Sheldon Kravitz: A Real Life ‘Mad Men’
NEW YORK—Sheldon Kravitz, 82, lives on the Upper East Side and works from a Gramercy office space filled with photos of supermodels from the ’60s, a signed photograph from Laura and George W. Bush, and the sound of swing music lightly playing in the background.
Kravitz was a big name in the advertising agency business back in the ’60s. He is an original “Mad Man”—as in from the popular period drama American television series “Mad Men.” He worked for Solow-Wexton, Lennon & Newell; Cole, Fischer, & Rogow; and other New York-based agencies. Today he runs Plus Media Buying Services, a company he founded in 1993.
He grew up in the jazz era, played trumpet, partied with Frank Sinatra, and worked as a lawyer before entering the advertising world.
A couple of things have changed since the jazz era. Kravitz doesn’t take three-hour lunch breaks anymore, and he now walks with a cane due to a hip injury he incurred while playing basketball with his 13-year-old son.
“I’m a late starter,” he joked. “I got married again 28 years ago, and the child thing is a long story.”
Kravitz had been told for the greater part of his life that he was sterile—that is, until his wife saw a fertility advertisement on television. When Kravitz learned that modern technology could help him become a father, he gave it a try.
Kravitz said it’s not bad to be a father in the latter half of life.
“It’s a pleasure to watch them grow. You start reliving your youth,” he said. “Your child is going through what you went through, but you’re much wiser now.”
It’s never too late to grow up and have a change of values. “You know what’s the most important thing in my life now? My child. And the next is my wife,” he said.
“There’s a time you grow up and your tastes change, [and] other things become more important,” he said.
Thirty years ago, when Kravitz used to party with Frank Sinatra, and be on friendly terms with Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, he lived in Las Vegas.
Kravitz and his colleagues used to spend hours on lunch break drinking martinis.
“It was a time when many characters considered to be unsavory controlled Las Vegas,” he said. “Those were the days when Sammy Davis could play in Las Vegas but couldn’t sleep in Las Vegas.”
“I never drank very well, I would take a sip of wine,” Kravitz recalled. “When they finished lunch I was the only sober one—and they still had to go back to work.”
Somewhere along the line, Kravitz worked as a theatrical manager. He claims responsibility for Lenny Welch’s big hit “Since I Fell For You,” which reached No. 4 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 in 1963. Welch is a New York-born, New Jersey-raised big band musician.
Kravitz was also a traveling musician for three and a half years, playing trumpet for Vincent Lopez and his orchestra.
“I quickly realized that you couldn’t make any money … the only way to make big money was to play in the studio, and there weren’t that many opening,” he said.
Had I gone that route, I would have “really been in trouble because the big band era ended around the end of World War II,” Kravitz said.
After his music stint Kravitz left to study law at New York University.
He received his bachelor’s at Baldwin-Wallace college in Ohio in 1951. Initially, he intended to go on with his studies to become an eye surgeon.
“[M]y father wanted me to become an eye surgeon, like him. … He wanted me to take over his practice,” he said. “That was it, if I didn’t do it, he couldn’t care less [what I did].”
When Kravitz eventually told his father that he could not stand the sight of blood and must change his professional plans, his father did not succeed in convincing him to try cardiology or internal medicine.
Kravitz worked as a lawyer until 1961, until one day he met a client who specialized in fashion advertising.
“They offered me an executive vice president position and so I went for it,” he said. “Too many unsavory things bothered me in law.”
At that point Kravitz went back to New York University to study marketing and advertising, and the rest is history.
“I’m the only one I know who has been the media director, creative director, and a marketing director of a major agency,” he said.
As the marketing director and senior vice president for Trans World Airlines (TWA), Kravitz learned about advertising from the advertiser’s perspective.
When he began working there in 1985, Kravitz discovered there existed an expensive TWA commercial that had never actually been shown on television.
The commercial was directed by Hollywood producer Ridley Scott, and consisted of scenes of comfortable, warm riders, inside a plane as they flew through a stormy sky.
“I know this is gonna knock you,” he said, but “the commercial cost $600,000 and it had never seen the light of day.”
Kravitz showed the commercial to activist investor Carl Icahn, who was chairman of the board at the time.
His response was, “I don’t understand it, it could be any airline. Every airline says we’re going to give you comfort. Why is that unique to TWA?’”
“It makes me sick today that people pay hundreds of thousands of dollars, and in the end you can’t even remember what the product was,” commented Kravitz.
Kravitz said he has a philosophy that the purpose of advertising should be to sell a product to increase market share. “Today’s advertising is for entertainment,” he said.
“The ad industry gives awards not for success or an increase in sales, but for creativity,” he said. “ Ads are not an entertainment medium, it’s a marketing medium.”
“You have to deliver your promise. If you promise something through advertising, and then don’t deliver to the consumer, that’s worse. It’s worse than if you never promising anything,” he said.
Kravitz illustrated his point with a story about Ross Perot, who ran for president in 1992 and 1996.
“This is a true factual story right now,” he said. He paused to remember the year, and then shouted to his assistant. “Janice, when did Ross Perot run?”
“I don’t know. Sometime before Obama,” she shouted back. “I’ll look it up.”
Kravitz went on with his story.
“When Ross Perot ran for candidacy all he did was pay for a commercial that showed him talking in front of a blackboard,” he said. “Ross Perot got 23 percent of the vote, and his commercial cost him no more than $7,500.”
“But [the commercial] said something and it struck a chord with the people who were viewing it, and as a result they voted for him,” he said.
According to Kravitz, the worst loophole in advertising is the perks. “One time, I paid $3,500 for the back page of a newspaper, while two national advertisers paid $12,500 and $16,500 for the same back page,” he said. He explained that his cost was negotiated, and did not include any additional perks.
“People pay too much for media because … they want to get invited to Wimbledon or some other event,” he explained.
Kravitz also has an issue with having an 18–24-year-old target age group. “Older people should be the target audience; we’re the ones with the money.”
He said he recently switched his toothpaste brand from Colgate to Sensodyne after seeing a Sensodyne advertisement. “We are not so fixed in our ways,” he said.