How One Small Agency Changed Advertising

How One Small Agency Changed Advertising

Jon Bond and Richard Kirshenbaum are trying hard not to be seen, hiding in plain sight at the Pen & Pencil restaurant, an upscale eatery in Midtown Manhattan.

It’s the lunchtime rush and the waiter, dressed in a crisp white shirt and black trousers has come over once, twice, to take their order but again they push him away. The two ad hustlers work at different advertising agencies but have a side gig that lets them meet during lunch hour to collaborate on freelance projects.

The projects pay just enough to buy the duo lunch at the most expensive restaurants in town.

They only have the lunch hour to come up an idea for a full-page print ad for Kenneth Cole footwear. There’s no agreement to run an ad — this means that Kenneth Cole himself has to feel like the ad is good enough to spend the money.

The year is 1986. Ronald Reagan is President of the United States. Madonna is singing “Papa Don’t Preach,” Cyndi Lauder has her hit “True Colors.” The movie “Top Gun” starring Tom Cruise has not come out yet, but the off-kilter Australian rom-com “Crocodile Dundee” is playing on movie screens.

In the Philippines, dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda are getting headlines as jet-setting bootstrappers. Their country is besieged by enormous poverty, yet the couple plays on the international party circuit. News flash: A newspaper article reveals that shopper Imelda Marcos owns thousands of pairs of shoes.

A couple days later advertising creative director James Patterson walks through the sad hallways of the legendary J. Walter Advertising agency (this same James Patterson will later become famous author James Patterson). In the 21st century JWT will become one of the templates for the T.V. show “Madmen”, but in 1986 the agency reeks of mold.

Patterson steps inside every office of the JWT creative department and holds up a page in The New York Times, before startled art directors and copywriters.

It is a full-page ad for Kenneth Cole shoes. The advertisement is two simple sentences in black and white type. No photograph. No picture of shoes. Executionally, it’s the least expensive advertisement you could produce in The New York Times. In fact, the only thing less expensive than this ad would be to run a blank page. And the ad is a simple one-liner.

“Imelda Marcos bought 2,700 pairs of shoes. She could’ve at least had the courtesy to buy a pair of ours. — Kenneth Cole.”

“This is the kind of work we should be doing here!” Patterson declares, then stomps down the hallway to the next office and then the next. It’s a long hallway. “Why can’t we do this kind of work here?” “Why aren’t you doing ads like this?”

Finally, Patterson reaches copywriter Richard Kirshenbaum’s office and leans in. “Why can’t you do this kind of work?” he roars.

Kirshenbaum looks at the ad, then at Patterson and laughs. “There’s no way we can do that kind of work here,” Kirshenbaum replies. “This place sucks. Kenneth Cole is my freelance client!”

This sparks the beginning of legendary advertising agency Kirshenbaum + Bond. Gone now, nearly forgotten, K+B (which later became KBS) ignited many of the themes, executions and thinking that still run through social, digital and traditional advertising and marketing today.

The first pop-up store.

Using real people instead of actors in television commercials.

The real-life video look of “Reality TV”.

Brilliant ideas that have so much fun, sense, and inexpensive baked into them that clients cannot resist buying them. And people could not help but talk about them.

Kirshenbaum + Bond promoted Word Of Mouth (WOM) not as a by-product, but as an intentional outcome. Twenty years before the twitterstream.

Kirshenbaum + Bond’s Kenneth Cole print campaign became a New York thing. In the 1990s, everyone in Manhattan — consumers and industry folks alike — watched and waited for the next ad to appear.

“There was no media plan,” recalls Jon Bond. “We waited for events to happen and got Kenneth’s opinion.”

Loaded with puns, double entendres and winks to the Manhattan tribe, Kenneth Cole ads were culturally relevant, deliberately cause-ridden, outrageously not as much about the footwear as they were about the values of the people who wished to wear Kenneth Cole shoes.

Importantly, Kenneth Cole advertising gave modern issues their voice: AIDS, homelessness, political frictions. When Lorena Bobbit cut off her husband’s penis, there was an ad for that. When Vice President Dan Quayle publicly embarrassed himself by misspelling a word, there was an ad for that. When conservatives ignored the AIDS epidemic, Kenneth Cole ads boldly supported research and funding.

In a time before “purpose-driven” K+B’s Kenneth Cole ads pointedly proclaimed pay attention, this matters. The ads were funny, cute, ballsy, tone smart and full-page news in the most culturally diverse and actionable city in America. Kenneth Cole ads served as activist prompts to help push societal issues forward.

The DNA for Nike’s Kaepernick advertising lies in Kenneth Cole. “Kenneth Cole was definitely at the forefront of purpose-driven marketing,” nods Bill Oberlander who was art director on the Kenneth Cole account.

Companies large and small started pointing to Kenneth Cole ads as the thing. “We started the agency with that one client,” says Jon Bond.

Fast Forward

Colleen Broomall was in sixth grade when her mother told her that she didn’t want to take her to Take Your Daughter To Work Day. Mrs. Barbara Broomall was at an alternative high school teacher in New Jersey where she taught emotionally disturbed students. She didn’t want daughter Colleen to get caught up in the complexities of her students.

“I was 12 years old,” recalls Colleen. “I’m a feminist and so when my mom said ‘No,’ I asked the Snapple lady if I could go to work with her.”

The “Snapple Lady” was Wendy Kaufman, a Snapple employee that Kirshenbaum + Bond had written into television commercials.

Snapple management had seen the Kenneth Cole campaign and wanted Kirshenbaum + Bond to do something just as smart, funny, breakthrough for them. At the time, the brewed tea company Snapple was a regional, family-owned business — an outlier in a beverage industry dominated by Coke and Pepsi.

The company advertised Snapple on local NBC radio shows starring Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh (fledgling brands themselves). But when those celebrities made on-air mentions of Snapple, many in their audience didn’t know who or what “Snapple” was.

“Before those commercials started airing it was just a spunky little beverage company,” says Broomall. “People would write to Snapple, but no one would answer the letters. Wendy appointed herself the PR lady and started answering letters.”

“I was working with the truck drivers handling orders,” explains Wendy Kaufman, arguably the first “real” person to star on television screens (so-called “Reality T.V.” did not appear for another decade). “I assigned myself to public relations, because I could relate publicly.”

On the morning of Take Your Daughter To Work Day, a black limo pulled up outside Colleen Broomall’s house in New Jersey with six cases of Snapple. Likewise, Colleen spent her day helping Wendy visit people’s homes and brighten their days with free Snapple.

“People related to me because I was 100-percent natural advertising,” recalls Wendy. This was in the middle of the Cola Wars, when rivals Coke and Pepsi were flaunting supermodels like Cindy Crawford and Christy Brinkley.

“I was overweight, I had foibles. I wasn’t beautiful,” says Kaufman. “I was not perfect and not listened to. It was a radical move for them to hire me. And it paid off — the fans loved me.

“K+B had this wonderful opportunity to grow their brand while we were building our brand,” continues Wendy, who currently is quarantining in Western Massachusetts. “We were these crazy people ending up in the mainstream. We were the outsiders, the underdogs. We were making people happy. We were building together. We were like a big family.”

“Wendy brought so much kindness and joy because of her spirit,” says Colleen Broomall. “And I wanted to be like her.”

“The goodness that we did for other people,” recalls Kaufman. “If people didn’t have money, we gave them Snapple. It was a life changer for people.”

“The idea behind Snapple was that trust is more important than being ‘perfect’,” says Jon Bond. “There were no scripts. Everything was real. A dog wandered into the frame, we kept it in. We were honest.”

(Snapple is one of the great success stories in advertising. It is also the saddest. Snapple was a $23 million business when they hired K+B and a $750 million company three years later. When Snapple sold to Quaker Oats, they promptly dumped the Wendy campaign.)

There Are Other Stories

Hennessy cognac sales were declining because people were giving up after-dinner drinks. K+B visited their local bar across the street to experiment. They found that by chilling the cognac and adding a drop of lemon, it made the product lighter and more suitable for pre-dinner cocktails. Then they poured it into a Martini glass because it’s cooler (even though ‘martini’ at the time was defined as a drink with vermouth and vodka or gin). But what happened next was inspirational.

“We hired dozens of actors in key cities to invade bars that didn’t serve Hennessy,” recalls Jon Bond. “We staged mini dramas inside the bar — typically where the attractive couple gets into an argument and then makes up and orders Hennessy for everyone. No one knew it was staged until years later when an Esquire article outed us.”

Meanwhile, Hennessy sales grew from 400,000 to 2.5MM cases. Hennessy won Spirits Marketer of The Year twice.

Today, Pop-Up stores are a ubiquitous part of retail, but until K+B christened them by creating snap retail spaces for Delta, “The Apprentice” and temporary retail space for Target on the barges of the Hudson River, the pop-up concept was an outlier idea that did not really exist. (K+B also helped upgrade Target from price shopper to designy chic.)

In 1992, legendary rock music group The Rolling Stones wanted to launch a clothing brand called Rockwear. (Polo shirts that looked a lot like Ralph Lauren — except The Stones’s iconic tongue logo would replace the Polo Pony.) The perfect middle finger to establishment fashion designer orthodoxy.

Kirshenbaum + Bond presented a launch advertising campaign to Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger while he was on the Steel Wheels tour. They met at the Ritz Carlton bar in Naples.

Mick had attended London School of Economics, so he often acted more like a brand manager for The Rolling Stones franchise, than the band’s lead singer.

Jon Bond and Richard Kirshenbaum showed Mick a magazine advertisement that included a photograph of the band members on stage with no clothes (music instruments were strategically placed).

Jagger stared at the photo. And stared some more.

Finally, Mick looked up and said, “Well. That’s ok for me because, well, I keep myself pretty fit. But have you had a good look at the other guys?”

It is difficult beyond words to describe how irreverent, shocking, funny, outrageous and heartening K+B work was within the tonality of 1990s America. The world was flat. Not even “Saturday Night Live” was particularly funny. This was a time before sex in the White House. Terrorists hijacked airplanes, not cities or countries. Everyone could name The Beatles.

Playing in the amphitheater of 1990s media, commerce needed hard dollars to be seen or heard. Startups existed, but only after they had secured millions of dollars in funding. Advertising was targeted toward an ideal consumer, primped and ready for Prime Time, not for the great sloppy consuming proletariat.

Emotional, personal, or social were adjectives reserved for greeting cards. All other advertisers geared up for polished full-frontal assaults.

By contrast the Kenneth Cole campaign was not only an efficient use of media, it became a megaphone for social issues, current events, human rights, values and social justice. Transparency? You could see right through them. Their value proposition in trendy New York City did not come from the shoes, but from the people who wore them. (To answer the question whether or not purpose-driven brands succeed: Kenneth Cole went from $2 million in sales to over $500 million during the life of the campaign.)

On the other side of town, the consumable Donny Deutsch was doing similar things (example: a real person bit to help launch IKEA’s entry into Long Island) but they did not derive from the same provocative spinal tap.

Kirshenbaum + Bond held an unfair advantage because the agency was driven by its culture.

The culture of the agency was overt acceptance — if they were gay, the odd person in high school, the person who didn’t fit the mold — for the first time in their lives they felt that they fit in. K+B was a place for outcasts. At the agency’s 10th anniversary party, the receptionist, a huge black gay man, lay down in Jon and Richard’s lap and sang “Mister President”.

A New, Disruptive Agency

Traditional, conservative advertising agencies considered K+B to be an insult, like a spit in the face.

“At K+B the culture was ‘Best ideas win,’” sums up Rosemarie Ryan, former president of K+B. “There was no such thing as ‘we can’t do that.’ It was a meritocracy. People didn’t care about titles, we cared about what work we put out into the world. I was 31 when I became President. People were very young and tapped into the culture.”

These days, Joe Doucet is head of his own design firm JDXP and listed in Fast Company as one of the century’s top industrial designers. But he got a head start as Partner and head of the Design group at Kirshenbaum + Bond. Doucet remembers the intensity, the desire to do great work, the closeness of the people who worked there. “We were the underdogs pitching against much larger agencies,” he recalls. “We were very small, very nimble.”

“We didn’t think about advertising in traditional terms of the 30-second television commercial — although we did plenty of those,” recalls Rosemarie Ryan. “When I started we were three people and our clients didn’t have huge budgets. So we had to learn how to make the most of what we had, which forced us to think more creatively about how we went to market.

“PR was fundamental. We were integrated, word of mouth, experiences (chalk on pavement) that added to the other work we were doing. Strategically placed media that could get a lot of interest. We were way ahead of that — that’s what made us successful. It was a very modern way to think about going to market.”

“At the time we were very much media-agnostic — we didn’t think (the formula) print ad, tv spot,” agrees Bill Oberlander, who today is founder and executive creative director at his agency Oberland. “For Snapple, I think the assignment was a B2B ad and we wondered how to connect with the audience. Period. That became the idea for Snapple Stickers — we put stickers for Mango-Flavored Snapple on mangoes at the grocery store (and also on apples and other Snapple fruits).

“For Bambu lingerie we put ‘stickers’ on the sidewalk: ‘From here it looks like you need a new pair of underwear.’ We used watercolor paints so we wouldn’t get in trouble with the city.

How do we touch the consumer at an emotional level — and let’s just make it up as we go?”

Even The Stories Have Stories

Anything you need to know to explain Jon Bond can be summed in a single sentence: His mother was a psychoanalyst and his father was a film and theater star. After going to Washington University in St. Louis, Jon went back to New York City and took a job as a messenger. He dropped off packages at swanky advertising agencies and during one delivery spotted David Ogilvy’s “Confessions of an Advertising Man”. He became enthralled and decided to become an advertising copywriter. He put together a portfolio. He worked at Trout & Ries, the team that came up with the concept of “Positioning” in the 1970s (a ubiquitous marketing term ever since). Then he met Richard Kirshenbaum.

Shortly after James Patterson flashed the Kenneth Cole Imelda Marcos ad in front of Richard Kirshenbaum, Jon Bond met Bill Tragos, one of the founders of advertising agency TBWA, at a party in Greenwich, Connecticut. Jon Bond asked Bill Tragos if he should start an advertising agency. “Do it,” said Tragos. “You’ll make a lot of money.”

Where Are They Now?

Graduates of K+B have spilled out into the universe and become directors, photographers, designers, and builders of their own agencies.

Jane Geraghty is in London running Landor. Strategist Domenico Vitale helped to create People Ideas + Culture, a new kind of creative company. Account executive Felicia Stingone helped rebrand 92nd Street Y into 92Y and then went to work with legendary New York City restauranteur Danny Meyer. Creative Mike McGuire became a dynamite film director. Rosemarie Ryan started co-collective. Jon Bond is still in Manhattan, and even today is a serial entrepreneur with companies like Media Kitchen, Big Fuel, Lime, The Shipyard, and more.

“Jon Bond is basically the guerilla marketing pioneer,” says Geoff Colon, head of Microsoft Advertising’s Brand Studio. Colon reminds us from Seattle that human behavior has become simplified to data points and attribution; intuitive judgement is out of bounds. “Jon was a trailblazer in the space we now consider to be disruptive or guerilla marketing, when in fact he was just thinking, This is how people behave — let’s capitalize on that somehow.

“People in the tech world think that’s not important anymore,” remarks Colon. “We take for granted the things we do today. We forget that they were once original thoughts.”

Which is probably the best way to remember Kirsenbaum + Bond.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Patrick Hanlon, Author of Primal Branding

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