San Francisco ad man Rich Silverstein sounds off on his iconic campaigns, competitors’ “insulting” work and how the iPhone is transforming business as usual.
By Brittany Shoot
“I don’t want to be figured out,” Rich Silverstein announces, gesturing forcefully around his eclectic office, a small sunlit room filled with flat-screen devices and stacks of colorful panels and posters. Outside his north-facing windows on a crisp spring afternoon, Coit Tower reaches above Telegraph Hill to touch the incoming fog, the Bay glittering below the horizon. His transportation of choice, a lightweight bicycle, is propped near the door. Even though he moved back to the city from Belvedere two years back, he still rides across the Golden Gate Bridge every morning, just because he can.
Indeed, the wiry, energetic ad man has tried not to get too comfortable with any one type of work since 1983, when he co-founded the innovative creative and advertising agency that still bears his name along with that of ponytailed Jeff Goodby, whom he met when the two were starting out at Ogilvy & Mather. Silverstein declares that evolving every five to 10 years is one reason for the firm’s longevity. When talk turns to traditional advertising agencies, Silverstein, a longtime San Franciscan whose frenetic energy betrays his New York upbringing and training as a graphic designer at Parsons School of Design in New York, openly scoffs at the idea. “There’s no such thing anymore!”
If you don’t know the agency by name—nor regularly pass the stately brick building on a prime slice of San Francisco property taking up the better part of the 700-block on California Street—then you certainly recognize the quirky, inventive campaigns coming out of Goodby Silverstein & Partners for the past 35 years. (Fellow founding partner Andy Berlin went on to launch several other award-winning agencies.) In addition to Silverstein, Goodby and a team of several hundred creatives, the group counts among its ranks Margaret Johnson, a partner and executive creative director, who joined the ranks in 2015 and has long been recognized as one of the most powerful women in advertising.
The GSP interior is impressive, though far less formal than you might imagine. Loft-style split levels and a semi-open floor plan make the entire enterprise feel like a big, welcoming dorm—with employee dogs allowed on the premises. One wall offers emergency instructions rendered in fanciful font: Fire, everyone outside to St. Mary’s Square. That’s the type of nonconformist approach the agency has always taken, along the way earning loyal clients and a reputation for taking interesting risks without dumbing things down. Tacking on an automotive logo at the end of an inspiring advertisement? Silverstein calls such a move dishonest. “We won’t do that,” he says sternly. So often, he notes, “Ads are insulting. You gotta give [the public] something intelligent.”
The result of such ad-delivered honesty is too many awards to list, and a reputation not just for cutting-edge advertising, but for supporting worthy, philanthropic causes in the Bay Area, often pro bono or well below market rate. This includes rebranding the Golden Gate National Recreation Area as the catchier, more visitor-enticing Golden Gate National Parks, complete with the bright, bold images still used today. “This is where marketing can be very powerful,” says Silverstein. He also had a heavy hand in creating the campaign that helped bring Super Bowl 50 to the region last spring. On this point, he says, with characteristic simplicity, “I wanted to help the city.”
There is perhaps no more obvious example of the agency’s enduring impact on the city’s skyline than the Bay Lights. After briefly going dark, artist Leo Villareal’s moving light sculpture illuminating the northern side of the Bay Bridge was relaunched as a permanent installation in January 2016. “Light is power. Light is magic,” Silverstein explains, underscoring how the agency’s brightest minds helped illuminate the public exhibit with a captivating video conceived and shot entirely in-house.
The way in which the Bay Lights will become a symbol of local ingenuity for the next generation, the ubiquity of some of Goodby Silverstein & Partners’ older work continues to permeate popular culture. There’s the unforgettable, now-notorious Got Milk? campaign, for which the agency created one of the most iconic taglines in advertising history—rebranding what is surely among the most difficult products to market. (Sorry, California Milk Processor Board, but milk is boring—or at least it was before Goodby happened to scrawl “got milk?” on a white board and Silverstein set the typeface.) And for everyone who remembers those obnoxious Budweiser frogs, Goodby and Silverstein are the unlikely heroes behind the subsequent Budweiser lizards, who enacted reptile revenge by offing the annoying amphibians.
The agency’s philanthropic aims are most apparent in projects such as the Tipping Point public service announcements, which depict what it’s like for San Francisco residents who live below the poverty line to shop for groceries and basic supplies. Goodby, a former journalist, has been outspoken about the ways marketing and advertising reflect—and in some cases, push forward—contemporary culture. “Great marketing is a reliable reflection of our hopes and an uncanny predictor of our dreams,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year.
Today, hope and dreams are often found in the slim device Silverstein holds in his hand: his iPhone, which he long ago proclaimed more important than a wallet, and a tool for what he calls “mass intimacy.” It’s the idea that through a modern mobile device, an individual speaks to many at once—through social media, or even in a group text chat—all of whom feel they are uniquely, personally the recipient of the message.
The philosophy is apparent in the wide range of evocative digital products the firm creates, such as the I Am A Witness custom emoji as part of a larger anti-bullying initiative in cooperation with the Ad Council. There’s also the Free the Love augmented reality app, created to accompany the Summer of Love celebration exhibition currently on at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia. Users can draw Buckminster Fuller-style hearts all over the virtual Bay Area—a sort of harmless, community-driven digital graffiti.
Most ad agencies survive a few years at best before the partners buy one another out and move on to put their names on a different office or branding boutique. Not these two, and with good reason, says Silverstein, who says letting each man be his own person is their key to success. Goodby attributes their willingness to be different—and to disagree—to their lengthy, fruitful partnership. “It’s good not to be the same,” he says with a wide grin. He’s talking about his partner, but he could just as easily be describing their storied career together.