Joey Reiman: ‘Passion divides the winners from the whiners’

Joey Reiman took his unconventional upbringing even further than his astrologer mother could have predicted.

Known throughout the advertising industry for his creativity, Reiman, 60, rose up the ranks at several large agencies before launching his own Atlanta firm. Then, while flying back from a London business trip 18 years ago, he decided to exit the ad world he’d flourished in. He opened a consulting firm here, BrightHouse, to convince CEOs that doing “business with a purpose” trumps conventional strategies and tactics, including traditional advertising.

At first, it was tough going. But Reiman kept pushing, building BrightHouse into a multimillion-dollar business with 25 employees who’ve advised many Fortune 500 companies. He talks about his unique approach, as well as two forces that shaped his life — his mother and a car accident.

Q: You’ve described your upbringing as “wild and colorful.” What happened?

A: My father was a food broker. You might remember the old Juan Valdez TV commercial. Well, he was like the businessman in the commercial who went to South America to taste the coffee beans.

Of course, he could only go down there during the times when my mother would allow him to go because she was an astrologer. So she knew when he would have good meetings and bad meetings. In astrology, the planets play as large a role in your life as people.

He was the most conservative man I’ve ever met and she was like the “Bewitched” TV character. Math brought them together. My father was an amazing mathematician and would do her algorithms. Then she would know what’s going to happen to me. Before I took an exam in school, I knew how I would do.

When I was growing up in Manhattan, it wasn’t about dating girls who were Jewish. It was about not dating girls who were Capricorns with Virgo moons. You might notice that there’s no one in this company like that. I’m an Aries with a Libra moon.

Q: Is there a lesson there for non-believers in astrology?

A: The lesson is to put as many tools in your toolbox as possible. Astrology was a perspective that no one else had. It gave me an additional lens.

In addition to astrology, my mother decided that I would get into a much better university if I went to a better school. So I went to a Russian school on Park Avenue that had a total of 45 students from grade 6 to 12. She thought if I spoke Russian, I could go anywhere. It was the 1960s at the height of the Cold War.

I learned Russian. Again, it was a very different perspective. I was the only Jewish kid in the school.

Also, after I studied for an exam, my mother would tell me to go to the movies the night before. There’s a big lesson there. Once you’ve prepared, walk away from it to get perspective.

Q: A car accident gave you a new perspective. What happened?

A: After graduating from Brandeis University, I went to Italy to intern for (the late film director) Federico Fellini. Late at night in Rome after a party, I was a passenger in a car that hit a bus. The car turned over and my right arm was crushed. The doctors said I would never move my right arm again. I could keep it, but not use it.

I was very down. I didn’t think anyone would love me or hire me. While I was in the hospital, a South African minister knocked on the door. He talked to me about the power of ideas — about taking ideas and creating actions around those ideas, and the actions becoming habits and the habits changing one’s character and the character changing one’s destiny.

He asked me, “What do you want?” I said I wanted to move my right hand and he said, “That’s easy if you really believe.”

I started using my other hand and became more positive. Later, my right thumb started to tingle and the doctors couldn’t understand it. Eventually, I got my thumb up. Then I worked on my index finger and then the other fingers.

I learned to be thumbs up, to point your index finger at what you want, and to give your middle finger to fear. The fourth finger stood for marching forth toward your dreams. And the little finger for the little things that happened in the hospital room that were much bigger than the big things that happened in the operating room.

Those ideas became very near and dear to me.

Q: You came back from Italy and got into advertising, using your creativity at several companies, including your own. Then, in 1995, you launched BrightHouse. Why? What makes your current approach different from what you had been doing?

A: I realized that the world was ad rich and idea poor. The world didn’t need another two liner.

I started BrightHouse to bring big ideas to companies to help change the world for the better — purpose-based business. This was a radical concept 18 years ago. The notion that taking care of business means taking care of others didn’t really sit well with a lot of alpha-male, profit-hungry CEOs.

We are not an ad agency. We’re an agent of change. The CEO of a company needs to be the chief energy officer — charging everyone up around a specific vision that comes from purpose. For example, for every toilet American Standard sells in North America, it will donate a sanitary toilet pan to help prevent the spread of disease in Bangladesh.

Companies need to stand for something. The brand is dead and taking a stand is alive. A purpose-full business will provide meaning for all stakeholders. To create that, a company needs to find its roots and reignite the culture, values, strategy and tactics in a holistic way. Advertising is all the way down the food chain.

Q: You’ve taught business students at Emory. What’s your best advice for younger people?

A: I’m a big believer in passion. I think passion divides the winners from the whiners. If you have passion, there’s nothing you can’t do.

But to have passion, you need purpose. For me, it was to be something more original and unconventional. I realized that my main task was to create my own dream, not live by someone else’s. Define yourself or be defined.

At Emory, I’ve taught pretenders who are not living their own dream. In my classes, I’ve asked business students to tell me what your ideal job is. Then I hand out $25 million checks from the “Bank of Dreams” and ask the question again. I’ve been teaching for 13 years and 90 percent change their minds.

The three Ps — peers, professors and parents — are putting things in their minds, instead of pulling things out of their hearts. That’s what I’m there to do. By the end of the semester, about a third of the students change their majors.

We often take an easier road to make some money to have some meaning later on. That’s the wrong way. Meaning in the dictionary comes before money, and that’s the way it happens in life, as well. If you have money without meaning, and then you lose the money, you’re really broke.

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Reiman’s remarks were edited for length and style.

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