Hasidic Ad Agency Exec in Israel Straddles Two Worlds

Tal Barzilai, a Bratslav Hasid, is head of the elite Studio unit of McCann Israel: 'I see my work at McCann Tel Aviv as sanctifying the name of God.'

Tal Barzilai, a Bratslav Hasid, and head of the elite Studio unit of McCann Israel
Eyal Toueg

“I see my work at McCann Tel Aviv as sanctifying the name of God in every way. That’s why I’m here. I wish there were more young Haredim [ultra-Orthodox] who would come and find a place in the advertising industry.”

So says Tal Barzilai, who was recently appointed head of the Studio at the Israeli office of the global ad agency McCann Erickson. Barzilai’s external appearance is misleading: Like other Bratslav Hasidim, he sports a long, unkempt beard, payot (sidelocks) roll down his cheeks and he covers his head in a large white knitted kippa.

But Barzilai has made a career in advertising, an industry that not only attracts virtually no ultra-Orthodox professionals, but few modern Orthodox ones either. Advertising is a business that would seem to be anathema to the beliefs of ultra-Orthodox Jews believes in, but Barzilai manages to straddle both worlds.

“I build a wall that enables things to work for McCann while enabling me to preserve my [values] in everything I do. At work I get understanding and cooperation,” he told TheMarker.

Barzilai wasn’t born ultra-Orthodox. Like many Israelis, after completing his service in the Israel Defense Forces, he took off on a six-month trip to South America, but instead of returning home he decided to spend time in New York and began working in real estate.

“I found myself staying in New York for about six years. I worked in real estate with a lot of Israelis who had come to make money,” he recalls. “It was a crazy life, a lot of partying. I was far away from the world of Torah and mitzvot.”

That all came to an abrupt end in 2003, when the local property market turned sour as did Barzilai’s source of income. Eventually he found himself selling off his property to raise money. “I remember when Friday, I was sitting on the floor with the last dollar I had and I asked myself, what now? How am I going to continue?”

As it turned out, that same day he encountered a Bratslav Hasid who had come to New York to distribute copies of Likutey Moharan, which contains the principle teachings of Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, the movement’s 18th-century founder.

“It was Shabbat eve and I was smoking and was just thinking to myself. I opened the book looking for advice about what to do, how to get out of this situation. Rebbe Nachman interested me and I got strength from it,” he said.

Barzilai returned to Israel, married and at age 34 has six children. He began working in a relatively small agency but within four years had moved up to McCann Israel, the country’s largest agency, working in the elite unit known as the Studio. He rose to be the Studio’s professional manager and more recently became its overall head.

Are there conflicts between someone who is religiously observant and the demands of the advertising world?

Of course, there are. When the Studio is working on ads that depict scantily clad women — which in advertising is more likely to be the case than not — Barzilai says he tries to avoid working directly on the project.

“Once I avoided anything to do with anything involving immodestly dressed women – others would take care of it. Nowadays, I do get involved but only from above. I don’t expose myself to anything I don’t need to,” he says. “Of course, on Shabbat, I’m completely removed from it all.”

McCann is working to bring in people from populations that have traditionally had little presence in the advertising world. In addition to the ultra-Orthodox, the agency is making efforts to attract people from outlying towns in the Negev and Galilee. It recently won an in-house award from McCann worldwide for its work in setting up a center for digital and new media marketing in the Negev town of Mizpeh Ramon.

“I don’t ordinarily meet the clients, although sometimes they come here,” said Barzilai. “Two weeks ago, a client came to meet with us. At first she raised an eyebrow but after a conversation of just a minute she was thrilled. It was refreshing for her. The fact that we’re creating a unified environment at McCann for all kinds of commodities, I think that’s a wonderful thing.”