Alan Siegel: CEO of Siegelvision

My NativeAdVice:

How did you get into the advertising industry?

I studied Industrial Labor Relations at Cornell and then went to NYU School of Law with the intent of becoming a labor lawyer. When I decided to take a leave of absence from law school after a year and a half, the draft was in force. Since I had taken ROTC in college I was inducted into the US Army Artillery as a 2nd Lieutenant and was immediately shipped off to Fort Sill, Oklahoma for artillery training. I served my two years in Germany during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the erection of the Berlin Wall. While traveling around Europe on leave, I became fascinated by photography and realized that I wanted to pursue a career in the visual arts—perhaps even become a professional photographer.

Several leading photographers reviewed my portfolio of work, including Richard Avedon, who recommended two photography courses to me. I studied creative expression taught by Alexey Brodovitch, the famous Russian art director from Harper’s Bazaar and black and white street photography taught by Lisette Model at The New School.

While immersed in these courses, I started interviewing with advertising agencies and was selected for the training program at BBDO Advertising. I was intrigued with the business and spent time training with the marketing, research, media, TV production and creative departments.

After working at BBDO, I spent a couple of years exploring other disciplines in marketing communications, including a short stint at Ruder Finn, where I learned to write press releases, speeches and pitch stories for the press. When a former boss at BBDO hired me to run projects at Sandgren & Murtha, a corporate identity firm that split off from Lippincott Margulies, I became interested in the challenge of helping companies define what made them distinctive, appealing and successful. I recognized that too often public relations, direct marketing, and design firms created solutions in a vacuum. There was a need for communications that would break down those silos and for new innovative breakthroughs in graphic and industrial design.

When the firm refused to honor an agreement to make me a partner because I was “only 28,” I decided to start my own company specializing in corporate identity. In contrast to the way things work today, I arranged a line of credit from First National City Bank without having to submit a business plan.

My firm, Siegel & Gale, grew into one of the leading branding firms in the world (corporate identity morphed into branding), the cornerstone of the firm was our focus on breaking new ground:
• Introducing the concept of plain English to complex communications generated by corporations and government, lawyers, doctors and technologists to build trust and credibility with customers
• Breaking the silos in communications by our pioneering work in corporate voice—our metaphor for integrated communications across all platforms
• Adopting new technologies to enhance productivity for clients as well as our own firm, including developing the first generation of electronic corporate identity manuals.
• Creating iconic branding programs that have continued to be used for 40+ years—the NBA, 3M and Pitney Bowes for example.

I recently left S+G to start Siegelvision, a strategic communications firm dedicated to working with purpose-driven organizations that make a difference in our society.

Which campaigns are you most proud of and why?

The projects that I am most proud of in my career:

The positioning I developed—“It’s not what we make, but what we make possible”—focused their identity on the role the company played in significant construction projects around the world, including the tunnel between France and England, putting out the fires in the Kuwait oil fields, etc. It led to a corporate advertising campaign using news footage from Reuters.
The Major League Baseball and National Basketball Logos
Over 40 years ago, MLB hired the firm I was working with to create a new graphic identity to introduce in conjunction with their 100th Anniversary. We created a dynamic image of a batter poised for the next pitch housed in a blue, red and wide square. This was a dramatic and distinctive departure from the typical boring, predictable and static images used in sports graphics. It captured the imagination of baseball fans and players and has been used in their high visibility and lucrative licensing program where this graphic appears on every conceivable type of merchandise—baseball caps, sweatshirts, watches, etc. Several years later I was approached by the National Basketball Association to design a logo. The Commissioner wanted a graphic with a family relationship to the Major League Baseball design—the symbol of the great American pastime. The direction they selected was our silhouette of a basketball player driving down the court in a vertical red, white and blue shape, based on a picture of Jerry West that I found in an article in Sports magazine.

I gain enormous pleasure from the books I’ve written. They grow out of my strategy of writing to learn.

One Man’s Eye
In conjunction with my 40th reunion at Cornell, I curated a photography show featuring my collection and later converted the show into a book.

Just last year, I finally got around to summing up what I learned about the crisis of complexity we are facing in our society—affordable healthcare, tax forms, students loans, unintelligible insurance policies. Together with my long-time colleague Irene Etzkorn, we highlight our approach for bringing clarity to business, government and everyday lives. Our focus on combatting complexity struck a nerve and the book was named 2013 Best Business Book: Marketing by Booz & Company’s strategy+business and has been translated into Korean, Hungarian, Portuguese and Mandarin.

How does Siegelvision stay successful in this digital era?

If you stand still and don’t continue to stay on top of new trends and innovate you will be out of business. I have always concentrated on hiring young, talented people including experts in digital technology and invest in training programs for our employees. And I make sure we work with interesting clients who essentially challenge us to stay on top of the rapid advances in digital media.

What is your opinion on publicly traded companies versus privately owned?

I grew up in the advertising business in the 50’s and 60’s. My father was a photoengraver who made the four-color plates used to produce advertising for all of the magazines. He worked directly with the top advertising art directors, so I had an opportunity to spend time in the leading ad agencies, meet the owners and work with them in summer jobs. Each firm had a distinctive personality. They were spirited places that competed fiercely for business. There was respect for the craft of advertising and the high quality work reflected their talent. When the Saatchi’s started buying advertising agencies, media companies and other related firms, the nature of the business changed and the focus shifted over time to a concentration on revenues, margins and profitability. It’s rare to see a memorable ad these days as ad agencies struggle with disruptions from digital technology—the Internet, smart phones and Netflix.

Define Creativity.

This is akin to the difficulties the legal community faced in defining pornography. They ended up saying that “you know it when you see it.” That’s the way I feel about the exasperating task of defining creativity.

I have always believed the most successful people—not just people in the so-called creative businesses—generate original ways of solving problem. They come up with unexpected solutions, get people excited by challenging conventional thinking and, of course, communicate with clarity.

What are the biggest industry trends and how do you capitlize on them?

The most serious trend in business that I run up against all the time is what I call the crisis of complexity. I have written about this in my new book, Simple, where I cite hundreds of examples of the complex problems people face in everyday life. We all deal with government regulations and programs, ranging from income tax forms to affordable health care, from student loan programs to unintelligible insurance forms, and the list goes on. The problems are exacerbated because we as consumers have too many choices when buying a TV or washing machine or even something as mundane as mouthwash.

How do I capitalize on this? I run a company that works with a wide range of businesses and government to bring clarity, accessibility and usability to their products, services and systems.

Who is your greatest influence in becoming a successful CEO?

While there is no one person that has been my greatest influence in becoming a successful CEO, I learned by trial and error, noting some practices from clients that I worked with, interacting with professors at leading business schools and reading several invaluable books. Upon reflection, I think that my experience playing basketball in high school, attending college and serving in the Army each played a significant role in teaching me how to develop effective strategies, motivate and inspire a team, and help people with disappointments.

Life Motto.

My life motto is “Whatever It Takes.” I learned that from my mother when I was very young.

What literature is on your bed stand?

I read two to three books a week. Right now the following books are stacked next to my easy chair in the living room:
Reinventing American Health Care by Ezekiel J. Emanuel
The Rule of Nobody by Philip K. Howard
The Cleveland Clinic Way by Toby Cosgrove, MD
Talk Is Not Cheap by Jim McCann
The New Killer Apps by Chunka Mui and Paul B. Carroll
Reflections on Judging by Richard A. Posner