Profiles in Mean: Peter Arnell

I’ve put countless hours of academic research into what makes entrepreneurs tick, so believe me when I tell you that it can be heady stuff. But examining the behavior of real people is always a more interesting way to explore theoretical constructs than data alone, so let’s take a look at a real life example of an entrepreneur gone bad. Legendary advertising impresario Peter Arnell is widely known for being the boss from Hell. One former employee I spoke to—who wished to remain anonymous—described an incident in which one of Arnell's male personal assistants was forced to sit under a desk as punishment during a meeting. At this point, Arnell is as famous for his horrific behavior as he is for his work.

“He has this remarkable capacity to be both the most intoxicating character – lovable, brilliant, seductively intellectual – and then turn on a dime and be staggeringly cruel,” a former business associate recalled in a 2009 Newsweek feature on him.  Arnell humiliated employees, he said, by making them get down and do push-ups in front of clients. “He is unencumbered by any sense of morality, until you experience it first-hand, it’s just completely and utterly unfathomable.”

So how did Peter Arnell get this way? What drives this crazy behavior?

Arnell’s early life story is a classic tale of struggle, perseverance, and reinvention. Arnell grew up in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. His father, a mechanical engineer who changed the family name from Abramovitz to Arnell, abandoned the family when Peter was young. His mother was unable to cope with caring for him and his sister, and so the two were raised by her father, a Russian Jewish immigrant who worked as a fishmonger, and his wife. Arnell was profoundly influenced by his grandfather’s strong work ethic, and would sometimes rise at dawn to work with him at Manhattan’s Fulton Fish Market. In 1976 Arnell graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School, marking the end of his formal education. Soon after, he met postmodernist architect Michael Graves at a lecture and talked his way into an internship with him. It was at Graves’ studio that he met Princeton architecture student Ted Bickford and started collaborating with him on books about artists and architects. In the early 1980s, then fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman, Dawn Mello, hired the duo to create ads for the legendary department store.

The budding design team got their big break when fashion designer Donna Karan asked them to create an ad for her; they would later go on to design her iconic DKNY logo. By the mid-1980s, the Arnell-Bickford agency was on a roll, with clients that included Bank of America, Chanel, Condé Nast, and Tommy Hilfiger. Arnell, still in his late 20s, acquired an 8,000 square-foot penthouse in Tribeca and an estate in tony Katonah, NY.

Yet even as Arnell’s star rose, stories began to circulate about his volatile temper and misogynistic attitude toward women. The harsh reality of working for Arnell was exposed in detail by a sexual harassment suit brought against him by four former assistants in the 1990s. The suit accused Arnell of verbally abusing plaintiffs during “fits of rage” simply for being women, letting off strings of expletives and degrading them for the benefit of the male employees present. He would frequently use foul and abusive language to reduce office workers—particularly women—to tears for the way they took a message, phrased a question, or cleaned the top of his desk.

His lawyer gave up even trying to defend her client’s behavior and could only claim that the actions were “not illegal.” She cited in her motion “the right to free speech” in responding to the plaintiffs’ defamation and emotional distress claims. The essence of Arnell’s defense:  “As case law demonstrates, words like ‘stupid,’ ‘useless,’ ‘worthless,’ and ‘incompetent’ constitute non-actionable, protected opinions.” The suit was eventually settled out of court.

Meanwhile, a feature article during the summer of 1996 in American Photo magazine about one of his campaigns captured an exchange in which Arnell berated his staff for their work. The reporter wrote that Arnell said his outburst was ''a good opportunity to spread a little healthy fear among the crew.''

In 2007, when Arnell made Gawker’s list of “New York’s Worst Bosses”, one employee was moved to defend the man: "It's all true. Arnell is a difficult boss as well as a sadist with a lower case, sans serif ‘s.’ He's also a crude bully, a terrible coward and famously insincere. But, in his favor, when he's not pretending to kiss the ass of the insipid rich, famous and powerful, he shows a refreshing contempt for authority and takes an anarchistic delight in creative destruction. His saving grace is that the man is ultimately an aesthete. Of his many fetishes, his love of beauty has compelled him to create some of the most beautiful advertising work in the last twenty years."

This quote perfectly encapsulates the dichotomy that so many mean entrepreneurs embody: they are at once inspiring and unbearable. It’s worth mentioning, however, that the comments on the Gawker piece are a litany of Arnell legends not fit to print.

Arnell’s career hit major turbulence in the 2000s after widely derided design work on the Tropicana and Pepsi brands and later, a fallout with Omnicom, the company that acquired his advertising firm in 2001. Despite his setbacks, we certainly haven’t heard the last of Arnell; he was reported to be back working with GNC in 2013, and last year Frank Gehry curated a splashy retrospective of his work.

So why does someone as successful as Arnell behave so abusively toward his staff? And why, despite widespread stories of his unconscionable behavior, does he have such staying power?