Category: Best Advertising Book with Hitler on the Cover
“Four dogs went to the wilderness. Only three came back. Two dogs died from Guinea Worm. The other died from, you. Jack Kerouac.”
— Ode to Jack Kerouac by Hunter S. Thompson
My life is a bit of a hot mess these days. I’m functioning on a non-linear timeline that’s chunked out into revolving, incremental sessions of work, sleep, childcare, being a good husband and amateur woodworking.
It’s a hearty and eclectic mix of activities requiring various and sometimes opposing skillsets. However, when properly fortified, I’m able to keep a toe in the water of one or more of these endeavors at all times.
At all times is a good phrase to end the first paragraph on because it leads right into the second. I seem to be shifting more and more to an at all times lifestyle. And by that, I mean, the way I’m working lately necessitates embracing time as a somewhat fluid and mostly theoretical concept. The conventional clock will do you no good here. Natural rhythms are the enemy. They’ll only serve to deceive you further. For success in this sort of environment, one must rely on a more primitive, instinct-driven method of time management.
At the moment, I’m working with a fine arts photographer in New York who’s launching an NFT with a well-known celebrity. I’m also working with an ad agency in San Francisco on a hot new account they just landed. And to round out my current client roster I’m helping a software company in New Zealand that is about to release a seriously genius new website building tool designed specifically for advertising agencies.
The photographer people are in New York, which is EST. That makes life easy. However, because it’s the arts world, work is done according to a fairly bohemian schedule. Sometimes they’re up and running first thing in the morning just like everyone else and then sometimes you don’t hear from them until 7 at night as they’re rushing off to catch a flight to Los Angeles for something fabulous.
The ad agency is in San Francisco, which of course is PST. So they don’t even get started until 12:30 my time. I get up at 4:30 a.m EST. By the time they’re turning on their computers I’ve been up for about 8 hours. On that kind of schedule, their 4 pm will feel like my midnight.
The software developer in New Zealand is 17 hours ahead of me. So, whatever time it is you just change the p.m. to a.m. or vice versa and then add 5 hours. Which means usually when we talk, they’re already in tomorrow. I try not to touch anything when I’m on calls with them because I don’t want to affect my destiny.
It’s a hell of a lot of fun to be working with such a diverse array of interesting people doing interesting things. The NFT is especially nifty once I did enough research to understand how they work. But it’s possible that the vast differences in time and space are having an effect on my internal grounding mechanism. The one that’s supposed to keep me in sync with my immediate surroundings and the people I’m closest to.
At times I feel a bit like a person who works the nightshift. I seem to be at my most active when everyone else is resting. It’s an odd existence. It can be confusing at times. Naps are the key to the whole operation. They give the organism a much needed respite without taking the entire factory off-line for 8 – 10 hours at a time. It’s relatively sustainable but there are moments of confusion upon waking. A lot of immediate math needs to be done which can be difficult when disoriented.
During these moments I instinctively reach for my phone in order to bring myself up to speed quickly. I get the time, date, weather and my latest messages in one groggy glance. It acts as a parachute that enables the capsule to make a safe splash-down upon re-entry.
It was in one of these hazy post nap moments, as my weary eyes first fluttered open, that I looked at my phone, saw it was 3 in the afternoon on a Tuesday and I had an email from Jim Riswold.
I rubbed my eyes a little. I’m still waking up. I know I have a meeting at 3:30. And I know it’s not with anyone named Jim Riswold, but damn does that name sound familiar.
Who is Jim Ris—?
Jim fucking Riswold?
Wieden + Kennedy Jim Riswold?
Jim Riswold, Bo Knows?
Jim Riswold, Gotta be the shoes?
Jim Riswold, Michael Jordan?
Jim Riswold, Bugs Bunny?
Jim Riswold, I am Tiger Woods?
Jim Riswold, Charles Barkley I am not a role model?
That Jim Riswold?
Yeah. That Jim Riswold.
The Jim Riswold who legendary director Joe Pytka called “The idiot savant of advertising.”
The Jim Riswold who was Wieden and Kennedy’s first copywriter.
The Jim Riswold who convinced Honda—a bunch of Japanese businessmen, to use Lou Reed— a former heroin addict and feature his song Walk on the Wild Side— which explores the world of transvestites, valium and hitchhiking— in their scooter commercials.
That ad was every bit as significant as Apple 1984 or even VW Think Small. It broke the barrier of musical artists not only selling their music in a commercial but actually appearing in one as well. It had never been done before. Musicians had a line in the sand there. Jim and Lou crossed it and neither advertising nor famous musicians ever looked back. Approximately 37 years later you get the ultimate hold-out, Bruce Springsteen, in a Superbowl ad for Jeep.
Jim Riswold’s Honda campaign would go on to feature DEVO, Miles Davis, Grace Jones, and Adam Ant. It’s also credited as having ushered in a new era of advertising. One with a more cynical edge to it that often leaned on irony, deadpan humor and the desire to be more genuine and real than advertising had ever been before. Jim Riswold’s Honda Scooter campaign would also become the blueprint for advertising to the MTV generation. Which was basically me and according to a survey of one, I can confidently tell you that shit worked like gang-busters.
That’s who Jim Riswold is.
That’s the guy whose email was sitting in my inbox when I woke up from a nap at 3 o’clock in the afternoon on a fucking Tuesday with partly cloudy skies and a temperature of 31 degrees.
I had written a blog post a few days earlier called There Used to be This Thing Called Advertising and it had gone pretty much around the world. Over 40,000 people ended up reading that blog post.
I had never written anything before, with my name on it, that was so widely viewed. I’ve made hundreds of commercials that according to the media reports were seen by millions of people, but nobody ever got my email address so they could tell me what they thought about them. Thank God.
This was different. It’s a blog. It has my name on it. The whole point is to write something and stand behind it. It’s scary sometimes because the writing I admire most is inherently personal and revealing in its nature.
These aren’t the entire contents of the email that Jim Riswold sent me. I feel that would lack discretion. But this is the bulk of the communique:
Jeff, My name is Jim Riswold. I’m told I used to be a somebody at Wieden. Wrote a bunch of Nike ads. Had a fuckton of fun. Blah blah blah. I was sent your advertising thing words. Bravo. Keep up the good fight. Fun is good. Fun makes for good advertising. Etc. Bestest, Me PS Bravo.
Now, just to be clear, I haven’t created an entire genre of advertising and I wasn’t the first copywriter hired by Wieden + Kennedy. The blog post I wrote that got 40,000 views will most likely be the creative high-water mark of my career and he calls it my “advertising thing words”.
I sincerely fucking loved that.
We exchange a few more emails back and forth. He’s amazingly cool and nice. He asks me for my address so he can send me a copy of his book. Which was so generous of him. He didn’t have to do that. I’m just some guy on the internet writing stuff. And this blog piece isn’t going to pay off for him in terms of publicity for his book. 40,000 people aren’t going to read this post. 100 people are going to read this post and a bunch of them are Jewish, so with Hitler on the cover he’s got a tough sell on his hands.
So, this was a genuinely random act of kindness from one human being to another and to me it was as pure as the driven snow.
Jim Riswold’s book is not what you think it’s going to be. I knew a lot about Jim Riswold because I’m an ad geek but I didn’t know about the stuff that he would talk about in this book.
Basically, Jim Riswold was on top of the world. He was an absolute genius doing the best work in the industry.
Then he got some really gnarly cancer. The super bad kind. The kind where you have to somehow, find some genius doctor who can treat you just to have a small chance of surviving. And then, once he gets through that, he keeps getting more cancer. And everything gets totally shitty for Jim Riswold. So shitty, in fact, that his life becomes basically an all-out exercise in simply not dying. Things really, really go south for the guy. His body falls apart as does his career and his marriage.
"Hitler Saved My Life" isn’t really an advertising book. But it’s kind of impossible for it not to be because it’s autobiographical and it’s fucking Jim Riswold. You can, however, take some advertising lessons away from it.
I remember when my friend Steve got a job at Goodby. He was the first person out of my peer group to break into the upper most echelon of creative ad agencies. I couldn’t wait for him to get started so he could tell me the secret to how those people come up with such great advertising. I was extremely disappointed to learn that the secret ended up being that they all just worked really, really super hard on it until it was great. That bummed me out. I kinda thought there would be a Goodby button or some sort of proprietary process. It was fairly soul crushing to hear it was just smart people working around the clock.
From an advertising perspective, that’s the main takeaway I got from Jim’s book. The guy is great because he just never stops. Most of us are trying our best just to come up with a decent idea and we’re pretty damn proud and tired by the time we’ve done it. In Jim’s world the great idea is cost of entry. That’s where the process begins. It gets to the next level by putting as much sweat and creativity into every other step of the process as you did in coming up with the idea itself.
Everything these people do is an exercise in pushing things as far as possible.
You got a great idea? Awesome. Now come up with a great idea for selling it to the client.
You sold it to the client? Sweet. Now come up with some sort of brilliant idea for how you’re going to shoot it. Who you’re going to shoot it with. And how you’re going to make it even better once the cameras are actually rolling.
That’s the commonality that I see over and over again with these types of people who do this type of work. Nothing is ever finished. Nothing is ever locked in. There’s always the possibility of making it better at each step. And they’re always willing to go back into battle and jump through the endless hoops that have to be jumped through in order to make it happen.
When things like cancer come into a person's life there is sometimes a point where they literally have to choose whether they’re going to live or die. There is honor to be found in either decision. Regardless of the path one chooses, the means by which to travel there also needs to be considered.
I won’t be giving away too much by saying that Jim chose to live. And the lifeline he chose to grab onto was art.
But not just any art.
Jim chose Hitler art.
It quickly expanded beyond the Führer by incorporating some other star players from the universal bad guy’s hall of fame. Göring. Himmler. Mussolini. Stalin. Napoleon. Mao. Kim Jung Il. They all make appearances. Each one finding their way into Jim’s art as cute little dolls lovingly placed into bathtubs, baby cribs and Chinese take-out containers.
When talking about the concept behind his art, Jim explains that the world is filled with monsters. And the thing that monsters hate more than anything in the world is for you to laugh at them. So it’s up to us to bring the clown noses.
Cancer is a monster too. If Jim can turn a North Korean dictator into a giant lollipop (Kim Jong Il is a Sucker) then perhaps he can laugh his way through yet another round of horrible treatments, relentless poking and a distressingly thorough amount of unpleasant prodding.
It’s powerful stuff. But I think there’s another layer to Jim’s book.
You see, there’s a thing about Jim. How do I say this?
He’s an asshole.
I don’t know this because he’s treated me poorly in some personal way. I’ve never met the man. I know this because Jim says it himself.
And that’s where it becomes an advertising book again.
It’s funny, you rarely hear about creatives bringing their visions to life by being so super-duper nice to everyone that they’re told to just go ahead and do it their way. That doesn’t seem to be the way it works. The truth is that you have to be difficult. You have to be stubborn. And at times, it would seem, that when you get to a certain level where you’re really trying to do work that’s incredibly powerful, you do indeed have to be an asshole to make it happen. I’m sure there are other methods. Jim did not employ those.
In fact, I think Jim might have played the asshole card a bit too often. Or at least, I think Jim feels that he might have played the asshole card a bit too often.
So to make up for it, he exposes himself.
And when I say expose, I mean literally. (page 154) Really, Jim?
I mentioned before that the writing I most admire is inherently personal and revealing. So let’s just say that I have a great deal of admiration for Jim Riswold’s writing.
He does something that most of us can’t. He fully reveals himself. All of his wounds, every scar and each shortcoming. The book is more than just an account of a difficult time in his life. The book is a confession. I have no idea if it’s his way of asking for forgiveness but I think it might be.
Forgiveness is something we all need. I know I'll take all I can get. I can only imagine how Hitler feels.
So, for what it’s worth. Go out and buy Jim Riswold’s book. It’s a great read. It’s a tremendously unique and intimate look into another human being’s life.
Whether he ushered in a new era of something or not, Jim’s book does what only really great books can do. It tells you a story that doesn’t just keep you turning pages, it engages you and ultimately affects your outlook.
At first, you’re the listener. And then, before you know it, you start to recognize little bits and pieces of yourself in it. By the time you’re finished, something changes in you. In the case of "Hitler Saved My Life", we’re shown a way to make the monsters less scary. And we learn that we are not completely at their mercy.
That’s some pretty good weaponry to keep in your arsenal. I can use that. I can get through some of my own shitty stuff with a tool like that. And I guess this is just my long winded way of saying thanks to Jim for passing on the wisdom.
And all the bells are rolling out for you And stones are all erupting out for you And all the cheap bloodsuckers are flying after you
Swoop, swoop, oh, baby, rock, rock
Swoop, swoop, oh, baby, rock, rock
Thanks for reading. I’ll see you again, soon.