by Rayna Lancaster
If you’ve been in the marketing business anytime in the past 50 years, you’ve probably known a few damn-good art directors. But unless you knew Bob Schiffer, you missed one of the best.
Bob passed away June 17, 2018, due to heart disease, ironic in the case of a man whose heart was seemingly big enough to hold the whole entire world.
Bob was just a regular kid who grew up in the Bronx he loved, in New York City. He attended the Pratt Institute and the New York School of Visual Arts and got a sort of low-rent job doing catalog paste-up, I think. He hated it but it paid the bills for his young, new family of three. One day in 1969, Bob took a big chance (one of many many risks he’d take in his professional life). He walked into the offices of the renowned Doyle Dane Bernbach ad agency in Manhattan with his modest portfolio. He got hired immediately as an art director with no degree, not much experience and few, if any, connections. Does that even happen anymore? Well, okay. Augusten Burroughs.
Big thinking led to Think Small.
At DDB, those were the real-life Mad Men days. Bob worked on national and international accounts like American Airlines, Mobil Oil, and Clairol to name a few. He was involved in creating the then revolutionary and groundbreaking “Think Small” campaign for the Volkswagen bug. He was ahead of his time, at just the right time.
Bob and family left the New York advertising mecca for John Malmo Advertising, now Archer Malmo, in Memphis, Tennessee. He loved John Malmo and the favor was returned. “He was the best idea man I ever met,” John said. He told Bob’s son Rob about the day they were doing a photo shoot for an outboard motor company. The concept was “three men in a tub.” Bob had the tub but no men. So he so ran out on the street and grabbed three big fat guys, strangers, and pulled them in for the shoot. John still howls telling that story.
After Malmo, Bob moved the family to Largo, Florida, to work at a Young & Rubicam agency then called Zemp Advertising where he worked on Publix, Florida National Bank and Florida Power. From there he went to Bozell Advertising in Tampa to work with Howard Ellis and company on the Florida Lottery, Nehi Soft Drinks, Tampa Electric and Val-Pak.
Over the course of his nearly 60-year career, Bob would garner an almost uncountable number of advertising awards of excellence: Numerous awards from the Advertising Club of New York, the C.A. Show, Art Directors Club of New Jersey and of Memphis, Clio, C.A. and Telly awards, a National Addy and dozens and dozens of regional Addys.
He certainly left his mark.
Who’d think just driving in a car with someone could be as interesting as riding with Bob? Gregory N. King knows. He described driving to lunch with Bob at the wheel when Bob noticed some guy on a motorcycle harassing a woman jogger. “Bob throws the car into a hard brake slam, jumps out as it’s still moving, I’m in shock thinking about his several heart attacks…” Cops were called, woman was safe, jerk was chastised. “That was Bob,” Gregory said. “He was such a great guy.” When young Gregory asked Bob how to succeed in advertising, Bob poked him in the chest and said, “Follow your heart.”
One day long ago at Malmo, a 14-year-old kid called the agency and asked to speak to anyone in the art department. Bob answered and the kid asked what kind of degree does he need to become a commercial artist? “None,” Bob replied, “Come see me.” Thus began a lifelong mentorship by Bob for that young man, John G. Schmitz. Today John is a successful games designer and illustrator in Reno who said, “Bob Schiffer is the single most important person of my artistic life and the best creative director I have ever seen.” Bob racks up another groupie.
Tampa Bay area art director Ron Roman calls Bob, “The consummate ad man…old school, hands on, and a true artist.” Amazing in the ad world, Bob could actually draw. Ron and Bob were long time friends and Ron calls him the “art director’s art director.” He remembers interviewing with Bob at Zemp in the early 80s, seeing his cluttered desk full of hand-drawn TV storyboards, and thinking, “That’s what I want to do.” And he has, to great acclaim.
Howard Ellis, principal of the former Bozell agency, describes Bob with equal affection. He said it took some doing to pry Bob away from Y & R but he succeeded after a year of trying and was glad he did. The agency benefited greatly, Howard said.
Bob was famous for his temper. Or infamous I guess is the right word. I had the good fortune to be Bob’s writer at Y & R. What a team, if I do say so myself. After I left to free-lance, that sweet Y & R receptionist and all-around problem-solver Shirley Fletcher would call me to talk Bob down off one of his notorious tirades. He calmed down for me, thank God. Now, about 40 years and 500 lunches later, I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do without Bob Schiffer in the world.
A heavenly calling.
Bob Schiffer was a man of deep Faith, with a capital F. But he didn’t preach at you. Or bust your arm to convert you. He also wasn’t content to just sit around and read the Bible. His Faith showed up in action. He lived it. And not just on Sundays but on every day of every week of every one of the 40-plus years I knew that man, and long before that I am sure.
Bob officially retired from Bozell but he never really retired. He told me that God came and spoke to him and what God said was, “I gave you a talent to create and many of your friends I gave the same talents. I want you to ask them if they would be willing to share those talents for His work here on Earth.”
That’s when Ads4aCause was born. Bob felt his mission was to assemble us old pros and create an ad agency that provided creative services at no cost for worthwhile charities. He enlisted veteran art directors Ron Roman and Rob Chapin, Tim Schaedler as photographer, Glen Peak as marketing guru, ex-Y&Rers Gwen Peterson and me as copywriters, and Jennifer Frazier, too. Curtis Graham even succumbed to Bob’s charms and produced magic, as usual. Through Ads4aCause.org, this group of volunteers under Bob’s able creative direction provided free creative for the American Red Cross, Homeless Emergency Project, Police Athletic League, WMNF community radio, Week End Hunger, Christian Outreach Center, and other groups that really truly help people.
Talk about a parting shot.
Besides his faith, there was one other constant in Bob’s life. His rock. His inspiration. His muse. His Jean. Childhood sweethearts, they were married for 52 years, raised three great kids who gave him five grandkids and two great grandsons.
After Jean passed away six years ago Bob was adrift. He leaned on his faith, his kids, and his friends and rallied to live the best possible life he could without Jean.
Bob was a salty dog, really. His tantrums are legendary. What bugged Bob the most was BS. He hated it. Bad input. Rotten clients. Stupid rejections of good concepts. Jerk AEs. Dumb rules. He was pretty tired of that by the time he left this world. Ever the advertising pro, Bob Schiffer wrote his own obituary and entrusted son Rick to see it was implemented. All he wanted it to say was:
Artwork by John G. Schmitz.
When Rick told me, I literally howled out loud. So Bob. So funny. Pushing the limits right up to the end. I’m told that Bob’s double-entendre concept is being used, as requested, as the memorial pamphlet at his service, and the line was in his very brief Times obit.
So, farewell old buddy Bobarino. You were too kind to me and I learned a lot from you, as did just about every person lucky enough to work with you, know you, or even simply meet you.