Thursday, January 2, 2014

A Root for Kupe

In December, the advertising industry lost two legendary men.

First, there was Jim Schmidt of Downtown Partners in Chicago. I only knew Jim through Facebook. We exchanged commentary on the sad state of our industry and shared many of the same views regarding the decline of creativity and the ruthless rise of financial efficiency.

I suspect if I knew him better we could have had some spirited back and forth regarding his 2nd city and my first, NYC.

Jim's passing was followed by the loss of Mike Hughes. I didn't know Mike either. But I did run into him and his wife at the Sundance Film Festival in 2001. I stopped him on the streets of Park City and introduced myself. He said it was unnecessary since he knew of me and my work.

That floored me.

I was also taken by all the kind words written and spoken on behalf of Jim and Mike in the days following their deaths. And have always found this to be the oddest of practices. How much better it would be if we shared words of appreciation with people while they're above ground.

In that spirit I'd like to share a story about the gruff one, Bob Kuperman.

December of 1997 was quite a festive time at TBWA Chiat/Day in Los Angeles. Arguably, one of the best years in the agency's history. In addition to being named Agency of the Year, we were firing on all cylinders; doing groundbreaking work for every account, including Apple, Taco Bell, PlayStation, Levi's, and ABC.

To show their appreciation, Chiat brass handed out fat bonus checks to employees who had contributed to the agency's success.

I'm sure there are many of you who are new to the business and are unfamiliar with this archaic practice. I suggest you ask your parents or consult Wikipedia about the definition and nature of a "bonus check."

Without disclosing any numerical specifics, my partner and I were given a jaw-dropping bonus. That is until I did the math in my head and realized how the agency would leverage the success and PR bonanza of our ABC campaign to win new business and secure millions in additional revenue.

I was grateful. But I also knew at that particular moment, the stars were aligned in a way they never would again.

It was as if I were a baseball pitcher who had won 25 games in the last year of his contract and was about to face the juicy prospect of free agency.

So I did what I had never done before, I asked for more.

I tiptoed, as much as a girthy man of my size can tiptoe, up to Bob Kuperman's office. He was President of the LA office. I asked if he had a minute. He invited me in and told me to close the door. I thanked him profusely for the end of year bonus. I said as a one time gesture it was incredibly generous.

He, being wise in the ways of negotiation, said, "But."

Then I stammered something about a future and wanting to take on more responsibility, blah, blah, blah.

Kupe knew exactly what I was getting at.

"You want a raise. What number do you have in mind? Tell me." ( He might have added the word asshole, but that was just one of his many NY terms of endearment.)

It was the Sicilian Gambit and it caught me completely off guard.

I didn't have number in mind, because frankly I didn't foresee the conversation going in that direction. I blurted out a number -- probably too low -- and he answered, "Done."

A bonus and a raise.
That in itself would have been plenty.
But then Kupe gave me something even more precious, trust.

"This is your account. You and you partner are the voice of ABC. You get the final say on what goes out the door and what gets on the air. Anybody gives you any shit, you let me know."

I swallowed hard.

"One more thing. Don't fuck it up."

All these years later and that has stuck with me. And what resonates most was Kupe's sense of fairness. Bob did what most in his position never do, he managed downward. He looked out for the employees coming up through the ranks. That is a rare occurrence.

If there's one thing that would improve the current dismal state of the advertising industry, it's not the end of open plan offices. Or shorter hours. Or even higher salaries. It's just a simple sense of fair play.

Kuperman is retired now.
But if he ever got back in the business, I'd work for him a heartbeat.

And there aren't too many people I'd say that about.


george tannenbaum said...

That's a Stan Mack illustration, yes?

Rich Siegel said...

Don't think so, George. I believe it was done by Hank Hinton, Chiat's in-house illustrator.

Jeff said...

I've actually been thinking about doing the same kind of posts about people while they're still with us (inspired by your comment about my well-written eulogies), but you beat me to the punch with this one. So many great stories about Kupe, so little time. He has been a supportive, mentoring, friend and boss to me from the beginning when I was in the mail room at Wells Rich Greene. A great read and a great subject to start this series of posts with.

hooperworld said...

That was a drawing I made of Kupe for, I think, the invitation to the Chiat/Day Xmas party in 1990 or 1991.
A small drawing of a big personality and a great boss.

Mark Cohen said...

97, year of the yellow.

Anonymous said...

Nice tribute and very accurate. I think anyone who worked with Kupe has a similar story. Funny though, I had a bad habit of telling him that certain things weren't fair. His response was always the same, "life's not fair". I truly miss working with Bob Kuperman.