Editor’s note: This article was originally published in June 2014. Marvin Chernoff died on Feb. 11, 2015, after a long battle with throat cancer.
Marvin Chernoff wrote his memoir similarly to how he structured his career: He did it his way.
The recently published Unlikely Success: How a Guy Without a Clue Built One Hell-of-a Business chronicles Chernoff’s life as a political consultant and ad man. While the title suggests he was clueless about what he was doing, Chernoff was in fact very good at what he did.
Chernoff, who grew up in Brooklyn, has been involved in shaping Columbia for four decades. After running Charles “Pug” Ravenel’s unsuccessful 1974 gubernatorial campaign, he founded advertising agency Chernoff/Silver and Associates, which later became Chernoff/Newman and Associates. (The ad company is now known as Chernoff Newman.) He was one of the first to open an office in the Vista. He led the city’s effort to host the Columbia Festival of the Arts in 2007. In 2010, he was part of Mayor Steve Benjamin’s transition team.
In March, Columbia proclaimed Marvin Chernoff Day. He’s also a recipient of the Elizabeth Verner Award, the highest statewide honor for contributions to the arts, and the Order of the Palmetto, the state’s highest honor for lifetime achievement, for his contributions to education.
Chernoff was almost done with Unlikely Success when he underwent surgery to remove a tumor from his tongue in September. Doctors, Chernoff says, transplanted part of his arm to his tongue.
The same doctors told his friends and family to prepare for the worst.
“I was at the precipice,” says Chernoff, whose speech remains labored. “My throat is still suffering, and I have a little less energy than I used to.”
I talked to Chernoff about themes from his book. The following was edited for clarity and length.
Recording personal history: Writing my memoir was one of the most enjoyable things I’ve ever done in my life because I realized more of what my life was about. What we did at Chernoff/Silver was unique — operating at the seat of our pants and being successful at it.
A good time: We partied almost as much as we worked. I mean it. We’d have parties for every occasion. We invited the movers and shakers to come party with us. We used to party when we failed — to congratulate people for trying as hard as they did.
A surprise guest at the door on election night in 1967: I developed for Carl Stokes [the first black mayor of a major city, Cleveland] a terrific street organization to get out the vote. And on election night when we were partying in the hotel rooms, there was a knock on the door — and there was Carl Stokes with Martin Luther King. That changed my life.
Race relations: I grew up in a tough neighborhood in Brooklyn. When we chose teams, we chose on the basis of how good they were, not on the basis of class. Growing up in that neighborhood instilled that in me.
The media: It’s changed a lot, especially since I’ve gotten out of it. Viral media has gotten so much more important. I’ve tried to learn about it, especially as I try to sell my book.
Advertising: It’s a way to communicate to people the values of an idea or a product and to instill in them the desire to become a part of it — or to buy it.
The secret to selling: To be direct, to understand what you’re doing. I think a lot of advertisers, I’m critical of what they’re doing, because they’re selling how clever they are. They seem to forget that they’re selling a product.
South Carolina politics: I’ve lost interest. I think they are impossible.
Healthy living: Doctors wanted me to take six weeks of chemotherapy and radiation. I decided that quality of life took precedence over side effects that I’d have to go through.
Chernoff adds, “I’m doing it my way.”
Unlikely Success is available at amazon.com and at unlikelysuccess.com, which features signed copies.
The SCC is a column about interesting people in and around Columbia.
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