“A lot of big companies try to BS you, but we don’t do that”: An interview with Alec Brownstein ’99, Creative Director of Dollar Shave Club

Alec Brownstein ’99 at the Dollar Shave Club – courtesy of Friday Coffee Meet-Up.

Alec Brownstein serves Dollar Shave Club’s creative director. He graduated from Haverford in 1999 and attended Tufts University for his undergraduate degree. After college, he got an internship at an advertising agency. It was there he realized that he wanted to work on the creative side of marketing. 

     When he wanted to get a job at a top advertising agency, rather than doing it the conventional way and submitting an application for the job, Alec bought $6 of internet ad space. The advertisements worked so that whenever top advertising creative directors Googled themselves, the first result would say, “Googling yourself is a lot of fun. Hiring me is fun, too” with a link to Alec’s website. This type of creative approach to getting a job showed the agencies just how skilled and resourceful he was, without even going in for an interview. In the end, Alec got the job he wanted, and the ‘Google Job Experiment’ became a news story, with CNN, NPR, CBS, and The Huffington Post covering the story. On top of that, Alec made a one-minute-long Youtube video that described how he got the job, accumulating over 1.3 million views. 

     After working for multiple agencies and startups, Alec used his powerful creativity and productivity as he joined fellow Haverford graduate and founder of Dollar Shave Club, Michael Dubin ’97, to direct Dollar Shave Club’s brand. Since then, he has helped produce nearly every piece of the company’s marketing, and he has used the values he learned at Haverford to guide his approach to making advertisements. Brownstein believes that his ads should be honest, and he believes that he should identify a real problem rather than trying to trick a customer into buying a product. Using this virtue of honesty, Alec has led Dollar Shave Club to immense success, while at the same time producing some of the funniest and most down-to-earth ads of any major company. 

This phone conversation was recorded on March 18. It has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Q: How has Dollar Shave Club been dealing with the Coronavirus?

A: We’ve been working from home since Friday of last week [March 11]. And what’s good about it is that because of all the different video conferencing technologies, we’re still able to go to meetings and dial into conference calls and stuff like that, so we’ve been trying our best to keep it business as usual. 

Q: Have you been talking about how the pandemic is going to affect your business?

A: A little bit. We’re an alternative to going to the store, so it’s possible that more people will buy stuff from us online to have it delivered. But, we’re still so early in this whole thing that it’s kind of unclear what’s going to happen and how people are going to react.

Q: How long did you go to Haverford?

A: I went from Kindergarten to twelfth grade. 

Q: What was your experience like at Haverford?

A: I loved it. I guess I didn’t know any different because I went there for my entire school life. It’s a completely different place now. I come back and I see everything is new, everything has been rebuilt, it’s just incredible. 

Q: How is it different now? 

A: When I was there, a lot of the facilities had been somewhat unchanged since like the 1960’s, and so it had this weird throwback-type vibe to a lot of it. And, while I was there, we got computers and had computer class and stuff like that. 

Q: Do you think Haverford prepared you for the rest of your life?

A: I remember when I got to college, it was really easy compared to Haverford. And I remember being surprised by how Haverford just prepared me so well for college that it actually felt ridiculously easy. And then, some of my best friends from Haverford are still my friends, who I’ve been close to since sixth grade. One of my close friends, I’ve been close to since Kindergarten, so you definitely make friends for life. 

Q: How did you decide what you wanted to do as a career? Did you know when you were in high school or college, or did you find out later?

A: To be honest, I kind of fell into my career. I didn’t really know much about my field, and I got an internship after college working in the creative side of advertising as a copywriter. It was certainly not what I was expecting to do while I was at Haverford. I didn’t even know that a career like that existed. 

Q: How did you end up at Dollar Shave Club?

A: Well, I kind of fell into the advertising world after an internship, and then I worked at advertising agencies in New York for a while, and then I started to work with startups. Then I started to work with Dollar Shave Club right when they were launching. 

Q: Did you know Michael Dubin at Haverford?

A: I did. He was a couple years older than me, but we were friendly. We were in a play together too, actually. 

Q: Did you do the plays at Haverford?

A: I did a few plays. The one I was in with Mike Dubin was Lord of the Flies, which was my ninth grade year.

Q: Who do you think was the most impactful teacher at Haverford for you?

A: My fifth grade english teacher is a guy by the name of Mr. Duffany. That dude was amazing. He was so intense. Everybody was so afraid of him. He just drilled grammar into your brain. Everybody came out of there knowing how to write. 

Q: Over the years, you have created an extraordinary amount of projects, like the Google Job experiment. Many people have good ideas, but few actually have the courage or persistence to follow through with them. What enabled you to be so productive with these projects?

A: I think that my best recommendation is to not wait for “perfect.” Don’t be afraid to fail. Just go make something. and if it does well, great, and if it doesn’t, move on and make the next thing. So, being willing to just take chances is key. And, don’t wait for permission to do it, just do it. 

Q: How did you adopt that philosophy?

A: You know, I think that what happened was I was working at an ad agency, and when you work at different jobs, you don’t always get to do exactly the thing you want to do; you sort of do the thing that the company needs. But, I realized that there were things I wanted to do that weren’t necessarily part of what I was being asked to do. So, on the side, I started to do the things that I wanted to do, that I wanted my job to be. And then, one project led to the next.

Q: Did you ever have a project that didn’t work out?

A: Yeah, I’ve had lots of them. Some stuff I’ve filmed and it never made it to an edit. I’ve done so many things that haven’t worked out that I just forget about them because you just kind of move on to the next one. 

Q: When a project doesn’t work out, how do you deal with it?

A: You don’t dwell on it. Because, again, it’s about how many different swings you can take. Like, you can’t be in love with every single idea, you’ve gotta be willing to let it go. If something works, great, and if it doesn’t, let it go.

Q: How did you get the idea for the Google Job Experiment?

A: I had the idea, again because I was working at an agency, but I wanted to work at a different agency for different creative directors. But, the problem is, when you want something like that, you’re not the only one who wants it. So, you kind of have to ask yourself: how do I break through and how do I get noticed by the people that I want to notice me? And so I was Googling myself, which I feel everybody should do, but not everybody admits to. And I realized that there were no ads triggered by searching for my name. And I realized that if someone were to put ads above my name, I’d notice them. So that’s why I bought the names of the creative directors that I wanted to work for as search terms, and they all saw it. 

Q: That just seems so inventive to me. What do you think the key to creativity is?

A: To me, it’s like the question of, “why not?” There’s so many rules and there’s so many things that you’re supposed to do. But, if you’re constantly asking, “Why not this? Why not that? What if this? What if that?” you can sort of get to a place where you can actually start coming up with different ideas that maybe someone else hasn’t thought of yet. 

Q: For Dollar Shave Club, your ads are some of the funniest ads, and they are always genuinely relatable. It never feels like some big corporation is trying to sell me something that I really don’t need. How have you approached making ads for Dollar Shave Club?

A: Well, thanks for saying that. The first thing that we always do is we always have to be truthful. A lot of big companies try to BS you, and try to convince you to buy their thing, or try to fool you, or trick you, but we don’t do that. We believe in telling the truth. So, we start with something that’s true, and then we go from there. So, if something’s true, if there’s a problem, it’s a real problem, we move out from that point. So, it has to start from a real problem, or else it’s not true. 

Q: When you look back on your time at Haverford, what would be your number-one piece of advice to your high school self?

A: You know what, don’t take it all too seriously. Stressing over a test, or what grade you got, or colleges, or girls, or all the things that kids in school stress about. You need to just kind of take a deep breath and recognize that none of these things are the end of the world, and try to enjoy yourself.