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Make Being Brave Your Brand

Advertising pioneer David Angelo followed his truth to build one of the world’s leading agencies, David & Goliath. From his start as a bad-ass Madison Avenue ad man to becoming a philosophical leader in the new age of marketing, here he describes how he found success by facing his fears, and helping others to shine by unlocking their own authenticity.

By David Angelo,
Founder and Chairman,
David & Goliath

If you’re going to call yourself David & Goliath, then you should live that in everything that you do.

From the type of experiences that you provide for your employees, to the people that you hire, to the clients that you work with. And when you live that from within, then you can go outward. Then you have a clear idea of who you are, and what you stand for, and you can inspire others on the outside.

It is a pretty amazing concept when you think about it, looking within to see whether or not you are true to what you say.

David & Goliath is, at its core, a philosophy that gives people permission to believe that they could take on their biggest Goliath. And to me, that’s the essence of the story and how we translate that on a business level. Our mission is to help people and brands take on the biggest Goliath and step into their greatest potential.

We adhere to a one-word philosophy, called ‘Brave.’ And brave for us isn’t about charging blindly into the fray or jumping out of an airplane, it’s about having the courage to be who you are, because it requires a tremendous amount of courage to be authentic.

It’s so much easier to be something you’re not, so much easier to go along with status quo, the hype, the conspiracies, the fear and all of that stuff. But having the courage to be who you are is everything. So if you are a scrappy person, then you embrace that scrappiness, if you’re a person who works hard and who believes in taking on challenges, then embrace that in what you do.

It has taken all of the challenges that have come my way, whether it’s almost going broke as an agency, to almost losing my house, for me to basically just embrace that voice on the inside. And those challenges only make us stronger. I had no other way to go.

David Angelo at the Today, I’m Brave Speaker Series, Los Angeles

David Angelo at the Today, I’m Brave Speaker Series, Los Angeles


THE BRAVE WAY

Building this agency, with a clear mission and a clear philosophy, the next step for us was to give everyone in that agency permission to believe in that philosophy, so they can unlock that potential in their own selves. And so we created a series of initiatives to help unlock bravery in everyone.

The first is we ask each and every employee to frame a picture of their biggest fear and put it on the Wall of Goliaths, to serve as a reminder of what they need to overcome. And when they do, it feels like they’re no longer afraid of this one thing, and they have all this space available for confidence, courage and creativity.

So you walk down this hallway, and you see 200 frames on a wall — we have almost 200 people — and they’re all different Goliaths. And you get a really strong sense of unity and humanity and vulnerability, because people are willing to put their biggest fears upon a wall. It could range from anything from being afraid of the dentist, of Trump, of spiders, of heights, to being afraid of avocados. (Mine was avocados because as a kid, I grew up with avocados and I hated them!  I hated avocados like you wouldn’t believe. And I realized that after asking all of the employees to put their own fears up there, I wasn’t bravely taking it on — so I decided to eat an entire avocado in front of the whole company. And I realized that there’s nothing wrong with them. I eat them all the time now. That freed up this part of me that felt insistent on holding onto a fear. Once you do that, it’s so liberating.)

The Wall of Goliaths

The Wall of Goliaths

There’s a writer who put up a notepad as his Goliath, his fear is writing. He goes up and he writes in it. And there’s another guy who has an hourglass, and all he does is turn it upside down whenever he walks by it. So there’s time. Every single person has a different sort of Goliath. We don’t call out the people, they’re anonymous there on the wall. But some people tell me, “This is mine.” And there’s others who hope you don’t mention it.

But that’s another stage we have at the agency, called the Brave Stage, where people have the freedom to get up and talk about their Goliath, to talk about the brave way and how it relates to their lives. It’s not to say that your fears are just all going to automatically go away because you’ve probably got a million of them. You’ve got to work one at a time.

Another initiative is the 10 Brave Ways that we have printed on our walls at David & Goliath. And they are:

1. Great work is everyone’s agenda.
2. We are stronger than me.
3. All in. All the time
4. Brave is not optional.
5. Fail. To learn.
6. Be a mentor. Not a manager.
7. Serve the brand, the rest will follow.
8. Do what you love, even if it’s not here
9. No assholes, please.
10. Join the family, not the company 

We also have interns called Bravehearts that come on board and are with us for the whole summer. I sit down with them and I help them craft their life manifesto. It’s very similar to when you write a brand manifesto, like if you had to write Nike’s manifesto, what would it be about? The athlete and all of us and inspiring blah, blah, blah. So if you were to write your manifesto, what would that be? That’s based on the truth of who you are, your background, your conditioning, your values and your belief system. And when you crystalize that, then you have a clear idea of who you are, and that becomes your blueprint. From your blueprint you create.

Once we’ve achieved that type of success, it can help others find their own type of success. And so that’s why I’ve created a mentor program called The Brave You, where I’m helping underprivileged people who have never got the break that others have got. We also have the BTCT, which is the Braver Together Culture Team. Basically there’s eight to nine people who are responsible for making sure that we are staying true to that philosophy, to our culture and that we are helping communities. And we also created the Conscious Creative Movement, which is a collaboration with the American Association of Advertising Agencies. We created a really awesome movement with them that shines a light on all kinds of creators out there that are doing good, not because they want to advance monetarily, but because they believe that doing good for the world is the only good that they know.

All of these things fit in within the brand of David & Goliath. And all of these things are things that we all have in ourselves.

Some of the 63 children who lost their parents to Ebola in Sierra Leone, who have been supported by David & Goliath’s Today, I’m Brave initiative

Some of the 63 children who lost their parents to Ebola in Sierra Leone, who have been supported by David & Goliath’s Today, I’m Brave initiative


MY STORY

I was born in 1961 to a family of seven. I’m the middle child. In fact, they call me three up, three down, which is a famous baseball term, I’m right in the middle. I’ve always seen myself as a sort of odd, outlier type person, where I was not at the top and I wasn’t at the bottom, but I was always trying new and different things. I was scrappy as a kid. I used to jump over the fence to the golf course next door to our house. And I’d dive into the lake at night at 2am, just to scoop out the golf balls in this really rancid mud, and sell them back to the golfers in the morning through the fence. And that was my entrepreneurial spirit, because we didn’t have a lot of money, and I would go knocking on doors and ask neighbors that they needed potatoes peeled or lawn mowed or their cars washed. I did that out of necessity because we didn’t have a lot.

That scrappiness, that ingenuity, I’ve always had that. In high school I was always the artist and everybody knew me as the artist, and I was all set to go to this art college in San Francisco and major in illustration, but I got kicked out of high school in my senior year. I lost everything. I lost my mojo and my trust in myself.

My dad got me a job in the Teamsters [the labor union] where I worked as a longshoreman, a warehouseman from 6pm to 6am, loading trucks full of alcohol and pulling orders for local liquor barns and restaurants. A voice came to me and basically said, “You can either do this for the rest of your life or you can go back and realize your creative dream.” It was at that point that I dedicated myself to going back to school, getting my degree, mastering a trade, which was advertising. When I was 24 or 25, I went to the Academy of Art in San Francisco, which was the school I was supposed to go to prior to getting kicked out, with a focus on advertising.

I realized that it was going to take a lot of work. I went to community college for the first four or five years just to get my credits, because we couldn’t afford for me to go to this art college. It was a total of 10 years until I got my degree, and I was really set on graduating from college because I felt like I let everyone down, including myself.

David flying the flag for bravery at Burning Man

David flying the flag for bravery at Burning Man

Having this degree was such a big symbol for me that I could finish something. Because I always thought of myself as somebody who couldn’t finish building a doghouse, couldn’t finish building a step, couldn’t finish high school. So I got that degree. I was in San Francisco at the time, living on my own apartment in Alameda. Somebody sent me a postcard that read, “Do what you fear, watch it disappear.” I put that on my refrigerator, and any time I was up against the challenge, I would just do it.

The first big challenge was where do I live?  Where do I work? I could easily live and work in San Francisco. That would have been easy, but I chose the city that scared me the most. At the time, 1989, it was New York. I didn’t know anything about it other than the Central Park jogger case and all the negative cries that were coming out of New York at the time. So I decided that, if there’s ever a city that’s going to test me and give me an opportunity to grow, it’s going to be New York.

I didn’t have any money, just had a 10-speed bike, a basketball, and a sleeping bag. I moved there, stayed on Roosevelt Island, got a job on Madison Avenue, worked my ass off like you wouldn’t believe, and created a campaign for the New York Lottery called, ‘Hey, you never know which one’, which won all these awards. Then all of a sudden, my life just started, it was one surprise after another. That was 1990.

Then I got a call. My partner found a way to get hold of the Clinton administration during the ’92 election. We ended up doing their advertising and our spot aired on election eve, and that was a big deal. My career skyrocketed from there, but it wasn’t without challenges. I was still in New York in ’92 and I got fired from my first job at one of the most creative agencies in the world. I looked at that as an opportunity to try something different. I moved out to LA the first time in ’93, and worked on Lexus the brand. Then we got hit by the earthquake and I realized that the place that I was working didn’t fit my values.

So I moved back to New York for the second time in ’94. That’s when I took a job at a place called Cliff Freeman & Partners, and I ended up traveling the world, doing commercials in different countries for Fanta and Coke. I met Ileana, my wife, and it was at that point that I decided that I didn’t want to work for anybody anymore.

It was the craziest thing, because I just quit this insanely high paying job, which my dad — who made $30,000 a year — would have looked at and said, “Are you kidding me? To leave a job where you’re making six figures, how could you do that?”  But I just quit. And I decided to change diapers and freelance. Then I got the call from a friend to come do the one thing I’ve always wanted to do, and start my own agency.

He was working at an LA-based agency, and there was an opportunity to work on this account called Kia Motors and to start a company. He couldn’t do it because he was working at an existing company, and had the connection so there was a conflict there. So he called me up and said, “How would you like to do this?” That was November 19, 1999. Ten years after I’d begun in the business. So we moved to LA, started David & Goliath, and it’s now been 21 years.

David (L) working at his first art-related job, for a boating magazine in Alameda, with his first Creative Director, a Vietnam vet called Heebie, circa 1985

David (L) working at his first art-related job, for a boating magazine in Alameda, with his first Creative Director, a Vietnam vet called Heebie, circa 1985


FOLLOW YOUR TRUTH

The more I share this, the more I realize that we are all stories, and each and every one of us has this amazing archive of history, memories and experiences. And it’s just from our truth, we create. David & Goliath comes from my truth. I started a company called David & Goliath because I’ve always been up against challenges ever since I was a kid, whether it’s being born one of seven kids, living in a very poor upbringing, or the fact that my father had PTSD from the war which was pretty challenging, to say the least. But there was that voice inside me, something that always told that I was going to be OK.

And had that voice not come to me [when I got the opportunity to move back to LA], and had I not listened to it this time — because you get that voice now and then, and most times you don’t listen to it because something else happens you go, “Oh, I got to do this. I got to do that” — but because I went all in, I’ve been able to see the benefits and the growth that came from it. So now I have no other way to go, but with that voice.

If you lean into the challenges and take it head on, it’s going to be hard and maybe you’ll fall down, maybe you’ll scrape your knee or whatever, but there will be an opportunity to grow from that if you look at it differently. And so starting David & Goliath for me was about creating something that best reflected my own outlook on life. So it would enable me to live my truth and my brand and inspire others to do the same. That’s why it has such strong resonance with me, because not only is my name David, but I’ve always been that kid who’s been up against the bully, who got kicked out of high school, who was a Teamster and who basically looked at every failure and mistake as an opportunity to grow.

When it comes to the marketing side, today is so different than it was even 10 years ago from a marketing perspective. We are all brands. You’re a brand, I’m a brand, Joe Biden is a brand and Kia Motors is a brand. You have the ability to amplify your values, your belief system and whatever you are creating. When you think about who you are, before you can brand for someone else, or before you can unlock someone else’s truth, you have to excavate your own. You’ve got to go into your version of your library or archives of experiences and memories and all that. You get to the heart of who you are first and foremost before you can do it for anyone else.

And then, in order for me to talk about the brand in a way that feels authentic, I also have to experience that brand. And then you’re sharing. As an advertiser or a creator in a marketing field, it’s not enough for me to sell a Kia Motors car if I’m not driving it. If you’re not sharing, you’re not authentically providing a good reason for someone to consider your product. To me it starts with pure authenticity. Everything in the world needs to start from authenticity because if not, then you’re just making s*** up.

This goes back to a point I share with my daughters all the time. Let go of what you want other people to think about you, because when you’re true to who you are, the people that love you and are going to be there for you, are there because they know you and they respect and share those values. And when we try to be something to everyone, we lose all sense of who we are. Make sure that you are really leaning into the truth of who you are.

And I’m not done growing and I’m not done making mistakes. I’m certainly going to continue making them. But having a filter called David & Goliath, and a philosophy called Brave, has enabled me to do some pretty awesome things, while at the same time inspiring others to do it as well.


Click to learn more about David’s Today, I’m Brave movement, and watch our co-founder John Pearson’s story he shared for the initiative here.

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