Tailor-Made-Richard Kirshenbaum

Vivianne Lapointe discusses the art in commerce with Richard Kirshenbaum

"It's been one of those crazy days,"Richard Kirshenbaum exclaims as he welcomes me to his headquarters. It's tucked into a corner space on the sixth floor of a tall building on Varick Street with larger-than-life windows offering up downtown New York City. Phones ring. Papers flutter. His assistant is out of the office. Piles of proofs and documents clutter his desk; he protests he's "usually not that messy." But who cares about disorder when you've got walls dressed with gorgeous art? No LeRoy Neiman lithographs here. Paintings and prints from photographers like Cindy Sherman and Melvin Sokolsky, as well as images from advertising shoots and some of Kirshenbaum with friends, including Andy Warhol, dot the walls - a testament to the past two decades of advertising superstardom. "I started this agency because I am interested in the creative process, both in the art and craft of it and in making deals," he says. Kirshenbaum has piercing eyes and a charming smile. His phone is ringing off the hook.

Twenty years ago, Kirshenbaum, then 26, co-founded the first integrated advertising agency with partner Jonathan Bond. He's the executive who envisioned the Snapple Lady, created the advertising sculpture and gave David LaChapelle his first shot as an advertising photographer. "When Jon and I started kbp, we were based out of the conference room of a friend's real estate office. When our clients came for a meeting, we would stick the Kirshenbaum & Bond sign over theirs at the door." No doubt he's always been gifted with a strong sense of branding and a fair share of audacity.

Today, Kirshenbaum and his partners oversee a team of more than 300 people. The company - big fans of the lowercase apparently - consists of kirshenbaum bond (advertising), lime public relations + promotion, the media kitchen (media buying and planning) and dotglu (interactive and direct marketing). It is set up on three loft floors - a colorful think tank with meeting rooms named after famous and inspiring locales, like Studio 54. He claims to know every single one of his employees.

"I look at some friends my age who decided to go into the music industry, and the business has fundamentally changed," he says. "Same with those who went into film - with the writers' strike last year, not to mention Wall Street. Advertising now, more than ever before, is the glamorous business to be a part of." He leans back. "It's become a blue-chip industry," he says, laughing.

But what is the secret to long-lasting success in such a competitive industry? In today's multifaceted media landscape, Kirshenbaum celebrates the value of a traditional advertising discipline: handcrafted advertising. "The classically trained branding people are fewer and fewer. I feel like we have this wealth of experience here. I care to infuse the upcoming generation of executives with an extravagant attention of details," he declares.

To Kirshenbaum, who was mentored by strong female executives such as Lois Korey - herself mentored by Mary Wells Lawrence - says the keys to success are quality, class and authenticity. "Wells understood the art of it, the importance of entertaining clients and of socializing in order to become extremely successful in business. She understood the power of it. If a client was passionate about Japanese swords, she'd become an expert at it. She'd have people over at her house for a Japanese-themed night. I feel like this part of our job as advertising executives is now underrated. I recently met with a new client and since we closed our first deal, we've been exchanging handwritten notes. Now that's the kind of client I always want to have. It makes it worth taking the time."

Tailor-Made-Richard Kirshenbaum interviewDoing Lunch

Modern advertising should strive for something else, Kirshenbaum thinks. Perhaps there can be more than commercialism to commercials. Whether it's a spot for a global audience or an obscure viral YouTube video, Kirshenbaum believes it should be a piece of art. "Whether it's a TV commercial, a print ad, overseeing a global team like I do for Avon, making sure the interactive work is consistent with the brand campaign or even separate crm content that drives acquisition and retention, the buck has to stop somewhere, and there has to be ownership and an eye to all the creative considerations. Whether it's choosing the right creative talent, i.e. directors, photographers, content providers - I can say that I now spend more of my time 'handcrafting' the work, and there are very few people who do it well."

An avid art collector and a member of the photography committee of the Whitney Museum, Kirshenbaum remembers the first years of Art Basel Miami. "I used to go to Art Basel when it was really about art. Now, it's just a circus crowded with finance people looking for a good investment and, of course, hot parties in South Beach." As with advertising, he says, "the art of it is what seems to be lost in the process."

But he doesn't limit this thinking to the fine arts. "A great idea can happen in every medium," he adds. "Everybody is so focused on solving the biggest issues of integration and globalization - how to talk and how to reach this whole new level of consumer with different needs, different habits. We tend to focus too much on the medium. However, no matter how exciting the media choice, clients like and want, respect, value and they need the craft now more than ever. In the end, advertising is really where art meets commerce. It's like this shirt," he says, gesturing. "I picked out the fabric, the stitching, the unique buttons. This is form, function and art altogether."

Tom Scott, one of the founding Toms of Nantucket Nectars, first met Kirshenbaum when KPB worked on the Snapple account. "Over the years, I got to know him personally. I love his energy. He's very enthusiastic in his approach to life," says Scott, now the head of Plum TV. He approached Kirshenbaum to host his own show on the prestigious hyper-local network.

"I really wanted to do this, but I had to find a way to fit it in," Kirshenbaum tells me. "I didn't want any scene shot in a studio, I couldn't invest a huge amount of time, and most importantly, I wanted to create something that was true to what I do daily."

And what does an ad exec do? Luncheons. And so, Creative Lunch was born. "Like the concept in his show, we dreamt up the idea over a few lunches. It's an inspiration-rich environment," Scott explains.

"I tend to internalize and find creative inspiration in things that I see and that I hear. Everyone has a story to share over a meal," Kirshenbaum says. "There aren't a lot of shows that dissect the creative process. This show is not only about creativity; it's about people and what inspires them."

All Sewn Up

While we're chatting, creatives come and go to get approval on the latest proofs for Wendy's next interactive campaign; the breakfast sandwich photos really do look "waaaay" better than fast food. Shows what you can do with a camera. "I have this philosophy which I call my Baskin Robbins approach to creative: There are 32 flavors, and we do every flavor except vanilla," he explains.

Kirshenbaum looks otherworldly impeccable in a light blue suit ornamented with a funky pocket square - as if he's stepped out of a Wodehouse novel. I can only imagine where he's coming from, and more important, where we're going. We get into the car and drive east to Nolita for further enlightenment: a meeting with Kirshenbaum's tailor, a living testament to the concept of handcrafting. "This is a great way to spend the afternoon. It's like an extension of what I am doing during the day, except now the client is myself, and I can go as brash as I want," he says. Richard (now that we're shopping, I'm comfortable enough to use his first name) is ordering a new shirt for the summer. Everything he wears is custom-made and initialed RK.

Roberto de Carrara, the tailor, and RK have known each other for two decades. "Seventeen years ago, I used to package things; now, I package people," says de Carrara, an ex-advertising exec who followed his passion for style and opened a store on Mott Street. He's now working with the best graphic print designer in Italy.

RK chooses a silk and cotton fabric. "It drapes like a silk shirt, but feels like cotton," he explains. As he picks the patterns and colors, his fastidious attention to details shows. "My look really hasn't changed over the years. I look at the magazine features from 20 years ago, and I was already wearing pocket squares," he admits. "Could we do three different patterns? I want to pick something else for the cuffs," he asks de Carrara, who doesn't usually use three patterns for a custom shirt.

The tailor ponders, shrugs, and eventually agrees to the request. RK smiles and tells me, "I spend that much time designing a shirt - but when I know this is it, this is it. How much fun is it to get exactly what you want?" The idea plays throughout his conversations, a leitmotif. Right now, what RK wants is to bring disparate and competing elements into one harmonious convergence. Again, he gets what he wants. And again, it works just right.

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