TikTok challenges, retargeting ads, GDPR, crypto, and cookies? Is this the advertising business that we inhabit today? It feels foreign and disorienting. It’s not that the pace of change is too great. It’s that we refuse to pause and assess the value of the shiny new digital objects. At the same time, the fundamentals of the business are absent in way too many instances today, and to be successful as a marketer, they must never be absent. Clients spend millions of dollars with agencies to grow their audiences and ultimately generate more sales. To help them achieve their ends, we must know and practice the fundamentals, speak the same industry language, and agree upon what success looks like.
Learn from the Best, Learn from the Legends
My desire to fill the knowledge gap for advertising students and working professionals led me to research the careers of legendary advertising professionals. Ultimately, I chose 13 individuals to focus on. Identifying their signature achievements, then stepping back to see the relationships between their thinking and doing, has helped me immensely in my own ad industry journey. I hope that the information I’ve gathered here also helps you with yours.
Helen Lansdowne Resor introduced sex appeal to advertising along with ads that spoke directly to women. She also placed an emphasis on art direction and hiring fine artists to help make ads. Lansdowne Resor hired many women in executive positions and she helped run the largest ad agency in the U.S. for several decades.
Leo Burnett worked as a reporter in Peoria, Il before joining GM, where he edited a publication for Cadillac dealers called Cadillac Clearing House. He eventually left GM to join Homer McKee, an agency in Indianapolis. On August 5, 1935, during the depths of The Great Depression, Leo Burnett (who was 42 years old at the time) opened the Leo Burnett Company in Chicago. The agency started with eight creatives and $12,000, which Burnett raised by selling his house and hocking his insurance policies. He and his agency went on to elevate brand storytelling to an unforeseen height, creating beloved brand characters for packaged goods brands like The Jolly Green Giant, Charlie the Tuna, and Tony the Tiger.
Raymond Rubicam was an innovative and persuasive man. He decided at the birth of Young & Rubicam that the writer, art director, researcher, merchandiser, and production expert would all be equal to the account executive. Y&R was also the first ad agency to adopt profit-sharing, the first to use comic strips as a medium for advertising, the first to use scientific telephone sampling, and the first to test audiences to measure the success of commercials and advertisements.
Rosser Reeves invented the Unique Selling Proposition (USP), and advanced “Reason Why” advertising. His “Melts in your mouth, not in your hands” campaign for M&M’s is the perfect expression of these frameworks at work. Reeves helped elect President Eisenhower twice, and in 1961 published a best-selling book, Reality In Advertising.
David Ogilvy is one of the towering legends of the ad business. He invented the Hathaway Man for Hathaway Shirts and Commander Edward Whitehead for Schweppe’s—two brand characters that humanized the companies and made them more interesting than they might otherwise be. Ogilvy wrote the bestselling Confessions of an Advertising Man, and then followed it up with Ogilvy on Advertising. Both books continue to be widely read by students and practitioners today and are considered classics.
Bill Bernbach lead the 1960s Creative Revolution and changed the way advertising was made. He is credited with inventing and promoting the copywriter-art director team…a huge step forward for the agency business. He also hired the most talented (and overlooked) people of his day: Phyllis Robinson was copy chief, Helmut Krone, and George Lois were art directors. DDB left room for the reader in their ads. It wasn’t all spelled out, and that triggered something positive in people.
There’s no ‘R’ in DDB, but there may as well be—that how critical Phyllis Robinson’s contribution to the agency was. Robinson was an intelligent writer and an excellent discoverer and nurturer of emerging talent. Ad legend, Mary Wells Lawrence, was one of her many recruits who, like Robinson herself, went on to the Copywriters Hall of Fame.
Mary Wells Lawrence is an advertising icon and shining star. Her “Striptease” campaign for Braniff Airlines resurrected the ailing company. She made many famous ads and her lines continue to resonate in today’s culture. “Flick your Bic” is Mary. “Trust the Midas Touch” is Mary. “I love NY” is Mary. So is, “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.” She was the youngest person ever inducted into the Copywriters Hall of Fame at the age of 40.
Hal Riney was a journalist who became an art director. His ability to tell captivating stories helped elect Ronald Reagan, introduce GM’s new Saturn line, and convince Americans that Bartes & James were real people and that their wine coolers were good drinking.
Howard Luck Gossage was an interesting man with a small but mighty ad agency in a converted San Francisco firehouse. He was friends with Buckminster Fuller, Tom Wolfe, and other big thinkers. His agency’s work helped to save The Grand Canyon from flooding. Unique among his contemporaries, Gossage saw the benefit of integrating PR into his client’s communications plans. The ads he wrote were usually just the starting point for a campaign message that would then be amplified by the press, television and radio, and any number of different media. He called it his ‘ad platform technique’.
Lester Wunderman was known as the father of direct marketing. In 1958—his new agency’s first year of existence)—Wunderman was responsible for the research, business development plan, and launching of the American Express Card. he instinctively knew how to reach people and how to move them. Like ad legends David Ogilvy and Rosser Reeves, Wunderman believed in sales first and foremost and he found new and innovative ways to use brand communications to deliver them at scale.
Tom Burrell was the first black person to work in the advertising agency business in the city of Chicago. His first job was in the mailroom at Wade Advertising. He wore a suit to work every day because he wanted to signal that he belonged at the agency but not in the mailroom. It worked. He became a copywriter at Wade, before moving on to Leo Burnett, Foote, Cone & Belding, and Needham, Harper & Steers. He launched Burrell McBain Advertising in 1971. Burrell then got to work injecting “Positive Realism” into the culture, and with the support of Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, his agency successfully pushed other more harmful images and narratives about black people out of the frame.
Lee Clow brought a critical new “cool factor” to advertising. He proved that a surfer dude could achieve at the highest levels. For Clow, ad campaigns are not just a means to the client’s end. Advertising is an end in itself and a welcome part of popular culture. It was this thinking and his close partnership with Steve Jobs that made Apple’s “Think Different” campaign and “1984” Superbowl spot possible and memorable.
Tom Burrell was born in 1939 and he grew up on Chicago’s South Side. When he entered the advertising agency business in 1961, he was the only black person in the entire city of Chicago working in the field. To say that Burrell is a maverick is too tame. He’s a trailblazer who climbed the highest mountains in American business and then learned to thrive in that thin white air.
Burrell began his career in advertising while still attending Chicago’s Roosevelt University, where he graduated with a B.A. in English. His first job was in the mailroom at Wade Advertising. He wore a suit to work every day because he wanted to signal that he belonged at the agency but not in the mailroom. “My strategy was to look and comport myself as if I didn’t belong in the mailroom,” he said. “I walked around looking like an executive even as I changed the towels in the towel machine and changed the Cokes in the Coke machine and ran errands. That way, when it was time for me to make a move, it didn’t meet with incredulity.”
Burrell quickly worked his way from the mailroom into the position of Junior Copywriter assigned to the agency’s Robin Hood All-Purpose Flour and Alka-Seltzer accounts. He recalls, “I had no contact with the client. It was radical enough for a black person to be working in an agency. Presenting that person to a client was another three or four steps ahead.”
From there, he went on to work as a copywriter at Leo Burnett, Foote, Cone & Belding, and Needham, Harper & Steers before launching Burrell McBain Advertising in 1971.
Burrell’s Black Consciousness
Tom Burrell came of age during the civil rights movement, which was led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The main idea at the time was integration. But Burrell understood that assimilation into the white culture was never the desired end. With the rise of black nationalism and black pride in the late 1960s, the door cracked opened and he began producing ads that were aimed at black people and that incorporated elements of black culture.
Burrell used the power tools that he had in his toolbox. He isn’t an organizer or speech giver. He is a mass communicator seeking to change the public discourse.
“I had to convince clients to understand that black people are not dark-skinned white people,” Burrell explained. “Sometimes when you start talking to people about race and differences, implied in that is some kind of subordination, so I had to convince them that you can be different and equal and that there are cultural differences that should be part of advertising aimed at a black cultural group, such as music.”
When Marlboro Wasn’t the Man
Burrell’s new agency first attracted notice with a national campaign for Marlboro. “Marlboro ads had a line, ‘Come to where the flavor is,’ and it was all about white cowboys – talk about a stretch,” Burrell recalled. “So we chopped off ‘Come to,’ and that referred to the cool way of saying this is where the cultural flavor, the richness, is in the black community. We got rid of the cowboy and we had the coolest guys that we could come up with going through their daily activities, smoking. That was huge.”
Network TV for McDonald’s and Coca-Cola
Replacing the Marlboro Man with urban black men was a big win for Burrell. A win that helped bring McDonald’s and Coca-Cola—two of the world’s largest advertisers—to his agency. Network television ads offered unique visibility and influence to Burrell Communications. A collection of Burrell’s Advertisements for Coca-Cola is now archived at the Library of Congress for its cultural and historical significance.
For McDonald’s, Burrell positioned the company as a safe and inviting place for black people to eat, gather, and work. Maybe that does not sound like much today, but in the early 1970s, it meant a lot. Many public schools in the South were still segregated, along with the rest of American society.
When viewed through today’s cultural lenses, the “Calvin” ad for McD’s may appear condescending. The Coca-Cola ad too could be faulted for trading in one stereotype just to replace it with another. Both ads depict black people chillin’ on the front steps of a Chicago home and on the street corner. In the Coke ad, it’s mostly a good thing. In the McDonald’s ad, which appeared 12 years later, it’s not.
“Calvin,” the hero of the McDonald’s spot is the good citizen who learns responsibility on the job. Even by 1990 standards, it seems like this ad was made to attract some while repelling others. One can also see Burrell’s focus on self-respect and gaining respect for black people in this ad. Nevertheless, when you make a hero of the young man because he has a job at McDonald’s, must you also portray the young men with no such job as somehow less than?
The adman in me says we’re not here to solve societal ills, we’re here to help our clients sell. But, Burrell was on a mission with respect for black people at its core, so why throw shade on the young men with no job? Was it just good advertising, or was it good advertising with a socially conservative message?
Burrell’s work reminds me of Ad Legend Mary Wells Lawrence who made sexy commercials for Braniff Airlines, resurrecting the airline in the process. But her spot, “Airstrip,” would never be made today. Maybe the “Calvin” ad would not be made either. The question for the advertising student is, “How effective were these ads at the time?” The answer is they were incredibly effective. Mary Wells Lawrence gave businessmen a compelling reason to fly. Burrell gave corporate America a lesson in respecting black people while making ads for black people, which increased the visibility of black people in the media in a big way.
And he, like Mary Wells, became rich, famous, and powerful in the process.
Let’s Hear Directly from Tom
Tom Burrell is a fighter and success hasn’t dimmed the fire in his belly. Let’s listen…
In the video above, Burrell talks about “Positive Realism” and how his agency used it to depict real scenes from black peoples’ lives. He also says he was a pretty good cultural anthropologist. To prove it, he says, “In the black community, McDonald’s was a feeding station. We had no dinner time ritual. So there was no big bump at 6:00 p.m.”
Burrell also says, “There’s no such thing as the general market. If you’re not targeting, you’re not marketing.” Ad Legends, David Ogilvy, Rosser Reeves, and Lester Wunderman would all wholeheartedly agree.
He’s Motivated, Intelligent, and Fierce
Tom Burrell’s father asked him, “What makes you think you can go to college?” When Burrell was in college a well-meaning professor asked him, “What makes you think you can get into the advertising business?” Burrell was highly motivated to prove his father and the professor wrong, and he was clearly up to the challenge.
What else was driving him to climb the ad industry mountain? “My primary interest was not in advertising, Burrell says. “My interest was in persuasive communications, and the psychology of it. All the major institutions are about persuasive communications. Whether you’re talking about government, religion, or higher education. Of those, advertising is the purest form of persuasive communications because it makes less pretense about what its purpose is.”
In describing the industry, Burrell could be describing himself, for there are zero pretenses about this man and no confusion at all about his primary objectives in life. He’s about uplift for himself and the many people who have worked with him and for him, and also for the millions of people in the audience that he and his team were able to reach.
Tom Burrell’s Amazing Legacy
After “re-wiring” in 2004, Burrell became an author and lecturer focusing on media, pop culture, social sciences, and American history. His book, Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority, continues to spark lively conversation on the powerful role media messaging plays in affecting race-related attitudes and behavior.
Here’s ABC-7 in Chicago just last year, looking back on the man’s incredible legacy.
Burrell also founded the nonprofit Resolution Project to “challenge and reverse ongoing mass media stereotypes and negative race-based conditioning.” Facing centuries of oppression plus a modern onslaught of negative portrayals of black people in media, Burrell battled ignorance and lethargy and he won.
He found inspiration in the Black Power movement and used this inspiration to fuel his dream. As an adman, Burrell understood the power of images to shape culture and opinions. He also realized the depth and size of the African-American market. At the same time, he knew how to convince big brands to target this market with general market TV ads, which not incidentally, also moved the white people in the audience to like the brands more.
It is incredible to realize how much Tom Burrell achieved. Burrell injected “Positive Realism” into the culture, and by so doing, he pushed other more harmful images and narratives about black people out of the frame, while replacing them with strong characters, who are uniquely American and yet collectively bound by the terrible history of slavery and the ongoing legacy of racism.
Burrell also convinced white Americans and the men who run its most powerful companies that they could either learn to respect black people or stand no chance of selling them a damn thing. He is one of the ad industry’s all-time great change agents and most legendary figures.
“Data is an expense – knowledge is a bargain. Collect only data that can become information, which, in turn, can become knowledge. Only knowledge can build on success and minimize failure. A company is no better than what it knows.” —Lester Wunderman, from his book Being Direct
Lester Wunderman was born in Bronx, New York in 1920. His father, a fur manufacturer, died on the cusp of the Great Depression. A gifted student, Wunderman graduated at 16 from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. He dropped out of Brooklyn College after one year to take an office job and help support his family in the Depression.
At 19, he and his brother Irving organized the Coronet Advertising Service. It failed. But in 1942 they fashioned a kind of buy-one-get-one-free offer to work for a single salary for a mail-order agency, Casper Pinkster.
In 1947 when he was 27 years old, Wunderman was hired as a copywriter at Maxwell Sackheim & Co. He went on to rise to vice president at the firm and while working there he introduced a “direct marketing” approach to better service the agency’s clients. His objective was to develop a more personal connection with potential customers than general advertising had previously made possible.
A decade later, intent on expanding the direct marketing approach he developed at Maxwell Sackheim, Wunderman, his brother Irving, along with two colleagues, Ed Ricotta and Harry Kline, combined assets of $60,000 founded their own agency, Wunderman, Ricotta & Kline. The new agency’s first office was a $30-a-night room at the Hotel Winslow in New York City.
The firm opened its doors with a staff of seven. There were no clients. Nevertheless, WR&K attracted more than $2 million in billings during its first year. When Mr. Wunderman retired four decades later, Wunderman Cato Johnson, as the firm was then known, had 69 offices in 39 countries and annual billings that exceeded $1.8 billion.
His Signature Achievements
“The satisfaction of doing something unique, creative, and individual will change you forever.” -Lester Wunderman
Wunderman sent personalized ads to preselected people for products and services that they might actually want to buy, as opposed to the scattershot approach of general advertising for mass audiences. Using ZIP codes and research databases to identify likely customers, his teams reached people at home with mailings, promotional letters, phone calls, and newspaper and magazine inserts. Sales rose dramatically with the help of his breakthrough ideas:
Toll-free telephone numbers for ordering
Postage-paid return cards and envelopes
Loyalty reward programs
Among his signature achievements, in 1958 (his new agency’s first year of existence), Wunderman was responsible for the research, business development plan, and launching of the American Express Card. This is evidence of and an outcome of Wunderman’s concern for the customer. In a world of self-promotion, Wunderman cut hard against the grain. And it worked.
Wunderman helped invent the Columbia Records mail-order business and he helped create the ZIP-code system for the U.S. Post Office. Other advertising legends are known for their brilliant ad campaigns. Lester Wunderman innovated on a much larger scale.
An Injection of New Thinking
Wunderman wrote two books, Frontiers of Direct Marketing and Being Direct: Making Advertising Pay. Being Direct has been translated into many languages, including Mandarin and Japanese. In the book, he describes “19 Things That All Successful Direct Marketing Companies Know.” The second of 19 items in his list is: “The Consumer, Not the Product, Must Be the Hero.” If today’s ad makers can learn anything from Wunderman, let it be this.
It’s interesting that direct mail became known to many as “junk mail.” Interesting because it’s not junk when the offer is highly targeted and creatively presented to an interested buyer.
Lester Wunderman helped regional brands like LL Bean take their wares direct to the consumer in all 50 states and across the world. It wasn’t junk that built his fortune or his clients’, it was his unique ability to get to know the customer well. Wunderman helped transform companies and an entire industry by keeping an eye on the prize—pleasing the customer and increasing his clients’ profits.
Lester Wunderman’s Incredible Legacy
“Those marketers who ignore the implications of our new individualized information society will be left behind in what may well come to be known as the age of mass production and marketing ignorance.”—Lester Wunderman at MIT, November 29, 1967
Lester Wunderman came to the office and worked well into his 90s. He died on January 9, 2019, at the age of 98 in New York. His agency and his legacy live on today as the recently merged and reimagined Wunderman Thompson.
According to his obituary in The New York Times, Wunderman had homes in Manhattan and the South of France, and he was a notable photographer who exhibited at the Metropolitan and other museums and in galleries in the United States and France. With Cornell Capa, he helped found the International Center of Photography in New York.
Like ad legends Mary Wells Lawrence and Hal Riney, Wunderman rose from a humble background to the very top of the ad industry. Like ad legends Raymond Rubicam and Bill Bernbach, he was a Brooklyn kid who instinctively knew how to reach people and how to move them. Like ad legends David Ogilvy and Rosser Reeves, Wunderman believed in sales first and foremost and he found new and innovative ways to use brand communications to deliver them at scale.
Wunderman said that he wouldn’t call Direct Marketing “Direct Marketing” today. If he had a chance to do it over, he’d call it “Personal Advertising.” I love this insight and evolution of the core idea—when you make it about the customer and continue to find better ways to serve their individual needs, you win.
Raymond Rubicam was born on June 16, 1892, in Brooklyn, New York. He was the youngest of eight children. His father—a trade journalist—died of tuberculosis in 1895 and young Raymond was sent to live with his older brothers and sisters. By the age of 15, he was working full-time as a shipping clerk’s helper for $5 per week.
Rubicam liked to read short stories written by O. Henry. The author inspired him to get to know the people of America, so he worked a series of jobs as a bellhop, an usher, a movie projectionist, and a door-to-door salesman. He also wrote about these experiences and used the stories to land a reporter’s job at The Philadelphia Inquirer.
At the age of 19, Rubicam left the reporter’s bullpen and joined the F. Wallis Armstrong Company in Philadelphia as an apprentice copywriter, earning $20/week, which was a marked improvement on the $12/week he was paid by the newspaper. Three years later in 1919, he was able to secure a better position at N.W. Ayer and Son, the largest advertising agency in Philadelphia. Ayer paid him $125/week. To keep him, Ayer soon doubled that.
At Ayer, Rubicam honed his craft and wrote ads for Rolls Royce, Steinway Pianos, and Squibb. Significantly, he also helped John Orr Young, an account man he’d worked with at Armstrong, make the move to Ayer. In the spring of 1923, Young and Rubicam (Y&R) started their own agency in Philadelphia.
The First Creative Revolution
Rubicam’s experience working at Armstrong and Ayer helped him shape his ideas about how to run an ad agency (and how not to run one). At the time, the business was dominated by account men. Young and Rubicam decided at the birth of their agency that the writer, art director, researcher, merchandiser, and production expert would all be equal to the account executive.
Y&R was also one of the first agencies to offer ownership percentages to its employees, and the first to adopt profit sharing.
It’s clear that Rubicam was intent on honoring the makers of the ads. To call his moves and his thinking ‘revolutionary’ is insufficient. He broke the old mold and made a new one. The new model he championed was infused with honesty and integrity, as well as business intelligence. The combination worked wonders.
Research Informs Strategy
The year after Young & Rubicam was founded, it landed General Foods Corporation as a client. When the General Foods clients asked which brand the agency would like to work on, if chosen, Rubicam replied, “Your toughest one.” Y&R got their wish and the agency started making ads for Postum. It wasn’t long before, General Foods added Grape-Nuts, Jell-O, Sanka, and others to the agency’s responsibilities.
Y&R was the first agency to use comic strips as a medium for advertising, creating “Mr. Coffee Nerves” for Postum and “Little Alby” for Grape-Nuts.
In 1926, Y&R moved from Philly to Madison Avenue. In 1932, the firm hired Dr, George H. Gallup away from Northwestern University. With the help of Dr. George Gallup, the agency pioneered new methods of consumer and media research. They were the first agency to use scientific telephone sampling, and the first to test audiences to measure the success of commercials and advertisements.
The Mirror Maker
Raymond Rubicam felt that it was essential to not only know more about the customer but also to say more about the customer.
He believed that an advertisement should mirror the reader. “The way to sell,” he wrote, “is to get read first. The way to get read is to say more about the reader and less about yourself and your product. Mirror the reader to himself, and then show him afterward how your product fits his needs.”
Decades later, ad legends Bill Bernbach and Phyllis Robinson, would perfect this approach. DDB would never have asked drivers to “Think Small” on behalf of Volkswagen had they not clearly recognized the dramatic shift in demographics and consequent beliefs of a car shoppers. In Rubicam’s terms, they mirrored the car buyer to himself, and then showed him afterward how the product fit his needs.
Make Programs that Clients Want to Sponsor
Advertainment. Content marketing. Call it what you will, Rubicam understood that brands don’t just react to the culture, they have an opportunity to drive it. Thus, his agency was one of the first to produce their own programs, which Y&R’s clients and others then sponsored.
Y&R made some of the most popular commercial radio fare of the time—“The Aldrich Family,” “Mystery Theatre,” “Bulldog Drummond,” “Burns and Allen,” “We, the People,” and many more.
While his peers in the agency business were relying on the networks for programming, Raymond Rubicam staffed his agency with writers and production professionals who would imagine and then produce these programs.
Y&R was the first agency to integrate commercials directly into the program. Thanks to the agency’s reliance on research, Rubicam knew what people liked to listen to on the air, including which commercial they preferred.
The Journalist Never Sleeps
Raymond Rubicam was a writer and writers have to write. On top of his work for clients, Rubicam wrote articles for trade magazines about advertising and public affairs. In 1930, he purchased a promotional vehicle from Time, Inc. and turned it into a marketing and advertising journal called Tide.
In 1932, he helped launch Bride’s House, publisher of Bride’s Magazine and Bride’s Reference Book. Rubicam was an owner and director of the media firm for many years. He understood that marketing and media are two sides of one coin—something that I’ve been advocating and practicing for many years.
Raymond Rubicam’s Legacy
Ad Legend, David Ogilvy said Raymond Rubicam was the strongest influence in his life as an advertising man. “You taught me that advertising can sell without being dishonest,” he once told him.
How fitting that one of Rubicam’s earliest campaigns (for Steinway) was a campaign that the piano maker ran for many years. Their piano became known as, “The Instrument of the Immortals,” thanks to Rubicam.
“It is the chosen instrument of the masters and the lovers of immortal music,” Rubicam wrote. That’s brand positioning at its finest. But Rubicam never leaned on just one method to win over customers. He wrote other ads for Steinway about how affordable the piano was.
He was a convincing man and a gifted writer. Raymond Rubicam was also a gentleman and a savvy business person who grew his agency into a dynamo. He showed the way and paved the way for progress throughout his career. His work and thinking continue to inform and ripple through the ad world to this day. The ad industry is a much better place because Raymond Rubicam was in it. He invested his all, took necessary risks, stood up for what was right, and gave back. He’s a legend among legends.
Phyllis Kenner Robinson was born in New York City on Oct. 22, 1921. At age seven she declared her desire to become a poet. A few years later, she updated her ambitions. Unlike her peers, she knew she wanted to write advertisements from an early age.
“I can remember that as a kid I was influenced just by the vitality of some of the retail store advertising that was going on,” she said. When other little girls in P.S. 50 were dreaming of growing up to be Ginger Rogers, I wanted to be Dorothy Parker, and I looked constantly for excuses to write jingles.”
In 1942, Kenner graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in sociology from Barnard College. During World War II, she was a statistician for the federal Public Housing Authority. After the war, she married Richard G, Robinson, a student at Harvard. She also worked on the college newspaper at Barnard, wrote for a society publication called ‘Park East’, and was a reporter at ‘Women’s Wear Daily’ before becoming a copywriter.
It was in Boston in 1946 that Phyllis Robinson first worked for an ad agency. She was hired to write women’s fashion ads by Bresnick & Solomont in Boston. After returning to New York, she joined Grey—where Bill Bernbach was the creative director.
Copy Chief at DDB
When Bill Bernbach and Ned Boyle of Grey jumped ship and formed a new agency with Maxwell Dane in 1949, Bernbach asked Robinson to join Doyle Dane and Bernbach as copy chief. She agreed.
At the newly formed DDB, Robinson partnered with the art director, Bob Gage, and together they produced ads for marketers like Orbach’s department store, Polaroid instant cameras, and Levy’s bread. Working as a creative team was a new construct—one invented and perfected by the creative professionals at DDB.
“Pre-DDB,” Ms. Robinson said in an interview with Adweek in 2000, advertising was “artificial, sleepy and sometimes pretentious and schmaltzy.” Robinson and the DDB crew she managed and inspired helped to chart a new pathway for ad makers. Thanks to their trailblazing contributions to the form, the best ads then and now are endowed with intelligence, and their makers take risks and have fun doing so.
Levy’s Jewish Rye
Levy’s, a Jewish bakery in Brooklyn, hired the newly formed DDB in 1949 to promote its packaged ryes, pumpernickel, and raisin bread. The brand thrived under DDB’s guidance, as the agency expertly expanded the audience for their bread to “New York’s Army of Wonder Bread eaters.”
DDB introduced Americans to a new kind of bread, a new kind of car (Volkswagen), and an entirely new kind of camera. They did so with an emphasis on price, which was a common approach. They also injected sass or attitude into the Polaroid campaigns, which was not common.
Robinson and her DDB colleagues managed to position Polaroid as a low-cost alternative to traditional cameras. They also made ‘The Polaroid’ into a lifestyle choice, and the combination of pedestrian selling tactics with dreamy and youthful lifestyle imagery worked like a charm.
“A lady isn’t dressed unless her legs are too.” It’s one of Ms. Robinson’s most famous advertising lines.
Ad legend, David Ogilvy, defined the Hathaway man in his crisp shirts. Here, Robinson describes the “hip” Chemstrand lady.
Interestingly, she worked with Broadway director Mitch Leigh on the campaign, which led to another collaboration with him on his 1970 musical, Cry for Us All.
Phyllis Robinson’s Legacy
Phyllis Robinson was a discoverer and nurturer of talent. Ad legend, Mary Wells Lawrence, was one of her many recruits who, like Robinson herself, went on to the Copywriters Hall of Fame.
Keith Reinhard of DDB Worldwide, said, “Creators of today’s advertising would also do well to share Phyllis Robinson’s passionate aversion to bombast, hype, and flash. Phyllis herself personified substance and authenticity — Mary Wells said she’d buy a used car from her.”
Advertising is a team sport, and Robinson was an amazing team leader in addition to being a great writer and tastemaker.
In a 1970 interview with Japanese advertising magazine, Idea, Robinson said:
One reason we’ve flourished and prospered is that very early in the game, we started to introduce important new strains − Dave Reider, Helmut Krone, Bill Taubin, Ron Rosenfeld, Bob Levenson, I could go on and on …
If ever there was a group that was not stamped out with a cookie-cutter, it’s the creative people at Doyle Dane Bernbach. Believe me, every one of them is an original, and every new strain that comes in, every crossbreeding of these strains makes for a fresher, healthier creative product, it makes the agency stronger.
On top of all the rest, Phyllis Robinson was humble and hard working. Her teams were relentless and often tough on themselves—tougher than their clients ever were. Like true creators of culture, creatives at DDB during Robinson’s tenure always asked themselves, “Is it good enough?” This attention to detail and their drive to reach higher was complemented by a feeling of immense freedom.
I think we all had, including Bill, the feeling that we were let out of school – you know, no more teachers, no more books – we really felt we had been released from something. Now we could make up our own rules, do what we wanted – a tremendous feeling of freedom, just for starters. We felt free and sprung.
Robinson’s career in advertising was something she dreamed of, then lived. She brought fearlessness forward, was a trailblazing maker and inspiring leader of creative people. Ms. Robinson was the real deal.
Bill Bernbach is the most quoted, most respected, and most beloved advertising man in history. The Jewish kid from Brooklyn changed the score on Madison Avenue, and we continue to thank him for that.
Bernbach graduated from NYU in 1933. After working in the creative department at Grey—where he met Ned Doyle—he formed Doyle Dane Bernbach in 1949.
Bernbach is credited with inventing and promoting the copywriter-art director team…a huge step forward for the agency business. He respected the creative process and demanded that others respect it too. His focus on the creative team and the process of making ads led to many outstanding outcomes.
Bernbach also hired the most talented (and overlooked) people of his day: Phyllis Robinson was copy chief, Helmut Krone, and George Lois were art directors. These Ad Legends invented the modern craft of advertising and no story of the early days at DDB is complete without them.
Bernbach and his team introduced a softer style of advertising, one where the art of persuasion made all the difference. DDB left room for the reader in their ads. It wasn’t all spelled out, and that triggered something positive in people. It also allowed DDB to grow from half a million in billings at its inception to a global powerhouse worth several billion dollars.
DDB’s Big Car Account
In 1951, when DDB won the Volkswagen account, car ads like most ads were busy trying to convince people. Bernbach went another way with VW. Like Leo Burnett, he understood that the answer to the ad riddle is found inside the product or service. Like Rosser Reeves, Bernbach knew he needed a Unique Selling Proposition. Unlike anyone else, Bernbach was bold without being obnoxious, smart without being pretentious, and honest.
This VW ad is a long way from Theodore McManus and his over-wrought ads for Cadillac. This is modernism. As in modern architecture, now we have artistic restraint. What’s not said is as critical as what is said.
Today we recognize “Lemon” and its partner “Think Small” as some of the best ads ever made.
A Case Study in Brand Positioning
DDB found a point of difference for Avis and deftly positioned the company as a harder-working version of Hertz. Harder working and a lot more fun.
I also love the detail in this copy. The ad doesn’t need the bit about finding a pastrami sandwich while traveling, but it’s a much better ad because it’s in there. It’s a better ad because it recognizes human wants and needs.
Bernbach warned against over-reliance on research. He told an audience of advertising executives, “It’s intuition and artistry, not science, that develops effective advertising.”
DDB Helped Elect the President in 1964
This ad for Johnson for President is far from the soft sell of Avis or VW. It shows DDB’s range and also their courage.
Advertising is powerful. American presidents are powerful. Here they come together in one of the most impactful ads of all time. An ad that helped LBJ win the White House in ’64.
Bill Bernbach’s Legacy
Building on David Ogilvy’s belief that the customer isn’t a moron, Bernbach left room for the customer in the ad, room for people to piece it together and figure it out. He advanced a more artful form of advertising. It was not art for art’s sake, because that’s not advertising.
Phyllis Robinson said, “I don’t think Bill set out to make a revolution of or a fortune. The whole idea was creative freedom. His ambitions were only large in terms of room to breathe.”
David Ogilvy literally wrote the books on the advertising industry. He wrote the bestselling Confessions of an Advertising Man, and then followed it up with Ogilvy on Advertising. Both books continue to be widely read by students and practitioners today and are considered classics.
He was a proper Brit, and a restless student who left Oxford University after two years. Ogilvy lived an interesting and full life before he became a copywriter and made it big in the Big Apple, eventually retiring—as ad legends do—to a 12th-century castle in France.
Before he became a copywriter, Ogilvy worked in the kitchen of an elite Paris restaurant, an experience that helped shape his ideas about elevating craft, persistent hard work, and no-nonsense management. He was also a door-to-door salesman and for three years, a farmer in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
He Learned to Sell By Knocking Lots of Doors
Ogilvy’s early work selling Aga Ovens door-to-door played a key role in shaping his later work. Ogilvy wrote a manual for the company, “The Theory and Practice of Selling the Aga Cooker,” which not only helped the company sell many more ovens, it landed David Ogilvy a job as a copywriter at Mather and Crowther in London.
“The good salesman combines the tenacity of a bulldog with the manner of a spaniel. If you have any charm, ooze it,” he advised in the sales manual.
Ogilvy said of his time on the Aga business, “I learned to sell, which means listening more than you talk, knowing your product inside and out, having a sense of humor, and telling the truth.”
These principles played out in Ogilvy’s later work for clients. He was an adherent of the “reason why” school of advertising and close friends with its primary proponent, Rosser Reeves. Ogilvy was also more expansive than that. He took what he could learn from the sales side of things and also what he could learn from people like Raymond Rubicam and Bill Bernbach, who practiced the more subtle art of brand building fueled by image advertising.
Dove Creams Your Skin While You Wash
In this work for Dove soap, we can see the direct influence of Rosser Reeves. In fact, the spot could have been made by Reeves. The Unique Selling Proposition here is that Dove is made with cleansing cream. Ogilvy then repeats the main idea several times, as Reeves would have done.
Enter the Brand Character: The Hathaway Man
Are you familiar with the Hathaway man? Hathaway is both the man and the brand.
Ogilvy veered away from pure “reason why” hard sell advertising here. With the Hathaway man in his crisp shirt, Ogilvy began to champion the Big Idea, along with Bill Bernbach and other key players in the creative revolution. What’s the big idea here in this ad?
Big Idea: Forget what you’ve heard, the shirt does make the man. And the man with the eye patch in a Hathaway shirt is a serious man—a man to be reckoned with (like Ogilvy himself).
In this ad campaign, we have the brand as a conveyor of personal identity. It’s not just about product attributes or functionality, although they do feature prominently in this ad.
In Ogilvy’s binary conception, there were Hathaway men and lesser men. The utter arrogance in this and the subservient position of the woman in the ad shown above are hard not to miss, particularly by today’s standards. Nevertheless, the campaign is an early showcase for the power of brand positioning.
Another Memorable Brand Character: Commander Whitehead
At a time when Leo Burnett was inventing animated brand characters like the Jolly Green Giant and Charlie the Tuna, Ogilvy was busy making fictional characters from real men.
He created another famous brand character for another important client, Schweppe’s. This time it was the bearded mascot, Commander Edward Whitehead, who got people’s attention. Men with beards were not common at the time. Like the man with the eye patch in a crisp Hathaway shirt, Ogilvy successfully used another visual device to entice readers to stop and consider.
He wasn’t the first copywriter to think visually. Like Helen Lansdowne Resor before him, Ogilvy grasped the power of art direction to tell a story.
David Ogilvy’s Legacy
David Ogilvy was a modern man in many senses and a man with an active and fertile curiosity. He was the quintessential ad man.
Ogilvy famously said, “The customer is not a moron, she’s your wife.” I am pretty sure this takeaway came from his door-to-door sales experience. It’s also a great reminder to leave the ivory tower and theory behind, and listen.
David Ogilvy respected the buyer of his client’s products. He was a gentleman first and then a fierce operator who grew his small agency into an international juggernaut worth billions of today’s dollars.
It’s important to note that David Ogilvy did not reach New York or Madison Avenue until he was 38 years old. The agency he built, the best-selling books he wrote, and the piles of money he made all came in the prime of his life. People often believe that advertising is a business for young people. I believe it’s a business for people who can relate to other people, and move other people to act.
Rosser Reeves was a rule-breaker, a gifted writer, a visionary business person, licensed pilot, sailboat racer, chess player, and art collector. He was born in Virginia in 1910 and he wanted to become rich.
Reeves got what he wanted. In 1934, he moved to New York and went to work as a copywriter for a handful of agencies before landing a job at the Ted Bates and Co. in 1940, where he was able to help formulate the agency’s philosophy and “hard sell” and “reason why” approach to making ads.
Reeves was the vice-president and copy chief of Ted Bates and Co. He then became the chairman of the board in 1955. With his leadership, the agency’s fortunes rose on the strength of work for Viceroy, Anacin, Mobil Oil, M&Ms, Colgate, and others.
Rosser Reeves Invented And Perfected The Unique Selling Proposition (USP)
Reeves didn’t become an ad legend by happenstance. He had a plan and he worked his plan to perfection. His clients at Bates all benefitted from Reeve’s insistence on something he called The Unique Selling Proposition, which is still with us today.
In the 1961 best-selling book he wrote, Reality in Advertising, Reeves spells out the selling techniques that he is now famous for. In the book, he explains that The Unique Selling Proposition has three main parts:
Each ad must make a proposition: Buy this product and you get these benefits.
The proposition must be unique—something that your competitors do not, cannot, or will not offer.
The proposition must sell—it must be something prospects really want; it pulls them over to your product.
Reeves’s USP relied on earlier thinking and work by ad legends, John E. Kennedy and Claude Hopkins. Reeves believed that the copy should highlight several product features, but emphasize the one most closely tied to the USP. Once the USP was decided upon, Reeves repeated the main selling line over and over, relying on continuity and simplicity to help shoppers recall the product and its most obvious benefit.
M&Ms Melt In Your Mouth, Not In Your Hands
The most memorable USP Reeves developed was the one for M&M’s. At the time, M&M’s was the first sugar-coated chocolate candy on the market. Reeves wrote, “It melts in your mouth, not in your hands.”
Anacin for Incredibly Fast Relief
Repeating the word “Fast” several times didn’t win over his peers in the ad-making business, but it did make the client a ton of money.
Reeves has this to say to his critics at the time: “You can come at me with all the subjective judgments you want…the artsy-crafty crowd; I have other criteria…a drug company doesn’t spend $86,400,000 unless they’re making money on it. That money was spent on one television commercial. It cost $8200 to produce and it made more money than ‘Gone with the Wind’.”
He Liked Ike
Utilizing USPs, the Bates agency leaped to be the fifth largest advertising agency in the world. Bates also helped to elect President Eisenhower with a series of hard-sell ads, the first of their kind for a presidential candidate.
Rosser Reeves Legacy
Invented the Unique Selling Proposition
Famous for the hard sell and for advancing “Reason Why” advertising
Created M&M’s “Melt’s In Your Mouth, Not In Your Hands”
Rosser Reeves understood that a product had to be different and somehow better than other products of the same type, or there would be no reason for anyone to buy it. We could use much more of this raw honesty today. While his critics maintained that Reeves lacked finesse and style, it’s clear that Reeves had the last laugh. Let’s also give him the last word.
…writers can forget that an advertising campaign is not designed to express their individual ego or talent for entertaining. Rather, it is a functional tool whose purpose is to fully inform the public via maximum projection of the message.
Lee Clow is a living legend, a creative hero, and a guide for many of today’s working professionals. His work will continue to inspire me and many others, including future generations of advertising makers.
Lee Clow retired from TBWA\Chiat\Day in 2018. Ten years before that auspicious moment, I wrote this in these pages: The man surfs and wears flip flops and a long beard to meetings with the world’s most loaded marketers. And he wins them over, time and again.
Lee won the Nissans and Pepsis and Apples of the world over time and again, not because of his unique personal style, rather because of the contents of his mind and quality of his heart.
Lee Clow also used to stand at a large workbench all day. Hemingway did that.
Let’s look at one of Lee Clow’s most famous ads, and one of the most well-respected ads of all time.
The Apple “1984” ad ran during the Super Bowl. At the time, no one had not seen anything like it. The spot was based on George Orwell’s novel and directed by Ridley Scott of Alien and Blade Runner fame.
Apple’s “Think Different” campaign grew from here and became the call to action for all creative people. Think different doesn’t say don’t be boxed in by a PC. Not is so many words, but that’s the result. The thought here is if you want to be free, free to create big bold things, you must have a Mac.
One thing I’ve always admired about Lee and his team at Chiat\Day is their west coast hippie dream idealism. The agency embraced this ethos under Lee’s leadership.
His decision to place the agency a block from a surf break is another great indication that there’s more to life than making ads. The best people in all professions know how to create an environment where great things happen. Being a great boss means you help others around you succeed. There’s no doubt that Lee Clow lifted many brands, careers, and people to higher heights.
This is one of my all-time favorite car campaigns, another product of Lee Clow’s insistence on thinking differently.
Shift your mindset, and freedom will follow.
TBWA’s “Disrupt Manifesto”
Bravery is at the heart of Lee Clow’s point of view, and we can hear more about this concept here.
This is how you do self-promotion. It’s also how you set yourself and your agency apart.
“Don’t do the right thing, do the brave thing.”
Lee’s words in the voice over are powerful and encouraging.
“Do the thing that disrupts,” he says. “Do the thing the upends, that doesn’t just defy the status quo but reshapes it forever. You can do that. You have that in you. To do the right thing or not is a choice. To disrupt or not is a choice. Let’s do the brave thing.”
All creators need encouragement and here Lee provides it for his team, but also for all who choose to listen and act.
Lee brought a critical new “cool factor” to advertising. He wasn’t afraid to be himself or to share his vision, and that was the difference-maker for him.
Lee was close to Steve Jobs and Jobs was a believer in the ways of Lee.
Late in his career, Lee formed TBWA\Media Arts to help reframe the conversation about what advertising is. For Lee, ad campaigns are not just a means to the client’s end. Advertising is an end in itself and a welcome part of popular culture.
Lee Clow, Talent Magnet
Lee’s cultivation of talent and direct tutelage helped raise the bar for many creatives working in the agency business today, at Chiat\Day and elsewhere.
Like Hal Riney and Howard Gossage before him, Lee Clow is a Californian who made a massive difference in the advertising agency business. Like Bill Bernbach and Leo Burnett, Lee Clow is a man who will be admired for generations to come.
Lee deserves praise and admiration, but I imagine that he would appreciate our willingness to learn from him and follow his lead even more.
Rehearsal: Ad Legends Workshop Presentation
It’s not easy to do the brave thing and make a career of it, but in Lee’s case, we can all see how it worked out. He’s a legend and the thousands who played it safe are not.
The year was 1911. Her name was Helen Lansdowne. She was a true trailblazer and ad industry pioneer. Known as the best copywriter of her generation, she also became Vice President and ran J. Walter Thompson with her husband Stanley Resor for 40 years.
She hired and mentored women writers. She introduced sex appeal to ads. This woman was a powerhouse.
Helen Lansdowne Resor has several “firsts” next to her name:
The first female copywriter to make national brand advertising
The first person to introduce sex appeal in ads
The first person to emphasize the need for artfulness in ads
The first woman to run J. Walter Thompson (and turn it into a global leader)
Helen was also a great boss and advocate for women writers and women leaders. Copywriter Peggy King credits her with “fostering her growth and independence.” King also said, “She had a dozen ideas to the minute and kept them coming so fast you couldn’t possibly keep up and had to sit down afterward with pencil and paper and try to sort them out.” [Source: The Ad Men and Women, edited by Edd Applegate]
She Was An Original, And Her Work Was Original
Her ad for Woodbury Soap Company was breakthrough when it appeared, and it is legendary today. Let’s study its construction.
The Beginning of Lifestyle Advertising, Direct Response and Content Marketing All In One Soap Ad
Helen Lansdowne Resor wanted her clients’ ads to fit seamlessly into the media environment where they appeared. She did not want to interrupt readers. She wanted to entice them with the same kind of content they were already consuming in Ladies’ Home Journal and The Saturday Evening Post.
What do we call this approach today? Native advertising or advertorial. Sometimes people today speak of content marketing techniques as if they are new. They also claim those techniques are a fad about to fade. Content is not new. Not a fad and not about to fade.
The Woodbury Soap ad is brand advertising with an emphasis on content, a.k.a. helpful information, and it’s also a direct marketing ad. She blends the two approaches seamlessly. She also made this ad for women—something Janet Champ would do for Nike 80 years later.
It’s important to note that this campaign increased sales of Woodbury’s Soap by 1000 percent over eight years. This is what happens when you adopt the prominent use of fine art, and editorial copy style that informs, a premium offer (via a reply vehicle) which works as a strong call to action.
Strong Women Are Attractive and Heroic
During WWII, Helen aided the war effort with this recruitment campaign for the Marines. The Marine depicted in this ad is a soldier, not a female soldier.
“Be A Marine—Free a Marine to fight” is a strong call to action with no premium offer necessary.
This ad is minimalist by comparison to her earlier work but equally powerful in its message. The ad emanates strength and it’s all about the female soldier reporting for duty. She has the heart, integrity, and the inner resolve to get America through the war.
All of this is conveyed in the art. Well made ads are either led by copy or by art direction, and this Marines ad is an art director’s ad. The connection to her earlier work for Woodbury Soap is the use of fine art in ads. It’s a practice I’d like to see more brands return to.
Helen’s Lasting Legacy
If I had to assign three words or less to Helen’s contribution to the industry, I’d go with, “Female Empowerment.” She hired women and promoted women at the leading agency in the world at the time. And it was a time when most women in advertising were clerical workers only. To put it mildly, Helen was light years ahead of her time.
Appropriately, she has now a scholarship in her name. The Helen Lansdowne Resor Scholarship was established by JWT (now known as Wunderman Thompson) in partnership with the 4A’s Foundation in 2014. It is an international opportunity that recognizes talented female creative advertising students globally. Each recipient receives a scholarship of $10,000 to be put toward her education. Additionally, she is offered a paid summer internship with a Wunderman Thompson office in her respective region, a Wunderman Thompson mentor, and a “first look” placement consideration upon graduation.
Maree Prendergast, Global Chief People Officer, Wunderman Thompson, said, “This scholarship helps ensure women and their voices, in this generation and the next, are represented in leadership and work across the discipline at large.”