Donny Deutsch - Loving the Thrill of Creating Big Ideas

By Lunch at Michael's Archives
Cover image for  article: Donny Deutsch - Loving the Thrill of Creating Big Ideas

Originally Published: February 28, 2005

"Why do I have that word attached to me," demanded Donny Deutsch when I commented on his ego during our breakfast last week at Michael's. "I don't know why that's always followed me! There is a big difference between having a big ego and being a big personality who is not concerned about going against the grain. What about someone like [New York City Mayor] Michael Bloomberg. He obviously has a big ego but it doesn't follow him like an accusation. I'm not any different than others whose 'brands' are visible. Sense of self and self-confidence get confused with a big ego. It's silly and inexplicable," he laughed, although acknowledging he is "often wrong but never in doubt."

There are some who might offer Donny an explanation why ego follows him like an accusation, but far be it for me to be critical of ego and there were certainly some "big egos" at Michael's that morning. Vogue's Anna Wintour departed early while colleague Tom Florio perched at table one with stunning supermodel Veronica Webb discussing this year's Fragrance Industry FiFi Awards, where Donny will be a first-time presenter. New York Social Diary's David Patrick Cunningham engaged in lively conversation at table eight.

Since Donny tapes his 10 PM nightly "The Big Idea with Donny Deutsch" CNBC talk show at 1 PM, we met for an early breakfast but the hour didn't dim his enthusiasm and energy. While I had been critical of some aspects of his weekly program, which moved to weeknights earlier this year, I've been impressed with the style and substance of his interviews. He obviously does his homework, listens and responds to his guests, confronts their personal issues, is unafraid of broaching controversial issues, and engages in lively conversations that are unlike his closest comparable competitors, PBS' Charlie Rose and CNN's Larry King. Donny offers a far more youthful, lively and interesting format than King and is more focused on uncovering his guests' personalities and motivations than Rose, who typically sticks to business issues.

"I'm a peer of many of my guests and they are more likely to open up to me. What I do is try to figure out their mindsets," he explained. He has especially enjoyed interviewing Yoko Ono, Carmen Electra, Jane's Addiction's David Navarro and Jon Bon Jovi. "I've found the bigger the stars are the more decent they are." Bon Jovi, he told me, "was sick but showed up, didn't have any entourage, and was great."

The guests he's most eager to have on "The Big Idea" are Howard Stern, Bill Clinton and Jerry Seinfeld. "Howard is a media pioneer and an interesting character, especially now with his move to Sirius." Donny is complimented that people compare his interviewing style to Stern. "We ask questions you would also want to ask and we both cover pop culture, which goes from the FCC to 'Desperate Housewives.' We're beginning to percolate," Donny says. "We're beating Dennis Miller's ratings regularly and people think 'The Big Idea' is a good show."

Of his 120 guests to date three have been porn stars, he's done a special on suburban wives having affairs, and plans additional specials on gay parenting and free speech issues. "It's getting to the point if you don't bleed red meat in everything you say, it's a problem. We're not going to be sensational, but it's important to confront relevant issues." He also says he would consider doing a joint special with fellow CNBC host Tina Brown.

Donny claims hosting a television talk show or running an ad agency were far from his mind when he began his career. "I thought I would be a lawyer. I never really thought it through when I went to college (University of Pennsylvania, majoring in marketing). I always saw in my Dad a guy who loved what he did, but I never thought I'd be running his agency some day. My Dad even fired me once (when he was an assistant account executive). I joined Ogilvy & Mather's training program but I didn't like that. I tried L.A. for six-months but moved back to New York." You can learn all you need about Donny's life at

Ultimately, Donny did join his father's boutique ad agency, eventually becoming CEO in 1984, changing its name from David Deutsch Associates to Deutsch Inc., elevating it to one of the hottest full service agencies in the world and eventually selling it to Interpublic Group where it has become one of the most successful and profitable units.

Donny took me to task for publishing comments several weeks ago from an "unnamed source" suggesting recent account losses and his commitment to "The Big Idea" would force him to bring in a new management team. "You were so glaringly wrong," he scolded me. "My advice is you have to be careful with 'unnamed critics.' It was obviously someone who is clueless and jealous. We grew twenty percent and the IPG guys have been great."

He admits the recent business losses (Mitsubishi and Bank of America) and account reviews "have been a bizarre and coincidental perfect storm," but believes the agency will retain the Revlon account that was put into review last November and will have excellent growth and profitability in 2005. "Doing the show keeps me fresh in the ad business," he suggests. "I'm still the spiritual leader and spend the majority of my time at the agency. I've become more of a real chairman, putting out fires, setting the direction and being a part of high level meetings."

But he admits "the advertising business is challenging these days. More and more, clients are putting compensation pressure on agencies. They look at agencies as suppliers and want transparency from ad agencies they don't want from any other service business, like lawyers or accountants."

On the core business of television advertising, Donny says the "traditional :30-second spot is becoming a smaller piece of the pie but is still dominant. The issue is what you do to buttress it." Product integration in programs, he suggests, is often too blatant but he believes it is a legitimate part of the business. Donny gained his most extensive national visibility as a judge of advertising campaigns developed by teams on "The Apprentice," including this season's controversial campaigns developed for Dove Skin Care that Donny advised Donald Trump, "both suck."

The agency holding company business is also challenging, Donny suggests, as the strategy of building multiple marketing and communications resources and trying to integrate them has not been as successful as expected. "It sounds like a 'hot wow' but it denigrates the individual brands," he says.

Donny says he will continue to experiment with 'The Big Idea.' "Most nights I watch my show to look for ways to improve it. Celebrity will remain a significant focus. The show is about everything pop culture and celebrity is driving pop culture. I love what I do and love the thrill of creating something new."

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