Fast Chat: Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein

January, 2013 by


San Francisco’s Goodby, Silverstein & Partners took a considered approach about when to open in New York, one of the toughest U.S. agency markets. It is just now taking the plunge, naming S.F. exec Nancy Reyes associate partner and managing director of the new Manhattan office and West Coast colleague Christian Haas partner and executive creative director. The New York upstart is a kind of homecoming for co-founder Rich Silverstein, who grew up outside the city in Yorktown Heights, and remembers throwing pumpkins off the nearby Croton dam. It’s also the second expansion initiative for GS&P, which opened in Detroit in 2010 to work for General Motors’ Chevrolet account. But the move into New York isn’t so much client driven as it is about retaining and attracting talent.

Adweek: You both have always been very deliberate and cautious about expanding into New York. Why open now?
Goodby: It’s only taken us 29 years.
Silverstein: We thought we could build a world-class agency out of San Francisco. We always thought clients wouldn’t mind it and we could always attract talent and it worked. But we’ve lost some really good talent because they just wanted to go back to New York City. It wasn’t even about a company or a client or a relationship, they just had to go back.

Can you be more specific?
Goodby: Over the years there have been any number of people, people like [Barton Graf 9000 founder] Gerry Graf, Dan Lucey who went to BBDO [as a creative director], people who have said to us “If you had an office in New York, I would love to work for you, but I have to move back there for one reason or another.” So it’s about losing people we would otherwise be able to keep in S.F. and it’s also about being able to get people who wouldn’t move to S.F. in the first place. New York is the cultural center of America, if not the world, and we don’t have a presence in it. We need to take that culture in and be affected by it more directly. It’s great to be in S.F. and it’s been really good for us because it’s an alternative kind of place and we have an alternative take on life. The interesting thing is we migrated to S.F. from the East Coast (as individuals) and now we’re going back again for things that are important and that we’ve missed.
Silverstein: When you grow up in the New York area, like myself, it never leaves the bloodstream. You’re always connected forever. Christian and Nancy are smart and they’ve grown up in our family, our company. They get us and we get them and it’s seamless. Nancy is about as good an account person as we’ve ever worked with. She was going back to New York because of family and started looking for a job, which we didn’t know about. When we found out she was going to take a job it was like “You’re kidding me, you have to work for us.” That’s when we said we have to open an office. That’s how much we think of her. Christian has always worked well with Nancy and when we asked him if he wanted to go, he said yes. This is all about people. It wasn’t about a client.

Is this another way to institutionalize the agency brand? You’re both at a point in your lives when you think about … ?
Goodby: Things like when you die? There is a little bit of that in that we want to have people around us that are the best people in the world. One of the things we’ve noticed is that other agencies with more offices, like Dan Wieden’s agency [Wieden + Kennedy], are able to keep people around sometimes longer than we are with only one office in S.F. and one in Detroit. We can’t offer people the head account job in Tokyo or the head account job in Shanghai or Mumbai. We’ve never regretted that. What we’re doing now is for qualitative reasons but it’s going to have that side effect. We don’t want to have offices around the world just to have them. I stay up at night worrying about that shit.
Silverstein: This is an opportunity in that it will feel like an extension of us but yet be its own animal. It will be made in the mold of these two people opening it. We’re here to help them but we’re not going to tell them how to do it. Agencies cannot stand still. We don’t have to come up with some phony name and some new way to look at the world that we want to register as a trademark, but agencies do have to evolve and move. They’re living organisms.

Rich, you have an apartment in New York City. How much time have you been spending there?
Silverstein: I’m probably there for three days every other month.
Goodby: He’ll be there all the time now so he can write off his villa.
Silverstein: To me New York has always been a place where I can go fill myself up for three days and do things you never get to do because you’re working. Things like going to plays, going to the opera, to the museums. I’m not going to change that but I’m excited now to go to an office and work. I have a couple of pro-bono accounts. I’m working with Robert Wilson, the famous artist, and he has a place out in Watermill and he’s asked me to help brand his library that he’s building. I get to work with people that I wouldn’t get to work with here. I think I can convince Jeff to go there and sit for a little while.
Goodby: I spend time there. I work on [East Coast clients] NBA and Elizabeth Arden, Ameritrade and Comcast, so I go back there a lot. We also both go back because we like the place. Part of the reason we’re doing this is because of throwing pumpkins off the Croton dam and me going there as a kid looking at the ocean liners on the West Side. We love it there and we have connections.

A lot of agencies like Fallon and W+K have tried to break into New York and it’s a tough market. Jay Chiat even moved to the city from Los Angeles to help his agency succeed. How do you make inroads?
Silverstein: We’re not trying to be better than anyone else, we’re not trying to be another agency in New York. We want to make it more of a jewel, we want to keep it small and keep it great. When people like Jay Chiat and [London’s Bartle Bogle Hegarty co-founder] John Hegarty move to New York that sends a message: “I’m going to make this big, make this important.” We’re not trying to do that.
Goodby: I think that also says, “We’re going to teach you something. We’re coming here with our personality and it’s going to be valuable in New York.” I think we expect to learn from New York and create something from it rather than bring anything to it. New York doesn’t need us bringing anything to it.

Was GS&P parent Omnicom pushing for this expansion?
Goodby: They’ve never encouraged us to open other offices. Quite the opposite. They usually just say to us, “Have you really thought this out? Did you think of this, did you think of that?” By the time we think about this and that, we decide not to do it. In this case we went through that process and still wanted to do it.
Silverstein: We’re not secretly going to New York to try to build another network. We are blatantly looking for talent. I’m actually jealous. When you think about Jeff and I starting way back with [third GS&P founder] Andy [Berlin], it was just a few people and it’s kind of fun to do that again and this is more of that than it is anything.

Where are you in the New York staffing process?
Silverstein: The doors are opening with two people, Nancy and Christian. [Since the news came out] the phone has been ringing off the hook. We have been looking for certain people like an office manager, a planner, people we need right away. With skills like editors and animators, we will have some of the in-house talent approach that we have in S.F.
Goodby: We’re serious about attracting people that aren’t necessarily who we have in S.F. or in Detroit. We think New York is a different place and not everyone wants to move to S.F. or Detroit to work.

Any East Coast new business in the pipeline?
Goodby: We have ideas but there’s nothing specific to talk about yet. We’re really opening the kimono when we say we don’t have some big anchor client to do this opening with.

Source: Adweek