World class clarinetist and VP and Managing Director of advertising at award winning ad agency R/GA, Michael Lowestern shares his unique perspective on being an artist, an entrepreneur, and a performer.
Q: Can you tell me a little bit about your education background and work experience and what the path was like to your position as VP and Managing Director of R/GA?
A: My background in terms of formal education was as a performing
classical musician, having spent a good 10 years in conservatory up to
and including my Doctorate. But what’s interesting about being in
music is that you’re inevitably in marketing as well: How do you get
people to come to a concert? How do you get presenters to book you?
How do you get people to buy a CD? How do you get commissions as a
composer? All of that is marketing — and the product you’re
marketing is you. So everything from recital posters to designing a
marketing campaign for a recording is on you as a music-business
person. That translated pretty easily to working in advertising, and I
made the switch from being a full-time orchestral musician to being a
full-time ad guy about 10 years ago after straddling both of them for
another 10 years before that. My wife likes to say I “double-major in
life” and I guess that’s as good a way to describe it as any.
Q: Were you always motivated to pursue a career outside of your passion as a musician? Or was there a deciding point for you?
A: I never wanted to pursue a career outside of music. It kind of
found me. The deciding point was pretty simple actually, and it had
nothing to do with either being in music or being in marketing. It had
everything to do with being a parent and wanting to be home to watch
my daughter grow up (and not out on the road). It was the best
decision I could have made for myself and the family.
Q: How does your experience performing as a musician influence how you approach your pitches?
A: I look at my whole job as performing to an audience. I happen not
to be playing music in this performance, and I happen to actually most
often not be the one writing the music if you were to continue that
analogy. I’m maybe the conductor. Maybe that’s the best way to call
But it’s still a performance. And you always have to know what the
audience is expecting.
You would not show up to a coffee house with Marshall stacks.
But people do that all the time. They mismatch the message to the
audience. They don’t really pay any attention to that. They’re
So part of the goal is to remember: who is the audience, what’s their
mindset, what do they expect, what’s their current behavior?
I love using musical analogies even in client meetings. If you’re in a
restaurant, you shouldn’t plan to play a loud set because that’s not
what the expectation is. You are playing quietly and you are
background music. Period. You’re not strolling around, you’re not
engaging the customers, you are not interrupting people. You’re just
Then when you’re on the stage at a “concert” concert, and people are
there specifically see and hear you, that’s something different. And
you have to understand that expectation of your audience.
So in a pitch, you need to know what ammo to bring, what tone to
bring, what “volume” to bring. And most importantly how to improvise.
Q: What were some of the difficulties you faced when your were learning how to pitch? What was your biggest hurdle to overcome?
A: Honestly, I never had any problems in pitches, because I had such a
long career as a performer on stage. But one thing that I did have to
remember is to know your material cold. You can’t successfully play a
concert if you don’t know the music, and you can’t have a successful
pitch if you don’t know your material. So it’s preparation, practice
And remembering that people WANT you to succeed. There’s nothing worse
than seeing someone struggling “onstage.”
Q: Are there any specific performers that you admired, whose techniques you paid attention to and applied to your own performances and pitches?
A: My teacher Harry Sparnaay. He had 11 “rules” for playing music.
Many of them actually apply to pitches too. Here are the ones that can
“cross-over” with my “cross-over” translations underneath.
“We don’t learn to play wrong notes, but it’s really okay — just as
long as the performance idea is intact.”
– In a pitch, if the main idea is good, and intact, it’s okay to screw
up and fumble a slide. Pick up and keep going.
“Don’t play bad music.”
– If your pitch sucks, don’t pitch it.
“I don’t like to play concerts where the music is all this
intellectual stuff. I like to have the plumber and the milkman come to
a concert and enjoy it as well as the intellectual. Actually, I like
the milkman better…”
– Write and deliver your pitch to be interesting and entertaining. If
it’s too heady, it won’t have the same impact. Pitch to the gut, not
“It’s very important to have a personal contact with the audience;
talk to them like a human being — it helps them to understand the
music as you understand it.”
– Don’t be a robot. Be human. It’s a hell of a lot more interesting to watch.
“If you think something is going to go wrong on the stage, SKIP IT.
Never ever be the joker on the stage.”
– There’s no point in fumbling. If you’ve got a slide or an anecdote
or story you’re telling that isn’t going well, get out of it and move
- Don’t be self-effacing, because it undercuts your expertise in
Q: What is your advice for handling a pitch that isn’t going well?
A: Find the nearest window and jump. Wait. Bad idea.
Seriously though, some pitches just don’t go well. If you’re prepared,
and have practiced and believe in your pitch, that’s all you can do.
If the audience is bored, or preoccupied or it’s the wrong audience
for your pitch, that’s simply out of your control. Just use the rest
of the pitch as “practice.” If it IS something you screwed up, pick
yourself up and keep going. A bad performance just makes everyone
uncomfortable, so you have to have a few canned “lines” to say that
will pick things back up. Comedians have them and use them ALL the
time; I do too. You use it and you move on.
Q: What are some of your proudest moments as VP and Managing Director of R/GA?
A: Honestly, it’s selling good work — work that I believe in. I love
being the best meeting of a client’s day (one of my standing goals). I
love showing enthusiasm for the work we do. It’s the best part of my
day — the performing part.