A passionate (M)ad man with a Don Draper touch

Posted on Fri, 06/01/2018 - 11:30am

By Tracy Poyser

Anita and Ron CohnIf you’re like me, you still miss your weekly dose of the 2007-15 AMC television series “Mad Men” with its compelling characters and brilliant plot twists and turns, especially its enigmatic protagonist Don Draper, portrayed by Jon Hamm. So, imagine what he might have become in later years, given the chance of growing older, wiser and still full of humor and creative energy even when life’s adversities hit him straight on. Our Malibu East neighbor Ron Cohn personifies all of that – and interviewing him for this profile made three hours pass quickly, with a desire to find out more.

I do hope a biography is in the works, expanding on a candid self-promotion Ron wrote during the last “Mad Men” season: Titled “Still mad after all these years,” and subtitled “No, all the Mad Men didn’t drink themselves to death,” it sums up his career and passion for the advertising business so well that it’s tempting to just publish the entire thing, but I’ll just quote from it instead. You’ll find out much more about his 50 years as an ad man on his current venture’s website, www.upperlevelcreative.com.

In Ron’s words: “I have 50 years of memories working with the household names in sports, politics, business, and entertainment – as Mel Brooks said, “the great and the near great.” I had ideas that worked spectacularly and others that were multimillion dollar flops. My work today communicates with those who share my disappointments, triumphs, home runs and fumbles. They trust what I tell them because it is said in a voice they recognize.”

Ron’s personal and professional road to this point in his life – and the move to Malibu East in 2015 – was a superhighway of success for many years, and for others, a rocky road with some disastrous mud slides. But, what stuck out most during our candid talk was his indomitable spirit, pixie sense of humor and ability to shake himself up and start over. To quote him: “All my bartenders are dead, but I’m still around.” And, looking back on his life, he wouldn’t change a thing – despite business losses, two divorces before marrying the love of his life, his wife Anita, 22 years ago (they met as colleagues in the advertising business in the 1980s), and a hard-fought recovery from the cancer diagnosed six years ago.

Born and raised in Chicago in our neighborhood (living at Hollywood and Kenmore), Ron majored in journalism with an emphasis on advertising at the University of Illinois in Champaign. He had figured out that people studying law or science were working hard, while the ones who picked journalism were having fun. He got his first job in 1958 with the Chicago Sun-Times, giving guided tours in its brand-new building on the Chicago River at Wabash – since replaced by Trump Tower. He did a bunch of freelance writing for television and landed his first advertising job in 1959 with then top-tier agency Dancer Fitzgerald Sample.

In 1961, at only 25, Ron made the jump off the proverbial cliff into his own ad agency with 33-year-old friend Earl Weber, partnering with Jim Riley two years later. Weber Cohn Riley (WCR) was one of Chicago’s “hot” agencies, with big-name clients from the fast-food industry (KFC and Brown’s Chicken), finance and banking (Home Federal Savings, Silverado Bank, Van Kampen Investments), transportation and travel (the CTA and RTA, Avis, Hilton Hotels, AAA), entertainment (Chicago White Sox, Arlington Park, 1‑800‑CABLEME) and many other fields.

Real estate was an important subspecialty at WCR, with clients such as Sandburg Village, Harbor Point, National Homes, Mission Hills and Lake Barrington Shores. In 1972, Ron first connected with Malibu East when he got a call from Lou Silverman, marketing director of Dunbar Builders, which had completed construction of Malibu East in 1971. Ron’s imaginative radio and print campaign succeeded within 8-10 months.

There’s a bit of a story about his “Lake Michigan is nearly sold out” ad depicted here. As Ron tells it: “The building was about 50% sold, but only about 25% occupied. To support the claim, we turned the lights on in all completed units and placed lamps in the windows of about 50 more. We shot it at dusk from a rowboat to both show the lake and to allow the lighted windows to sell the concept. This ad (one of a series of full pages in the Trib) and others similar, along with radio commercials, accelerated sales in what had been a stalled project.” Dunbar retained WCR for its next five high-rise projects, including 1212 and 1418 N. Lake Shore Drive, the Waterford on Marine Drive and 201 East Chestnut.

Ron also got to spend some time with Malibu East’s architect, the late John Macsai, while doing the advertising for 25 East Chestnut in the early ’60s. He found Macsai brilliant, inspiring in his creativity and very funny. For example, when asked how one made a Hungarian omelet, John (who was born in Hungary) replied, “First, steal two eggs!”.

Back to Weber Cohn Riley. Respected for four decades in Chicago advertising, the name eventually disappeared into advertising’s merger land of the ’90s – but Ron and Jim Riley stayed best friends. Ron soon jumped into a new agency venture with FireStar Communications. Starting from a series of lunchtime conversations between him and his old friend and former competitor, the late Harvey Haddon, FireStar grew from a two-man shop to one of the largest marketing/creative firms in the national real estate business, at one point handling 105 active projects in the U.S. and worldwide.

But, the 2008 financial and real estate recession hit hard, and FireStar closed in 2010. At the time, Ron and Anita lived in a two-story duplex in the Gold Coast, so Ron turned his second-floor home office into his next agency venture, aptly named Upper Level Creative, with an extensive portfolio of clients and services including short films, TV show concepts, websites and multimedia programs joint-ventured with partner Harvey Haddon. Sadly, about six years ago, Ron and Harvey got hit with life-changing illnesses at the same time – Harvey with a rare cardiac illness he didn’t survive, while Ron was able to recover from an aggressive form of head and neck cancer requiring chemotherapy, radiation and surgery over many months.

About three years ago, Ron and Anita said farewell to Gold Coast living and settled in Malibu East, in the same neighborhood where they had spent their early years. (Anita was born in Germany and at age 11 her family immigrated to Valparaiso, Ind., from where she made the leap to Ardmore Avenue in Chicago when she finished school.)

Not surprisingly, Ron’s creative brain refused to retire. When he was 78, he thought it would be fun to look at industries that knew how to sell to “ancients,” such as hearing-aid suppliers, pharmaceutical manufacturers and leisure-time companies. So, he started Emeritus, a consulting consortium of 15 people ranging in age from 77 to 85 with whom he had worked in the past, three of them women, and all of them resourceful marketing/advertising brains from a variety of industries. He uses them as a sounding board for clients eager to access the buying power of the Baby Boomer generation, noting that “although we’re comfortable with a computer, we creak more than we tweet.” He’s clearly having a blast.

So, what about the personal side of that Don Draper life?” I asked. Somewhat wistfully, Ron recalls the days of the three-martini lunches, flying his Piper Comanche in his 20s, fast cars (including a 1975 Cadillac Eldorado convertible he hung on to until a few years ago), first-class travel, famous people from all over the world and – he admits – “not enough time for my kids and not always being a very nice guy.” He has two sons and a daughter from his first marriage and another son from his second, and four grandkids by now. Happily, they’re all close to him and Anita, and he proudly shows off his hallway family photo wall. His oldest son lives on Lake Shore Drive, the middle one in D.C., the youngest in Anaheim, Calif., and his daughter and son-in-law downtown, overlooking Millennium Park.

Ron groups his lifetime of travel into three categories: There’s golf, with his favorite courses being in Arizona, Palm Springs, Calif., and the Dominican Republic; the best-loved business destinations, including London, Tokyo, San Francisco and Boston; and leisure and family travel. He loved exotic locales like Morocco (the Kingdom of Morocco was a client) and small-ship cruises to Adriatic, Aegean, Mediterranean and Caribbean destinations and, most recently, to the Panama Canal. There are still lots of places for him and Anita to see and adventurous trails to follow.

To sum it up (way too soon), I think Ron’s a walking personification of song titles like Frank Sinatra’s “(I Did It) My Way,” or Willie Nelson’s “Nothing I Can Do About It Now,” but with a sense of humor, lack of pretension, and wisdom shaped by loving his life. In response to my request for an interview, he had emailed: “You must be scraping the bottom of the barrel, but I would be honored.” If he’s at the bottom, I sure can’t see the top!