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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."

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