Ron Elgin may be one of the luckiest people who ever lived—and he knows it. He has been fortunate to be surrounded by smart people with bright ideas, including his business partner, David Syferd, who first had the idea that they establish their own ad agency. Huckster tells the story of that agency from womb to tomb and the role Ron played in its success. Established in 1981, for 30 years Elgin Syferd was a powerhouse ad agency in the Pacific Northwest. Ron was also lucky or smart enough to marry “the Beautiful Bonnie” so she could keep him in line when he needed it, to hire people smarter than himself, and to have enough sense not to hire jerks.
Fortunately for us, Ron also was smart enough to write this book and to write it well. He didn’t want to write a dry “How To” book, so he wrote this collection of stories about the history of his ad agency, filled with words of wisdom about how to run a business, and also loads of hilarious stories that will make anyone laugh regardless of any interest in advertising.
The story begins when Dave first suggests to Ron that they start an agency, saying, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could have a company that was always as nice as I am and you try to be?” I suspect Ron is actually very nice, but he won’t give himself credit for being so. Despite that, and putting aside the luck he had, it’s clear he worked very hard to make Elgin Syferd a success right from the start. In fact, he worked hard from a young age. As he tells us:
I grew up living in a low-income housing project in Seattle that probably played a big part in my lifelong thirst to be rich. As a kid, I helped out our family where I could by collecting and selling beer bottles from the neighbors’ yards, and eventually, I graduated to killing rats at the Fisher Flour Mill for fifty cents each. I got my first hourly jobs while in high school. The two longest lasting were the graveyard shift at the railroad as a yard clerk (also aptly named “mudhoppers”) and after school at a service station pumping gas and changing oil.
From there, Ron went on to college, interned at a successful ad agency, had a stint in the service during the Viet Nam War, returned to advertising, and eventually co-founded Elgin Syferd, bringing a great deal of experience with him, along with some arrogance, a soft heart, and a great sense of humor.
The stories Ron shares about advertising are that rare mix of true entertainment and education. For example, I loved the story about the airplane ad that he was convinced was great. The ad had an image of a plane taking off and a plane landing; unfortunately, the client told him the plane looked like it was crashing. Unwilling to change it, Ron went to the airport to show the ad to airplane passengers and get their reactions. By the time he was done, one man threatened to kick his ass if he didn’t quit scaring people and Ron ended up being arrested by airport security. The lesson: never be too arrogant to listen to others.
I don’t want to steal from you the pleasure of laughing over Ron and his colleagues’ many other antics, but if you’re looking to learn something by reading this book, Ron does sum up his stories with many key points, such as “A million ways exist to solve a particular problem,” “Doing good work is not enough to keep good clients. Constant care, contact, cultivation, and asking the right questions are essential,” and “If an employee shows reluctance to be replaced on any piece of agency business, perhaps it’s time for that person’s future with the company to be reevaluated.” Some of these lessons are common sense, some are like lightbulbs that went off for Ron, and others were hard-learned lessons from mistakes he made.
Ron is serious about his business, but he’s not above finding the humor in everything, and you’ll just have to read this book to believe the whacko clients and coworkers with whom he often dealt. One client invented a shield to prevent brain cancer from cellular phones, and another decided to breast-feed her child during a presentation. Then there was the woman dying of cancer who wanted to work for the ad agency, without letting on what her full agenda was, and you’ll never forget Ron’s client and friend who thought he was God. There were also a lot of good times at the ad agency—golf outings, boating parties, and some fun business trips where occasionally Ron or a colleague had one too many drinks. I swear if I didn’t know better, I’d have thought the writers of NBC’s The Office visited Ron’s agency to get material.
Through it all, Ron rarely got himself in trouble—except with his wife. Actually, Beautiful Bonnie sometimes got Ron in trouble, such as when she decided during a trip to the U.S.S.R. to help illegally buy baby formula for Jewish mothers, which could have resulted in the couple being shipped to a gulag. Even so, Ron kept taking trips with her—to China, Bangkok, Singapore, and the Kentucky Derby—all told in the book, and all hilarious.
Despite the often self-deprecating humor in these pages, I really appreciated the honesty Ron shows about his business, the mistakes he made, what he learned, and the overall sense of goodwill about work and life that he presents. Anyone in business will be able to appreciate the stories and lessons. People involved in advertising or seeking a career in it will especially enjoy this book—they’ll even find it eye-opening and enlightening about how the advertising world works. Huckster would make a perfect gift for anyone about to enter the business world as well as anyone who just likes a good story.
For more information about Ron Elgin and Huckster: My Life as an Ad Man, visit the author’s website.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00T6RSR5I]