The Great Salami Caper

In the late 1980s, while making efforts to move to New York City, I came up with the winning ad campaign for Hebrew National Kosher Salami. Only I didn’t win.

Hebrew National held a contest to see if people outside Madison Avenue could come up with a great ad idea for their 83% fat free salami. The grand prize was $83,000.

Even in New York, $83,000 would have more than covered a moving van, broker’s fee, and first and last month’s rent.

But creating the winning ad carried a benefit even bigger than the cash for someone like me who was trying to break into New York advertising. I’d worked for a couple of years at Washington, DC-area ad agencies, one of them pretty good, but that and my portfolio bought me nothing in the competitive New York advertising job market of the late 1980s. There were kids coming out of school with better portfolios than mine.

Winning that contest, I believed at the time, would make a New York ad agency take me seriously.

My then-girlfriend Eva S and I submitted an ad built around the headline, “You should be so fat.”

Well, we never heard back after entering the contest, and months passed the way they do.

I continued to drive back and forth from DC to NYC looking for jobs and an apartment.

A couple of times I flew to New York for an interview in the middle of my work day. I told my DC-area-agency creative director I was seeing a doctor. I still feel bad about that lie.

One day I open a magazine, and there’s a picture of an athletic woman wearing a leotard, working out.

The headline reads, “You should be so lean.”

Lean. You should be so lean.

It was our concept made safe. “You should be so lean” was a faster read and a much less interesting idea.

Hebrew National had said in the contest rules that, in the event of duplicate ideas, they would pick the one that was best executed. I am certain today that several people submitted similar ideas and Hebrew National and its agency chose the best-looking comp, which was not mine. Quite probably the winner even wrote “You should be so lean.” All perfectly ethical.

But at the time I was sure that we had gotten ripped off.

So I confided in the president of the DC-area agency where I worked—like he needed another reason to fire me—and asked him if I should sue Hebrew National.

I sought this advice while buying a drink for the president of the agency when I should have been at my desk, working. I figured if the president of the agency was spending the afternoon in a bar, he wouldn’t mind his peon employee doing likewise.

I was thirsty and not very bright. A while later, for many reasons, the agency let me go, surprising absolutely no one but me.

But meantime I’m in the bar buying my boss a drink on his time.

He tells me something I’ll never forget: a big company has lawyers on retainer, and you don’t.

6 thoughts on “The Great Salami Caper

  1. Mr. Zeldman, I really appreciate how honestly you write about your less than picturesque past. I used to smoke, drink too much and blame everyone for my misfortune but myself. I cringe when I look back at who I was some years ago. I guess it doesn’t make you feel good either when you do the same, so thank you for documenting it anyways for the rest of us. I find your reminiscing very encouraging and inspiring.

    Thank you.

  2. Incredible. Stuff like this makes me cringe. I went through a similar experience with a pro-bono website design for a pretty high-end non-profit and it did not feel good at all. There is nothing worse than to feel you cannot do anything about it.

    Like Justin said: Look at you now! :-)

  3. Hi Jeffery…
    I’d hate to think it was some sort of right-of-passage that young creatives get ripped off at some point early in their careers, but since it’s happened to most of us, i suppose it must be.
    I was at a small agency that had a fairly lucrative bit of business with a very very large producer of all things soap related..detergents, hair products, handwashes, you name it….its a global brand, and we were doing a ton of their print work in Canada for a few years.
    They had a new shampoo coming out that was going with a very ‘thermal’ product name..all about heat, works great with your hairdryer, etc..and we were pitching them for whole campaign….
    at any rate, after brainstorming and coming up with several ideas to play off of, we made the pitch…and one of my ideas was chosen to be included in the pitch…basically going with a fantasy element. dragons breathing fire, fair maidens etc…all story boarded, etc…
    I was a junior at the time, and obviously not invited to go to the pitch, but was told be the CD later that while they ‘loved’ my idea they decided to go with something a bit more conservative etc…still one of our companies ideas, but just not mine…which was fine…

    2 years later, i was starting my career in web development and design when i got a call from my older brother (whom i’d shown my designs to) and the call was essentially ‘dude…your commercial is on tv!’…

    flipped on the tube to see what essentially exactly what I’d drawn out now enacted with a huge fx budget and gorgeous film work…for the exact same company and shampoo brand.

    I’ve never felt truly ‘ripped off’ by the experience, although i wish i could have somehow gotten the proper credit for the idea….more than anything though i just had a feeling of ‘yeah man…i TOLD ya…I KNEW it was a good idea…and i was right!’ ;)

    anyhow, sorry for the long winded story….and thanks very much for sharing yours….i can’t think of one person working in creative that i know that doesn’t have a similar story or two up their sleeves….which is very sad….

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