Alumni Spotlight: Richard Kirshenbaum ’83

by Jiaman Peng

August 2, 2019

Advertising alumnus believes in hard work, humility and doing what you’re good at.

Richard Kirshenbaum

While pursuing his undergraduate degree at Newhouse, Richard Kirshenbaum ’83 wanted to try his hand at creative advertising and honed his craft in copywriting courses.

He says that he may have never gone into the industry as a copywriter if he hadn’t done that. “Sometimes you have to fight for what you want or believe in,” Krishenbaum says. “Don’t take no for an answer.”

After working as a copywriter in an agency, Kirshenbaum realized that he was better suited working for himself than others. At 26, he co-founded the advertising agency Kirshenbaum Bond + Partners. He is now CEO of NSG/SWAT, a boutique branding agency he launched in 2011. He is also the author of the advertising memoir “Madboy” and the Amazon bestseller “Isn't That Rich?: Life Among the 1 Percent.” His first novel, “Rouge,” was recently acquired by Sony Pictures for film rights.

We sat down with Kirshenbaum to find out the secrets to his success, and what advice he’d give to students today.

How did you get into advertising?

I always had a passion for writing. I initially did some comedy writing when I graduated from college, but I was only getting paid eight dollars a joke and so wasn't ever going to earn a living from that. I thought the advertising copywriting suited my talents. At the time, the field was very robust and [copywriting] was a fun way to still exercise my creative goals while making a living.

You’ve founded advertising agencies and become an author. What has motivated such a varied career?

I was always the youngest person in the room and now I'm not. I have the saying, “Don't worry about getting older, worry about getting better.” That's really my driving motivation, whether it's starting a new company or writing a new novel, that I feel like it will be the best that it can be and I'm learning, growing with each stage.

What do you love most about your job?

Having the ability to say no and choose more of what I want to do. In the advertising business—if anyone's watching “Mad Men”—the old way of doing things was to do a creative pitch and come up against other agencies. I did that for many years at my first company. I personally never liked pitching because I don't like giving away my creative ideas for free, so now we don't pitch. That’s something I feel really strongly about and it’s just one example of doing more of what I like to do.

What’s your advice for students feeling lost or who are afraid to pursue their passions?

I grew up in a conservative environment where the holy grail [of professions] was doctor, lawyer [or] accountant, and I wouldn't ever have been good at any of those things. I always say, do more of what you're good at. If you spend more time doing what you love, you'll be great at it; and if you're great at it, then you'll be successful. It's not the other way around. You can't go searching for success with something that you think you should be doing. If you think you should be doing it, rather than wanting to do it, you'll never be good at it.

What was a lesson you learned the hard way?

To be patient. I want to see results quickly and sometimes it takes time to have things happen in the way you want [them] to happen or to get what you want.

As someone who has a wide variety of professional experiences, did you ever feel like you had to choose one thing to pursue in a career?

There's an old saying, “You can have it all, you just can't have it all [at the] same time.” I look at things more as building blocks, a bridge to getting there. With my writing career, I started out writing jokes, then copywriting. I had a column and the column became a book, and I started writing a couple of books, which led me to do a novel. It’s been a progression. One doesn't become a well-known writer overnight. You have to have a long-term view.

What’s your fondest memory of Newhouse?

Professor John Philip Jones was the best, the real deal!

Jiaman Peng is a junior advertising student at the Newhouse School.