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How I Made It: Michael Sheldon

The CEO of Marina del Rey advertising agency Deutsch LA encourages others to shake up their routine. That's how he got his big break 15 years ago when he met maverick ad man Donny Deutsch, who transformed Sheldon's ambition into confidence.

August 21, 2011|By Meg James, Los Angeles Times
  • "Give me a car that says something about me," says Michael Sheldon, CEO of ad agency Deutsch LA. He has a 1967 Volkswagen Microbus in his office.
"Give me a car that says something about me," says Michael Sheldon,… (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles…)

The gig: Michael Sheldon is chief executive of Deutsch LA. The Marina del Rey advertising agency's clients include cellphone maker HTC, grocery chain Fresh & Easy, Sony PlayStation, Diamond Foods and Volkswagen. The firm created this year's fan-favorite Super Bowl commercial: a boy dressed as Darth Vader who has the power of "the force" when it comes to his father's VW Passat.

Agency of record: Fifteen years ago, Sheldon opened the West Coast office for maverick ad man Donny Deutsch. "We started with four of us sharing a desk, and from there we have grown this agency into 460 people," Sheldon said. "We should pass $1.5 billion in billings this year with nine big national advertisers. This will be our biggest year ever."

Ignition on: Sheldon, 51, wasn't always the guy in the glass office. The son of a General Motors executive, he grew up in a Detroit suburb learning about marketing. "You either were a GM, Ford or Chrysler home. Your car was a big part of who you were, and it still is. Give me a car that says something about me."

In 1982, after graduating from Michigan State University, he drove to L.A. "I had a Chevy Chevette that didn't run real well, and a motorcycle trailer with a dirt bike on it. Part of the reason that I wanted to move to Los Angeles — besides the weather and the hot chicks — was to race motocross year-round."

Up the ladder: He took a job on Wilshire Boulevard with a leading ad agency, Young & Rubicam, to work on the Suzuki motorcycle account. "I am in my $30 suit thinking life is perfect. It was the summer of '82 and I had $140 in my pocket." He slept on a friend's couch in Glendale before renting "this long skinny place in Echo Park that looked like a mobile home" that he outfitted with lawn furniture. Determined to earn more than $12,500 a year, his career path took a number of turns including stops at agencies Chiat/Day and Fattal & Collins as well as a couple of his own ventures.

The break: In 1997, Donny Deutsch was looking for a general manager to open an L.A. office. "I didn't want to meet with him, I thought he was this brash New York [jerk]. A friend said, 'No, you have got to meet with him, that's just his on-air persona.' I met with him at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills and in 20 minutes we knew that we would be working together for a long time."

"Donny put me on a different stage. He gave me skills that helped propel my career." The difference, Sheldon said, was Deutsch's sense of entitlement. "I've always been tremendously ambitious, but he took that ambition and raised it to a level of confidence. When we got involved in a new business pitch, we approached it knowing that we were going to win."

Get out of the routine: "I do a lot of speeches now, and I always start by saying, 'I will tell you the secret to life. Every day you wake up, brush your teeth, drive to work, work your butt off, come home, watch TV and go to bed. On weekends, you party and then start the week all over again. The key is to inject out-of-the-ordinary experiences into that backdrop. Go someplace with people you hardly know. That's the secret to life: Inject life with these new experiences. Scare yourself a little.'"

That's how he met Deutsch. "I went to this advertising breakfast-dorkfest that I really didn't want to go to, but I met this person who would later tell me to meet Donny. Every time I do something that I really don't want to do, it turns out to be a memorable experience."

Setting the culture: "Culture is a function of how leadership behaves. It happens when you are not looking. If we are good human beings, are smart and passionate and work hard and truly put the client's business above everything, then everyone behaves. Advertising is only what you say, and that's pretty thin. It's the same thing with running an organization. It's much more about what you do."

Personal: Sheldon lives in Pacific Palisades with his wife of 22 years, Gina; their 14-year-old son; and a 10-year-old daughter. He recently took up golf. "I am a horrible golfer, but I love the challenge. I love the fact that it is impossible to master."

meg.james@latimes.com

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