The AdPulp Interview: Steffan Postaer

Steffan Postaer is one of Chicago’s best known ad men. After a storied career at Leo Burnett–where he helped create the legendary “Curiously Strong” print and outdoor campaign for Altoids–Postaer decorates his resume (and maybe his office) with the MPA Kelly Award for best print campaign in North America, Best of Show at the Addys, Obies and NY Festivals as well as two gold and silver Lions from Cannes.

After leaving Burnett, Postaer became Chairman and Chief Creative Officer at Euro RSCG/Chicago, a role that stretched his management muscles, as the Chicago office of the French-owned conglomerate needed a massive overhaul to remain viable.

Today, Postaer is looking for a new opportunity in advertising, a business he clearly loves. Given that he’s fielding questions from headhunters and hiring committees, I figured Postaer wouldn’t mind if we piled on. I jest! Postaer’s been a Friend of AdPulp for several years–for that, and for taking the time to do this interview, I thank him.

Q. Is being so well known for your Altoids work a blessing or a curse?

A. It’s a profound blessing. My partner, Mark Faulkner and I created a campaign that changed everything; not only for us but for Altoids, Leo Burnett, outdoor advertising and maybe even pop culture. Why would it be a curse? They can put “Curiously Strong” on my tombstone.

Q. You come from an advertising family. How important was this to your development as an ad man?

A. The proverbial acorn did not fall far from the tree, did it? I consider my father a profound influence, as both a writer and creative director. His company, RPA is one of the biggest (and in my opinion best) privately held agencies in North America. I maintain that my brother, Jeremy (ECD, JWT NY) has the best portfolio I’ve ever seen. My mother, Christine was a hell of an art buyer at FCB. And my half-brother, Daniel is killing it at DMG in China. We’re all blessed by this business.

Q. Do you remember thinking as a kid that you might one day make ads for a living, like your dad?

A. Ironically, my first inclination was to be a columnist for Rolling Stone. In high school I wrote music and film reviews for the school paper. At the University of Wisconsin in Madison I did the same for both school papers, The Daily Cardinal and The Badger Herald. I even helped start the Mad City Music Mirror. A high point was reviewing the Violent Femmes (loved ‘em) and seeing U2 at Headliners for five bucks.

I abandoned that dream and here’s why: I once wrote a scathing review about a hair band called Whiz Kid. The following night I ran into the singer at a keg party. He told me the reason he played lame cover tunes was in order to make the rent. College bars wouldn’t pay him to do original music. Maybe one day, but not then. He played what he played because he had a wife and kid to support. Humiliating his band in print only glorified my ego and made him feel shitty. I remember that awful conversation like it happened yesterday. When I talk about an ad campaign on my blog, Gods of Advertising I’m especially sensitive about what I write. Thank you, Whiz Kid.

Q. You’re a Chicagoan through and through, born and raised and you’ve spent your entire ad career there. Will you stay in Chicago now that you’re “on the market”?

A. Staying put would be easier, yes. But should the opportunity arise, my family and I are totally open-minded to moving, even excited about it. As you correctly point out, I’ve lived and worked here all my life. It might do me some good to leave. Shoveling four feet of snow gets old. As does Chicago politics. Blagojevich. Ugh.

Q. Talk to me about Chicago as an advertising city. It’s not Manhattan and it’s not LA. And the Windy has a bit of a bad rap creatively. Is that bad rap deserved, or is it misguided anger from shady sources?

A. “Misguided anger from shady sources.” That or they’re just going through their Whiz Kid phase! Chicago haters get a lot of attention, don’t they?

But show me a major American city that’s creatively firing on all cylinders. In my opinion, creative Mecca is no longer a function of geography. Just like Milan is no longer the epicenter of fashion.

Think about it another way. Creatively speaking, after Goodby, WK, and CP&B how many number one seeds are there?

Yet, I do think Chicago agencies are beginning a surge. Leo Burnett killed it with the “Mayhem” campaign for Allstate. CK is taking risks with Porsche. And I like a lot of the work Energy BBDO and The Escape Pod are doing.

Q. Let’s go back in time. From the outside looking in, LBWorks seemed like a very good thing — the power, money and fame of Leo Burnett but with a chance to do cool work for emerging brands? Why didn’t that situation last and why isn’t it being repeated at other large shops today?

A. LBWorks was a highpoint for me. You know, it was supposed to be a B2B and technology agency. But we quickly grew into an agency within an agency. And a damn good one. The problem was that to some we became seen as an alternative to the main agency. It became tetchy. For example, how do you decide who pitches what and where the revenue goes? Those were very real and hard questions to answer.

We (LBWorks) perceived ourselves as “the strong arm of Leo Burnett” and acted accordingly. Though we were successful, it was an arrogant posture to take. We could not have achieved anything without Leo Burnett. In the end, both sides could have handled it better.

Q. What did you learn while working at Euro RSCG? From what I’ve heard, you went in there when the place was in shambles and made the best of it. Are you proud of your work you did there? How will it now propel you onward and upward?

A. In 2004, Euro RSCG Tathum Partners (the name at the time) was in rough shape. The local press called it a “corpse.” We had one advertising client. Almost everyone I asked said it was a lost cause and that under no circumstances should I risk my reputation (such as it was) and become the CCO. I did it anyway. For one thing, I remembered that LBWorks was first a failing tech shop called TFA. I like being the underdog.

My job was to help revive the advertising piece, so that it would be as valid and profitable as the direct marketing side. That was my primary brief. Not creating the next Altoids or whatever; but creating a legitimate advertising practice, an agency again. For the first two or three years all Euro RSCG Chicago did was pitch or, better said: try to get into pitches. It was hard and humbling. But gradually our people got better and we were able to attract new ones. With that, we started getting clients. From scratch Valspar trusted us to build a paint brand for them and we did. Our work for Valspar got Euro its first Effie as well as integrated campaign of the year in The Chicago Show.

You asked what I’m most proud of. Well, it isn’t an ad. It’s the fact that during the height of the recession, in 2009, we were hiring and not firing. That felt good. Last year, Euro RSCG Chicago was one of the best performing agencies in the network. Last year the ad practice was benchmarking as well as any channel at Euro. I’m proud to have played a role in that. Unfortunately, I can’t put that in my book but I believe those that know know.

Q. Speaking of onward and upward, would you consider taking a step down, or back, to being a creative director or copywriter again? Or is it “once an executive, always an executive”?

A. I want to be of maximum usefulness to another entity, be they big, small, up and coming or struggling. And I want to write as well as lead. Regardless, I am not beholden to any title or pay grade. In the meantime, I am pursuing an opportunity to partner with one of the best art directors I know. We hope to get projects from agencies. More on that soon…

Q. Aside from writing ads, you also write novels. That seems like an even tougher row to hoe.

A. If you mean making money, yes writing novels is a “tougher row to hoe.” But a writer writes. Though I’ve lost a ton of money on my books, writing them has brought me incalculable joy. Discovering I have readers in far away places; finding reviews online (even negative ones) is truly special. It makes me feel like I’ve done something.

Frankly, I’ve written two screenplays as well. One based on my second novel, The Happy Soul Industry; the other a zombie horror film, Belzec: The Made Undead. Anyone wants to read them, let alone produce them, I’m easy to find!

Q. Like me, you were into journalism in college. Do you ever wish you’d chosen to become a professional journalist rather than an ad maker?

A. I already told you my Whiz Kid story and wanting to write for Rolling Stone…I scratch my journalistic itch with the Gods of Advertising. That blog is one of the best things I ever created. Thank you, Internet!

Q. What’s the best place to get a hot dog in Chicago and why are Chicago dogs so damn superior?

A. Hot Doug’s. Wrigley Field. The Wieners Circle. Not necessarily in that order. For the classic Chicago Dog you need yellow mustard, green relish and a long pickle. Oh yes, and celery salt.

Q. Who are your favorite writers inside and outside the ad business?

A. Ian McEwan’s Saturday is one of the best novels I’ve ever read. Much of his writing is incredible. I love Cormac McCarthy. And I just reread all of Updike’s Rabbit novels. I’m also a fan of horror but we won’t get into that.

As far as writers in Adland, we’re all overrated. Just kidding. Sort of. Making a remarkable ad (in whatever form) starts with a good assignment and ends with even better luck. The middle part is all hard work. If you have those three things in your corner, most writers can do amazing things.

Q. Are you a God of Advertising?

A. Hell no. The title of my blog is meant to provoke not describe.

Q. Do you think your children could one day go into the family business? If so, how might you advise them on creating a modern creative career?

A. Right now my children would prefer to be teachers, which to my mind, is the most important job in the world.



About David Burn

I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.