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IHAVEANIDEA.ORG > creatives >  Ralph Watson
Ralph Watson

RalphWatson1 Ralph WatsonExecutive Creative Director
Goodby, Silverstein & Partners Detroit

The American automotive industry has seen some tremendous highs and harrowing lows. During the 1950s and 60s it bolstered the US economy, and its “capital” — Detroit, MI, was one of the busiest cities in the nation. In recent times both the auto industry and the city it calls home have fallen on hard, almost desperate times.

But today there is a glimmer of hope, and a spark of energy has returned to Motor City. The manufacturers are poised to make a great comeback, and their advertising agencies are joining them for the ride.

In 2010, San Fran super-shop Goodby, Silverstein & Partners opened up a Detroit office to better serve General Motors. As more work shifted to that office, they needed to find a creative director with the talent — and toughness — to help turn the fortunes of the car company around.

Last year, they chose Ralph Watson.

Watson, a Georgia native whose career has spanned from Boston to LA and many points in between, took some time to sit down with IHAVEANIDEA to chat about his many years in the ad biz, from his failed start as a pro golfer, to his future plans for Goodby Detroit.



IHAVEANIDEA: Was advertising a first love for you? Where did it all begin?

Ralph: I actually wanted to be a professional golfer.  I went to college on a golf scholarship, and I played for a couple of years but I never got better. I kinda peaked early and I realized that I wasn’t going to be a success, so I dropped out.

When you’re in golf in college, you typically aren’t taking fine art courses.  I was a management major and I was about a quarter from graduating. Truthfully, I was dreading going to business school.  The only D I’ve ever received in my life was in marketing because it didn’t make sense to me. The way it was taught, that’s not common sense, it’s not the way that people are. So when I dropped out I took an art class because I always had drawn and always really liked it.  I took it, and then I switched majors and then I was like “Okay, I’m hooked.” I switched to the fine arts department and basically graduated with a Fine Art degree.

I was an inch to going to graduate school in New York to become a Fine Art teacher.  Then there was a recession in 1992, and I got an offer to be a junior designer at this place. At first I was like “no, I want to go to grad school,” but then I looked at how much money I had to borrow. I was already in debt, and so I said “well, $18,000 sounds pretty good.”

IHAVEANIDEA: (laughs) Money can be a good driver sometimes! So how did you switch from design to advertising?

Ralph: I had this roommate in college who wanted to be in advertising.  I had never really considered it. I was like “No, that’s for losers.  That’s for people who aren’t real artists,” and blah, blah, blah.

So I started off as a designer, but then I soon realized that advertising art directors made more money and seemed to work less, so I was like “hmmm, maybe I should be an Art Director.”

And so I started doing what everyone else did back then, making a bunch of spec ads. There were no real ad schools in those days that I was aware of. Back then, your ad school was your first job.  I just did a bunch of spec ads. Even though I was an art director, I ended up writing a bunch of headlines that I thought were great, and I would show them to Gary Moore, this senior writer guy I knew. He was like “That’s great, but so-and-so already did that.” I had never heard of any award books or anything like that before, and I was feeling awesome thinking I was creating original ideas, only to learn somebody had already done something or won something with it.

I eventually ended up down in Atlanta, where a friend of mine from New York and I started teaching at what would soon be known as the Creative Circus.

IHAVEANIDEA: How did you land a teaching job before your own career started to flourish?

Ralph: (laughs) Well fortunately my friend knew Norm Grey, the founder of the Circus. But I guess to call what I was doing “teaching” is a bit of a stretch. That year that I was there, there were many, many really great creative people.  They knew more about advertising than I did.  You don’t teach those students, you just basically conduct the class so they can teach themselves. You do a little bit but they mostly teach themselves, but I enjoyed that.

IHAVEANIDEA: You say you were at the Circus for a year. What brought you back into the agency side of things?

Ralph: Well my next stop was at Leonard/Monahan up in Rhode Island. That place was quite a hot shop in the 90s. You had David Lubars, Kara Goodrich, Jeremy Postaer, Hal Curtis — just a bunch of phenomenal talent. David Baldwin was the Creative Director at the time, and he really took a chance on me as a young art director. I didn’t have much in my portfolio. In fact I was showing him examples of my fine art! But he gave me that break I needed.

Before long, I was working with Kara Goodrich, who is a phenomenal writer. All was right with the world… until the agency closed down.

IHAVEANIDEA: Don’t you hate when that happens?

“…“be prepared. One day you’ll show up and the doors will be locked.” It sounded crazy! I never thought it would actually happen!”

Ralph: (laughs) They came to us on a Wednesday, gave everyone boxes for their stuff and said that our last day was Friday. But by Thursday they had locked us out of the office because everyone was going “fuck this shit, I’m taking my computer!” People were walking out with tables and other stuff. And so we had to be escorted to get our belongings.

Gary Moore, the guy I used to show my ideas to, used to always warn me “be prepared. One day you’ll show up and the doors will be locked.” It sounded crazy! I never thought it would actually happen!

From there, I followed David Baldwin down to North Carolina and McKinney & Silver, where I freelanced for a while. It was where I got to work on Audi, my first car account. Then it was up to New York and Weiss, Whitten, Stagliano, and down to Austin and GSD&M, where I am happy to say I met my wife.

IHAVEANIDEA: I understand your time at Saatchi New York was pretty eventful…

Ralph: It was interesting. I was at Arnold in Boston and I got a call from Tony Granger, who was Chief Creative Officer at Saatchi New York at the time. Tony had really turned the agency around, making it Agency of the Year at Cannes.

Around this time, Jan Jacobs and Leo Premutico, the superstar team at Saatchi, had left to start Johannes Leonardo. Tony needed a new Head of Art, and I was like “wow, that sounds like a pretty good deal!”

I flew down to New York and met with Tony, and we had a great talk. I got a bit worried when I heard that I’d be working on Wendy’s, which word had it was on its way out the door. But I was excited to work for Tony, and so I came on board… and then Tony left a few weeks later to head up Y&R!

IHAVEANIDEA: Ah, so your hopes and dreams were dashed!

Ralph: (laughs) Not exactly! Well as predicted, we did lose Wendy’s, but that gave me an opportunity to work on Miller, which I really wanted to do. And then the rumors started buzzing about Gerry Graf coming in to take Tony’s place. The rumors ended up being true, and so I got to work for Gerry, and that was awesome.

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IHAVEANIDEA: What was Gerry like?

Ralph: Gerry is a very interesting guy. He’s very intently focused, he’s an awesome scriptwriter, and he’s really great at just saying what you need to say, very strategic. I don’t think he gets enough credit for how great of a strategist he is.

“…when you bring me something like this it makes me question everything I see from you.”

Gerry really taught me a lot about not needing to fabricate things. “It’s too contrived, it’s too artificial, there’s nothing in there that is true, you’re just writing an ad.” He is superb at getting right to the truth of an idea. I learned a shitload from him, and I still bestow those lessons onto my own people today.

Gerry was also very tough. He wasn’t gentle when you brought him work that wasn’t good. He’d say something like “when you bring me something like this it makes me question everything I see from you.” Luckily I come from a broken home, so I thrive on negative reinforcement. (laughs)

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IHAVEANIDEA: After a number of years at Saatchi, you moved onto BBDO New York. What was that like?

Ralph: BBDO was wonderful, as I got to work with Greg Hahn. He’s probably the best partner I’ve ever had, and possibly the smartest creative I’ve ever worked with.  He’s really smart, focused, a very talented writer.  He’s really great at just coming up with rich, big, thoughtful, sellable smart ideas. He’s also wickedly funny and sarcastic, a side many people don’t see.

Between Greg and Gerry, they were the two most influential people in my career.  That’s kind of funny, since you usually consider people from early in your career to be your biggest influences, but I’m a bit of late bloomer.

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IHAVEANIDEA: So what brought you to Goodby and the city of Detroit?

Ralph: Well I had heard about this opportunity, but why wife was a little, shall we say apprehensive at first. and “No way we’re fucking moving to Detroit.” (laughs) But a few months went by and she began to change her tune. “Well, maybe you should just talk to them and see.”

I met with Jeff Goodby in New York, and I liked him right off the bat. We didn’t even talk about advertising for an hour, just had a couple of drinks and just hung out at the hotel.  Then I started thinking about it, you know, the thing I really wanted. At a certain point you just want to know if you can do it in your own. The tough thing about advertising is that it’s like the army.  It’s either up or out.  I don’t want to be a 55-year-old CD running one account.  I have four kids and these are my earning years, and I need to start putting myself as the next generation of leaders.

That said, I’m much more of a doer. I didn’t want to come into Goodby merely pontificating about doing great work. I wanted us to do the work.

I also think I took the job in a state of naivety. Coming to Detroit, to work on Chevrolet, I have visions of saving the American auto industry. I don’t like the over-financialization of our country. The obsession with making money without making products or anything, to me that’s the final stages of an empire. And so I saw the task of raising Chevrolet to global prominence as an interesting challenge.

IHAVEANIDEA: I guess we’ll know in time how noble or naïve that is. So you arrive at Goodby…

Ralph: I got here, and one of the first things I wanted to change was the impression that this was just an office where we did all the grunt retail work while San Fran did the fun stuff. I wanted us to have our hands on all of the work, the exciting stuff and the necessary retail stuff, and to elevate the latter so even that is great to work on.

Now it’s just a matter of getting people to want to work in Detroit in the winter. (laughs)

IHAVEANIDEA: What are your goals for Goodby Detroit over the next six months or so?

Ralph: I’m very focused on two or three projects that I know will do well.  There’s something in the hopper that has sold that I think would be a good format for digital and television for an ongoing series that I think is going to be very good.

I’m in the process of courting two or three people that I can have as good lieutenants, some real thoroughbreds. I’m also working on a model that will allow people to work from anywhere and still be a part of our agency. Sure, you’ll be expected to come to Detroit when necessary, but you can work from afar.

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IHAVEANIDEA: And your people in Detroit?

Ralph: A lot of the people who work in advertising in Detroit are from here, and I spend time trying to educate people what advertising is like outside of this city. The community here tends to live and die by automotive accounts, and so the instinct is to do everything to make the client happy in order to keep their jobs. But you don’t keep your job by merely pleasing the client.  Your job is to create the funniest or the smartest or the most unexpected thing that you can imagine, and keeping it on brief. Let the top guys worry about keeping the client happy.

I want our team to do stuff that wows people, where people will say “That came from where?” That’s what I want.

IHAVEANIDEA: Who are your biggest inspirations outside of advertising?

Ralph: Hmm, well my first pick would be Stanley Kubrick. I could watch every movie of his ten times over.  He saw things for how they would be viewed twenty years from now.  That was rare vision and completely stubborn about “okay, this is the way it needs to be.” I really admired that.

I would also have to pick Founding Father Alexander Hamilton. I’ve read a number of biographies on him, and I feel I could relate to him. He was a bit of an outsider, he didn’t come from money.

IHAVEANIDEA: What is the one thing that you couldn’t live without?

Ralph: Easy, my wife and kids. I’m not super close with anyone else in my family, so they are my only family. I could live without working, I would probably be very happy doing that, but it probably would not be a very good life without my wife and children.

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brianna Ralph Watson
Brianna Graves

  • Alex Southern

    Really enjoyed this interview. Happy to have you in ‘The D’, Ralph!

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