Donny Deutsch was born to lead. He’s an unstoppable force in whatever world he happens to be in at the moment, whether it be advertising or television, real estate or politics. He may call himself a “member of the lucky sperm club,” but I think he is not giving himself enough credit—everything he touches seems to turn to gold. He has a knack for success with a larger-than-life personality to match, and an unassuming jean-clad nonchalance that belies his ingenuity.
His non-stop personality is almost hard to keep up with. I met up with Deutsch at 8 a.m. at Deutsch Inc., the advertising headquarters that encompasses an entire city block in Manhattan and houses more than 800 employees. He attended to some office business while our photographer set up for the photo shoot, but gave me his undivided attention for the first stages of our interview. From there, we were off to the New Jersey studios of CNBC for another photo shoot followed by a mid-day filming of The Big Idea with Donny Deutsch, a show dedicated to showcasing the know-how of some of the nation’s most successful businessmen as well as that of budding entrepreneurs. It is a show based on the American dream, which Deutsch himself is certainly living. He has taken his own big ideas and parlayed them into an unstoppable empire that is on point to take control of New York City.
Deutsch Inc. prides itself on being one of the first full-service, integrated agencies to put media, interactive, direct design, and public relations together under one roof.
BIG IDEA: Advertising
Deutsch’s father, David, began a small advertising agency in 1969, which the younger Deutsch began working for following his stint at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Advertising proved to be the perfect outlet for Deutsch’s unrelenting creative energies. “I always knew I wanted to incorporate business and art, and do something that had some sort of creative endeavor, whether it was television or advertising,” he says. “I’m a businessman, in fact I’d like to think that I am a fairly shrewd one, but I needed to be doing something that incorporated some sort of creative content.”
When Deutsch joined his father at David Deutsch Associates, the highly regarded boutique firm, he didn’t take his position as seriously as he should have, leading his father to fire him. In 1984, his father received an offer for his agency, but Deutsch asked him not to sell. “I wanted to come back to the company, but not as an account rep,” he says. “I wanted to come back and win new business.”
When he went back to his father’s agency, he was handed the reigns and the company just took off. Today, Deutsch Inc. does more than $2.5 billion in dealings per year. “I hired some really great people,” Deutsch recalls. “We started to create an agency within an agency. My dad’s agency was more print-orientated, a little more high-end. I was doing a bit more populist work, and things really took off.” Deutsch’s roster of big name clients grew to include the likes of Pontiac, IKEA, Mitsubishi, and Pfizer. Then they landed Bank of America, which launched a global campaign in 37 countries, a turning point that sealed the company’s status as a major player. Other top brands followed suit, relying on Deutsch Inc. to brand their companies for a worldwide market. GM, Johnson & Johnson, DirectTV, and Novartis Worldwide: all of these outstanding brands invested their faith—and dollars—in Deutsch’s firm. Today, Deutsch Inc. is one of the top 10 advertising companies in the world.
Deutsch Inc. prides itself on being one of the first full-service, integrated agencies to put media, interactive, direct design, and public relations together under one roof. Innovative marketing tactics–from hanging a hammock between parking meters in order to showcase IKEA, to creating an online theory about flying cars to spark interest for General Motors–continuously propel the company to the forefront of the advertising industry. As is their motto, “The World is our Medium,” and as such, they utilize every available platform to the fullest extent through creative endeavors that embrace ideas both big and small.
Deutsch sold the company to Interpublic Group in 2000 for close to $300 million. “What’s great about Deutsch Inc. is that it was started by my dad and I took it to another level, and now there is a fantastic team that is taking it to another level. Any great business exists within its walls. You can take a clearly defined culture and you can change 80 percent of the people in that company, and it can still thrive in the same way—that’s what a great company is about. [Deutsch Inc.] has a great culture, a great value system, and that’s what I am most proud of.
“Right now, the company is run by a fantastic team: Linda Sawyer, who is the CEO, has worked with me for 20 years; Val DiFebo, the president of Deutsch New York; and two co-presidents in L.A., Eric Hirshberg and Mike Sheldon,” he continues. “We have all been together for years. These are the people that helped build this place, so I’m more of a spiritual leader at this point.”
BIG IDEA: Television
The majority of his time is now spent attending to his highly successful television show, The Big Idea with Donny Deutsch, which launched in July 2004. Due to the great notoriety of Deutsch Inc. and of its fearless leader, Deutsch frequently appeared as a guest and guest host on Kudlow & Cramer, so when he pitched a talk show to the heads of CNBC, he was met with favorable results. With his big presence, he is a natural on camera and with his guests.
While the original focus of The Big Idea was interviews and profiles, “that got old really fast,” so the scope was broadened to chronicle and inspire the American dream through conversations with everyone from Bill Gates, Al Gore, Martha Stewart, and Ron Perelman right on down to the stay at home mom who invented a product now worth millions.
The show runs nightly at 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. on CNBC, which caters to an affluent and educated audience who can find inspiration in these triumphant stories. “What I am very proud of is that the show is positive, it’s inspiring, it’s something people need right now,” he says.
His show is marketed as the “Roadmap to the American dream,” which CNBC describes as doing what you love and making millions. “We’ve carved out this great niche about the American dream and about entrepreneurs,” he explains. “Now we are building on that and broadening it even more. [The Big Idea with Donny Deutsch] is all about going for the richer life. We’re really trying to give people the tools to succeed.
“I attribute my success to some of the same things that I always hear on my show: to following my passion, to surrounding myself with brilliant people—the best people—to not being afraid to fail, as I have made many mistakes.” He is also the first to admit that it takes a little bit of luck, and fortune has certainly smiled upon this mogul.
As such, Deutsch is constantly sought out as an expert source; the day of our meeting had him moving from his advertising agency to his show taping to the Nasdaq closing, where he was a guest on CNBC’s Fast Money. His pace is constant to the point of being unnerving. He says he is able to keep up such a rigorous schedule by being a creature of habit, allotting personal time early every evening to spend with his daughters.
Deutsch has his own big ideas for those trying to hold on to their wealth in today’s rocky market: “Keep going, man, put your foot to the pedal…. Continue to follow your passion, continue to challenge yourself, always look at the glass as half-full and see opportunities the same way.”
BIG IDEA: Real Estate
He is certainly worthy of offering such advice. There is no room for doubt that Deutsch enjoys the good life. From the townhouse he is building between Fifth and Madison and his home in Trump Park Avenue to his newly acquired piece of property in East Hampton, he wants for nothing, but doesn’t overindulge in the superficial.
His Trump Park Avenue residence is highly reflective of his success. Alive with light and colors, the space is laden with art from some of the modern masters. Hirsts, Warhols, and Basquiats mingle with pieces by Jack Pierson, Robert Indiana, and Richard Prince to create an eclectic collection that mirrors Deutsch’s epic personality.
BIG IDEA: Mayor of New York City
With self-induced rumors that he is interested in running for mayor, he confirms to me that he would love to, despite what he refers to as a “colorful” past. Twice divorced, Deutsch is one of the city’s most eligible and coveted bachelors. “I think I’d be a great mayor,” he says. “If Bloomberg doesn’t change the game, it’ll be a wide open field.” He has amassed political experience during the Clinton/Gore 1992 campaign, when he was a lead member of the communications team.
In the meantime, he is working on a follow-up to his acclaimed book, Often Wrong, Never in Doubt, which is based on his various career experiences. He also finds time to work as a managing partner of Deutsch Open City, an independent production company that has produced acclaimed independent films, and serve on the board at UPenn’s School of Social Policy & Practice Executive Committee and at the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.
Somehow, Deutsch manages to excel in numerous fields with seemingly little effort. He was simply destined for greatness from the moment of birth—and who knows—the people of New York may one day have the opportunity to benefit from his leadership capabilities. Until that time comes, they will just have to rely on the advice he dispenses on The Big Idea.