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Best known for the genius of promoting a product by depicting – hilariously – what ensues when you don’t got it (milk, obvs), Jeff Goodby has spent 35 years creating boundary-pushing work out of Goodby Silverstein & Partners, the maverick agency he co-founded in 1983. 

A Harvard-educated writer, artist, musician and political journalist, his inspiration is drawn from disparate disciplines. As he prepares to receive the Lion of St Mark with co-founder Rich Silverstein, he tells Carol Cooper about the behavioural science of advertising and how all presidents should be able to take a pie to the face.

Above: Jeff Goodby, photographed by Quinn Gravier.


Except for murky scenes in which I suddenly emerge from what seems to be the sweatiest mosh pit in history, my first memory is the smell and feel of my mom’s pack of Winston cigarettes.

I had a happy childhood. My parents put me out of the house in the morning and expected me back before dark. This made me interact with lots of disparate characters and hang out with people quite unlike myself, which was critically formative. I also got beaten up by bigger kids, which prepared me for advertising.

A tradition of vandalism in my neighbourhood was especially formative for me. Like advertising, great vandalism is fun, shocking and still there the next day. 

My mom is a good painter and taught me to draw and paint early on. My dad was a very successful business person. It was a good combination. They certainly did encourage creativity, but a lot of experimentation happened outside their purview.

I was a really good student at school, but had a penchant for hanging out with people who weren’t. Which I still do. If you limit your friends to people who get good grades, it’s like only hanging out with rich people. You will miss a lot in life.

California Milk Processor Board – Birthday

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A tradition of vandalism in my neighbourhood was especially formative for me, I think. Like advertising, great vandalism is fun, shocking and still there the next day.

When I was growing up and thinking about what career I might want, I just knew I wanted to do something that got a rise out of people. This is it. 

After graduation I worked at a suburban newspaper called The Peabody Times, in a medium-sized city north of Boston. I was also illustrating for a number of newspapers and magazines, such as The Boston Herald American [as The Boston Herald was called in the 1970s], TIME, Mother Jones and Harvard Magazine. 

I think reporting and drawing truth was a limitation I was happy to give up on. Rich and I both have backgrounds in journalism. It makes you think it’s important to do things that people actually want to read and look at. Most advertising is wishful thinking. 

NBA – Hugs

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When I was looking for work in advertising, I wrote a mock encyclopedia entry about myself that got me a job at JWT. I still have it somewhere. It began with the actual facts. But the facts ended on the day I interviewed at a certain agency. I would then alter the biography to say my life changed when I got a job at ___ and the rest was transparently made up, over the top, outlandish, fictitious, Great Gatsby-like success. I think I became president.

In the early days of my career, as far as being a colleague is concerned, I’d like to think I was welcoming, funny, and incisive. But I suspect I was more awkward and pitiable.

This is a Darwinian system: advertisers study what we all really want and play it back to us.

In an interview I once said that people might have preconceptions about me that make it impossible for them to work with me. I’m now not sure what I meant by that. I think that for a second I thought I was Steve Jobs or Rupert Murdoch.

I have said in the past that advertising is the corporate-funded exploration of human emotions. I still think that’s true. And notice that I said “exploration” not “exploitation”.

Naturally, there is a lot of cynical exploitation in this business, but it’s not what interests me. It’s not what lasts. 

Above: Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein, photographed by Quinn Gravier.


We are very lucky to do what we do and, in some ways – trust me, not all – we are undervalued. As much as any graduate programme in behavioural science, we are intense students of what people want to love, hate, remember and carry with them. We don’t get enough credit for that. 

This is a Darwinian system: advertisers study what we all really want and play it back to us. 

I had a friend in college who was very popular. One day, someone described him saying, “He’s good at ascertaining what you really want to be, then telling you that you are that person.” That’s advertising, in a nutshell. 

Omnicom has been a great and giving partner, in both a supportive and financial sense [in 1992, Omnicom took full ownership of GS&P, keeping Goodby and Silverstein in charge of the company]. I believe our relationship with them is unlike any in business. This has all relied heavily upon the humanity and vision of former Omnicom CEO Bruce Crawford and, of course, the present CEO John Wren. The independent nature of our agency would not necessarily fly if it weren’t grounded in real business success. 

Pepsi – More Than OK :60

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Our ethos of ethical initiatives, of “doing good while doing well” is obviously a great goal for businesses. It makes them human and likable. It’s a great goal for us, too, as an agency. It makes people want to work here. 

The best piece of advertising work I’ve seen? Well, I’ve read the Bible. 

The best piece of advertising work I’ve produced? I have been lucky enough to have dozens of pieces of work, done around me by amazing and unforgettable people. As soon as I pick one or two of these, I always think of something that might actually be better. I have always been around people who roll sevens and elevens and hand me a wad of the winnings. 

Of course I would turn down work from a big client if I felt they wanted us to produce poor work that was unwelcome in people’s lives. The trick is to detect that early, and not work with such clients. It’s not as simple as it sounds. 

Budweiser – Budweiser: Lizards

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One of the best single days in my career was getting paired with Rich Silverstein. 

I’m happy to say that even the worst days in my career were, in retrospect, instructive. I recommend this attitude, if you’re going to go into advertising. 

The pursuit of artistic merit and success for the brand are connected. Art gets things noticed and re-evaluated. But you won’t get to do any more of it if it’s not sparking business success. 

If I could change one thing about myself, I would probably be a bit more impatient. Things would happen more quickly if I had less tolerance for basic human failings. Luckily, I have Silverstein who makes up for this. 

Got Milk? – Got Milk?: The Straw, The Case

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Like all creative people, my biggest fear is never having another idea that anyone gives a shit about. 

The closest that I’ve ever been to death? When I was 10, a plane almost crashed on a beach where I was playing. And then, as I get severely older, I realize that TODAY is the closest that I’ve ever been to death. 

No one should be president who can’t handle a pie-in-the-face ceremony. 

The best and worst single days of my personal life? My answers to these would sound like clichés. Think of your answer. Same deal here. 

Samuel Johnson is one of my heroes. He was an 18th-century journalist, poet, critic, biographer, political commentator, cultural reporter, food critic and a larger-than-life London personality. He published the first exhaustive English dictionary. He did more in a day than six men and still managed to have a reputation at the pub and was buried in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. Plus, he was funny and funny-looking. We should all have such heroes. 

Above: Samuel Johnson, painted by Joshua Reynolds.


Like all right-thinking people, I also revere Benjamin Franklin and Martin Luther King, Jr.

If I was president for a day, I would like to have my inauguration celebrated by having a popularly-selected child put a pie in my face. No one should be president who can’t handle a pie-in-the-face ceremony.

When I’m gone I would like to be remembered as one who remembered.

What really matters? Ezra Pound said, “Nothing matters but the quality of the affection – in the end – that has carved the trace in the mind.”

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