A Meditation on Ken Giddon at 60
Ken Giddon is turning 60 years old today. Da fuq?
Ken Giddon is like a brother to me and at nearly twenty years my senior, probably more like a half brother from a parent’s first marriage.
People think we’re related because my last name’s Rothman, which was Ken’s maternal grandfather Harry’s last name, and as everyone knows, the name of Ken’s store. We even have a similar oblong face, and I’m sure if you 23andMe’d us you’d find that our people came from nearby shtetls, subsisting off the same cabbage and complaining about the Cossacks.
We also both went to Brown, have an abiding commitment to fitness and care deeply about family and community.
The universe first put me in touch with Ken back in 1993. My dad happened to be in Union Square and saw one of the Art Deco-y Rothman’s Man posters, which were part of a campaign that Ken personally designed, years before Dos Equis rolled out its Most Interesting Man:
The Rothman’s Man
Can do 4,000 sit-ups
Has sold 19 screenplays
And has never had a cavity
My dad bought the poster as a Bar Mitzvah gift, knowing that at 13 I showed an early interest in working out, screenwriting and — knock on wood — had not yet gotten a cavity. It’s a timeless poster and it adorned my wall in junior high school, high school, my dorms in college and first apartments in New York.
It wasn’t until 2006 that I finally connected with Ken. We didn’t actually “connect”, I spammed him. Aggressively. I had just started building Thrillist and we were looking for our first advertiser. We had maybe 5,000 subscribers on our New York email list, including, randomly, the playwright Tony Kushner, and I thought, well, maybe an independent men’s retailer made a good sales prospect. My pitch was essentially “MY NAME IS ROTHMAN TOO!” and probably made reference to Ken’s poster being on my wall, sounding like a Donny Osmond fangirl.
I followed up my barrage of unsolicited emails with cold calls, eventually getting Ken to pick up and at least committing to talking if I called back “in a month”. It felt like progress. I lived in the neighborhood and even began cold “showing up” at the office, back when he was on Union Square, eventually getting him to give me an audience for 7 minutes.
He beheld me with a mix of fascination and amusement. Who would want his business that badly? Little did he know that this kind of heedless flinging was a strategy I employed on pretty much every advertising prospect as well as prospective dates, such was the sophisticated operation I ran at the time. He connected with the idea of Thrillist and the fact that we had gone to the same school and perhaps that was enough to get him to commit to a test — $5,000 for a single dedicated email, and best of all, his Rothman’s Man ads would also run digitally on our newsletter. I must have kicked my heels coming out of the store that day.
I proceeded to call and text all of my New York friends to get them to physically print the Rothman’s email and demand they bring it to the store to buy a suit. Apparently the effort worked because a few days later Ken emailed to say, I don’t know who you guys are but this was one of the most effective ads I’ve ever run.
From there the relationship loosened. I became a regular customer. One of his relatives became our head of communications at Thrillist. I helped advise his daughter Amanda on internship prospects, eventually she became one of my first employees at my next company and to this day was one of the best people I’ve ever hired.
Ken published some of my articles in his Rothman’s magazine. He even featured me in one of his ad campaigns, which several friends found on a bus shelter and promptly defaced.
As a founder of New York Cares and general macher of the New York non-profit scene, Ken eventually joined me as a fellow board member in a turnaround effort of a non-profit dedicated to providing low-income men with workplace appropriate clothing.
Ken later introduced me to one of my best friends, and fittingly, I brought that guy to Ken to get fitted for his wedding years later.
Rothman’s the store is like the locus of so many pivotal moments of my personal and professional life, like the set piece of a TV series charting my experience as an adult in New York. I’d go to Ken on the eve of a big life event — a wedding, an important presentation, a big date — and he’d know exactly what to get me, providing not just the right clothes but the vote of confidence to make sure that I could seize whatever it was I was striving for.
Rothman’s has the camaraderie of a barbershop. At its finest moments you’d have a group of strangers meandering in and out of group conversations with Ken making connections between people while sizing them up and pulling product off the racks.
That ability to emcee is a quiet power especially when you consider the politicos and business leaders that frequent his store. A quiet power he’s wielding more vocally now on behalf of small business owners across the city. We need to make sure Ken’s concerns are heard because he’s speaking for all of us.
As we think about current events, a friend told me recently that the word “apocalypse”, often invoked these days, in its original Greek apokaluptein actually means “uncover” or “reveal”. This “retail apocalypse” that we’re living in has shown Ken for who he is — poised, compassionate and adaptable to the moment.
One of the dominant memes from the last several months are slides from Cuomo press conferences reminding people what day it is. Well if Ken is 60 today, then time truly no longer has meaning.
Happy birthday big bro.