One-On-One With Donny Deutsch

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AS YOU WALK INTO DONNY DEUTSCH’S UPPER EAST SIDE TOWNHOUSE, THROUGH THE IRON-SCROLL GATE AND DOWN travertine stairs, you enter a room with pristine white undulating sofas that run the length of the narrow gallery space. Along the walls are monoliths to Donny’s success — artworks worth millions: Damien Hirst, Basquiat and Warhol. But Deutsch, motivational speaker, author, advertising mogul turned creative, executive producer and now actor, is not one to indulge in the trappings of success. He thrives on challenge and risk-taking. His latest venture is a hysterically funny TV show that he stars in while also playing the part of executive producer and creative director. He plays a fictionalized version of himself in the USA Network show named Donny! It is proof he can laugh at himself. “I play a complete idiot,” he says casually. “I play a talk show host/Dr. Phil-type character, and I am supposed to be giving advice out to people when in reality I am a hypocrite — I do the same things I advise my audience not to do. It’s a ‘takedown’ on New York and its wealth, and I’m the joke. I make a lot of fun of myself.”

Although he resides in a sleek five-floor home, purchased in 2006 when he embarked on a four-year renovation, the native of Hollis Hills, Queens, still visits his childhood house and talks fondly of his youth. He shines as he takes out an iPhone photograph of the house in the New York borough for all to see. “I love this house, but I’m not happier today then I was then. The house felt big, and I grew up beautifully,” he says. “I’m very fortunate, but ‘stuff ’ doesn’t make you happy — it’s accomplishment that does and stuff comes after. I never aspired to this,” he adds as he gestures from his ground-floor office. “I was never driven by wealth. I was driven to accomplish — and to win — so when I give my motivational talks I always say the same thing: ‘Do something you are passionate about’ — something you love and the rest will follow. It’s not about money, it’s about following your heart,” Deutsch continues. “If you love something you will become great at it and the rewards follow.”

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One of the rewards of Deutsch’s success is his art collection, which includes, Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Richard Prince, Damien Hirst, Jenny Holzer, Keith Haring — all pop-centric works that he displays in his home. His latest acquisition is a George Condo. “You can definitely say art is a guilty pleasure — it’s as guilty as it gets,” he says. “I started collecting in 2003 and early on I would just buy what ‘talked’ to me. But if totally up to me, I would only have bought Warhols and Basquiats. People advised me to have more variety but I was always drawn to the commerciality of those artists. Warhol is akin to advertising, and that is in my blood. I love art that is graphic and winks to the culture — works that are very positive. It’s what I call ‘fiercely happy.’ There is nothing better in the world,” says this art lover.

Although he talks with rapt animation about works of art, it is evident by the massive black-and-white portrait of his girls outside his office wall that family is his mainstay. Deutsch has three daughters from two different relationships ranging in age from 28 to 8 years old. His father was his mentor and the foundation to his life. “Everything good about me I got from my dad. My dad, whom I lost a couple of years ago, is my hero — the most decent, valued, thoughtful person!” he says emphatically. “After he stopped working at the agency he became a fine artist, and what’s funny is when people see his work, hanging next to Warhol and Basquiat they ask, ‘Who is that?’ They love the pieces! I got my drive from him. Even with this TV show Donny!, I feel him in it. He always said [to me], ‘Just go for it’ and ‘Follow your gut.’ I was very lucky to have him as my father,” he says with great love.

His father, a creative and driven trailblazer as his son, founded the ad agency David Deutsch and Associates in 1969, and Donny as a young man took full control of it in 1989. He worked there until he sold it in 2000 but stayed on as a chairman for several more years. The show’s premiere, with its racy content, caused him to sever ties. “It was time — there is a new generation coming up, so I thought it was a good time to go, though I’m still an ad-guy at my core,” he says. Deutsch went on to author two books, the first was penned with Peter Knobler, called “Often Wrong, Never in Doubt” and “THE BIG IDEA: How to Make Your Entrepreneurial Dreams Come True from the AHA Moment to Your First Million.” He also regularly appears on NBC’s Today Show and MSNBC’s Morning Joe and he hosted CNBC’s The Big Idea with Donny Deutsch, which ran from 2004 to 2008.

The satirical show Donny! is enjoying good reviews and has hit the right note with the increasingly fickle audiences. The reason why? It’s hysterically funny, relevant and irreverent. Deutsch seems completely at ease playing the character — part of the ease may come from taping the show in his home. “We shot the pilot and USA Network loved it,” he says. “I didn’t care about exposing my home to the audience. It’s not like I’m exposing my kids,” whom he protects fiercely. “As far as the intrusion, there are always 100 people coming in and out of my house during any given day. I have lots of floors to find a quiet space, so it’s really not an issue,” he notes.

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The show is his latest endeavor in his journey to live his life with unwavering gusto. “When you look at the arch of my career — starting with the ad agency where I was creating 30-second content for consumers, to the TV shows where I had to do a lot of improv — but still talking to consumers. With Donny! I actually think it’s the easiest forum because it’s not live,” he says. At 58 years old, Donny Deutsch feels immensely grateful for being able to embark on this new challenge and even more grateful that it is being well-received. “To do something that still keeps me on my toes and keeps it fresh — that’s what it’s all about,” he says enthusiastically. “People have said to me, ‘I so admire you for putting yourself out there, and keep pushing,’ he recalls. “Because most successful people are in what I call “the pillow of success.’ You have to look at risk in a different way [in order to move to the next level]. I could even say there is no risk [in trying something new]. If your ego is intact, you are no worse off than if a project doesn’t work. People are so stuck in their lanes and are afraid of failure, but that is really the only failure [not failing]. In my motivational speeches I always talk about embracing failure. If you can, reinvent [yourself] ― that is real luxury!”

Clearly, it’s the pursuit that motivates Deutsch. Evolving and growing comes with the territory. To that end, this creature of habit is taking a new tack when it comes to travel. Although he takes yearly jaunts to St Barth’s and Miami, he’s recently fascinated with travel to far-flung destinations. “Next on the docket is more international travel,” he says. “I’m working on that.” An African safari may be his next adventure for this endlessly curious man.
The stylish Deutsch also counts himself as a watch aficionado with 25 watches in his collection. “I love Roger Dubuis and vintage Rolexes — those are my current favorites. I’ve got a bunch of Panerais and a Pateks, but I’m really into vintage Rolexes lately,” he says. He also includes a vintage 1962 Mercedes in his collection of indulgences. “I love the car, but my toys are really art and watches,” he notes.

Deutsch’s life philosophy is part and parcel to his hard-driving nature to live life to its apex. He’s made smart business choices, which includes acquiring important art. His thoughts on the buying and collecting of art take the long-term view. “The top of everything is always going to do well. A friend of mine said something interesting when he returned from Rome. He said, ‘I wasn’t looking at the currency, I was looking at art which survived hundreds and even thousands of years.’ What he noted was that art and real estate retains its value in a civilization. It doesn’t mean year in and out there will be an increase, but over time, art and real estate holds its value. You still need to be careful collecting art because people search for that emerging artist that will turn $100,000 into a million, and it often doesn’t happen that way,” he says definitively. “I always say, ‘I can’t afford my own art.’ It’s this wonderful high- class problem, but I would never pay today what my art is worth. It’s 20 times the value of what I paid 12 years ago. When things get rocky in the market it’s one of the first things that takes a hit. It’s a long-term investment.”

It’s evident that Deutsch is a clever businessman, invests wisely and enjoys the fruits of his varied successes. But with the premier of Donny! he has embarked on new territory, and for Donny Deutsch, that is already a win.

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