Thursday, February 28, 2013

David G. Kuhlmann 1938 - 2013

Circa 1985
Today was quite maudlin around the studio, I was supposed to be at my dear friend Dave’s memorial service in Houston, unfortunately the flu-bug paid a visit and nixed the trip. My former partner and co-founder of The Hively Agency passed away on Saturday after a long battle with cancer. Dave always loved to be out-of-doors which lead to several trips a year to the doctor to remove various skin cancers but we thought nothing of it, after all in Houston you can be by the pool from Valentine’s Day through Thanksgiving. In the end it was more serious than we ever imagined.

We started a small ad agency in 1985 and when I say small, we had three employees starting on day one, Dave, myself and a receptionist slash copywriter slash public relations person but we quickly doubled the staff the first year and went on to grow the agency in accounts, billings and employees until we were a $12-million dollar ad agency with 21 employees ten years later. We were never going to be huge—we used that to our advantage—we were lean and hungry and searching to prove ourselves. We did work no other agency was doing for clients most didn’t want but the campaigns worked and we got more work and in our first outing at the local advertising club awards we walked away with 18 medals. Nobody could believe that an agency of just six people could pull that off. To be so young, so small and yet so visible. And the visibility brought more clients, some for just pitches, others for pitches and wins. I look back on those times when the creative department was me and a freelance writer—we really never had more than two writers—how were we able to do so much good work? The answer is Dave Kuhlmann.

I have fond memories of the early days when we didn’t know if we were going to make it or not, each month was a question mark, the loss one-by-one of all of Dave's clients that we “bought” from his former employer and he still hung in there. He once said that he was so glad we’d teamed up as he now had something to sell, something he believed in. It was such a perfect partnership, him smooth and cool, me hot-tempered with lots of rough edges, we balanced each other so perfectly. Him the business-side, me the creative-side, thank god for his taking that off my plate—I fully realize today how valuable that was and is—God if someone would only take the business side now!

The first eight-room office space by the railroad tracks that we redecorated with grey walls—the owners and wifes doing the painting, curved glass block entryway we negotiated with our rent renewal, the Knoll and Herman Miller furniture that we bartered for adwork. And the people. Our first employee who was totally crazy and brilliant and then adding one-by-one,  and we couldn’t believe our good luck and recounting that alarm on our check-writing machine that went off every time the train rumbled by would always bring a laugh, no matter how many years it had been.

The custom black glossy formica conference table that we would polish before every client presentation,  then on to the new space with the large conference room with curved wall, grey and red and still we’d polish the table—this time a Eames conference table—before every meeting.

The trips to Brenham in that ten-year old yellow Benz, the entreprenuers we dug up somehow, someway and the bargain lunches at the Olive Garden—soup and salad only to stretch every dollar. The growth spurt, the new office space, the million-dollar accounts, the awards and jealousy in the community about this upstart with a staff a tenth of everyone else in town sweeping shows, getting press, making headlines in The New York Times and of course the celebrations, donuts on the conference room table in true Twin Peaks’ style, martinis after work in that minimal little room between our two offices—dirty martinis.

The laughter and sometimes tears, the Bible a departing staff member brought with her when we fired her—we never really liked firing anyone. The view from our eighth floor offices—those floor-to-ceiling windows. The water pistol fights in the hallways, the pool parties—indoor pool table and backyard pool, the bar at the Kuhlmann's, the Christmas parties in the townhouse and Dave and Ruanne’s. The laughter, always the laughter, even when things looked the bleakest, the jokes and laughter always kept us going forward, we never went backwards, always forward. And the people who joined us, sometimes taking salary-cuts, sometimes leaving and coming back because they couldnt do better work, the gains, the losses, the conflicts, the satisfaction. The risks to always do better, to give clients what they needed not what they wanted. The client who threatened to chain me to a radiator and burn down the house if our campaign didn’t work, and Dave saying, “Now you really don’t mean that do you?” Yes he did. And succeeding with work that shouldn’t have worked but believing it would work and did.  

The television and photo shoots, the television spots, the radio, the print, the invitations, brochures all executed with taste and style and above all substance. The awards that filled a lobby, the national recognition from those outside Houston, outside Texas, the articles in The New York Times about this micro-ad agency in Texas—the king-maker of ad agencies Phil Dougherty took an interest in a tiny shop way across the Hudson and it only got better!

Yes, the what-ifs always plague us especially at times like these, we miss the good old days, but more importantly we miss our dear old friends. Dave was always too fond of going to funerals, sometimes it seemed there were one or two a week, but he always went, he said it gave him comfort and being a spiritual man if provided something he truly needed. The true rememberance of a man is how much he’s missed once he’s gone, what memories they’ve helped etch in our minds and to that degree and more, Dave will be sorely missed and the memories will be treasured until our dying day. God’s speed!