An Interview with Randall Rothenberg

Randall Rothenberg, CEO & President of the IAB and author of “Where the Suckers Moon: The Life and Death of an Advertising Campaign”
Randall Rothenberg, CEO & President of the IAB and author of
“Where the Suckers Moon: The Life and Death of an Advertising Campaign”

To say that Randall Rothenberg’s “Where the Sucker’s Moon” is an important book about advertising does not even begin to do it justice, though we try in our review here. But as one reads the book, one discovers that it requires a person of uniquely broad talents to uncover the insights that make it so remarkable.  

Rothenberg, the President and CEO of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, has been the Chief Digital Officer at Time Inc., Senior Director of Intellectual Capital at Booz Allen Hamilton, and also that firm’s CMO. Before that, he spent six years at The New York Times in a variety of roles – technology editor, politics editor of the Sunday magazine, daily advertising columnist, and media and marketing reporter. And prior to that, he was a marketing and media columnist for Advertising Age. Varied indeed.

Mr. Rothenberg graciously agreed to talk with us briefly about his 1994 work.

access

Agency Review:

How did you get such tremendous access to all of the players? One of the things that makes “Suckers Moon” so great is that you’re really there from the beginning – even before the beginning – to the very end. And sometimes it feels like you’re actually in two places at once. How? Did they not know what they were getting into? Did they not have lawyers? How did it happen?

Rothenberg:

I think it happened because I was an honest reporter trying to get under the skin of a set of honest questions. I describe them in the acknowledgements: “Why are advertising people as passionate as they are about what they do?” and “What does a copywriter do all day?” To that I added a much larger, harder-to-answer question: How does a brand image work, and what do we mean when we say a brand image has “worked”? The Subaru executives had many conversations with me, and when they became convinced I wasn’t out to spin anything, or hype anything, but simply tell a true story, they thought there was little risk and a lot of opportunity for them. That’s also described in the book, somewhat. Basically, as Subaru Marketing Director Chris Wackman told me, “There are no secrets in the car business.” The company had made mistakes, they admitted it, and they thought that, to the degree they could be shown as what they were – honest, hard-working, able senior executives trying to re-boot a company – then that would be helpful to them.

As to how it happened in the first place, I simply wrote the President of the company a letter, describing to him what I wanted to do and why. I felt that getting under the hood of an advertising pitch process, something that no reporter had ever done before, would be an excellent vehicle for understanding both the business of advertising and marketing, and the relationships between advertising and the larger culture. By the way, none of those puns were intended.

involvement

Agency Review:

You occupied an unusual point of view during the process – you saw both sides (or many sides) of what was going on – something the other players couldn’t do. So were there moments during the process that you could see a trainwreck coming that the participants couldn’t see – and how did you handle it? Or did the participants try to drag you into the process by asking your opinion of what the others were doing – or in some cases, not doing?

Rothenberg:

No. I did not think there were any train wrecks, and in 20 years since the book – during most of which I have been a senior business executive – I believe actual train wrecks in business are few and far between. One of the things that fascinated me during the process of reporting the book was that the more I knew, the less I knew.  That is to say, before the agency pitches, I knew what I liked, esthetically, and I knew what I thought “worked.” But as I saw seven agencies, and maybe 100 people over all, compete for an account, I realized it was not only possible but probable that intelligent people, given the same set of facts, would develop very different interpretations, most of which would seem and were very legitimate. To be sure, it was possible to see how the different ideas reflected biases inside the individual agencies, but those biases themselves were the product of lives spent successfully as marketers, so derived from a rational fact base.

In the end, I discovered something that everyone in business eventually realizes: Analysis is easy enough; decision-making is hard. You have to incorporate factors that seem very far removed from the technical problem at hand. “How do we sell more cars?” can’t be answered simply with a good mission statement and great advertising executions. You have to factor in how your various constituencies (distributors, dealers, salespeople) will relate to the agency and its people; you have to factor in whether you, the client, can develop relationships yourself with people in the agency whom you hope will become trusted advisors. You have to ask whether the agency and the campaign will generate such enthusiasm down the ranks of your company that it will prompt people to go the extra mile to sell more product.

unique

Agency Review:

There are a lot of things you describe that are universal in “Suckers Moon”, that anyone who has pitched and won and lost can relate to. And I think that’s one of the things that makes it so great and why so many advertising people love it. But every pitch is different, so what things do you think were unique to that pitch, that probably only happened because of the unique qualities of Subaru, of W+K, of the time and of the specific players?

Rothenberg:

There is one obvious answer, of course: The people and their relationships with each other were unique. I didn’t think of these people as characters; I thought of them as flesh-and-blood human beings with brains and hearts. But in the end, in a good nonfiction book, you are trying to tell a story, and that story depends on characters who are unique in a plot that is somewhat familiar. That it did not work out for Subaru and Wieden & Kennedy made for a more interesting story with some more universal and useful conclusions that could be drawn from it. Times were tough: The U.S. was suffering through a bad recession that made selling cars, especially imports, very difficult; Subaru’s parent company in Japan was going through a difficult leadership transition. Wieden & Kennedy was an ingénue, with an ideology that was tough, uncompromising, and – as history shows – wildly successful for it. But they were unprepared for the unusual expectations, needs, and relationship maps inside auto companies.

I think the most singular issue of all was this: Subaru of America and Wieden & Kennedy were given a culturally and historically impossible task. The parent company in Japan had said, “We want to be a mainstream car company, and compete with Toyota and Honda to become a top seller of front-wheel-drive sedans.” But as I show in the book, Subaru, going back to its pre-history as the Nakajima Aircraft Company, one of the last zaibatsu in Japan, was founded on the premise of engineering superiority and uniqueness. It was woven into the very soul of that company, and then into every relationship it had across its extended value chain, that it was a quirky company so engineering-focus that it was proud of building funny looking cars, in a place where engineers were so committed they would polish engine pistons by hand. That was the company’s soul, and the source of its strength. Not only couldn’t you change that, you probably shouldn’t change that.

So yes, there is much in the book that can be universalized. But there was a lot that was historically specific. If I can paraphrase Tolstoy, all advertising relationships are the same; all unsuccessful advertising relationships are unique in their own way.

different

Agency Review:

A lot has happened since you wrote “Suckers Moon”. The media, the economy, the demographics, really everything has changed radically. So If you were going to write “Suckers Moon” today, what do you think you would do differently, what do you think the different landscape would force you to do differently, in terms of the car business, the ad business, and even the clients?

Rothenberg:

Well, sadly, there is so much more media today, and so much more media looking for attention, that it’s hard to persuade companies to participate in such an intimate soul-baring any more. So anyone wanting to tell a true story like this would have to approach it differently. Among other things, you’d have to plan on spending years to do the book, in order to get to know the people and earn their trust over long periods of time. Another change, of course, is that there are so many more moving parts – not just media advertising, but search engine marketing, social media and marketing, branded entertainment, near-intimate media segmentation. You say it sometimes seemed as if I was in two places at once; that effect comes simply from diligent reporting, and trying to reach all the people who were in the room to report after-the-fact what happened when you weren’t there. Today, the action is taking place in many more rooms at once, so you have to do even more reporting than before.

Aside from those obvious changes, though, I’m not sure I would change a lot of other things. I was influenced heavily by reading some of the great nonfiction writers of the last 50 years – John McPhee and David Halberstam, in particular – and I strongly believe you must come to topics like this ready to do exhaustive contemporaneous reporting, dive deeply into historical and archival research, and explore the ancillary fields that can help you and your audience understand the story better. In my case, that involved taking graduate courses in marketing research and semiotics and semiology, spending a lot of time reading Baudrillard and Barthes and Sontag, and broadly trying to understand advertising’s relationship to the broader economy and culture. Those are the elements of telling a great, true story, and I don’t think those have changed.

legacy

Agency Review:

There are a lot of books about advertising, the history, the theories, the people, how to do it, how not to do it. But “Suckers Moon” is unique. It’s really about the relationships that the advertising industry thrives on – what happens when those relationships happen, and more importantly perhaps, what happens when they don’t. But its been almost twenty years since you wrote it. So what do you think is the legacy of “Suckers Moon”?

Rothenberg:

First, thank you – that’s very generous of you to say that, and for the record, I am blushing.

Second, while I’d like to believe the book has a legacy, I’m not sure it does. It’s a good book, and several thousand people had a rollicking good time reading. More than a few who read it in high school and college were influenced to go into advertising by it; I hear from some of them every year. And certainly, here and there, there’s an agency that assigns the book to teams pitching or managing accounts with the proviso, “Don’t do what they did,” or “Do it that way.” Beyond that, I doubt there’s much of a legacy. I mean, let’s get real. Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” left a legacy. Jane Jacobs’ “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” left a legacy. “Where the Suckers Moon” was a good read.

Then again, it did lead to me going into the advertising business. Maybe that counts as a legacy?!

You can read our review of Randall’s book here, or order it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here). Or you can reach out directly to Randall here.

Illustration of Randall Rothenberg by the brilliant Mike Caplanis

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One thought on “An Interview with Randall Rothenberg

  1. “Where the Suckers Moon” is one of my favorite books about the ad business, and I am still amazed at how many peers in the industry have not read it. I’ve loaned and lost at least 3 copies. Thanks, Randall, for writing it, and thanks, Agency Review, for sharing this interview.

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