He had a way with words. Anyone who knew him would tell you that. “I don't mean to pontificate,” he'd often say, and then he would. He was a legend, a classic and a brilliant marketer. He was also the epitome of what the advertising business was about—and would soon become.
It was the summer of 1991, and the recession was in full swing when I met my mentor, Barry Siegel, and my career started. Our coming together was the result of my father's distaste for my living habits under his roof, and of my inability to type.
I had just graduated from Syracuse's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, and I felt entitled to a corner office. I would be the Gordon Gekko of advertising. I would have a driver, attend lavish parties and fly around the world. And getting there would be easy, right? All I had to do was type 90 words a minute. How hard could it be? Have you ever tried to type that fast?
I soon found myself down to my last $50, faced with the reality of moving back home and leaving my roommates and our palatial 350-square-foot studio. I became desperate and I started begging. “I'll do anything,” I said. “Please just give me a job in advertising. I can type. I will stuff envelopes, make copies. I'll do just about anything.”
After a week or so of this desperation, a woman named Julie called to tell me she had something for me. It was a temporary position at an advertising agency, a medical agency. “What is a medical agency?” I thought. But I told her it was perfect. Julie replied, “You can type, right? This is heavy typing and computer work for the director of market research at Sudler & Hennessey. His name is Barry Siegel.”
“Of course I can type.”
Things were different than I'd imagined, but Barry was just what I hoped for.
“Come on in, Babe, let's get started,” he said. “The first thing I need you to do is type up these letters by noon.” Almost an hour later, I was asking a secretary named Christine for help to get the computer turned on, sweating bullets because I think we have established by now that I cannot type. So, Christine took three letters and I took one. This continued for a month, until one day he called me into his office and shut the door.
“Babe, you're a nice kid. I like you. Not sure why. Other than the fact that you went to Syracuse and so did my daughters. You can't type. I see you running back and forth asking Christine for help. Not sure you even know how to use the computer. Frankly, we should stop now. But I like you. I think you've got something—a way about you. And I'm going to teach you.”
Barry did just that for two years. He was my teacher and I was his project. “This is how you analyze data; this is how you present. Get busy, or at least look it. You're in the advertising business, but we're really in the business of making our clients famous. We're selling ads, but were also selling confidence. I was going to present this today, but I've changed my mind; why don't you do it; the meeting starts in five minutes.”
I took a part of Barry with me to the next agency, and it made all the difference. His influence had given me a huge leg up and allowed me to advance faster than I might have otherwise.
Not too long ago, Barry Siegel passed away. I was crushed when I heard the news—such a warm, caring and giving person. Despite an inauspicious beginning, Barry gave me my big break. And he will always be sitting next to me.
Mike Rutstein is EVP, account management, focusing on consumer healthcare, FCB NY