Jack Goldenberg is a creative copywriter represented by agent Randi Martin in Aquent’s New Jersey office who, since cracking into the industry over 30 years ago, has served as the creative muscle behind such influential product launches as the McDonald’s Happy Meal, Cabbage Patch Kids, Pop Rocks candy, and most recently, the signature Barack Obama watch line. Today, Jack is a freelance copywriter who recently finished a two-year gig writing advertising for Bristol Myers Squibb.
I asked Jack a few questions about how he got his start in the creative industry, the stories behind some of the work he is most proud of, and some advice for those of you hoping to follow a similar path.
First of all, I had an African American Cabbage Patch Kid growing up I named Fred. I’m about as white as they come and grew up in Maine…very strange. But I guess I could say he was my first best friend…so thanks for reaching the masses on that one.
You knew a black Cabbage Patch Kid named Fred? I think I knew him. Was he different than all the other Cabbage Patch Kids? Wait a minute, maybe I’m thinking of snowflakes…
Now you’ve worked on some pretty amazing product launches from the Happy Meal to the aforementioned (and awesome) Cabbage Patch Kids to the Obama Watches. As a staunch Happy Meal supporter myself, can you tell me the story of how this product launch came to be?
The launch of McDonald’s first Happy Meal was a long, long time ago. How long? It was back when cell phones had a huge cord and we had to walk 20 miles in the snow just to pick up our e-mail. But I digress.
The Happy Meal name came from a company in St. Louis and the idea for it supposedly came from St. Louis adman Dick Brams in 1977 (also known as the Dark Ages).
The problem was that the Happy Meal wasn’t that successful, at first, to warrant making it a national product. I was Creative Director at the Frankel Company – a brilliant company that has been promoting McDonald’s for over 30 years.
Since the local sales of Happy Meals were not that strong, Ray Kroc, McDonald’s founder, wanted to put the Happy Meal in a bag instead of a box because the money McDonald’s would save if they sold millions of Happy Meals was astronomical (I’m no math whiz, but we’re talking well over $40.00 here).
I argued with Ray Kroc that they had to keep the Happy Meal in a box, not a bag because a Happy Meal was “an in-home reminder of the need to visit McDonald’s.” A kid would see the Happy Meal boxes he collected in his room every day and tell his parents, “Mom, Dad, We’ve just gotta go back to McDonald’s. I need three more ‘Star Trek, Star Wars or Spongebob’ Happy Meals to complete my collection!”
In other words, the Happy Meal was designed to be viral, kid to parent, long before YouTube made its way onto computers and cell phones. Of course, we didn’t know about the term “viral,” to us it was just “word of mouth.”
I then tried to convince McDonald’s to use movie merchandising on the first national Happy Meal instead of the generic outer space or circus themes they thought would work. When they didn’t believe me, I brought in Dick Wolf, then a a movie producer and currently of Law and Order fame, and Rusty Citron, a former talent agent and currently Founder and President of the Actors Hall of Fame, to speak to Frankel account executives and McDonald’s promotion people about how a movie merchandising theme would make the Happy Meal collectible.
The deal was sealed when Coke got the rights to the first Star Trek movie and sub-licensed them to McDonald’s.
I don’t want to get political here, but I do want a new watch, so can you tell me more about the Obama Watches?
Obama Watches is the most recent project I’ve worked on. In December 2007, I wore a single Obama watch to a friend’s party as a one-man viral campaign supporting Barack Obama. The next day, five friends called or e-mailed me (why they didn’t Tweet me, I’ll never know!) to ask where they could buy “one of those Obama watches. ”
Now, we have 13 different Obama watches, sales in 47 states and 8 foreign countries and three of our Obama watches are in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution. I personally gave 5 watches to then-candidate Obama at the request of the Democratic National Committee.
We’re going to make a 14th final Obama watch. While it will be a little less serious, it is sure to make dog lovers happy. I don’t want to give away what the subject will be, but I will say that you’ll be able to buy it at this site – www.firstpuppyoftheunitedstates.com – as soon as it goes live.
I won’t bust out my slide rule here, but you’ve been in the creative industry a long time. What do you see as the major differences between cracking in when you did and tackling the job search today?
It is so much tougher today. There are so many people competing for fewer and fewer jobs. However, growing up with the Internet gives young people an edge that most older admen and women can’t match. (Not me, of course. I came up with a simple way to reduce my carbon footprint. I no longer use carbon paper!)
When I started in the business, shortly after fire was invented, I couldn’t get anyone to hire me because, well, I had no experience. So I formed my own agency, Burns Keene, Katz, Lord and Jefferson. All of the partners were imaginary, except for Burns, he was my cousin’s German Shepherd. The first commercial we did (yes, we!) won a Gold Medal from the New York Art Directors Club. We were the only non-NY agency to win Gold that year.
Man’s best friend, indeed! So as someone who has been there, what advice would you give creatives trying to get their start and establish themselves?
It helps if you can convince agencies that you are curious about everything, have a business understanding (not just a personal one) of social network marketing, a rudimentary understanding of consumer behavior, a beginning portfolio that shows off your creativity or writing style, and, of course, an uncle who owns an agency. Barring that, and above all, you’ve just got to network like hell and never give up.
How did you become involved with Aquent?
Two years ago, after contacting a gazillion recruiting companies, Aquent got me an interview at Bristol-Myers Squibb. I was a little hesitant because pharmaceutical advertising was not my strong suit. But the person I was working with at Aquent, Randi Martin, had a good relationship with Bristol-Myers and the fit turned out to be ideal.
And what did you work on there?
I worked there as a freelancer for two years as a Senior Copywriter working on almost all their brands, both Direct to Physician (DTP) and Director Consumer (DTC), corporate and advocacy advertising and R&D recruitment. It was a great company and a great gig and only ended because they have a two-year limit on freelancing.
You’ve started your own ad agency, written award-winning ads with the help of a dog, and been the man behind a slew of major product launches. So why did you become involved with Aquent? That is, after all you’ve done, what was it about working with a staffing agency that appealed to you? [He says, as he slips a ten dollar bill across the table.]
Even in today’s market, and maybe especially in today’s market, with hoards of people competing “Musical Chair style” for that one seat in the Creative Department, recruiters have a better shot at getting you in the door and on the payroll.
Anything else you’d like to say before I turn the mic off?
Sure get me my next job. I’m smart, fun, brilliant, strategic and creative, but still out of work!