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Speaking Deutsch

What's the big idea that keeps ad-man-turned-CNBC-talk-show-host Donny Deutsch running?
Jack Bettridge
From the Print Edition:
"24", Jan/Feb 2006

Clad in jeans and a University of Texas Longhorns T-shirt that make him look more like a player in a touch football game than the chairman of a $2.7 billion advertising agency, Donny Deutsch is striding at a brisk clip through the offices of Deutsch Inc. in Manhattan. The pace is necessary. His office is situated as far away from the floor's elevator banks as possible. The layout is designed not for easy getaways, but to force the boss to pass the cubicles of all his employees in a room so large that some zoom around it on Razor scooters.

"I just manage by walking around," Deutsch explains as he pops in to see his chief executive officer, Linda Sawyer, whom he named as his successor in that capacity in September. It's 11 a.m., quitting time for the chairman this day.

To be fair, Deutsch hasn't been doing much office management of the hands-on type since his career expanded in directions that indicate he has taken several pages from his recently published corporate advice book, Often Wrong, Never in Doubt: Unleash the Business Rebel Within (Collins, $24.95). The book's central premise is to constantly ask the self-entitling question "Why not me?" as it pertains to career opportunities. In that vein, he has become managing partner of an independent film company, Deutsch Open City (currently in production on Awake, starring Jessica Alba and Hayden Christensen), made a bid to buy New York magazine and even proposed himself as a New York mayoral candidate. And now, he is headed for the studios of CNBC, where he hosts the nightly talk show "The Big Idea."

What's "The Big Idea"? Deutsch's background and a title that borrows the catchphrase of advertising legend George Lois might suggest that it is a business show about advertising and consumer trends. It isn't.

"That would make for a pretty boring show," says Deutsch, dismissing the thought. Instead he focuses on a spectrum of hot topics, both serious and playful, that have recently included the spate of women teachers accused of having sexual relations with teenage students, the 13-year-old blonde twins called Prussian Blue who sing racist lyrics to a rock beat, and HBO's surprise hit series "Entourage." "I'll talk about everything from Bush [to] Paris Hilton," he says. "It's not compartmentalized."

If there's a common denominator, it's celebrity. Deutsch has lured guests like Jack Welsh, Pamela Anderson, Jon Bon Jovi, Larry King and Donald Trump. But the show's long interviews tend to take guests beyond the usual shake-hands-and-mention-your-latest-project format of most celebrity talk shows. He also uses multiple live feeds of dissenting voices to create clamorous discussions.

But why Donny Deutsch as ringmaster? "I use my training as an ad guy to get into people's heads," he offers. "What better toolbox for a talk show host?" At any rate, it was precisely those skills that got him on the air to begin with. Always brash and outspoken, he was first approached by newscasters in the late 1980s for comments on advertising and trend-related stories, a role he relished. "I always liked it and the more I did it, the more Rolodexes I found my way into," he says, then laughs. "That's the way you become an expert on TV."

At the same time he made waves. He was unafraid to go toe-to-toe with bullying hosts like Bill O'Reilly of "The O'Reilly Factor," whom he has referred to as "the Antichrist." He began to get feedback from television professionals that he was a natural and maybe he should have his own show. Deutsch, who had recently sold his agency for around $275 million but stayed on to run it, was ripe for new challenges. "There's irony in success," he muses. "I'd felt I'd won, that I was draped in the cocoon of success. I wanted to allow myself an extreme. If you don't say, 'Why the fuck not?' it can't happen."

It did happen, but slowly. CNBC gave him a series of six specials to test the waters. One was aired on Christmas in 2003. Deutsch ladles on some heavy sarcasm: "A lot of people watch CNBC on Christmas." Nevertheless, he caught on and a year later earned himself an hour spot at 10 p.m., Monday through Friday.

As his car pulls onto the George Washington Bridge, which spans the Hudson River and connects his Manhattan business life to the TV studio in New Jersey, Deutsch reflects upon how his career came to straddle so many worlds. Is he living out fantasies of multiple careers like a child who wants to be a baseball player and a rock star and a secret agent when he grows up? "Children allow themselves to dream, but my career has changed as organically as it could," says Deutsch. "It's not like I get bored and say, 'Next!'" He uses his driver, Dave Morales, as an example. "Dave is good at what he does and he was doing well at it, but he knew that there was room to improve by creating his own business, so he did. It was a natural progression." After a pause and a chuckle, he leans toward the front seat and says to Morales: "That was a lesson on how to sidestep the Peter Pan question."

He prefers not to compare himself to other advertising executives, such as Jerry Della Femina and Lois, who also became well-known outside the ad game. A better comparison, to his mind, would be Donald Trump, as he was also able to make a complete career segue from the business world to entertainment. Trump befriended Deutsch when he used his ad agency for the training of the contestants on his show "The Apprentice."

Trump also shares a similar background, in that he took over his father's established business, a real estate company. Deutsch's father created David Deutsch Associates, the agency that Donny now heads under a slightly altered name. Deutsch often jokes that he is a member of the Lucky Sperm Club, as though his success were simply an accident of birth.

But in Deutsch's case, it was never assured that the son would pick up the reins from the father. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton business school, Deutsch, who says he had never considered an advertising career as a child, went into the business—but at the giant Oglivy & Mather agency, not his father's small ($10 million) print-ad firm. Quickly disaffected at Oglivy, he quit to do nothing for six months, before arriving at David Deutsch Associates on the account side. Still his heart wasn't in it, and his father told him to take a walk. He took a series of non-advertising jobs and it was only after the older Deutsch arranged to sell his firm that the son recognized its value. He returned, but this time to sell creative.

While his father's business model was elegant, conservative and tied to print media, Deutsch immediately set to work securing the television account of the local Pontiac dealers association by the bold move of sending car parts every half hour to the home of the man responsible for hiring an agency. A headlamp would show up with a note saying, "We'll give you bright ideas." A steering wheel would arrive tagged with the message, "We'll steer you in the right direction." The unorthodox approach won the agency the largest account ($3 million) it had ever had.

Deutsch eventually took over the business and modeled it on his own irreverent and innovative personality. The agency is now known for creating some of the industry's freshest work. The edgy advertising of accounts like Nike, Old Navy, Coors and Monster.com arises from its offices. It was Deutsch Inc. that convinced Ikea to feature the first gay couple in a commercial. Along the way also came a slew of awards.

Even while he so drastically changed the face of the agency, Deutsch says his father couldn't be prouder of what he has done. "We have different styles but we both strive for excellence, we share a value system. I stand on his shoulders every day."

Still, the wild-and-crazy image of Deutsch Inc. is something he's also had on occasion to live down to reassure clients who spend their money with the agency. He insists that while the firm comprises free thinkers, it is conservative when it comes to business. In part that is the purpose behind the offices' severely spare decor, which Deutsch refers to as an "industrial art gallery. I want it to look utilitarian to the client to send the message that we put our money in our people and the product. I'm outspoken, a daredevil, but I'm a blocker-tackler. It's hard to see through the exterior."

That may be because this blocker-tackler emits the personality of an effervescing quarterback. At CNBC studios, he walks into the lobby and spies a huddle of cameras and lights. "What's going on here?" he asks and strides right into a temporary set constructed for a promotional spot for the new crew of "Squawk Box." After some good-natured disruption, he comments, "CNBC spares no expense."

Then he meets with "Big Idea" executive producer Mary Duffy and the staff in a production meeting, and Deutsch, who claims to have attention deficit disorder, lasers in on the job at hand. He will shoot two segments today to air on different dates.

"We've got a lot on today," says Duffy and brings up the first topic: Terrell Owens. The ongoing story of the wide receiver who was suspended by the Philadelphia Eagles for insults hurled at the organization and teammates, particularly the quarterback Donovan McNabb, is spiking this day because Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter has accused the team of restraint of trade in stopping him from playing for other teams. The staff has lined up two guests to comment by live feed: former Raider and Fox sports commentator Howie Long and Jesse Jackson. Both have different slants, which are translated to Deutsch in a sort of shorthand. Long will come down on the side of Owens as a horse's ass who deserves what he got, while Jackson will argue that the suspension is an outrage, considering the minor nature of the offense compared with athletes accused of drug and spousal abuse. Specter has said that though T.O. is a jerk, you can't strip a man of his livelihood without giving him a chance to work elsewhere.

Deutsch takes it all in and comments: "If I'm running that team, I can't have a guy like that on it."

In a side development, former Cowboy and ESPN analyst Michael Irvin has been caught with a crack pipe, which he claims was left in his car by a friend. The producers have decided to throw it into the mix of the show, which regularly takes eclectic turns.

The second segment will be a complete change of pace. It will feature Robert Shapiro, one of O. J. Simpson's attorneys, whose 25-year-old son, Brent, died of an overdose of the drug ecstasy only six weeks earlier. The lawyer and his wife, Linell, are promoting drug abuse awareness and also want to announce that free living wills would be available at certain times on his Web site.

The back story is that the son had a history of drug and alcohol abuse as a teenager, had appeared to have licked it, and then had a relapse. Deutsch wants to know if he was a good kid. He is told that Brent was back in school and was getting straight A's at the time of the incident, but the look that flashes over the host's face seems to show that his concern is how he will sensitively shift gears through segments that have such different tones.

In his dressing room, Deutsch is being made up and discusses his wardrobe changes for each segment. He loses his T-shirt and dons the first of two closely fitted, collared shirts (no tie) he will wear that day. Once in an interview with a female reporter from AdWeek, he took off his shirt to demonstrate that his was the best agency since he was the fittest of all agency CEOs and could kick the others' asses. Deutsch works out obsessively, and it was meant as a joke, but it backfired when many in the industry took it as an act of braggadocio. (Not familiar with the physiques of other Madison Avenue executives, this reporter is ill-equipped to comment on his relative muscle tone.)

Deutsch's preparation for the show does seem rather brisk, however, and he explains that he prefers to be abreast of the issues discussed but not overbriefed, to keep discussion fresh. "With the right amount of research, I am learning from the guests during the show." A sign on the dressing room wall seems to reflect that approach: Sometimes you have to ask the wrong question to get the right answer.

On the set of Studio B, Deutsch leads with Long, who asserts that if Owens is allowed to skip out on his contract, it will set a dangerous precedent for other disgruntled players who may decide to trash their teammates as a ploy to free themselves before their obligations are up.

"So what's your solution?" snaps Deutsch, whose style is to keep the show constantly moving, even when it makes it seem desultory.

"Act like a professional," answers Long, and it's on to a discussion of Irvin, which the host caps with a rhetorical question: "Are you buying that story...or is it a boy who cried wolf?" Long says it's a plausible argument.

The segment continues with a series of harangues and good-natured kidding with Long and Jackson. Both guests agree that while Owens is a disruption, he is a very talented player. Neither, however, will back off his position on how he should be treated. Deutsch dictates the tempo with provocative questions and his willingness to switch gears by discussing other sports controversies such as the Minnesota Vikings and their "booze cruise" fiasco.

When the guests are gone, Deutsch tapes his trademark show-ending capper, which is called "Speaking Deutsch" and features a few words to wrap up what has just happened. The host looks into the camera and intones: "Terrell Owens. He's a disruption, he's horrible, he's a bad sport. Look what he did to the Eagles.... And we could use him on the Giants this Sunday against the Cowboys."

After a wardrobe change comes the really tough part. Deutsch must put on a somber demeanor for his next guests, the Shapiros. He leaves the set for a one-on-one with one of the assistant producers, who briefs him in greater detail about the boy's death and other facts about drug abuse in general and ecstasy in specific. The host pleads for keeping the show as simple as possible, but agrees to include Dr. Drew Pinsky, an expert on substance abuse from the University of Southern California (ironically Brett's alma mater), and callers who have dealt with the problem.

Duffy regrets the need to juxtapose such different tapings: "You have to take [guests] when they're in town." But she isn't worried about Deutsch's ability to handle it. "Donny does a great job of shifting from one topic to another."

As it turns out, her confidence in him is well-founded. Deutsch delivers a sensitive show that provides a wealth of information about drug abuse, while including some tender moments with the bereaved parents. This time, when Deutsch recaps the segment with "Speaking Deutsch," he plays it straight by simply announcing the Web sites that the Shapiros are promoting.

After the taping, the host is visibly drained, but there is no rest for the weary. In the car ride back to Manhattan, he finds himself fielding calls from his agency and someone inviting him to speak at an ad industry function. He'll also have to put off his exercise regimen until morning, an assistant advises, as he is expected at a black-tie event that night.


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