Columbia’s Chernoff publishes memoir of his life and ad agency

jwilkinson@thestate.comMay 1, 2014 

  • Unlikely Success

    The memoir of Marvin Chernoff, a former political consultant who founded Columbia’s Chernoff/Silver advertising agency, is now on sale.

    Where: and

    Cost: $15

— Coming Sunday

In 1967, Marvin Chernoff was living in Cleveland, Ohio, selling a new device called a “calculator.” At three pounds and the size of a laptop, the calculator – which sold for $795 – could far outpace the mechanical machines used at the time.

Chernoff had no political experience, but was moved by the unfolding civil rights movement. So the salesman volunteered for the campaign of Carl Stokes, who was running to become the first black mayor of a major American city.

Martin Luther King Jr. campaigned for Stokes, and Chernoff, using his instincts and the new calculator, was able to help organize street captains and crunch election returns. Stokes won the election by a slim margin and the famed civil rights leader personally thanked Chernoff for his help. Stokes in his autobiography called Chernoff’s efforts “a remarkable performance.”

“I enjoyed it,” said Chernoff, who would leave sales for full-time political consulting and later found the Chernoff/Silver advertising agency in Columbia, one of the Southeast’s most successful.

Chernoff, now retired and battling throat cancer, has included this story and many others in his self-published memoir, “Unlikely Success: How a Guy Without a Clue Built One Hell of a Business.” It sells for $15.

The book chronicles Chernoff’s rise from the tenements of Brooklyn during World War II, to managing the gubernatorial campaign of rising star Bill Clinton (and being fired by Hillary Clinton and replaced by Dick Morris), to landing a $30 million contract with Shell Oil. In between, he was a humanitarian, a benefactor of the arts, a backer of numerous social causes and recipient of the Order of the Palmetto, South Carolina’s highest civilian award – all without the benefit of a college education.

Before his retirement, Chernoff/Silver had $80 million in capitalized billings and nearly 100 employees. The unorthodox, sometimes outrageous staff used musical comedies for public relations, baked a world-record-breaking cake, spun off future advertising executives and did it with pets in the lobby of their innovative Gervais Street headquarters and kids in an office nursery.

“Marvin has captured a very special period of 30 years in both our lives,” his business partner, Rick Silver, said. “It also captures some of the special things we were able to do and the special people we were privileged to work with. We were both very blessed with the issues we were involved in and the impact that has made.”

Chernoff’s life was filled with new beginnings – uncharted ventures that required innovation and instinct, from Miami cab driver to managing the pivotal 1974 gubernatorial campaign of Charles “Pug” Ravenel to being a leader in the campaign to remove the Confederate flag from the State House dome. Chernoff refers to his journey as “having more jobs than Kung Fu,” the protagonist of the 1970s television show who had a different job in every episode.

“Reading about Marvin’s career would inspire anyone who is just starting out or changing careers,” said Richard Riley, former South Carolina governor and U.S. Secretary of Education. “His is a story of making the most of situations he found himself in, not only for himself but for the people around him and for his community.”

Even writing the book was a new venture for the 81-year-old Chernoff.

“Writing it was hard,” he said. “I had a lot of people editing it, and a lot of memories around the dinner table. But it was a great gift to me. I found out what my life was really about. Events happen when you are living through them and they are just events. You sometimes don’t realize they are achievements. I learned a lot about myself.”

Chernoff finished the book after undergoing a 14-hour surgery for throat cancer and a brutal two-month recovery in the hospital. The surgery was not completely successfully. Chernoff has chosen not to undergo chemotherapy or radiation treatments.

“It was a quality of life decision,” he said.

The book is available through and at its website,

Chernoff said he hopes that his story will motivate people to live their lives fully, take chances and follow their hearts.

“I hope it can influence people who have businesses to run them more openly,” he said, “for people to not be afraid to make changes in their lives. Also to do what my mother said: Don’t envy what other people have; appreciate what you have.”

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