ArtCenter: What was it like attending ArtCenter in the 1960s?
Robert Birkenes (Advertising ‘67) painter/art director: While I was attending ArtCenter, Saul Bass was one of the most respected graphic designers in L.A. Every designer or art director looked to him as being the very best in the business and most admired. He created the most wonderful graphics for movie titles, posters, etc. He also attended my ArtCenter graduation.
AC: How did you get your start in advertising?
RB: When I graduated from ArtCenter in 1967, I began to pursue a career in Los Angeles only to discover that L.A. was filled with senior creative people who moved from the East Coast to the West Coast to enjoy the nicer weather and creative atmosphere.
Every interview I had ended the same: “You have a great portfolio, but we need someone with experience.” This prompted me to seek interviews in Chicago. I met with Foote Cone & Belding and Leo Burnett; FCB hired me on the spot. I eventually did work at Leo Burnett on three different occasions in my career.
In those days, I feel that Leo Burnett Advertising was one the agencies that inspired so many creative people to do their very best. (One thing I discovered upon interviewing in Chicago was the doors for an interview opened wide for an ArtCenter graduate, and you were treated with great respect.)
My old boss, Leo Burnett, had a phrase that the entire creative department embraced, which read, "Reach for the stars, and you won't come up with a handful of mud."
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AC: How do you define success?
RB: Being able to do the best creative work and completely enjoy doing it. At the end of my career, I realized that I never really worked a day in my advertising career because I loved it so.
When I created the early TV commercials for Eggo Waffles, I never really thought the copy icon “L’eggo My Eggo” would be around today, after well over 40 years. That was such a surprise to me. It was such a silly piece of copy back at Leo Burnett in the mid ’70s.
AC: Who are some of the more interesting people you've met on your career path?
RB: In my early career, I became friends with John Hughes. We would often ride the Northwestern Train to our homes after work at Burnett. John and I would exchange silliness and jokes as we watched the passengers on the train.
When I moved from Chicago to Boca Raton, Fla, to open my own advertising agency around 1980, I saw a movie soon there after that John created called National Lampoon's Vacation. Only to be followed by John’s brilliant Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Home Alone, etc. Being in advertising was kind of a foundation for John’s creative career in the movie business. He left us much too soon.
I also worked with Tim Kazurinsky for a while at McCann Erickson. Tim went on to star in Saturday Night Live and soon became the head comedy writer for them before writing some very successful scripts for movies.
AC: Where do you get inspiration?
RB: My old boss, Leo Burnett, had a phrase that the entire creative department embraced, which read, "Reach for the stars, and you won't come up with a handful of mud." This phrase was very Midwestern and down to earth, but it always inspired me to achieve and do my very best which is what ArtCenter prepared me for.
AC: What have been some of the most memorable twists and turns in your professional/creative journey after graduating ArtCenter?
RB: My advertising agency in Florida. Most of my local agency competition was not that strong. I would enjoy making speculative creative presentations to new clients. I was usually successful with about 85 percent of my new business presentations. I so enjoyed winning an account based upon good, solid marketing and creative communications.
AC: Who are the most interesting artists or designers?
RB: Favorite artists today are Andy Warhol, David Hockney and Keith Haring. The designers I admire most are Charles Eames and his wife, Ray Eames.
AC: What is your prized possession?
RB: My entire career in advertising — I wouldn’t trade it for anything. (Thank you ArtCenter.)
AC: What was a challenging part of your career?
RB: I had an occasion to work in Mexico City for McCann Erickson for four years. During which time I was the senior art director on the General Motors and Coca-Cola accounts. This was a very exciting period in my advertising career. Very challenging and very rewarding from a creative perspective. If any of the ArtCenter grads have an opportunity to experience working in another country, I recommend that they really embrace it.
AC: What’s your best piece of advice for an ArtCenter student who’s interested in following your career path?
RB: Stay focused and know who you are and be aware of what will be needed of you as you pursue your career. Know even more about the advertising, communication or branding agency than they know about you. Do your homework. Study their client base and get a feeling for the type of creativity they have produced.
Make sure that there is an alignment with your goals. If you don’t do this, you may be unhappy with what you eventually produce for them. Be true to yourself.
AC: What are you working on now?
RB: In retirement, my creative drive now includes creating abstract paintings, pen and ink drawings and photography. My creations have found their place in private and corporate art collections throughout America and have been featured in art exhibitions in Los Angeles, Chicago, Mexico City and South Florida.