Advertising Legend Helayne Spivak Talks Creativity, Relevance

Helayne Spivak
"Stay strong. Speak up. Don’t let the bastards get to you": Helayne Spivak.

Helayne Spivak is a true advertising legend whose career began in the 1970s, typically, in a secretarial pool at Della Femina, Travisano & Partners. That’s where “typical” stopped for Spivak. A witty Queens native who had been frustrated in her attempts at becoming at actress, Spivak discovered a place for her humor as she was typing copywriters’ work. She soon enrolled in advertising classes at the School of Visual Arts, where she put her book together in six weeks and was whisked away by her professor and first mentor, Tom Messner, to Ally and Gargano, Inc.

Spivak spent the next 10 years there, rising from junior copywriter to VP-Associate Creative Director. “I didn’t take the stairs, I took the escalator to the top,” she says, and that’s true: she has since been the Chief Creative Officer at Young and Rubicam, Ammirati Puris Lintas and J. Walter Thompson New York, along the way creating many memorable campaigns for Sears (“Come See the Softer Side of Sears”), Burger King, Barneys New York, United Parcel Service, Federal Express and many other major brands, including [campaign ads for] a former President of the United States. A multiple ad industry award winner, Spivak is known as warm, incredibly clever and someone always in forward motion.

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“People don’t hate ads. They hate bad ads.”

At Spivak’s most recent position — as Executive Vice President, Chief Creative Officer at Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness — she and her team successfully transformed the agency from traditional broadcast to a fully integrated shop, building its interactive capabilities from scratch. In 2012, she left NYC for Richmond, VA, becoming Executive Director of Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Brandcenter, which offers a two-year, full-time Master’s program for branding and advertising with one goal: to develop the best creative problem solvers in the world.

Betsyann Faiella: What have you always loved about the advertising business?

Helayne Spivak: I loved the crazy, wonderful people that the business attracted when I started out. We were a bunch of creative misfits. The verbal sparring was lightning fast and fun. That was way before political correctness.

The women of Mad Men.
Photo: Frank Ockenfels 3

BF: Were you a huge fan of Mad Men?

HS: Not at first, no. The misogyny was too real, and I couldn’t watch. But eventually I became a fan because of the creative advertising it depicted. And the writing was amazing.

BF: What do you love most now about advertising?

HS: Watching it from afar.

BF: What do you think is wrong with the business?

HS: Holding companies that care only about bottom line, with no respect for talent.

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BF: Is the 30-second spot still killing it in the marketplace?

HS: TV commercials are still important, but it takes more than a 30-second spot to “kill it” in the marketplace these days. It takes almost total immersion, an experience, of which a :30 can be a part.

BF: You are a famous woman in advertising, and you famously left the business for almost seven years, re-entering in 2003 at BBDO (and co-creating the Leonard Nimoy Superbowl ad, among other work). What was the toughest part of coming back?

HS: The toughest part was when I left: 1995. That was when computers took over and digital began to grow. I had a great reputation from “then” but then came “now.” You can’t sit on advertising laurels for very long. They get much too dry, too fast. However, conceptual thinking and making exciting connections never get old. Ever. And so, I came home to advertising.

BF: What prompted your move to a non-agency position at VCU Brandcenter?

HS: Honestly, doing great creative for direct-to-consumer pharma is a draining, almost futile endeavor, at least not the kind of creative that wins accolades at creative award shows. Cannes does a Health Care Lion event and they keep it so separate from the regular Gold Lion Festival that it’s almost comical. It’s a week before the “cool” people arrive. Then again, the Cannes Film Festival puts lots of space between the “cool” film folk and the ad community. But to go back to your original question: I always admired the work VCU Brandcenter did with their students, and I was ready for a change.

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BF: What excites you most about influencing the next generation of creatives and producers?

HS: Our Brandcenter grads go on to do advertising and so much more than advertising. We develop creative problem solvers. So our creative writers, art directors, strategists, brand managers and experience designers influence across all disciplines wherever they land: client side, agency side, entertainment, entrepreneurism. I love that our alums look to make a difference in the world.

BF: What’s most challenging about it?

HS: Keeping ahead of them, that’s a challenge.

Helayne Spivak at the 2013 3 Percent Conference
talking about creative training in advertising and
giving young women an even chance in the field.

BF: Why do you think ad agencies, who toyed with in-house production for years, decided to aggressively pursue production services as a revenue stream in the last 10 years?

HS: Too many clients have no desire for a standard model Agency of Record anymore, preferring the buffet style of relationships with agencies. They resent how expensive they perceive most traditional agencies. So agencies are looking at new ways to feed their bottom lines. However, I can’t name any that have been roaringly successful with in-house production. It’s best left with production companies who know what they’re doing. But I am very interested in what Brad Jakeman and his team at Pepsi are doing in their new production facility in NYC. I think Jakeman is a client with a true vision of the future of what brands can do.

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BF: Every commercial producer I know (myself included) struggles to make minuscule production budgets viable now. To what do you owe the huge drop in monies allocated to stand-alone production companies that produce commercials?

HS: YouTube. Consumer-generated content. Random viral sensations. Who cares about production values and artistry when a cat peeing in a toilet can get 2,678,937 shares? Everyone’s hoping for that free hit.

BF: What’s the latest word on the Department of Justice (DOJ) probe of agencies driving business to in-house production through nefarious means?

HS: I’m not knowledgeable enough about it. Too focused on DOJ and DJT.

BF: I overheard a remark at a Christmas party: “The business is cannibalizing itself.” I know they were referring to the proliferation of hybrid and integrated agencies, 360 companies, etc., that offer branding, advertising, production, editing, etc. “Cannibalizing itself” suggests ruin. Would you comment on this?

Is the ad business cannibalizing itself?

HS: I’ve been in the business, give or take a few, almost 40 years. I know, I look amazing — but that’s not my point. This industry and its trends are all pendulum swings. Agencies are getting too big? Let’s open small, privately held boutiques. Small private boutiques get very successful? Let’s go public. Big data is the kale of marketing, then along comes “knowledge vs. information.” We’re not cannibalizing ourselves. We’re fighting for relevance. And that will change tomorrow.

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BF: In a 2011 interview at Boulder Digital with Edward Boches, you said a goal of yours was to make “unbillable time = investment in future,” and that “We have to save time for dreaming.” Did you mean that you wanted to compensate creatives for that “unbillable” time?

HS: What I meant was agencies need to be able to experiment, to explore new technologies. To try and fail. If there is no margin for error with every penny spent expected to lead back to a client whom we can bill for that penny, how can we invest in our creatives? Send them for training? We need to encourage them to reach out to people outside of our industry for inspiration and help them stay relevant, for which 16-hour workdays don’t allow.

Before the ad industry became so focused on PC.

BF: You mentioned recently that one good thing you can say about Donald Trump is that the floodgates have been opened to political “incorrectness.” What did you mean by that? What is the correlation to the ad business?

HS: It doesn’t correlate to the ad business. Unfortunately, PC is still essential in advertising. “We don’t want to offend anyone.” Not many clients, like Benetton of the past, are willing to take risks. The good thing is, people are now having dialogues about racism and misogyny. However, white supremacists, misogynists and racists of all kinds are also having a field day.

BF: I have several friends who think advertising is the devil. What do you say to people who hate advertising?/strong>

HS: I would quote [advertising innovator] Howard Gossage: “People don’t read ads. They read what interests them and sometimes that’s an ad.” People don’t hate advertising. They hate bad advertising. There’s just still too much of it.

BF: It seemed like it was forever before we saw a mixed-race couple on TV. Now we see more examples of mixed families, at least, including gay couples with children.

HS: Most commercials still cast “stereotypical” couples, light-skinned (read: “acceptable”) African-American men and women. With mixed couples, more often you see African-American women cast with white men for some reason. Remember the wonderful Cheerios commercial with a very “normal” looking black and white couple — white mom and African-American dad with their adorable mixed-complected child? (I hate the word “race.” It’s a social construct, not biological.) The racist rants about it on YouTube were disgusting and copious. You can choose to watch Blackish… Commercials come into your living room uninvited, so many clients prefer to play it safe. Cheerios, to their credit, refused to pull the spot. Bravo!

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BF: What do you tell young women in the business, or those who are studying?

HS: Stay strong. Speak up. Don’t let the bastards get to you.

Artist Paul Davis’s iconic posters for the Public Theater and Shakespeare in the Park.

BF: Do you believe arts-related advertising is effective in general? And specifically, which theater companies, museums or arts institutions seem to understand the power of advertising the best?

HS: Advertising the arts is interesting but rarely award-winning. Like film, it’s a star that brings them in. For the Metropolitan Museum, the Met Ball is its best advertising and for the Museum of Modern Art, it’s who they are exhibiting right now. These days, theaters depend on word of mouth, not advertising: Instagram or Facebook reviews by friends. Critics’ reviews are still influential. Not ads. Or, just have Bette Midler come back for a star turn as Dolly. Printing her name was enough. The best theater advertising ever done were the posters created by Paul Davis for Joseph Papp’s Public Theater and Shakespeare in the Park. Those posters were where art and theater became one. They papered the world with these posters, but more importantly for the time, papered the subway, where the real “people” were. And still are. Sadly, they just don’t make them like that anymore.

BF: If you were creating a national ad campaign to raise the power and influence of arts advocacy in the United States, what would you do first?

HS: Impeach Donald Trump.

BF: You’re continuing a long and storied career with a lot of firsts. Do you have any pearls of wisdom for people who are worried about staying relevant?

HS: Get away from your devices! Read! Go to plays! Travel! Talk to people you have nothing in common with! Make sure you get out of your comfort zone and your age category. I have friends 30 years younger than me and we learn from each other.