Proclaimed huckster, alum Ron Elgin (’65) dedicates life to being an ad man and charitable giver

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“I have an idea; let’s start our own agency!”

That’s the first line of alumnus Ron Elgin’s (B.A., 1965) recent book titled “Huckster,” which is a humorous account of his life in advertising. After being in the business for 15 years, his good friend Dave Syferd proposed to go off on their own while chatting over beer and chips in 1980.

“I ordered another beer for him and told him he was crazy,” Elgin said. “I had a great job, made a lot of money, and thought, ‘Why would I want to go into business with a PR guy?’”

At nearly 40 years old and with some convincing, Elgin left his lucrative job and Elgin Syferd was born.

“When we started the agency in 1981, my partner and I considered anyone who was remotely in the business as competitors, which meant we were 251st in the phone book,” Elgin said. “Within a year, we were in the top 10 and by the time we finished we were the largest agency in the Northwest.”

Elgin singled out McDonalds as the client that put them on the map in their first year. That acquisition tripled their billings, tripled it again a year later with client Holland America Line and then doubled again with the addition of Nordstrom.

“There were aspects of so many of my accounts that I truly loved, but those three clients were the ones that have a special place in my heart because they were the ones that took a gamble on a relatively small, unknown agency,” Elgin said.

Elgin Syferd went on to work with JanSport, The North Face, Swedish Hospital, Genentech, to name a few. In the late 1980s it became apparent that they had grown to a size that was too large for the smaller Northwest market. Their roster boasted clients in virtually every category but, due to client conflict issues, growth opportunities for senior staffers stalled.

“We started losing some of our better people at the same time some of our clients were demanding more international capabilities,” Elgin said. “We decided it was time to become a part of a global entity.”

After interviewing many companies, Elgin Syferd was sold to DDB Worldwide in 1989. Elgin continued to love the business and remained CEO of DDB Seattle until retirement in 2011 at age 70.

“Advertising is a team sport and I learned early on to surround myself with people who were better and smarter than me,” Elgin said. “I was also successful because of my passion for the business. I think that’s true for everyone – if you love what you do, you tend to do a good job at it.”

He also credits much of his success to the education he received at the University of Washington, which he refers to as the “greatest university in the universe.”

“When young people ask which classes they should take to better prepare themselves for a career in advertising, I always tell them to take full advantage of all that a good university has to offer,” he said. “Aim for the broadest perspective possible. The result will enhance any career path and especially one in the field of communications.”

Growing up in Seattle, Elgin worked at the railroad at night and at a gas station in the afternoon during high school. He knew little about higher education, but was certain that he didn’t want to be a gas station attendant his whole life. He made a visit to the closest university he would find – the UW.

Photos by Michael Nalley.

Photos by Michael Nalley.

“I wasn’t a great student – I kept getting into trouble and was kicked out of two high schools,” Elgin said. “This was before SATs so I altered my transcripts from Broadway Edison Technical School with white-out and headed over to Montlake.”

Motivated by the belief that engineers lived in big houses and drove fancy cars, Elgin thought he wanted to become one.

“Thankfully, after a few smart questions from a savvy admissions counselor, he steered me away from the lower campus and into the School of Communications,” Elgin said. “I asked if he knew where those graduates lived and drove. As he reached for a bottle of aspirin, he said he was just trying to give me a remote chance of graduating.”

“For the first time in my life, I really enjoyed school,” Elgin said. “I enjoyed the classes; I enjoyed my fellow students; and I especially enjoyed the professors – it was an awakening for me.”

During his sophomore year, Elgin was stopped in the hallway by Professor Dan Warner who praised him for his bi-lined articles in The Daily and suggested he should switch from journalism to advertising. Admitting a complete lack of knowledge about advertising, Elgin inquired further. Professor Warner said Elgin could become an advertising copywriter who could make ten times that of a journalist. Thinking big house and fancy car, Elgin made the immediate switch.

Elgin was selected to interview in his junior year for an internship with Cole & Weber, Seattle’s biggest agency at the time and the place he ended up starting his career. He described the experience as life-changing and made him realize advertising was his life calling.

Charities are another cause Elgin has dedicated his life to.

“When we started our agency we understood that one of the reasons we had been successful in our former careers was because we live in a wonderfully benevolent city, so we decided from the outset that we would do everything we could to give back to the community and do our part in helping it become even better,” he said. “Not only did I volunteer my time, energy, and money, but we encouraged all of our people to get involved with at least one charitable endeavor.”

Elgin has held leadership roles at Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Ronald McDonald House, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Swedish Medical Foundation, Special Olympics, PONCHO, Alliance for Education, and America’s Foundation for Chess. But a charity that he is especially proud of is an 18-hole golf tournament inside their offices to raise money for children’s charities. During the 12 year life of the Charity Golf Classic, they raised more than $500,000.

In addition to his wife of 45 years, Elgin dedicated his book, Huckster, “to the hundreds of dedicated employees who made the agency such a wonderful place to work over our three decade life and the dozens of clients who enabled its success.”

Founder of Curator PR, Scott Battishill wrote in the book’s Foreword, “A few years ago, Ron was given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Addys. All the other heads of agencies who got up to share a story essentially said the same thing: In our hyper competitive field, Ron stands out for both his success and his desire to make others successful.”

The Elgins have one daughter who followed in his footsteps until becoming a full-time mom. Clearly with a soft spot for his entire family, but in true joking manner, Elgin said, “The joy of being a grandparent is unbelievable. It’s like the old refrigerator magnet says, ‘If I had known how great grandchildren are, I would have skipped having kids and gone direct.’ We’ve had a great life and it just keeps getting better!”

Ron Elgin is a 2014 inductee to the UW Communication Alumni Hall of Fame. For more information about the event, click here.