A Conversation with George Tannenbaum
By Steve Gilman
Gravity Group President Steve Gilman had the pleasure of sitting down and talking with a true veteran of the advertising industry and an absolute icon of copy and copywriting, George Tannenbaum. For the last 37+ years, George has been making his name widely known in an industry known to not have widely known names. His resume is essentially a Who’s Who of Advertising. But what makes George great is not just who he has worked with, but how he works and the deep truths he holds close. Not only does he run one of the most insightful and well-written daily blogs on planet earth, AdAged, but his closely held beliefs flow from his speaking as easily as the words flow in his writing.
Here are some of the key takeaways we had from Steve’s conversation with George. (This was an episode of our Brand Story podcast, to listen to the full conversation, click here.)
Importance of Brand
It’s not enough to just put your head down and do your job. In fact, the more things became apparent and the writing was on the wall, the more George realized how much was at stake in his own brand. And his brand? One of a challenger.
Challenge the way things have been done. Challenge the status quo. Challenge the people behind both. George always wrote to challenge a common enemy. When it happened in real life as he was let go in 2020, he never stopped challenging.
“(One friend) told me to cool it a little bit, and we have known each other for 35 years. I'm like, wait a second. You worked on Burger King; you didn't cool it towards McDonald's. You worked on Microsoft; you didn't cool it towards Apple. We're trained to go after enemies. That's how you equalize someone else's advantage.”
Common Enemy. Common Purpose.
As humans, we bond when we have an enemy. For decades, George has worked with yet intrinsically against, a common one: Holding companies. He sees a fundamental issue with CEOs and Founders making 250x what their employees make. It’s not just business, George has discovered, it’s personal.
In fact, it’s something he talks about unabashedly, as he’s lived it. He aims to expose those in the wrong for what they’ve done while bringing to light the unfairness and downright unethical behavior of some of the biggest names in the industry.
“The economy needs to be more than about shareholder value. It needs to be about stakeholder value. About three years ago, there was a big movement. It lasted about a week and people were talking about stakeholder value, like what’s in it for us in our family.”
Strong, Clear Voice
After decades of establishing brands’ voices in their advertising, George developed one of the strongest voices in the industry. But that confidence isn’t born overnight. In fact, it can often be stifled the older we get.
But not so with George. Part of what makes him unique is his strong, opinionated voice. And even with losing his job right before the pandemic, that hasn’t slowed him down. In fact, it has only increased. Ironically, it was losing his job that even helped to enhance his voice as he left office — and corporate — politics behind.
“In the past, you know, I’d have to worry about agency politics or holding company politics or people I’m working with politics. I don’t have any of that anymore. I was pretty, I think, candid when I was still within Ogilvy or WPP. But when I was let go, you know, there’s nothing — there’s nothing they can do to hurt me anymore.”
Exiled from Your ‘Home’
When you reach the peak of your career, it can be easy to care less and less about the people around you, but George’s story is different. In fact, the more time he was with his company, the more time he invested in those around him.
Even though the writing was on the wall, it didn’t make his firing any less painful. Nor should it. The human side of business means even though a transactional relationship may end, the relational side suffers, too.
“All of a sudden, somebody calls you into a conference room and you’re gone and you have, and that’s it. So for me, It wasn’t really a fear about losing money and like, how am I going to pay my mortgage or whatever? It was really, it was really the sense of being exiled. If you think about it almost from an immigrant point of view, like I’m leaving the home I love.”
Be a Doer.
It goes against George’s very nature if he’s not creating or doing the work. Some people move into administrative roles and are happy managing the work. But not so for George. He shines when he is in the trenches, doing the work.
While it wasn’t his choice, he was thrown into this world in March 2020. Like many others, he was without a job but decided to make his own way. The result? The birth of AdAged and GeorgeCo. He is not only surviving going solo. By all indicators, George is thriving.
“I just want to do the work... When people are in big companies, I feel like they spend half the day navigating the work instead of doing the work.”
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