While majoring in Theatre in college, I also started to seriously scratch an art itch that had festered for years. I fit art classes in during both the regular school year and summer breaks. By the time I graduated with my theatre degree, I decided that “commercial art” (whatever that was) would be a more realistic profession for me than acting. After I spent months attempting to “make contacts” on my own (networking), my father, unbeknownst to me, interceded on my behalf. He called a fellow Boy Scouting friend and leader, Mr. Anthony Brandi, who also happened to be the purchasing agent for our Town of Harrison, NY. Tony Brandi was a fine man who seemed to know everyone, so my Dad apparently asked him if he had any friends in the commercial art business.

Mr. Brandi, in turn, called his friend, Sam Diamond. I knew that Sam lived in Harrison. His sons attended the same high school as my siblings and I. I only knew Mr. Diamond as a member of the country club where my brother, and my friends and I all caddied to make money for college. Among the caddies, Sam was known as a “great loop” – a good golfer, a really nice man, and a VERY generous tipper. What I did not know was that Sam Diamond owned one of the largest, most successful art studios in New York.

Mr. Brandi set up a meeting for me with Sam Diamond.

I was greeted at Diamond Art Studio by Gary, Sam’s younger son, who led me to the front conference area from where I could only sneak a glance into the expansive studio with all its people and activity. Gary and I knew each other and had several mutual friends from high school, but I was not aware that he and his brother, Doug, worked for their father. While that was a little comforting, I was in a REAL LIVE New York art studio and thoroughly intimidated. After Gary and I chatted for a while he introduced me to Sam, who quickly flipped through the odd collection of sketches I brought with me, asked me a few questions about my interests and said good bye. Done.

About three weeks later, seemingly out of nowhere, I got a call from Mr. Brandi. In his gentle, hoarse voice, he said, “Paulie, Sam Diamond was really impressed with you. He wants to see you again. You have an appointment on….”

When I arrived at Diamond Art this time, I was escorted directly into Sam’s office. He grilled me about what I wanted to do with my career. I explained my intention to be in the “creative side” of the business. I knew not what an illustrator, or designer, or art director actually did, but those were the jobs I aspired to, or so I thought. Sam barked, “You’ll be in Sales!” I protested, albeit, VERY respectfully (Sam was a wonderful guy, but a mighty force to be reckoned with). What was not clear was that Sam had, in fact, hired me, so after a few awkward and confusing moments, I sheepishly queried him on said employment status, to which he blurted, “What the hell do you think you’re DOING here?”

It started as a classic entry level job – I delivered work to clients and ran errands all over Manhattan and Queens. I was then trained to operate a “stat camera,” and helped in preparing, mounting and assembling presentation pieces and mechanicals for print. At the same time, I took night courses in ad concept, copywriting, graphic design, typography, print production, and drawing. For this kid from the suburbs, I had a dream-like creative thing going on, and in New York – working in a big art studio by day, attending SVA, Parsons, and The Art Students League by night. Eventually, some clients started giving me instructions and feedback on jobs – I really liked that! It occurred to me that maybe Sam was right – though creative, and with some real visual talent, maybe I was wired more for the…business of the business. About two years into my tenure at Diamond Art, Sam was tragically ill. Just before he sadly passed away, he told Gary and Doug to promote me to rep. What was an apparent two year training period had come to its conclusion and now, true to his prediction (actually, his plan), Sam Diamond made sure I would “be in sales!”

I did not like, nor did I take naturally to the act of selling in and of itself. The repeated cold calling and constant banging on doors were a struggle for me. But once I got to meet people I was in my element. What I loved (and still do) and was best suited for (and still am) were building business relationships with and servicing clients, and then bringing in jobs for, and consulting with all the talented artists in the studio, all supported by my growing creative knowledge. Evidently, I was pretty good at it, too.

Given how my career started, I learned early on to appreciate the value of RELATIONSHIPS. I got “a foot in the door” because of a personal relationship. I had to work hard and be damn good at the jobs I had in order to succeed, but I would not have had that opportunity without my Dad originally reaching out to a respected friend, the kind gestures of that man whom we knew threw community activities, and a guy HE knew, who had a son with whom I was, coincidentally, a bit friendly in high school. I made certain to pay attention to the PEOPLE I met – who worked where, who worked for who, who did what – regardless of their position or role. In addition to the potential clients – the art directors, copywriters and producers – I became friendly with the account people, agency studio artists, production people, the security guards and receptionists, as well. I trained my focus on building RELATIONSHIPS. The clients, jobs and the resulting billing and commissions all came in good time – as the relationships grew in number and quality, so did the level of success.

A couple of years later I pondered a career change to ad agency account management. Through my growing responsibilities as a young rep for Diamond, I had gotten to know the Head Art Buyer at NW Ayer, so I took a shot at confiding in him. Ted Warwick introduced me to the Head Account Director. I cannot remember his name, but will never forget the man who so graciously took the time to sit with me in his office, deciphered my interests and talents, and adamantly encouraged me to stick with the art studio business. He felt I was perfectly suited for it, and he was right.

I am grateful for what my Dad did for me, for what Tony Brandi did for me, and for Sam Diamond’s sage instinct and guidance, and then for the generosity of Ted Warwick and his colleague, and for the lessons all that taught me.

It has always been, and still is, about the people – about the relationships.

“Paul Santa-Donato has been in the business too long.”

Paul Santa-Donato has been in the business too long. From the ‘Big Hair’ days of the (70’s) to the less hair days of right now (actually he still has plenty of hair)…”

Paul Santa-Donato

Mark Bloom, the designer of this site, and my friend and collaborator for over 30 years, originally wrote that line as a tongue in cheek place holder. I decided to quote Mark here as I realize that the math on my career is, indeed, mounting. In March of 2017, I celebrated 40 years in Advertising. On July 25th, 2018, Santa Donato Studios will be 35 years old.

Is that “too long” to be in the business?

NAAH! In fact, the longer I do this, the better I seem to be getting at it in many ways. Just a couple of years ago I said to a close friend in the business, “I think I’m starting to get good at this.” The longer I do this, the more grateful I am for all the terrific people I have had the privilege to do business with and get to know over all these years. To this day, what gets me completely stoked are the personal interactions with both clients and artists. I consider working with all these talented individuals a gift. Now, of course, most of the interaction is remote. I terribly miss “being in the room where it happens,” yet this physical separation has not squelched my passion for empathically engaging with the people with whom I do business. It’s just changed the functional dynamics. That’s all.

And for what it’s worth, I still have a handful of local NY clients who ask to brief me in person, which I happily oblige. It’s astounding how much can be gained from people being all in the same room, looking at each other, when working collaboratively.

More on that in a future post.