The conversation starts, this time, over dessert. Donny Deutsch, 45, one of the most successful CEOs in advertising history, is out with his wife, Stacy, 31, and another couple, which is what they like to do. “Donny can’t sit still,” says Stacy. So every night, it’s one restaurant or another. Tonight, they’re at Mr Chow with Stephanie Hirsch, 31, and her fiancé. Over a fruit plate, Donny presses three straightened fingers to the side of his graying head, as if teeing it up, then asks, “Am I fucking crazy?”
After Deutsch’s eponymous shop was named Agency of the Year by Ad Age, a photographer stopped by Donny’s office. Donny, who’s been working out five days a week and has dropped 50 pounds, ripped off his shirt in celebration. Cackling with laughter, he said, “I can kick the ass of any CEO in advertising.”
“Why not?” Donny asks the table. “It’s a wink. It’s a goof.” Taking off his shirt is a Donny thing. At company parties, for instance. Or, once, on a video conference call. “We’re the fucking-A greatest,” he told employees, and then, shirtless, rolled onto his desk and did twenty push-ups. “It’s almost as if he can’t contain himself,” said a partner, “as if the shirt is a restriction to the joy.” Donny agreed.
At Mr Chow, no one is buying that. “Everyone in advertising will hate you,” shoots back Stephie, who owns Inca, a swimsuit company. “In my industry, they already hate me,” Donny tells the table. “I don’t care what people think. Why is the world divided into successful businesspeople and people who have fun?”
But Stacy, who sells the top collections at Ralph Lauren, agrees with Stephie. “They don’t need to think you’re a pompous asshole,” she says.
Donny grows thoughtful. The three fingers pitchfork his temple. “How many people do you know really well?” Donny asks. “Everybody’s crazy. Once you realize that, it’s okay. It’s mental health.”
“Donny’s not subtle,” says Stephie.
Donny shrugs. It’s ten, and time for Donny, an early bird, to head home. But he’s not quite finished.
“Stephie and I, we slept together once,” he blurts out, and lets go a long, drilling laugh.
“We did not!” Stephie shouts back.
Donny Deutsch is one of advertising’s last big personalities—“the Elvis of advertising,” says one admirer—and he’s also one of its most successful. Now he’s about to break out. He’s got a book deal with HarperCollins. He’s done a pilot for a new talk show with CNBC. He’s thinking about producing movies. He even toys with political ambitions. Would New York City like a mayor named Donny? “I’m ready to play on a bigger field,” he says. Which raises the question: Is the field ready for a man-child named Donny?
Nearly everyone who knows Donny—he’s never Don or Donald—agrees: Donny is a regular guy. Through years of winning successively more prestigious clients—Ikea, Pfizer, Mitsubishi, Revlon, Bank of America—Donny has consistently come across, as one admirer puts it, as “a yahoo, but a genuine yahoo.” He’s got a drilling Queens accent, wears jeans to work (with his Gucci loafers), is always the first person in a room to use the word fuck, and doesn’t feel all that comfortable with Wasps (nor, he says, do they with him). Donny likes to hang out with guys he’s known for decades, in some cases since first grade in Hollis Hills, Queens, the middle-class Jewish neighborhood where he grew up.
Donny likes to say that he is “average smart,” and those who’ve known him longest happily concur. “Oh, yeah, his personality was his biggest attribute, more so than his brains,” says his oldest friend. To these guys, Donny’s accomplishments seemed to come out of the blue. Some were surprised that he got into the University of Pennsylvania. “I was kind of the village idiot at Wharton,” Donny explains. Donny skated by (and, typically, still graduated cum laude).
"In my industry they already hate me," says Deutsch. "I don't care what people think. Why is the world divided into successful business people and people who have fun?"
Donny’s father, David Deutsch, had started a small advertising agency and, in 1983, hired his son—“I was a member of the lucky sperm club,” says Donny. David was on the verge of selling the agency for a small sum when he fired his son because, he likes to say, “he didn’t seem to love it.” “If you’re coming back,” he told Donny, “you’ve got to take over.” Donny adored his father—David says, “When we were alone, he’d give me a kiss in the office”—but they’re different. “I’m brassier, more aggressive, messier,” says Donny, who had a small epiphany at the time, a turning point. He could be himself. “Don’t sell it,” he told his father.
David Deutsch Associates mainly did print advertising, with $3 million to $5 million in billings a year. Donny pitched a TV account, Tri-State Pontiac dealers. (Just to get into the pitch, Donny sent car parts to the home of the Pontiac rep. He sent a fender with a note that read, “We’ll cover your rear end.” The agency won the account, doubling its size. To do the work, Donny hired Richard Kirshenbaum, who’d later found his own agency, Kirshenbaum Bond. Kirshenbaum still keeps a photo from the shoot. In it, he’s standing with Andy Warhol and a bulldog. The ad’s tag line was “What’s the last exciting thing that happened to you?” Warhol was supposed to respond, “I went to the opening of an envelope.” Instead, his bulldog yawned, and they used that.
Donny hired young, driven people, who worked 90-, 100-hour weeks. “Jews, chicks, and fags” was how Donny sometimes described the mix. “A big, dysfunctional, ethnic family.” Donny appreciated talent and liked moxie. Greg DiNoto, a creative who worked at Bozell, recalls waiting to meet Donny for an interview at Coffee Shop on Union Square when he got a phone call: Donny couldn’t make the meeting. “Tell him, Fuck you,” DiNoto told the caller, who called Donny, who headed to Coffee Shop. “When do you want to start?” Donny asked.
The shop took on Donny’s personality—his dad retired in 1992. “The place was organized chaos,” says one copywriter. Make it happen at all costs was the motto. Paul Goldman recalls editing an Ikea commercial for three straight days. Donny, taking a peek, said, “You don’t get it.” “I completely destroyed the editor’s office, tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment,” said Goldman. “We were screaming. Our noses were touching. Then we started laughing. After that fight, which was necessary, we came up with the right solution.”
Deutsch became one of a handful of hot, creative New York shops—Kirshenbaum Bond was another—and as one observer puts it, Donny’s was the “wildest and craziest of the bunch.”
“My first impression of Donny,” says one devoted client, “was You arrogant bastard.” Though most agencies don’t like to ruffle clients, Donny sometimes seemed bent on picking fights. “He’s incredibly blunt about what he thinks is right,” says an executive at Novartis, another client. Donny could be belligerent, often on the client’s behalf. “Fuck Ben and Jerry’s, fuck Dairy Queen,” he’d tell Baskin-Robbins. “Let’s take on the fucking world.”
In part, a small agency needs to make noise—for itself and its clients. As a stunt, Deutsch shipped a red Pontiac to Russia. But Deutsch’s creative voice stood out as well. At a time when some agencies still favored celebrity spokesmen, Donny’s inclination was “to be real,” to communicate directly with consumers. Ikea was a breakout campaign. It showed people shopping, including a gay couple. Another successful campaign, this one for Pfizer, had allergy sufferers talking about their “allergy lifestyles.”
Donny encouraged people to put their stamp on things—“When he trusts you, you have total autonomy,” says one executive. People responded. “You had a sense that this was the only thing in your life,” says a creative director.