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So You Want My Job? Doremus’ Paul Hirsch talks comic books, crotch shots and commercials

Doremus’ Paul Hirsch discusses his route into advertising

Welcome to So You Want My Job? Each week we ask the people working in some of the industry’s coolest roles about how they got where they are. Along the way, we dig into their philosophies, inspirations, processes and experiences. Hopefully our interviewees can inspire you to pursue (or create) a job that’s just as exciting.

This week we’ve got Paul Hirsch, president and chief creative officer of Doremus & Co in the hot seat.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

I was lucky to grow up in a house full of art and design. My father was/is a great caricaturist and led his own design firm in Chicago. My earliest books were those by illustrator Ed Emberley, and we always had great-smelling felt-tip markers around. Although my drawing skills probably peaked in high school, I had illusions of being an artist. If not a comic book artist like Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko, then maybe a political cartoonist. Growing up I was a big fan of Jeff McNelly. (If you know who that is without Googling it, I owe you a drink [I didn't].)

Does your job now resemble that in any way?

Not really, but there are some similarities. As marketers, the challenge we always face is how to get across a message as simply and powerfully as we can. Whether that’s a strategy or a creative idea. I may be reaching here, but the same is true for political cartoonists. On the surface, the questions are the same: how can I convey an idea in a single image? How can I tap into current events? How can I get it done by the end of the day? And just like us, if you do it well enough, they even give you an award. Lions and Pencils are nice, but they’re no Pulitzers (FYI, McNelly won three Pulitzers).

How did you get your job?

Not many people know this — and it’s certainly not going to be a secret now — but the first job I had in advertising was on the account side. I graduated with a BS in Advertising (oh, the irony), but I had no real portfolio to speak of. At least not a book that would get me any sort of gig. So I was offered a job as a junior account exec and not knowing better, I took it. I even dressed the part, wearing a tie and owning a pair of those galoshes you put over your dress shoes not to get them wet.

After doing that for a few months, I quickly realized that was not the right move and signed up for a portfolio class Adweek was leading at Leo Burnett.

That was a step in the right direction, but it wasn’t very challenging, and the ’biggest’ advice the teacher gave me was that next time I concept a TV spot I should put a palm tree in the first frame. That way, he explained, “You get to go someplace warm to shoot it.” Hearing that, I knew I needed to get serious and looked into schools that advertised in the back of Communication Arts Magazine. After visiting The Portfolio Center in Atlanta (it was the closest place I could drive to), I knew that was the direction I need to take.

I took on a debt that took me years to pay off but it was one of the best decisions I ever made.

OK, so what do you actually do?

That depends on the day. As the chief creative officer and president of Doremus, it could be anything. From the exciting (creating new work) to the mundane (talking numbers with finance). But in general, I’m lucky to spend my days with a truly good group of people solving business problems with creativity that hopefully make the world a better, more interesting place.

That may sound like BS, but that’s the goal. Work with good people, partner with great clients and try to make something beautiful that doesn’t add to the noise that is already out there. Howard Luck Gossage (who worked with one of my favorite art directors, Marget Larsen) said it best: “Nobody reads advertising. People read what interests them, and sometimes it’s an ad.”

How would you explain your job to a taxi driver?

I usually explain that I make commercials. It’s far easier to explain than saying I’m in the middle of creating a ’360º integrated marketing approach designed to raise awareness and drive key metrics.’

If talking about commercials leads to a deeper and more real conversation about what I do, great. But frankly, I’m too self-conscious to talk about what I do.

I’m much more interested in what they do and where they’re from. Years ago, writer-director Risa Mickenberg wrote this great book, Taxi Driver Wisdom, which was chock-full of great stuff she learned from riding in cabs.

I’ve always admired that, and I try to take it to heart.

Do your parents understand what it is that you do?

Now they do, but when I went back to school to get my book together, they were a bit worried.

Since they were in the business, they saw how tough it was and that you were always one account win away from having a good year and one loss away from having to let people go. Looking back, I think they just wanted me to go into something more “stable.”

Now, after having co-founded and run my own agency (Division of Labor in 2010), I don’t know how they did it. It’s f-ing tough and they did it for 30 years. Looking back I have an enormous appreciation for how they kept a business going for all those years and put three kids through college. Which, by all accounts means I should call them more than I do. Sorry, mom.

What do you love most about your job?

Selfishly, I like being creative and surrounded by like-minded people. For the most part, I’ve been fortunate to work alongside really smart, talented people (clients too!) and learn a ton at some interesting places. With the recent passing of Cliff Freeman, I feel lucky that I got to spend a brief time at his agency in its heyday.

I always remember walking across Washington Square Park in the morning and going to work and being paid to be funny. That was a gas. It’s not every day you get to spend time figuring out where the funniest place to hit someone is, and what’s the best sound to use in the background of a scene.

Days like that are hard to beat and make it difficult to imagine doing anything else. (In case you’re wondering, the correct answers are A) the crotch and B) chickens. Chicken noises are always funny.)

How would someone entering the industry go about getting your job now? What would be their route?

I don’t believe there is a particular route, but it’s helpful to have things to show that demonstrate that you can do the job. If you want to be a writer, have some writing samples. If you want to be an art director, have some design work. It’s that simple. Some agencies profess they hire off TikTok. I don’t know if that happens or whether it’s just good PR. We haven’t had success that route, but I’m all for any way that brings new talent and viewpoints into our business.

What advice would you offer to others entering the ad industry, especially at this weird time?

I’ve always thought this is a business of misfits that benefits from people doing lots of things before they enter it. I know very few people who are good that entered it right out of some sort of formal schooling. I was an assistant account exec, then a cook and a ski bum, before I went back to school to get my book together.

Do something different, explore lots of things. It’s terribly clichéd to say, but do the Robert Frost thing and take the road less traveled. It’s hard to write about a lot of things if you haven’t had any experiences to write about.

Last week we spoke to Rebecca Bezzina, managing director at R/GA London.

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