Helen Lansdowne Resor, Ad Legend

by | Jul 9, 2020

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:

  1. The first female copywriter to make national brand advertising
  2. The first person to introduce sex appeal in ads
  3. The first person to emphasize the need for artfulness in ads
  4. 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.”