How Modern-day 'Mad Men' Would Market Israel

Stop talking about the occupation and Holocaust. This is the advice that ad executive David Sable has for the State of Israel if it wants to improve its image in the world.

Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander
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David Sable. 'No matter what question I ask, the answer is that our army is most moral and ethical in the world. The right answer is, "War is hell, people get killed inadvertently in war."’Credit: Dan Keinan
Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander

NEW YORK – Among the many trophies, books and gadgets one might expect to find in the private conference room of one of the the advertising industry’s most powerful CEOs, a biography of Che Guevara would probably be fairly low on the list. Then again, Young and Rubicam’s CEO David Sable – who can come off like an intriguing combination of the eccentric advertising exec Bert Cooper from “Mad Men” and former Israeli President Shimon Peres – is not your typical business mogul.

One of the largest advertising companies in the world, Y&R was founded in Philadelphia in 1923, and had its headquarters on Madison Avenue for decades before moving to its current location at 3 Columbus Circle. As CEO, Sable oversees 7,000 employees, in 186 branches situated in 90 countries, including Israel. His conference room is a small space, with shelves packed with objects from floor to ceiling.

Sable, 62, was born and raised in Riverdale, an upscale Bronx neighborhood, and immigrated to Israel in 1979. He displays a diverse array of objects: the Che biography sits atop a pile of books on a circular wooden table, a huge poster of Groucho Marx with the word “Marxism” hangs on one of the walls, an oversize book by Israeli artist and graphic designer David Tartakover stands on one of the selves, while another one holds small action figures in the likenesses of Menachem Begin, Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion.

Perched on one of the bookshelves, which bulge with books on management and on marketing and advertising in the digital era, is a framed photograph of Sable from his stint as a combat paramedic in the Israel Defense Forces, during the first Lebanon war, in 1982 – “the proudest period of my life,” he says, smiling. Next to it his dog tag, whose number he can still recite by heart. Sable, who observes Shabbat and keeps kosher, might possibly be the only CEO in the world of American advertising whose office is adorned with a black-and-white photograph of a religious Jew praying at the Western Wall.

The combination of American mannerisms, Israeli patriotism and close connections with senior politicians, diplomats and businesspeople on both sides of the ocean make Sable a magnet for Israeli entrepreneurs who want to become part of one of the startup hothouses he’s established at Y&R under the rubric “Sparkplug.” He has worked with such giant corporations such as Coca-Cola and Kellogg’s, and is considered a marketing genius and a pioneer of digital advertising.

“I have an Israeli passport and I visit Israel almost every year,” he explains in English laced with occasional Hebrew. “My father, Rabbi Jack Sable, founded the first Orthodox synagogue in Riverdale, and our family was Zionist. I immigrated to Israel when I was 26, served in the IDF and afterward married an Israeli, Debbie Avner, whose father was the well-known diplomat Yehuda Avner. For me, to live in Israel was a dream. At the time I was there, I co-founded an advertising firm, Mimsar-Arielly. I consider myself Israeli as much as I consider myself American. The combination of the two is very important to who I am, because there’s a coming together of my Judaism, my nationality and my background.”

Sable returned to the United States in 1985, after six years in Israel. The decision to go back, he says, stemmed from his desire to become part of the international advertising industry, but also was for family reasons. Sable’s career began to take off and he held a series of senior positions in various agencies, but ultimately he returned to Y&R, where he’d started out as a young trainee in 1976 and where, in 1990, he won a prestigious competition for the U.S. Postal Service advertising account. His winning idea was considered revolutionary at the time: to make use of the Internet and use part of the service’s annual advertising budget to create a website. He felt as if he “closed the circle” in 2011, when he was appointed CEO of Y&R, where he’s responsible now for the advertising accounts of such industrial giants as as Microsoft, Campbell’s and Colgate.

In addition to his professional activity, over the past decade Sable has mustered his experience and connections to rebrand a product that even its supporters agree suffers from a serious image problem: the State of Israel.

Fizz, aroma, taste

“What’s a brand? It’s a simple equation: A brand is the sum total of all its parts, meaning all the good and all the bad, all the positives and all the negatives,” he explains earnestly. “Everything has its own DNA, its own personality. That’s what makes humans unique and that’s what makes brands unique. But brands also contain a promise. Take Coke, for example. There’s negative – sugar, acid, whatever – but there’s also the positive: tastes good, gives me a rush on a hot summer day. There’s a promise inherent in that brand: When I open the can, there’s a fizz, there’s an aroma, there’s a taste. The moment I change that – if I make you believe that this is what you’re going to get and you don’t get it – is when a brand dies.”

But the problem with brands is the systematic attempt to hide their downsides – for example, the fact that Coca-Cola contains addictive elements such as high sugar quantities.

“In the case of Coca-Cola, they are not hiding anything significant that their clients don’t know, but there’s no doubt that concealment and lying have killed quite a few brands. When I look at Israel, we have this brand promise, which we’ve made to the world, particularly to the United States, and it’s a very simple promise: ‘We are just like you. We are the democracy in the Middle East.’ Now, without getting into politics, Americans see Israeli policy today and they say, ‘Wait a minute, something’s not right, we don’t behave like that, we don’t keep people from living in certain places, everybody has the same advantages and the same rights.’ That is the biggest problem we have as Brand Israel: The promise we made hasn’t met the expectations of the American public. That’s the problem I’ve been trying to deal with for more than a decade.”

Such declarations by Sable, a trusted confidant of senior Israeli Foreign Ministry officials and Israeli businessmen, have generated pragmatic action with far-reaching implications for Israeli diplomacy. His long friendship with Israel’s consul general in New York, Ido Aharoni, led to the formulation of a new strategy called “Brand Israel.” Sable’s scheme – involving guiding principles and practical ideas to brand Israel as “democratic, progressive, creative and innovative” – has been presented to senior Israeli political and diplomatic figures, among them Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In 2003, Aharoni, who then headed the New York consulate’s media operations, adopted Sable’s recommendations in full, and set up a volunteer team of marketing experts and strategic advisers under the name Brand Israel Group – in short, BIG.

Sable dates the paradigm shift that led to BIG to a presentation he made to all the Israeli consuls general in the United States not long after September 11, 2001, about the relatively new field of “nation branding.”

“Our research, using brand asset valuing, showed that if you looked, for example, at pre- and post-9/11, American attitudes toward France and the UK – you found changes. France didn’t let us fly planes over its territory on the way to Iraq [after the start of the Iraq War, in 2003], and as a result, imports from France were severely impacted. We then put Israel into the study and this whole thing was born. What’s been clear since that day is just this point: that Israel has become increasingly irrelevant to younger audiences, simply because they believe that Israel is not fulfilling the promise it made. Israel is perceived either as being irrelevant or as a controversial country identified with war and violence.”

You haven’t yet mentioned the word “occupation.”

“I’m not getting political, but if you take the fence, the wall, the barrier, I’ve been to every inch on both sides with all different people. There’s a difference between policy and implementation. There are fences on the border between the United States and Mexico, for example, but nobody talks about that. Why? Because it was implemented intelligently and it doesn’t cut villages and houses in half.”

There’s another minor difference: The United States doesn’t occupy Mexico.

“Let’s assume for a second that occupation is a function of legality for today, but I need that wall to keep myself safe. That’s fine – but then why move fields to one side or the other instead of somebody saying, ‘If I move the fence this way or that way, these people can keep their house, their field, their orchard.’ American audiences look at that and they will buy the story that protection is needed [but will ask]: ‘But how come you put that guy’s livelihood on your side of the fence? You don’t let them in or out when there’s a shutdown. Sometimes days go by when they can’t get to their fields.’

“Americans look at that and say, ‘This isn’t a democracy. Why are you telling us that everyone is equal, when they’re not?’ And by the way, there’s a myth that this is a conservative-liberal, Republican-Democratic thing. It’s not. Reagan, Bush, all had the same issue. Anyone who thinks that under a conservative Republican president it will all be fine – that’s nonsense. We are going to have the same issues.”

Even though Sable insists that he never watched “Mad Men,” he would probably agree with protagonist Don Draper’s immortal line, “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.” Sable’s marketing ideas – notably, to stop talking about religion and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and to start talking about Israel as a high-tech power and a lively cultural arena – were adopted in their entirety by the Foreign Ministry.

Zionism and bikinis

In a telephone conversation earlier this month, consul general Aharoni termed Sable, all of whose work for Israel has been pro bono, a “true tzaddik [righteous man] and a once-in-a-generation philanthropist.” More to the point, Sable’s influence on Israel’s long-term branding strategy was decisive, he added.

“I started to work with David shortly after the Twin Towers disaster,” he recalled. “David came to me and said he had a research tool that could help us rethink the way Israel is perceived in the United States and internationally – a database called Brand Asset Valuator. It’s actually a vast Y&R database, deriving from the results of surveys and focus groups, used to check the value, strength and prestige of tens of thousands of brands over the years. That opened a window for us: We understood that there is a way to look at a country’s performance not necessarily through a political prism, but by drawing on theories of mass psychology, marketing and social anthropology – fields rarely encountered in foreign policy and political science.”

Sable always stayed in the background, but his agenda gained growing support. Israel invested millions of dollars in digital activity (mostly on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks) and on a series of surprising cooperative ventures aimed at giving the country a young, liberal, with-it image for the target audience: young Americans under the age of 35. In 2007, for example, the Israeli consulate in New York initiated a photo shoot with the U.S. edition of the men’s magazine Maxim, which devoted a special issue to the “Women of the Israeli [sic] Defense Forces,” in which actress Gal Gadot and other Israeli models who had served in the military showed off Zionism by means of bikinis. In 2013, the Foreign Ministry recruited Israeli supermodel Bar Refaeli for a new campaign, “Created in Israel,” which, besides Refaeli, showcased such other local inventions as cherry tomatoes and the USB.

In addition to organizing specific events abroad, the longer-term projects of the retooled strategy include the organization and funding of visits to Israel by foreign writers, chefs, designers and practitioners of other creative professions, along with cooperation between Israel’s foreign and tourism ministries.

“The goal is to forge meaningful connections with influential groups,” Aharoni explains, adding, “I have never encountered a brand that is able to flourish only by emphasizing its problems and disadvantages. So we started to create cooperative ventures in the Jewish world, in order to implement the conception of a broader dialogue about Israel that’s focused on the Israeli creative spirit, be it in achievements of Israeli cinema abroad or in local cuisine. Recently, for example, we produced a film called ‘The Search for Israeli Cuisine,’ for [future] broadcast on PBS” – referring to America’s public television network.

Asked about the biggest selling points of the brand “State of Israel,” Sable offers an optimistic monologue: “The reality is that we are a warm and embracing country. We are a place of myriad cultural experiences. Obviously, the high-tech: In 2014, there were more than 4,000 startup companies in Israel, the highest number in the world relative to population size. We are a country that understands what it is to get by, to make the most of what you have in incredibly powerful ways. We are a caring country, we care about people, when you look at Haiti, Turkey, places we’ve gone to help. In our core there is the spark of ‘or l’goyim’ [light unto the nations] locked into us, but it doesn’t always come out. I’ve got a Hindu friend and a Catholic friend who had the most amazing experience of their lives when they visited Israel – the embracing, the openness, the total warmth.”

You said recently that the Jews have to stop behaving like victims. But many people think that the Holocaust is what makes Israel different from any other country, especially in terms of branding.

“I think the Holocaust is totally not important anymore from that perspective. Golda Meir was once asked about the secret of her fundraising success in the United States. She said, ‘We have to be a combination of a nebech [nebbish] and Samson.’ The problem is that you can’t be both victim and victor. It doesn’t work.”

But that is exactly Netanyahu’s strategy, as we saw in his speech to Congress about Iran.

“Again, without getting political, look how unsuccessful we were. The average American doesn’t trust Iran and thinks the sanctions should stay. But we couldn’t get those people to speak up for us. Why? Because we were completely irrelevant to them! We talked about the Holocaust, and we showed mushroom clouds, and we showed that [Iranian leader Ali] Khamenei doesn’t like gays – but that’s not the point. We took this world problem and we made it a particular, partisan problem. We made it Democrats versus Republicans. And we made it about Israel, not America, even though we’re asking Americans to put their lives up for us if it comes to war.

Like Aharoni, who maintains vigorously that the new strategy has scored an impressive success (“Israel is now perceived as an inspirational place in regard to creativity, foreign investments are rising, and the number of tourists breaks records every year”), Sable, too, refuses to get upset by the BDS movement or by Israel’s many critics. Personally, he says, he does not think there has been a change for the worse in terms of how Americans see Israel. A distinction has to be drawn, he says, between legitimate criticism of policy undertaken by a specific government, and the perception of Israel as a state.

Still, Israel is a controversial brand, and many are calling for it to be boycotted. Take the recent SodaStream campaign with Scarlett Johansson.

“My friend and mentor Harold Burson [a veteran PR executive] saved Coca-Cola during one of its greatest crises, when the company launched New Coke in 1985 and its sales plunged. And he also saved [the pain reliever] Tylenol, after its most serious crisis. His philosophy is very simple: Take the wind out of the sails, take it off the shelf – then they can’t talk about it. Take active responsibility and show the customers you are doing everything to correct the mistake. He tells the board of Coke, take it off the shelf, say you made a mistake. For a couple of weeks people will laugh at you, but in a while they’ll forget. The companies thought he was nuts, but he was right. Today no one remembers that there was a product called New Coke.”

But that’s not exactly what happened with SodaStream [which was forced to relocate its West Bank factory recently in the face of international calls for a boycott].

“We never follow the Coke strategy. We always try to minimize the problem – ‘it’s not that bad,’ ‘only one person died.’ And then [they] discover that that’s not exactly true. We’ve never followed the strategy of taking it off the shelf. You want to divest from a company that only does business in the West Bank? Great, do it. But increase your general investment in Israel – put that money back into Israel proper, make an investment in Israeli companies that are saving lives and creating new technologies. Instead, we say, ‘You’re anti-Israel, you’re anti-Semitic.’

“In the case of SodaStream, here was a factory that paid equal wages to Arabs and Jews. What we should have said is that we are in the vanguard of changing the way business gets done between Israel and the West Bank, trying to create an economy that goes both ways. To me, that was a beautiful story. Being politically correct led to the loss of all those jobs for the Arab families. We weren’t able to do the New Coke strategy – and I think that’s a problem.”

Three simple words

In a recent presentation, Sable emphasized that the ultimate answer to Israel’s detractors must be based on three simple words: “War is hell.” Israeli public diplomacy, he says, sustained serious damage in Operation Protective Edge, in 2014, when Palestinian organizations flooded the social networks with images of extensive death and destruction in the Gaza Strip.

“Israeli spokespeople in the U.S. talk about how the IDF is the most moral and ethical in the world,” Sable notes angrily. “And no matter what question I ask you, the answer is that our army is most moral and ethical in the world. ‘Excuse me, Mr. Ambassador, your army has acknowledged the fact that your missile killed X number of Arab children on the beach.’ ‘Our army is the most moral and ethical in the world.’ No, that’s the wrong answer. The right answer is, ‘War is hell, we don’t want to be at war, and people get killed inadvertently in war.’ It’s okay to say that it’s just as moral as the American army. You can say: ‘We have the same issues that the U.S. has when they fight in this situation.’ Instead, our answer is, ‘We are the most moral army in the world.’ We are incredibly arrogant.

“Just accept the reality – and answer the reality. If I go to campus and say ‘War is hell, it’s bad,’ if I go up to Palestinians with their images of war and say, ‘That pains me, it hurts me, I cry for it’ – that changes the conversation completely. Instead of me standing on the other side saying, ‘We’re the most moral army in the world and you’re a bunch of terrorists.’ That doesn’t work.”

But with efforts at “pinkwashing” Israel continuing, and with ads showing Israeli women sunning themselves in bikinis on the beach and young Israelis partying in nightclubs, it’s harder to sell the idea that war is hell.

“No, I see it the other way around. If I say ‘war is hell,’ and then I show the picture of Tel Aviv, people understand that. What people don’t get is when you go the other way: It’s this party town and you are deliberately, purposefully, not caring about killing other people. That’s when people get crazy. At the end of the day, we don’t give people reason to believe us enough. We get arrogant, and we can’t be arrogant. When Bibi went to the UN, can you imagine that instead of mentioning all his relatives killed in the Holocaust, he’d ripped up his speech and said, ‘You know what? I had a speech prepared. But here’s the bottom line: We want peace, here’s my hand, somebody take my hand.’ Can you imagine what would have happened? We’ll never know, because it will never happen. Because we’re just too arrogant. We have to get over that.”