An Interview With Dan Rosenthal
Dan Rosenthal is an independent marketing professional with over four decades of experience. He’s won two first-place Clio Awards, three first-place Andy Awards, and innumerable Washington Addy Awards, including several Best of Shows.
Dan’s work has appeared in The One Show, Communication Arts, The London International Advertising Awards, The Print Regional Annual and national shows in Chicago and Los Angeles. He’s been listed in Forbes Magazine’s “Top 100 Creative People in the Country,” as well as Dossier Magazine’s “The Mighty 500.”
Dan holds an AAF Certificate in Marketing from Harvard University and is widely known as an industry expert. His reputation as a marketing agency CEO has often eclipsed his skill as a creative director; he’s developed strategies for dozens of national and regional clients. He’s also put these plans into action, and directed full-scale TV, print, radio and outdoor campaigns, as well as email, social media and online advertising.
Rosenthal started his career as a tour guide for The Washington Post. There he met the legendary Herblock, who inspired Dan to create his own editorial cartoons. His current work is available here.
What was your first job in the industry? How do you look back on it?
It was a job at The Washington Post — a no-brainer liaison function between the in-house ad people and the print workers who put the paper together each night on giant presses. In those days, ads were cast on lead plates and photos were chemically engraved on copper or zinc sheets. I was not allowed by the union to touch any of that, so I’d walk around the print shop with my hands behind my back.
One of the copywriters liked me, and she’d let me write small post cards used to promote the newspaper’s advertisers. I’d draw cartoons for the ads as well. Then they made me editor of the Carrier, a newspaper for the kids who delivered the paper house to house.
Turned out to be a fantastic job. I was also the Post’s Tour Guide (multitasking, anyone?) and I’d walk groups around the newsroom, pointing out Ben Bradlee, Katherine Graham, Herblock and other now-famous journalists, explaining how newspapers gathered the news, wrote their opinions, laid out all the ads and stories and got it all dropped on a million doorsteps 365 mornings a year.
How has marketing and advertising changed from the beginning of your career to now?
I went from an 'in-house' ad agency at The Washington Post to a series of traditional advertising agencies. In that entire time, 1966-2009, advertising targeted customers using 'traditional” media' — magazines, newspapers, radio, TV, outdoor, direct mail and collateral materials. As digital media emerged after 2000, we all scrambled to add banner ads and websites to our toolkits.
And while the impact of powerful, emotional, attention-getting creative advertising grew and then subsided, overpowered as it is today by splintered social and customer-driven text, the principles of marketing are still unchanged and critically important. Product, Delivery, Promotion and Price.
Who were your mentors?
John Dower, my boss at The Washington Post; Henry J. Kaufman, my first ad agency boss and Mel Stein, a New York creative director. Like most mentors, they led by example and represented honesty in advertising, an emphasis on strategic planning and how things are done when you push for excellence.
Which person/company in the industry do you admire most? Why?
When I led my own ad agency, we joined peer group forums and once visited an agency in Pittsburgh called Blattner/Bruner. Oh. My. God. They were HD digital before it was popular, and used interactive Wi-Fi to blaze imaginative systems from research to accounting to floor management (no receptionist, only signals that visitors were nearing). Their creative work was astounding and their office architecture made Silicon Valley look Victorian. They had coffee bars, crepe stations, game stations and dazzling artwork all over. To this day, I wish I could build an agency like that.
What was your favorite project?
The best was a restaurant chain called Fritzbe’s, who trusted us to take their limited budget and maximize its value with outstanding creative that would magnify a small budget through its emotional power. We showed them a risky campaign where their logo was embedded in a series of really funny full page comic strips (instead of 'ads') in magazines. It worked.
What was the high and low of your career?
Somebody famous once said “advertising is the most fun you can have with your clothes on,” and I agree. The thrill of seeing a tremendously exciting ad campaign break and getting people talking and responding is hard to describe. The spark of finding that 'breakthrough' idea and then persuading resistant, worried clients is an amazing feeling. What I liked least about advertising as a career was losing big clients for bad reasons. You have to fire people as a result and regain that revenue, all the while trying to keep morale and spirits high.
What lessons did you learn throughout your career that could help others?
- Manage positively and be positive; people need their brains relaxed and happy to come up with great ideas.
- Get out of the weeds. Keep thinking of the strategy and encourage others to do that.
- Be honest. Say what you think.
- Keep pushing. Don’t settle for inferior ideas or mediocre production values.
- Know your weaknesses and have highly talented people in those positions.
- Take vacations.
If you could do it again, would you take a different career path, or are you satisfied with the route you followed?
Since 'retiring,' I have been drawing editorial cartoons, and I think back about that glass office in The Washington Post where I once sat down with their cartoonist, Herb Block (Herblock). I think if I could start over, I would intern as a political cartoonist where I could still create ideas and see them published—but instead have a small but direct influence on the world and its political outcomes.