The corner of Pearl and 15th Streets in downtown Boulder might be one of the nicest places to work in all of the United States. It lies in the heart of this hip and healthy city, a Mecca for those who love thin, fresh, crisp air, alternative energy, outdoor activities and lots and lots of earthy-crunchy-nutty lefty political do-gooders, lunatics and polemicists. From the third floor window of a building standing at this corner, looking northwest you might imagine yourself on the nearby Flatiron Mountains, rust-colored, jagged blades of rock, thrusting upwards from the horizon at ever more nearly right angles. Even by mid-October the Flatirons are snow capped, their peaks rearing 3,500 feet over this small city below.
The intersection of 15th and Pearl is the eastern end of the Pearl Street Promenade, a quintessentially Boulder public space that is part dining and shopping district, part pedestrian-only corridor and part public square. Everything people love—and hate—about Boulder is right there. Here, too, you will find Thomas Dooley, Jonathan Schoenberg and the small and talented cast of tda advertising & design.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
Sometimes location defines the very work people do. Never has this been more demonstrably true than among the people who work at tda. Without Boulder, you could not imagine this group cranking out the same kind of funny, irreverent, muscular and surprising work. No more than you’d expect to find an Aspen tree at sea level. In perspective, ethos and culture—tda is Boulder.
It is my impression that no one comes to Boulder to work. Not really. They come here to play. They may call themselves students, but they’re really hikers. They may call themselves waiters, doctors or lawyers, but they’re really mountain bikers, rock climbers or hemp shirt makers in disguise. The Boulder secret is that only clever and lucky people get to stay in Boulder. What they do for a living is merely a means to the end. That does not mean they are not dedicated to their crafts or occupations, on the contrary. The better they are at it, the more time they have for their more avid interests. Take Thomas Dooley for example.
An accomplished Nordic (cross country) skier, a young Thomas Dooley parlayed his athleticism and ski interest into a vocation after graduating from high school in 1982. After winning a full academic scholarship to the University of Alaska at Anchorage, he eventually left to complete his degree—and compete—at the University of Colorado at Boulder. During his undergraduate years, he skied competitively and successfully for more than five years—“Mostly on my dad’s dime,” he admits. Afterwards, and a bit guiltily, Thomas decided to return to Minneapolis to focus on a course of action that could better lead to a career. As the youngest son of a pediatrician father, Thomas also was blessed with a facility for chemistry and biology. “It was sort of assumed that one day, I’d come in from skiing and wind up a physician,” he says. “I had skied like crap at the ’88 Olympic Trials and I had had to beg the race directors to attend them anyway. So I had to find something else.”
A job at the University of Minnesota Hospital shattered that dream. Medicine was not for him. In a frank and succinct manner, Thomas says, simply, “I was not dedicated enough to fake it. And when you’re dealing with a sixteen-year-old dying from leukemia, you better not be faking it.”
With six credits left to graduate with a degree in physiology, he packed his motorcycle with a few things and headed back to Boulder. What he’d do once he got back to Boulder, he was unsure. But he knew where he wanted to do it: where it was high and clear.
Once he returned to Boulder, Thomas Dooley answered an ad for a company that specialized in catalogs for bicycle makers and bike shops. Besides cross-country skiing, biking had always been one of Thomas’s greatest passions. He was invited to interview and impressed his future boss with either his insouciance or sheer audacity. Thomas got the job. A career in advertising, design and marketing was born. In 1989, a little more than a year later, he quit and promptly started tda. Humbly.
Jonathan Schoenberg is tda’s creative director and co-owner. He’s also its gregarious better half. What Dooley lacks in volubility and loquaciousness, Schoenberg more than compensates. He seems to approach life, and strangers, with one weapon: the hug. Like his long-time friend and business partner, Schoenberg too, chose where he wanted to live before he chose what he wanted to do with his life. The where was anywhere he could bike or fish. A lifelong love of open spaces and outdoor activity drove him West. But his life began on the Upper East Side, New York City.
His father was a prominent psychiatrist and professor at Columbia; his mother an accomplished equestrian and sculptor. Young Jonathan grew up amid intelligence and culture in Manhattan. But even as a child, his love of sports and the outdoors was his greatest interest, even leading him once to consider a career raising cattle.
After graduating from Hobart College in Geneva, New York, Schoenberg worked on several horse farms and in an apple orchard. Schoenberg began taking graduate courses in creative writing at Columbia but after a year accepted a creative assistant position at Wells Rich Greene, where he discovered a potential career in advertising. Then he quickly got fired, but the experience led to other chances, and several months later he ended up getting his first job as a copywriter at Mad Dogs & Englishmen.
Schoenberg also displayed a knack for the “Geography Lessons” of the ad culture, the knowledge of the who’s and the where’s of the business and its colorful personalities. It led him to interesting opportunities, and new friendships. A friend at Mad Dogs & Englishmen, who had recently left Fallon, put him in touch with Arty Tan.
While at Fallon, Arty had established himself as one of the best art directors in the country and had taken a job as associate creative director at an advertising agency in Denver. In 1996, a few months after taking the job in Denver, he asked Jonathan to join him. Schoenberg left New York’s concrete canyons for Colorado’s real ones but—to his surprise—the company tanked just two months later. Schoenberg was left where he wanted to be (near the Rockies), but without the means to stay there. So he hung out in the Steamboat Springs area skiing with his friend Tan while he weighed his options.
During this ski-filled period of under-employment, Jonathan met Thomas Dooley who asked him to stay for a few weeks of freelance work. They clicked: he stayed for seven months. But when his girlfriend (and future wife) Megan wished to pursue a Masters in social work at Columbia University, Jonathan had to bid Dooley and Boulder farewell. He would return two years later—as a partner.
WORK TO LIVE
According to Dooley, Jonathan’s return to the agency in 1998 created an opportunity to establish a new direction for tda. Schoenberg’s skills and interests complemented his own, making for not only a sound friendship, but also a balanced business partnership. “Schoenie’s [Jonathan] presence enabled me to grow into new roles and relinquish tasks and obligations that to me had become repetitive or unappealing. For example, before I was the guy who did all the talking. But I don’t necessarily like to talk too much. Now Schoenie does a lot of the talking and I can focus on things that make me productive and happy.
“My emergence in the Denver-Boulder advertising world was always a bit accidental,” Dooley continues. “I was trained neither as a graphic artist nor as an art director. But when I discovered graphic design, I became obsessed by it. I learned in bookstores what I missed out on at school. I was also driven by the fact that I had a new daughter to support as well, and there was no going back to school. I learned by doing, and improved through practice.
“Our partnership is successful because we are so different. Before we moved to Boulder, we were nearby in Longmont, a small, out of the way town. We were doing interesting work, and winning attention but we were an enigma. I liked that in some ways. But like anything else it became old. I needed someone to come in and help me take it to a different place.”
Enter Jonathan Schoenberg to up the ante with dialogue and script-writing skills, experience in broadcast advertising and the Gift of Gab. “Where Thomas stops, I start—and vice versa,” he says. “He is articulate and intelligent and reserves his opinions for the right moment. I enjoy engaging people in conversation and drawing people out. We are alike in many ways and different in others. I look upon our partnership as a happy marriage: it is sacred, respectful and forgiving. We don’t always agree, but we always have to respect each other’s opinions and space.”
While tda made its early fame and fortune as a Boulder agency that specialized in bikes and other sports equipment, it has grown beyond that. “We hated it when people pigeon-holed us,” Dooley says flatly. “We do a lot more than just ride bikes. We also snowboard.”
And they have proven it, with an admirable roster of clients that include Chipotle Mexican Grill, Thule, Fox Racing Shox, Crocs Footwear, Vail, the Denver Nuggets, SmartWool, Sketch Up Software, Titus Bikes, General Electric, Bliss Ice Cream and Cloudveil. The work is nearly universally funny and irreverent with a kid “borrowing” grandpa’s oxygen to pump up his bike tires for Thule Car Rack Systems or the fly-fisherman casting his “first cast” in a public fountain in Manhattan. When the work isn’t funny, it’s quietly subversive, such as their simple print campaign for the simple, cheap and wildly-popular Croc shoes featuring “ugly” things turned “beautiful.”
What links Thomas and Jonathan as friends, links their work: interests and passions fuel their work and provide keen insights into what they think will appeal to the buyers of racks, brakes, shoes, burritos, tickets, ice cream, sushi or mountain climbing shirts. For whatever they really are, admen or mountain enthusiasts posing as admen, one thing is certain: these guys will not be creating ads for products they will not buy and use themselves—or on their children. (Dooley has three children: Erin, seventeen, from a previous relationship, plus Jack, eight, and Max, five, both with wife, Shigemi, of whom he says, “Without her I wouldn’t be good at anything.” Jonathan and Megan have two children, Cole, five, and Quinn, two.)
Meanwhile, back at the corner of 15th and Pearl, there are those views—those fabulous, beckoning, eye-popping views. Everyone on the creative team has a desk pushed right up against the window so they can enjoy them. Everyone, that is, except Thomas and Jonathan. They have other strategies for taking it in.
In the final moments of my brief visit, as this tourist was preparing to get into a rental car and drive 75 miles south to the Denver airport and off to reality, Thomas Dooley was getting ready for his version of the Boulder “six-pack lunch break”: a bike ride from the office to Ward, 17 miles northwest and 3,500 feet up and back.
It is such distances, perspectives and challenges that separate the man who lives for advertising from the man who does ads in order to live. Dooley, Schoenberg and their colleagues at tda are very good at both. That’s fresh air. ca