A young Steve Eichenbaum (right) pictured with John Cleese.
A young Steve Eichenbaum (right) pictured with John Cleese.

With Eichenbaum's passing Milwaukee loses an advertising trail blazer

Steve Eichenbaum was a popular guy.  But popular in the way the Great Oz was popular.  Like many of us who make a living in the advertising business, Steve spent his career "behind the curtain," tugging on ropes and pulleys while offering sage advice to all who sought him out.  To say his reputation preceded him would be an understatement. Most who never had the chance to meet him still knew about his biting wit, the booming voice and that fermented persona. (Being Mr. Angry for those years on WKLH helped solidify that facade.)

I certainly remember feeling like the terrified scarecrow when I first shuffled into his office as a newbie out of Marquette more than 25 years ago. But guess what? There was no green smoke. No intimidating image.  I had heard all the stories, but as it turned out Steve was Oz-like in other ways.  For instance, he was a kind man. A gentle man.  Bashful even.  Over the years, as both a mentor and friend, he gave me the heart, brains and courage needed to take chances and become successful in my own right.

So what was it about Steve Eichenbaum that made him larger than life – besides being nearly 6-foot-8?  If you were lucky enough to spend time with him in a restaurant, on a plane, at a Bucks game or even in a New York jazz club (the Blue Note was one of his faves), there was no mistaking it… this wizard truly was "great and powerful" on so many different levels.

If my flagrant use of past tenses hasn’t given it away, I am sad to say Steve passed away unexpectedly Tuesday evening.  I’m still numb as I write this.  Sitting here putting memories to paper and reminiscing about our friendship, I feel lucky to have known him. He was my first boss.  A true mentor.  A dear friend.  And he will be missed beyond measure.

In some regards, Steve Eichenbaum was one of the most well known unknowns in the city.  Despite their best efforts, outsiders sometimes found it hard to connect with him.  Steve was private and kept his circle tight. But several months ago, I was thrilled to learn he agreed to be part of a Q&A panel sponsored by the United Adworkers Club.  For the first time, a sold-out room of hundreds got to hear the man (the myth?) step into the spotlight and share some of the most hilarious war stories and general observations about advertising and marketing we’ve ever heard.  Yeah, he owned the night.

As a boss, Steve had a reputation as someone who always expected greatness from his employees, because he always expected greatness of himself. I learned more during my time with Steve than most Madmen learn in a lifetime. This guy understood the power of creative leverage and often told his clients that playing it safe in their advertising was the biggest risk they could ever take. I recall one time a client asked for a jingle in their new ad.  Steve rocked in his chair, twisted his face like he just got a whiff of old Limburger cheese and said, "Listen, if you’ve got nothing to say, sing it."  The smart ones took his advice.

Steve Eichenbaum (left) with Rich Kohnke (middle) and Dave Hanneken (right).

In his career Steve won every major advertising award out there – not just local hardware, but international accolades that got him written up in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.  He was the brains behind the Koss Stereophones billboards and the genius that sent an unknown state congressman named Russ Feingold to Washington for 18 years. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

"Steve, it's Jerry Seinfeld on line one"

While most people in the ad business find it to be a privilege to work with a Hollywood actor or comedy legend, when working with Steve Eichenbaum the privilege turned out to be all theirs.  It was not uncommon to hear a page come across the intercom saying that Rita Rudner was on the phone, or Kevin Pollak, Jeff Cesario, and yes, even Jerry Seinfeld. (Steve and Jerry became fast friendstfeatevrycxavruscdtxrxeurbtazwfdyzdxx after we worked on an ad campaign for a local fast food client.)

Likewise, Steve and Monty Python legend John Cleese did a handful of campaigns together simply because John liked the funny form letter Steve sent to John’s agent. At the time Cleese had just been paid a million dollars to do several Pepsi commercials, but his fee while working with Steve was substantially less.  In fact, Cleese simply asked that a small donation be made to his favorite charity. That. Doesn’t. Happen. Except to Steve.

Every day was an evening at The Improv

I truly believe if Steve could have figured out a way to run his own ad agency and do stand-up comedy at the same time, he would have been a success at both.  That said, I think he found the next best thing. Just ask anyone who was within earshot of his legendary rants during a Milwaukee Bucks game.  I’ll spare you the caustic observations and the numerous f-bombs; just understand that Steve was a tad critical of the Bucks – especially these past few years.  Kind of the way a parent is critical of their children.  He rants… because he loves. 

For more than 25 years Steve had season tickets directly behind the visitor’s bench because, by his own admission, he would have been kicked out of the Bradley Center long ago if his seats were behind the Bucks’ bench.  His taunts aimed at Bucks players were legendary. I recall one game in particular when the Bucks were getting absolutely crushed by the Miami Heat, and during a time-out, Steve was ripping the Bucks so badly, LeBron James and Dwayne Wade fell over laughing in the team huddle. When the buzzer sounded and it came time to go back in the game, they told head coach Erik Spoelstra they wanted to stay on the bench and listen to Steve.  That only added fuel to the fire.

Logic didn’t always factor into his decisions. This revealed itself one day when we were driving in the heart of Chicago during rush hour.  As a passenger in my car he could not bear to be crawling along at such a slow rate of speed, so he ripped off his seat belt yelling, "Why the hell do I need to wear this goddamned thing? We’re going two miles per hour!"  Hard to argue with that.  But then he took things to the next level by reaching across my chest to honk the horn on my car, screaming, "Come on. Let’s go. Move it! Get out of the way!"  Perhaps he felt he had the powers of Moses and he could simply part the sea of traffic before us by honking the horn on my car – the only automobile in the general vicinity with Wisconsin plates.  (If only he summoned his powers as the Great and Powerful Oz)?  To this day, I’ll never know. But I’ll never forget it.

Steve’s rants and comedic observations extended onto the airwaves as well.  I still remember the day I sat in his office with WKLH radio personality Dave Luczak and the General Manager Tom Joerres (KLH was a client at the time), when after a Bill Hicks type rant, Luczak said, "Steve, you are hilarious!  You should call into the radio show with a rant of the week. We’ll call you Mr. Angry." On that day, a star was born. 

More accurately, a star was born 61 years ago.  And now…he’s gone. 

I do not believe there will be another one like Steve Eichenbaum.  On behalf of us who passed through your doors, and those who are still there, let me say that we will all miss you buddy.  You’ve come to the end of the yellow brick road and found your way home. 

Now, I can only imagine what you’ll say upon finding out Heaven is just like Kansas.  Just hold on a sec while I tell the little ones to plug their ears. This is gonna be good.

Dave Hanneken is the executive creative director at Jigsaw LLC

Funeral services Friday, Oct.  23 at 12:00 PM AT THE FUNERAL HOME. Burial to follow at Agudas Achim Cemetery, 3690 E. College Ave., Cudahy. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions made to Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid or the Jewish Community Food Pantry appreciated. GOODMAN-BENSMAN Whitefish Bay Funeral Home 4750 N. Santa Monica goodmanbensman.com

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