David Suissa, a top advertising executive, wants to sell you something: unconditional love for every Jew.
David Suissa (pronounced Swee-ssa) is the founder and CEO of Suissa Miller Advertising, a $300 million marketing firm named "Agency of the Year" by USA Today that attracts clients like Heinz, Dole, McDonalds, Princess Cruises, Charles Schwab and Acura. Suissa's writings on advertising have been published in several publications including the Los Angeles Times and Advertising Age.
Suissa is also a dynamic and innovative Jewish leader who doesn't know how to think small. He is the founder, publisher and editor of “Olam,” a magazine of Jewish unity and spirituality. He is the force behind olam4israel.com, an activist movement rallying worldwide support for Israel, and freethe400million.com, a movement to promote democracy in the Middle East.
Recently, Suissa launched a billboard and newspaper campaign promoting Israel and its democratic values; and co-founded the ITF (Israel Task Force), a high-powered group of business and community leaders rallying Israeli PR activities under one umbrella. He also lectures regularly around the country and on college campuses on the subjects of spirituality and Israel.
His charitable work extends beyond the Jewish world to include projects for AIDS, abandoned children, and drug abuse, for which he won a presidential award.
Suissa also has an artistic flair. His song of Jewish unity, "Ani Ohev," was launched at the Israeli Knesset in May 2002, and was played on Israeli radio stations and in Jewish communities worldwide.
Aish.com was able to grab a few minutes of David's time in his office in Brentwood, California.
Aish.com: Your life has been largely devoted to Jewish unity. Who were your role models growing up?
Suissa: My father was an important influence. He had this almost exaggerated manner, where he was polite and friendly to anyone. There was never a sense of "this Jew doesn't do what we do" or something to frown on.
There was no processing when it came to fellow Jews. He would honor anybody who would come into the house, no matter what. I would bring people over and my father always gave a big smile, "Who are you? Please sit down…" It was a blind love for fellow Jews.
My father came from a generation where if you have something to say, you say it, earnest and straight.
He would never participate in synagogue politics. The arrows would fly, and it's not that he just watched them go by -- he didn't even notice them. He had a naive quality about him, an innocence that was refreshing. He was utterly devoid of cynicism or sarcasm. I never saw him make fun of anyone.
Imagine today if we weren't sarcastic? If we didn't have attitude or irony? Attitude and body language is 50 percent of our conversation today. That's why FOX TV is so successful. My father came from a generation where if you have something to say, you say it, earnest and straight.
Aish.com: Do you think today's “attitude” is better than the straight way of your father?
Suissa: No, no, no, no. The attitude is a short cut, a substitute, to figuring out something meaningful to say. The "duh," the sarcasm… it's cheap, empty humor. You don't really have to have any knowledge. You don't even have to be so funny; the humor comes at the expense of someone else. All you need is attitude, which you can pick up from watching David Letterman. It substitutes opinion for understanding; body language for knowledge. You don't have to go to a class, learn or read a book to have attitude.
But it's so prevalent in our society. That's why I work on teaching this to my kids all the time.
Aish.com: How did you get involved in advertising?
Suissa: I fell in love with the combination of business and creativity. It was a profession where you could wear 15 different hats -- you can be a shrink, a mathematician, an artist, a musician, a lawyer and an accountant.
You can sell eggs one day, real estate the next, then diapers and beer. For someone like me who has a really short attention span, it was a wide-open field that was constantly changing.
It also allowed for a margin of error. If I made a mistake, someone's kidney wasn't going to fail. It's not life and death. Life is heavy enough.
Aish.com: What's a good piece of advice you can give people starting out in business?
Suissa: That's a question I ask business people all the time -- what's the one piece of advice you can give me? The answer I received was as simple as this: When you say something in a meeting, make sure it adds something new. Most of what people say is either a repetition, dramatization, or their own need for expression.
People tend to forget the other agenda -- of learning and growing as an individual.
I also ask rabbis the same question -- give me the one thing. I'm a sponge. It's more than just wanting to have a better business; I want to be a more successful person. So I'm going to take ideas from different people. It's innate, genuine, wide-eyed curiosity, fascination with the unfamiliar. My father had it and I see it missing in society today. We're not as curious as we used to be. I think part of the reason is because people have such a practical view of life -- how is this going to help my career, how is this going to help fulfill my agenda? They forget the other agenda -- of just learning, of growing as an individual, of learning a new song that you haven't heard in your life.
How could Jews not be curious? We all got kicked out of Israel in the year 70 CE by the Romans, and we went all around the world. For 19 centuries, my Sephardic ancestors lived without a telephone. They'd never met an Ashkenazi Jew in their life. The only Jew they ever met was exactly like them. So we are blessed to be in this generation, where God has brought us all together.
I'm in total awe that Jews hung in for 2,000 years of exile. It is an amazing notion, and we sort of take it for granted because we're caught up in our daily lives and our little worlds. I can't believe we're still Jewish! And with that amazement comes the desire to know more about others. It's like meeting a brother and sister that you haven't seen for 50 years; only this time it's been 2,000 years.
You meet someone new: “You're a Jew I haven't seen in 2,000 years! Tell me about yourself. I'm really fascinated. A Polish Chassid? How does that work? How is that different from a chassid from Ukraine?”
There's this sense of awe, not just of God, but also of what God created.
Aish.com: Where does your family place its roots?
Suissa: I grew up in Morocco in a little town 20 minutes from Casablanca that was known for its insane asylum. My father ran the school in that town. When I was eight we moved to Montreal. On one hand, it was natural for Sephardic Jews to go to Quebec since French was our first language.
But it was difficult to move from a Sun culture, where all your doors are open and the guests come in all the time, to a Nordic culture, where you hide in your cocoon for six months a year. It was a very tough adjustment, especially for my parents' generation. I think we kids fared better.
Aish.com: How did your parent's transition from Morocco to North America affect you?
Suissa: Early on, I was engrained with the values of hardship, suffering and sacrifice for your children -- that your happiness doesn't matter as long as you care for your children and feed them.
My mother took four buses to work as a seamstress, five days a week for 50 bucks a week. Then she would schlep to do her shopping on Thursday night when the stores were open late. She'd go from one bus to another in the winter with all of her bags -- to one place to get vegetables for Shabbat and to another place for the fish, and then the meat somewhere else. We remember her getting home late Thursday night and then cooking for Shabbat, waiting for my father to come home at 11 p.m. He needed to take night school because he didn't get accredited for all these years in Morocco.
My mother would wait up to make him dinner, then she'd be up early in the morning, lunch with the kids, running the whole family. No maids, no housekeepers, nothing. For 50 bucks a week as a seamstress. We'd get kicked out of apartments because we had too many kids. That's my memory of parental sacrifice.
But what's incredible is that our home was very happy. Shabbat was untouchable -- although during our rebellious years we would go out late Friday night. But we would always sit down for Shabbat dinner, always. That was a non-issue. Our parents were smart enough not to coerce us religiously. We sort of naturally, organically came back all the way to where we belong, observing the real Shabbat.
Aish.com: Who do you admire from Jewish history?
Suissa: I have a special respect for King David. He fell so low. It makes me proud to be a Jew that we're not afraid to have our kings be human and show their weaknesses. We're not embarrassed by it and don't apologize for it.
I'm inspired by the way King David transformed his fall by contributing one of the world's great spiritual documents.
And I'm inspired by the way King David transformed his fall by contributing one of the world's great spiritual documents -- Psalms -- which has influenced and moved so many people.
Aish.com:How did you get involved in doing marketing for Jewish organizations?
Suissa: As you get older, you see the skills that God has given you and you try to use them to further His will. You spend 20 years trying to sell 30 million people on why this car is better then that car. And as you get older, you say to yourself, "What would happen if I used these same skills for the Almighty? For this incredible thing that I love called Judaism? What would happen?"
Jewish organizations would come all the time and ask for my help. “Can you give me a logo, an idea for the name, a brochure, an ad?” An onslaught, a hurricane of requests.
There are literally thousands of Jewish organizations around the world that would love to be put on the map. They need that hook, that idea. I would always say, “Yes, I'll help.” And they're still coming.
I figured God gave me the gift to do it for Acura and Beechnut Baby Food, why not for my fellow Jews?
Aish.com: What are some personal lessons you've learned over the years?
Suissa: I hated public speaking. Speaking to two or three people is wonderful, or around the Shabbat table with friends and family. But speaking to 300 people is like root canal. Yet being Jewish is about transcending one's personality. Don't look at what you want and what you need; look at what the world wants and needs, and if you have the gift to influence 300 people -- do it. Suffer the pain and make the sacrifice. And the bonus is that you grow.
I learned that a great idea is meaningless unless you know how to execute it. There's a lot great ideas out there, but part of being Jewish is to take that great idea from Heaven and bring it down to Earth and make it happen.
Being Jewish means thinking big, having a big life, and trying to make a difference to the world, to shine a light. We are big people, but we're the size of a little village in China. We are almost zero percent of the world's population, and we make 40 percent of the noise. We are an astonishing people.
Aish.com: Do you see Jewish values in contrast with Western society?
Suissa: There's a tendency in society for 100-yard dashes to dominate our experience. You go to a class that blows you away, three weeks later you go to another class that blows you away. You have a big event that blows you away. That's the Hollywood energy.
Being Jewish is not a series of 100-yard dashes. It's rather like a marathon.
But being Jewish is not a series of 100-yard dashes. It's rather like a marathon. One of my objectives is to inject this energy into the Jewish world; that we should all look at it as a lifetime mission until the day we die.
Aish.com: How does the advertising world contribute to Western ideals?
Suissa: It's a constant battle against the forces of Hollywood. My business is the enemy. The mission of advertising is to make you stop thinking. The less you think, the more money we make. I can buy that expensive house in Bel Air if I can make you stop thinking, and make you start reacting so you can buy on impulse. There's hundreds of billions of dollars spent trying to stop you and your kids from thinking.
Then you become prey, and you're putty in their hands. They can make you eat junk and they feed your soul with junk. Why? To make more money.
Of course, in a free society they have every right to sell you junk. But this creates an imbalance: the sellers are using their freedom, but the buyers are not. We want to empower the buyers to use their freedom. In the Jewish world, use your freedom to say “no” to this junk that's being sold to you, to say “no” to Hollywood.
But you can't do that unless you start thinking. And being Jewish is knowing how to think. We have hundreds of years of incredible thinking recorded in the Talmud. It's one of the things that makes us special.
My feeling is that if TV no longer promotes thinking, then the Jews should promote it. Think before you speak. Think before you fire someone. Think before you get angry at your wife. Think before you send that e-mail. Think before you create this business, as you trample on other people. Just think. This is the Jewish way. Our actions have holiness because we think.
Aish.com: Yet you are heavily involved in the advertising world. How do you counteract that with Jewish values?
Suissa: Most people in the advertising business have this aura of insincerity. They try to be sincere, but it doesn't come across. I try to be really, really sincere. If in the beginning you don't care about this guy's lemonade, at least pretend to care. By forcing yourself, you will come to genuinely care.
That genuine caring got me a lot of business, because people read body language. Don't think you can fool them. So force yourself, find some way to really, really care about the lemonade. It will help in other parts of your life, too.
Aish.com: What is your vision for a new Jewish future?
Suissa: Jews are creative and loaded with talent. Just imagine if we rallied all these talents on behalf of Israel and the Jewish people. It would be remarkable.
I would love to see every Jew in the world give 20 minutes a week to Israel, and I'm not asking for more. A real 20 minutes a week. Not just a phone call where you complain. For 20 minutes a week, which is less time than it takes to wait for your coffee latte at Starbucks, sit down and do something special for Israel.
It could be organizing a parlor meeting in your house. It could be planning a trip to Israel. Stop your whole life for 20 minutes a week. Start small because otherwise people will say “no.” Once you've got those 20 minutes, great things are going to happen.
|In memory of my Mother and our Grandmother,|
Minna bat Yehuda
by her son
Barrie and grandchildren, David, Mandy,Tony,Graeme,Gael and