstein. “But we seriously want to do a good job.”
Indeed, looking at the body of the agency’s work (including its first-ever Cannes Lions winner for the Mill Valley Film Festival in 1986) is a creative buffet with surprises around every corner, whether it was a three-second ad of someone screaming for Sega (way ahead of its time when it launched), the Budweiser lizards, the ETrade chimp, or a slew of interesting work for longtime clients Adobe, Comcast and BMW.
More recently, the agency’s Super Bowl work for PepsiCo in three separate ads (for Doritos, Bubly and the flagship brand Pepsi) not only kept the agency busy but was also an example of accessible brand creative that honored the audience’s sensibilities.
However, it was GS&P’s turn for the California Milk Processor Board in 1993 that put the agency squarely on the creative map. “Got Milk?” was not only an awards darling but impacted the world in a way no one could have ever expected.
“It was the first campaign that was adopted by pop culture,” said Margaret Johnson, GS&P CCO and partner.
“We never envisioned that it would take off like that,” said Silverstein. “What made it work is that we had an insight that the only time you notice milk is when you don’t have it.”
One of the more classic ads from that time, “Aaron Burr,” was a direct result of what they had learned. Yet, for all of its success, not everyone at the agency was on board with the campaign idea.
“All of the creatives working on it hated that we wanted to have a typography style,” said Silverstein. “They wanted Helvetica really tiny yet (the ubiquitous font) became everything, so sometimes you have to stick with your guns.”
“People started ripping it off, and people asked the client, Geoff Manning, if they were going to sue,” recalled Goodby. “He said, ‘I don’t have enough money to sue people. I can’t stop this.’ I told him that it’s going to be open season and said, ‘maybe that’s good.’”
The godfathers of San Francisco talent
One of the creatives that worked on the “Got Milk?” campaign was Chuck McBride, who went on to found Cutwater in 2006 after stops at other agencies. Gerry Graf, the founder of Barton F. Graf, also cut his teeth at GS&P as well as Venables Bell & Partners’ Paul Venables, barrettSF founder Jamie Barrett and Fred Raillard and Farid Mokart, the founders of Fred & Farid.
GS&P is part of other great careers including those of Karin Onsager-Birch, FCB West CCO; Chris Beresford-Hill, CCO of TBWA\Chiat\Day\New York; and Steve Simpson, Ogilvy & Mather’s North America CCO.
“Fathering all of these agencies, and helping the people that came through, is the most rewarding thing,” said Silverstein. “We’ve let people raise families, have a good job and have fun doing it. Some people leave, and we’ve convinced some people to stay.”
The agency’s turnover is exceedingly low, only 11 percent, and likely the best example of someone who stuck around and built an outstanding career is Johnson, who joined the agency in 1996. Part of the reason that she’s remained for 23 years is the fact that Goodby and Silverstein embrace change.
“This place reinvents itself every five to 10 years,” she said. “And Jeff and Rich are champions of people who come up with great ideas and are good at what they do.”
Past inspiration leads to the future
At the beginning of the agency’s life, most of Goodby and Silverstein’s inspiration was focused on the West Coast and hinged on the quirky cultures of San Francisco and Portland in particular. The agency was founded within a year of Wieden + Kennedy, and in a stroke of irony, since both Goodby and Silverstein worked in journalism, the agency began getting noticed in the trade press, winning several awards including Adweek’s West Coast Agency of the Year from 1992 to 1994.
And while respectful of New York’s ad community, they found more of a kinship with their own part of the world and London.
“New York gave us intelligence, but I wanted to be part of the London establishment,” said Silverstein. “And we sold a 38 percent stake [in the agency] to [London agency] Boase Massimi Pollitt (BMP) because of the craft in England in writing and art direction, and because planning there was so big there.”
BMP was sold to Omnicom in 1991 and, with it, the minority stake in the agency. Omnicom’s CEO at the time, Bruce Crawford, offered to sell the shares back to Goodby, Berlin and Silverstein saying, as Goodby recalled, that he didn’t “want to own an agency in San Francisco. I would just like you guys to buy yourselves back.”
“Oops, we didn’t have the money,” said Silverstein. “We bought homes. And [Crawford] didn’t really understand the idea of West Coast agencies like Wieden, Chiat (Day) or us at the time. So we ended up selling the rest of the shares to Omnicom.”
It’s an interesting dynamic, understanding that GS&P is part of a holding company, yet it still seems to retain its sense of independence. Of course, it certainly helps that the agency ranked first for new business in 2018, bringing in over $109 million according to R3 Consulting estimates, but when walking the halls of the agency, it feels like a big playground and fun place to experiment.
“I like to say that we have an art school, but we get paid,” said Silverstein.
Some projects in the mix, including a women’s history AR project and work for the Dali Museum, are being incubated in GS&P Labs, the agency’s technology practice. Additionally, on the talent end, the agency has brought in people with varied skill sets that may have raised eyebrows before.
“There was a time, five years ago, when it wasn’t a great financial idea to have animators or sound mixers or musicians in-house,” said Goodby. “But we actually figured out ways of getting paid for it. It was hard to build it, but now it’s considered part of what we do.”
Other bold hires included skateboarder and streetwear designer Benny Gold, who closed his flagship store in San Francisco to join the agency, and the creative team responsible for Adidas Originals to lead the BMW account.
Interestingly, some people who have left GS&P chose to come back after the lure of money from tech companies and in-house agencies, and Goodby feels that a lack of appreciation is part of the reason.
“They’re not important to the mission [of those companies],” he said. “They’re just another cog, and a lot of times, things never get produced. Here, they’re crucial to the mission.”
Regardless of who comes into the agency, Goodby and Silverstein are keenly aware that the future of the agency’s culture isn’t necessarily in their hands. As great champions of gender and diversity—Johnson is among the 50 percent of senior female leadership—they encourage exploration whenever possible.
One good example is “Talk Shop,” a video series born from GS&P Voices, the agency’s diversity and inclusion initiative. Four episodes in, the shows have so far touched on race and women’s equality.
“That show was zero percent us,” said Silverstein. “They would send me the episodes about 12 hours before they were planning on posting and we didn’t change a thing at all. I’m really proud (of the team and show).”
Looking ahead, both Goodby and Silverstein aren’t exactly sure where the next five years will lead, but they have an idea of how they hope the GS&P culture will evolve. To Goodby, he believes that content creation will continue to accelerate. In Silverstein’s mind, it will always be about doing better work. But in the end, it indeed is about individuals coming together as a team for a greater good.
“The culture will change in ways you can’t predict,” said Goodby.
“But the people in the company are taking care of this,” concluded Silverstein.