Reuven Adler
Reuven Adler. Photo by Ilya Melnikov
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There are dozens of items hanging on the wall above Reuven Adler's desk: a note predicting the results of an election that was scribbled at some meeting, a letter of appreciation, a catchy sticker, a profile piece from a foreign newspaper, a photo with Ariel Sharon, and a piece of paper with an idea for a slogan that became engraved in the history of local politics. One could tell an entire personal-professional-political story about each of these things.

"Yes, I'm one of the tribal elders," admits adman Adler.

Apparently this realization - and perhaps the financial incentive he and his partner, Eyal Chomsky, were offered when the international ad firm Grey offered to buy them out - led Adler to understand that the business chapter in his life was about to end. In the next three to five years Adler will gradually transfer his 40-percent ownership of the agency to Chomsky and a few other young directors in the company, in return for about NIS 80 million in cash.

"The world really does belong to the young, it's not just a slogan," he says.

This may be the first time in the 14 years of Adler and Chomsky's successful partnership that their age gap - Adler is 68 and Chomsky is 45 - has been an issue.

"Grey wanted to buy us," Adler explains. "I agreed to sell, but Eyal resisted. He thought the agency hadn't reached the peak of its growth, and asked to wait before carrying out the deal."

Indeed, the gap between Adler and most of his employees is probably 30-40 years; the average age at the firm is about 25. But he feels comfortable with this: "I have three daughters, so that both at home and at work I'm surrounded by young people. I like working with them, and I learn as much from them as I teach them. Even when I was a teacher at Bezalel [Academy of Arts and Design], I learned more than I taught."

What do you learn from them?

Adler: "Slang, for example. Language is important for us advertisers."

There's a kind of consensus that today's young people are ignorant and superficial.

"It's true that today's young people don't know a lot of things - like history and the Bible. But they know how to find everything on the Internet. Google and Facebook have become their Bible and history book."

Does that make them inferior in professional terms?

"No. Some have excellent gut reactions: They can tell me whether an idea I've suggested is practical, and whether it will catch on or not - and for the most part they're right. They have a mischievous sort of cynicism. For example, the grandson of a great adman works for us, a brilliant copywriter [Amir Ariely, grandson of Amnon Ariely, one of the pioneers of the Israeli advertising industry]. All day long he burrows into the Internet, and he has 200 times as much knowledge as the average person. He was the one who, during the last elections, came up with the idea of linking the polygraph with [then-prime ministerial candidate] Bibi Netanyahu: We wrote at the time that Bibi was lying, we really hit him hard, and that, among other things, was what led to Kadima's victory."

Adler emphasizes that he isn't going anywhere - and is certainly not retiring. Indeed, he follows a regular schedule: He wakes up at 5:30 A.M. and by 6 he's already in the swimming pool, and then most days heads to the office. Although most of his clients have been handed over to the general managers of the agency, Uri Einy and Amir Guy, he remains accessible to the firm's "strategic" clients, including Bank Hapoalim and Mifal Hapayis, the national lottery. "I also attend presentations for contracts that we're competing for. My presence is important in itself," he adds.

Yet, with all his affection for youth, Adler is not active on Facebook and Twitter, nor does he have an iPhone.

"First of all, I don't want anyone to know who my friends are, and besides I don't catch on to innovation very quickly. But even I understand that it's a growing trend, and I think that in the end, I won't be able to do without it," he explains.

The eponymous studio that he once owned and was later subsumed into the Adler-Chomsky agency, produced several of the oldest and most enduring advertising logos in Israel, including those of Mifal Hapayis, the Likud, Tivol and others. He also taught design for 19 years at Bezalel.

Adler: "Chomsky was working at the time at McCann-Kesher-Barel, whose partners nurtured him and groomed him to become the CEO. But one day in 1996 Eyal invited me out to eat in Tel Aviv. 'Let's start an agency together,' he said. I was already 53, not exactly young, but I'm a person of intuition and gut feelings, and it felt right to me."

Adler says that the two shook hands on the idea right there at the table. "I started an agency with someone who could be my son, but I considered that an advantage."

View from the top?

One of the common complaints leveled at local advertisers is that they aim their marketing efforts solely at the residents of the "State of Tel Aviv." Adler, who, like the much-maligned Defense Minister Ehud Barak, himself lives in the Akirov Towers in the northern part of the city - residential high-rises that have become symbols of social alienation - rejects this image: "I know the Likudniks, the members of the central committee, very well, I like talking to them. I really love hummus. In the past I was the restaurant critic of [the defunct newspaper] Hadashot, and I liked writing mainly about falafel, about hummus. I'm a folksy person."

In that case, what does the consumer want?

"The Israeli consumer goes to extremes: On the one hand, he wants a good and cheap product. On the other hand, he's willing to pay a lot of money for a high-quality product. One thing is clear: It's very hard for him to compromise on mediocrity. In terms of ad campaigns, what works is something with feeling, emotions, because what connects people to products is emotion. But you have to add logic to emotions, otherwise the campaign won't work."

There are actually many mediocre products made in Israel that are very successful.

"Yes, there are products, especially in the food industry, that succeed here, although internationally there are companies with more highly developed technologies for food production. The reason is taste and smell: The Israeli has become accustomed to flavors that differ from European ones, and therefore prefers them."

What's a surefire thing to work with Israelis in commercial campaigns?

"A campaign with celebrities almost always works. The Israeli likes to connect with famous people and feel like them. A product that tells a good, short and focused story will also succeed. For example, salt. You can try to sell ordinary table salt. You can call it 'sea salt' and then you've told a story about it. You can call it 'Mediterranean Sea salt,' and then you've told a story that links the consumer to the source of the salt."

Local campaigns in recent years have become increasingly provocative. Do you think that sex still sells?

"Sex definitely sells, but only if it's done in the right dosage and with humor - and, most important, that it doesn't look too blatant. Israelis like to think that they're permissive and progressive, but blatant sex makes them angry. Campaigns that use that annoy even the most open and progressive public here, and it harms sales."

As someone active in the local business and political worlds for the past 40 years, Adler has an opinion or two about corruption, appointments of people and use of public resources.

"There's corruption here, it's true, but not to the tremendous degree that you in the media like to present. I see it mainly in newspapers' coverage, but as the years go by, I personally encounter it less and less. I think that we're handling it well. The situation today is much better than it was 15-20 years ago. I've read documents from the period of the Yom Kippur War, and I see how the politicians interfered and influenced military appointments. Everyone was involved in everyone else's business. That's because at the time the media were smaller, and politicians could do whatever they wanted. Today politicians are more afraid of media exposure.

"Look at the story of [Kadima MK] Tzachi Hanegbi's political appointments: He used to brag about them. Now he can't get away with that nonsense anymore. Nobody can."

Still, there is no lack of political appointments of people with vested interests in public corporations, in centers of power.

"True. Even today there are appointments, but not to the same extent that there used to be."

Adler spearheaded the advertising campaigns of Bezeq, Bezeq International, Pelephone, Mifal Hapayis, Bank Hapoalim and other companies that all operate in what he sees as a centralized, monopolistic market.

"We're a small country. This centralization is unavoidable," he says. "There are several dominant families in Israel. That's the situation in the American market, too. There too you could say that there are a few conglomerates that control the market. Even today, as was the case 50 years go, the same companies control the economy there: Procter & Gamble, General Electric. Of the strongest companies in the Fortune 500, 70 percent are more than 50 years old."

Is there any chance of this situation changing?

"Definitely. Nobody is immune. What [Communications Minister Moshe] Kahlon is doing today will change the communications market, in my opinion. For instance, I definitely see a situation in which some of the larger cell-phone companies will become weakened, and replaced by other ones."

Ties with Sharon

As to the success of the Adler-Chomsky firm, he says, "Eyal estimated that if we chalked up revenues of $5 million in the first year, that would be a phenomenal success. We actually made $15 million. Our first client was Roni Gat with his Jafora [soft-drink] company. They're still with us."

Within less than a decade the agency was among the country's top five advertising firms, and kept growing rapidly from one year to the next. About two years ago it became the second-largest agency in the country, after McCann-Erickson, bypassing much more veteran competitors.

The division of labor between the two directors has been clearly defined: Adler is in charge of the creative side and Chomsky is responsible for administration. However, Adler brought something else with him: connections.

"This is the point where you ask me if things happened only thanks to my friendship with [Ariel] Sharon," he quips.

When Adler and Chomsky's firm was founded, Sharon was infrastructure minister. Their friendship helped Adler forge connections during certain critical junctions in the agency's life; most of those links led to large advertising contracts, which flowed in from Bezeq (from the days when it was still a government corporation ), Mifal Hapayis, Israel Railways, and, of course, the Likud.

Adler: "At first it bothered me that people said 'my friend' was arranging work for me. Later it didn't bother me. Our friendship began in 1976, before Sharon was a minister and I was an advertiser. We are actually related. I used to spend days on end at the Sharons' ranch, and when we opened the agency he would stop by frequently. Lily Sharon [Ariel's second wife] even designed our office."

One of Adler and Chomsky's first projects was coming up with a campaign for the Likud in the 1996 elections: Their campaign contributed to the victory of the party and its chairman, Benjamin Netanyahu, in the battle against Shimon Peres for the premiership. The agency worked on it together with consultants Eyal Arad and Arthur Finkelstein.

That campaign is remembered thanks to the image of the broken windowpane behind which Peres and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat could be seen hand in hand, and the slogan "Netanyahu is good for the Jews," which swept through the country in the days leading up to the election. In the election three years later, Adler refused to participate in what became the farce of Netanyahu's defeat by Ehud Barak.

Over the years Adler marched shoulder to shoulder with Sharon, both when Sharon was unpopular and when he was the darling of the public. Indeed, the veteran adman is largely responsible for transforming the image of Sharon from that of a person with whom few people wanted to be friends, to being the strongest and most admired national leader since David Ben-Gurion. Adler managed to erase Sharon's negative, aggressive image and to replace it with that of the "cuddly grandfather" who hugged children and lifted sheep onto his shoulders at the ranch.

Kadima's 'engine'

Adler's efforts helped secure Sharon's victory as prime minister in the direct election of 2001 against Barak, and then again in the 2003 general elections, in which the incumbent faced Labor's Amram Mitzna. Adler is also seen as the "engine" that helped drive the establishment of Kadima and its victory in the 2006 elections.

"One day before the 2001 elections, I was sitting with Arik [Sharon] here in the office," he says. "Just the two of us. I asked him, 'Arik, what do you think of the slogan 'Only Sharon will bring peace'? Sharon sat in the office and snickered. It was the beginning of the violent Al-Aqsa intifada and everything all around was in flames. To connect the words 'shalom' and 'Sharon' at the time sounded almost absurd."

Adler remembers telling Sharon to go back home and sleep on it for a night.

"The slogan was diametrically opposed to his image," he continues. "Sharon was considered Mr. War, an aggressive man, but in the end he liked the slogan. I told him, 'You have to provide something that will stand behind this slogan, otherwise people won't buy it.' During that same conversation it was already clear to him and me that he would lead the disengagement process," he says, referring to the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005.

Adler also thought up the name "Kadima" for the party Sharon established in late 2005. Following many surveys on the subject, the party had been registered under the name "National Responsibility" - but at the last moment Adler thought that didn't sound right.

At the height of the election campaign Sharon suffered a stroke from which he has yet to recover; Adler continued working alongside Ehud Olmert. He also ran Tzipi Livni's election campaign in 2009, and in between managed Shimon Peres' campaign for the presidency. "On a voluntary basis, after all - Peres is a member of Kadima," he emphasizes.

They say you know how to create a campaign that will hit the soft underbelly of the average Israeli. What do we actually want? How does one sell us an election campaign?

"Israelis share a common denominator that applies to the right and the left, the Tel Avivians and the outlying areas: Israelis want peace, they want to kill the Arabs and they also want to give back the territories. Take these three components and try to build one process from that, and you'll see it's impossible. My campaigns sell hope to the Jewish people. 'Only Sharon will bring peace' means selling hope to people. Hope is the best commodity we have here."

So how will there be peace here?

"Only if we have a strong leader like Arik, and stronger than Menachem Begin. We need a leader who will be very popular, and will work with a broad consensus. He has to have enough power to decide for the people what's good for them. Israelis are looking for someone to decide for them. He has to have enough power to be generous to the other side. That generosity will bring peace. I don't know if there's anyone like that today."

What about Tzipi Livni?

Adler resumes his salesman's pitch: "She's the leader of the new era. At the moment she's the only alternative. She's honest, fair, doesn't spend her time arranging jobs for people."

Do you have a good relationship with her?

"Yes, we have a good relationship. We speak mainly over the phone, we don't meet much, only here and there."

Are you her confidant?

"No. Nor am I officially connected to Kadima."

In the next elections will you run Kadima's campaign?

"I attribute to myself a significant role in the establishment of the party and therefore I assume that I'll go with it in the next round as well."

Did Mitzna make a mistake by not joining Sharon's government in 2003?

"A terrible mistake."

Did Netanyahu make the same mistake?

"Bibi had only two successes: One is the government he formed, which is large and stable, and the other is passing the biennial budget. Those two successes are enabling him to survive, but all the other things he has done have been big failures."

One of the famous pieces of advice you gave Sharon was not to talk too much to the media and mainly not to give interviews. Now Livni is also silent.

"She speaks a lot, but the media don't always report what she says."

What is surprising is that in spite of that she is not losing altitude in the polls.

"Kadima is becoming stronger. I believe that it will take the next elections. According to surveys that we have, Kadima will get about 36 seats, and the Likud only 19. [Chairman of Yisrael Beiteinu Avigdor] Lieberman will also become weaker. She will take seats from everyone."

Will Livni win the elections? What about Yair Lapid?

"Yair Lapid can bring in a double-digit number of seats. I have no doubt that he'll run in the elections. I have no connection with him and I don't know him personally, but I estimate that that's what will happen. In the next elections there will be a centrist battle between Lapid and Livni, and she'll win and form a coalition with him. Bibi will lose the elections and go home."

Recently Time Magazine published a cover story that took a critical look at Israelis. The headline was "Why Israel Doesn't Care about Peace," and the article claimed that Israelis aren't particularly concerned about reaching an accommodation with the Palestinians, mainly because the present state of conflict doesn't really affect them.

Adler's viewpoint is not far from that presented by the magazine: "There's a reasonable economic situation here, we didn't collapse in the economic crisis, there's no deep recession, and unemployment is not unusually high. No Qassams are falling on us and there are no Katyushas in the north. Real-estate prices continue to rise even in Haifa, which was hit by missiles in the last war. Everything here is all right, so Israelis say to themselves there's no pressure to make peace. In a situation where everything is okay, Israelis tend to move to the right, to toughen their positions. If there's unemployment here, if Katyushas fall and things are bad - then people will turn to the left and want peace."

So even Israelis understand only force?

"The Israelis become better people when a threat of war is hanging over them."

In an article published recently in the daily Maariv about Tzipi Livni's failures, a fellow female MK, who refused to be mentioned by name, was quoted as saying, "They took her to Reuven Adler and to Eyal Arad, they taught her how to dress and what to eat, they put her on a strict diet and turned her into a fashionable lady with a perfect figure, they brought her to the hairdresser and changed her hairdo. She had dry, curly hair. So they straightened her hair so she could toss it back with an aristocratic 'Miss Piggy' gesture. They told her what to say and when to keep quiet."

Adler is familiar with the comments and is obviously amused by them - certainly not upset.

Did you manage everything about Livni, down to the smallest detail, in the last campaign?

"Tzipi writes her speeches by herself. I didn't take her to the hairdresser, if that's what you're asking. And besides, now it's no longer necessary; there are better ways of changing a hairdo, like Photoshop," he laughs, and then gets serious: "As a media consultant, I have a discerning eye. I come from the field of design and advertising. I give advice, in a small way. And yes, I brief politicians. When to speak, when not to speak, when to be interviewed and by whom."

Such advice - and, in general, the involvement of people like Adler, Arad, [public relations man] Moti Morel and others of their ilk - has given rise to the term "Adlerism," to describe the phenomenon of consultants who have become powerful, intimately connected to the government and nourished by it, and involved in decision-making processes although they have never been elected by the public.

What do you think of the term "Adlerism"?

"At first it bothered me. Now less so."

There are four or five image consultants in Tel Aviv who decide on the future of the State of Israel.

"Not a single current or future political consultant decides on policy."

A half-hour ago, you were telling us how you were involved in Sharon's decision to implement the Gaza pullout.

"Peace is everyone's desire, including that of the extreme right. I didn't invent the disengagement. That Arik did himself. I only take what exists in a politician and make it look better in the media. I'm not involved beyond that. I advise. I'm good at finding the essence of the story, creating slogans."

Almost every online article about you will end with a trail of negative talkbacks, about you personally, about the phenomenon you represent. Why don't people like you?

Adler smiles again: "A few weeks ago the weekly Tel Aviv newspaper Ha'ir published a list of the most hated people in Israel. I was on it. Fortunately, people like [journalist] Ben Caspit were higher on the list, and [journalist] Gideon Levy also starred there. It was a good list. I don't feel bad about being on it."

And what caused you to reach a place of honor on a list of the most hated people in the country?

"People don't like aggressive people. I may appear aggressive, but I'm not like that at all."

Have you ever thought about going into politics?

"Not a chance. I don't like it. I like to observe it from the sidelines."