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Is He For Real?

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Ad-ing Machine: A page from Deutsch's Tanqueray campaign.  

At Deutsch in the nineties, professional and private inevitably blended. The place was known for its masculine vibe—an “obnoxious boys’ club,” says one observer— where even the women described themselves as testosteronized. There was a “he-man eating club,” in which guys ordered pounds of meat and ate it with their hands. “People were having sex all over the place,” says one employee. At a Christmas party at a Park Avenue restaurant, another recalls, “I had to ask two people engaged in oral sex to move so I could get my coat.”

The agency probably added 100 employees every year or two during the nineties—in particular after winning Mitsubishi, a $250 million account. They pitched new accounts constantly, three at a time, including some they probably had no right pitching. They went after Bank of America, a huge financial institution that Deutsch inevitably suggested had “to be real and talk to consumers about money.” Midway through the pitch, the bank decided to require a second round. Donny had already spent his budget—probably somewhere over $100,000—on the first round. “It’s nuts to be in this,” thought one account executive. “Deutsch has a New York office and a tiny L.A. office, and now we have to pitch a global business.”

Donny likes to say he’s an idiot savant, by which he means that he is, taken as a whole, unexceptional. Donny sells—some would say oversells—his averageness. He also believes he has a handful of focused talents that make him perfect for advertising—creative taste, a nose for talent, motivational and sales instincts, a feel for a client’s point of view. Even his impatience—Donny is sure he has attention-deficit disorder—is a virtue. In meetings, people have a few seconds to nail an idea, good discipline if you communicate in 30-second spots. Still, Donny contends that the magic, “the fairy dust” that set him apart, was confidence. His father suggests he’s always had it. Why not us? Why not now? That was a sense Donny communicated.

Deutsch won the Bank of America account and soon launched a campaign in 37 countries.

The pace, the intensity, the insularity of the Deutsch family wasn’t always great for outside lives. Donny’s first marriage fell apart. He put on 50 pounds, pushing 225 on a five-ten frame. “My first wife will tell you that she wished I had shown her the passion I had for my work,” he says.

Still, Donny seemed to ask everyone he met: How I do I get to the next level? “If you’re not playing on a bigger stage, you’re not winning,” he’d say. Not everyone agreed on growth. DiNoto, an idealist about the creative product, said, “Bigger clients are about not doing the wrong thing. They have nothing to prove, everything to protect. It’s less fun.”

Though the trade press liked to refer to him as a wild man, for Donny, advertising wasn’t about wild creativity. “I appear wild on the outside, but I’m a conservative businessman,” he says. In advertising, creativity can be a kind of snobbery. Donny, no snob, preferred to present himself as a businessman looking after a client’s business. “He’s the first to punt on great creative if it’s not a good business direction,” says Greg O’Neill, COO and a president of Mitsubishi Motors North America, whose sales have climbed 80 percent since Deutsch took over the account. Donny wanted to service ever-bigger clients, which he knew required solid creative but also blunt business sense. Some people, as well as the ethos of organized chaos, wouldn’t last through the next step. Greg DiNoto and another top Deutsch executive chose to leave to form their own agency. “Greg probably couldn’t work at Deutsch today,” said Donny.

Through business, Donny has become friendly with people like Russell Simmons, founder of Def Jam and Phat Farm. Together they formed dRush, a small urban-oriented ad agency. (Donny had initially met with Puff Daddy, but when asked about beating up a record exec, Puffy said, “That wasn’t business, that was personal,” which wasn’t the reassuring vibe a future business partner was looking for.) Simmons, people-oriented and nonviolent, grew up a few blocks from Donny, in Hollis, Queens. “I love Donny,” Simmons says. “He’s practical, commonsensical. Is that a word?” When they happen to be in St. Barts at the same time, Donny will visit Simmons on his boat. Donny’s also friendly with Ron Perelman (head of Revlon, a Deutsch account), and in the Hamptons, he’ll go to parties at Perelman’s house—Billy Joel occasionally sits down at the piano, and Perelman, like an older brother, gives Donny noogies.

In advertising, the era of big personalities is disappearing. A few years ago, Donny decided, "we won the game," the one he wanted to play. Besides, "I want to do other things, too," he says.

But Donny’s social circle consists mostly of people he’s known for 30 years, middle-aged Jewish guys; he could have gone to summer camp with them. They play sports together, sometimes on guys’ weekends in Florida. They sometimes wrestle. “I gave Donny a dead leg,” one friend boasted recently. “He crumpled to the ground.”

Donny gives the sense—emanates it—that he likes to enjoy himself. “He’s got that happy thing that comes out of him,” says Simmons. He isn’t the type to sit cozily at home. “Can’t stay still,” says Stacy. (Once, stuck behind a double-parked car, Donny got out and kicked the side-view mirrors off the offending vehicle.) He’s out most nights. And if his brand of fun isn’t the most sophisticated, still, it’s fun.

For his bachelor party, Donny went to Vegas. It was 25 guys, including his driver. “There were a lot of strippers, alcohol, a lot of nakedness,” recalls one attendee. “Fundamentally, he’s decadent in some part of him.” But Donny isn’t all that decadent; he’s not the least bit self-destructive. So there were strippers? For Donny, the important part was the guys. “There’s a certain incredible happiness just for us to be together,” says Jay Goldman, a college friend and head of his own hedge fund.

Deutsch today has 1,000 employees (two are his assistants), $2.4 billion in billings, and a new industrial space the size of a city block. “He was the only guy among the outrageous upstarts who figured out the big picture,” says Randall Rothenberg, Ad Age columnist and Booz Allen Hamilton exec. Donny has promoted mature, stable, capable team players—many of them women. Four of his six managing partners, and all those in New York, are women.

“I don’t think of myself as a woman,” protests Val DiFebo, director of client services, from her tiny office. Yet, in part, Donny is probably at ease with them—as at ease as his coiled energy permits—because they’re women. “Every alpha male brings emotional bullshit to work,” says Donny, “Women want to get the job done.” Donny introduces two of his female partners the same way: “We’re like husband and wife at work,” he says. “We finish each other’s sentences.” Indeed, they are confidantes. Brash Donny is often found dispensing boyfriend advice. (“Tell him you want to be with him, and walk if he says no.” )

Then there’s the money. Donny pays well, always has. Still, when Donny sold the agency to Interpublic Group, his share was 87 percent, or more than $200 million in stock. “The money journey is over,” he says. Some of the six partners, who got closer to $4 million in stock apiece, were somewhat underwhelmed by the implicit assessment of their contributions. “It’s one of the rare times when Donny’s business instincts collided with his greed,” says one. “It’s the stuff that breaks up rock bands.”

These days, Donny says, “I really do less and less.” Still, he is the person in a room who all eyes go to. (“He takes up a lot of oxygen,” says one rival.) Who knows what he’ll say? One afternoon, he pops into a conference room, sits on the table in bell-bottom jeans, and says, “Tell me something: Is it distracting to have such a good-looking CEO?”

Donny sees campaigns before they’re finished, and offers his special blessing. He takes a look at the new Revlon commercial with Halle Berry—the Revlon business was taken from Kirshenbaum Bond. “Fresh feel,” says Donny. “It’s what the doctor ordered.” But he really responds to new Snapple spots. In one, Snapple bottles are dressed as tourists at the running of the bulls in Pamplona. The bulls are played by guinea pigs. “You are so fucking tweaked,” Donny shouts through a hennish laugh. “Fucking great.”

Still, for Donny, the challenge has diminished: “It’s not as exciting for me as it was five years ago.” In advertising, the era of big personalities is disappearing. A few years ago, Donny decided, “we won the game,” the one he wanted to play, the one suited to his talents, his personality. He swore he’d always be at Deutsch, but, he says, “I want to do other things, too.”

Donny had been a frequent guest and also a guest host on Kudlow & Cramer when he proposed a talk show about what he called “sexy business.” Think, he said, of “the Rolling Stones on the cover of Forbes.” Donny also thought in terms of politics. He’s a Democrat. “Why does the right wing own the opportunity to be irreverent? Provocative?” he’d ask. Donny often worked best with an enemy in mind. “Bill O’Reilly is the Antichrist,” Donny said after appearing on his show. Donny would position himself as the anti-O’Reilly.

CNBC was intrigued enough to see how he did on a pilot. He reeled in friends Russell Simmons and Michael J. Fox. After some uncharacteristic nervousness—“It’s my head on the chopping block,” he said—he did fine. He seemed natural, at ease. “He’s more comfortable on camera than off,” says one colleague.

Still, some wondered why Donny would get a shot at TV. “Some people think he’s a philistine,” says one colleague. He’s not a book reader or a museumgoer, it’s true. But the more perplexing question for some was, as one CNBC producer phrased it, “Why would a person with enough money to live on an island for the rest of his life put up with the rigors of a daily TV show?”


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