Larger than life visionaries drive ad business

By Published on .

Most Popular
At key points, strong individuals have changed the way the entire ad industry operates. An idea. A philosophy. A new way of doing business. A vision of what lay ahead. These are the giants of the field.

As advertising entered the 21st century, there had been an explosion of agency acquisitions-not the typical deals that dot the landscape of the past, but large acquisitions, with worldwide scope, of already ultralarge, independent-minded shops. And, in what many consider a personal service industry, there were even hostile takeovers. This unheard of phenomenon was primarily the work of one person, not an adman but a money man.

Martin Sorrell had served as the financial guru behind a hot British ad agency, Saatchi & Saatchi, when it made its first moves into the U.S. market by buying up old-line agencies such as Compton Advertising.

Those deals under the brash brothers of Charles and Maurice Saatchi were friendly, but eventually Mr. Sorrell began to operate with a more deft hand and far-reaching vision. Out on his own, he turned his attention to even more well-known and prestigious public agencies. His first move: a hostile takeover of J. Walter Thompson Co., which could claim its place as one of the first U.S. ad agencies. His WPP Group made another bold strike and then another-the largest acquisition ever in the ad industry.

These moves, and significant others, have created today's ad industry, dominated by a handful of holding companies that control a multitude of separate units that create, research and place advertising worldwide.

The mid-1800s brought the birth of the ad agency business, with the first "agent." Volney Palmer, like Mr. Sorrell close to two centuries later, did not create advertising. But he set up shop in Philadelphia as an agent for newspapers, soliciting ads to fill their space and collecting the money. Francis Wayland Ayer then created the ad agency as it was to remain into the 21st century, representing advertisers and operating under a commission system. Others who influenced the direction of advertising included agency boss Albert Lasker, who hired copywriter Claude Hopkins, the creator of "reason-why" advertising. Theodore MacManus, another copywriter of historic note, brought "atmosphere" to advertising.

They all dealt in print, but it was the emergence of radio that reached a true mass market. As a new medium, it required programming, a task that fell to the ad agency. Radio shows carried such names as the "Lux Radio Theater" and "Chase & Sanborn Hour." Frank Hummert and his agency, Blackett-Sample-Hummert, were to write and produce many of the new "soap operas," the popular ad vehicles of such marketers as Procter & Gamble Co., which were to endure into the present day. Mr. Hummert became one of the most substantial figures of the era-and the highest-paid man in the advertising industry. That agency, in later evolutions, was another of the initial targets of Mr. Sorrell.

Advertising content was to see the next major change with the advent of the next new medium, television. An agency in the "heartland" of Chicago, established by auto industry veteran Leo Burnett, articulated canned vegetables in the form of a Jolly Green Giant and created an ad model that was to hold up through decade after decade.

This creative style produced the likes of Charlie the Tuna and Tony the Tiger. Mr. Burnett's repositioning of a female-oriented cigarette in the mid-1950s into a cowboy "brand" smoked by the "Marlboro Man" resulted in its selection as Advertising Age's No. 1 ad icon of all time.

As these trends burned across the country with the 1960s approaching, two individuals prepared to eclipse the work of all those who had come before, two individuals who were to produce a period of time forever to be known as the "creative revolution" of advertising. A native New Yorker, William Bernbach, was to bring a sophisticated look to advertising, ironically often aided by lots of white space, while a transplanted Englishman, David Ogilvy, was to bring a wordiness that resulted in its own high style of intelligence.

Mr. Ogilvy's gift was words, and many of them; Mr. Bernbach's was art and fewer words (such as "Think small" for Volkswagen). Mary Wells, who split off from Mr. Bernbach's Doyle Dane Bernbach, glamorized the era with work that resulted in the first major woman-owned agency.

As they were implanting a new personality into the product of advertising, a more far-reaching idea was being put into place by another giant of the field, Marion Harper Jr. In fact, his business model turned out to be far ahead of its time-in actuality, implemented most successfully in the 21st century, not the 20th. Mr. Harper created an empire around the McCann-Erickson agency that included public relations, sales promotion and market research, combined to offer clients "total marketing." And speaking of vision, these separate entities were placed under a corporate umbrella designated as the Interpublic Group of Cos., one of today's top three worldwide ad organizations.

The flame of creativity burned anew with imaginative and even entertaining advertising in the '80s from a new influx of creative giants: Ogilvy disciple Hal Riney and Lee Clow of the Chiat/Day shop on the West Coast, started by the innovative Jay Chiat, led a renaissance, if not a revolution.

As this trend was sweeping the U.S., with creative work coming from Portland, Ore., and Minneapolis, over in London Mr. Sorrell was building-first at Saatchi & Saatchi and then at WPP-what he called "the agency of the future." WPP followed its JWT purchase by taking over Ogilvy Group and then, in the largest buyout ever, Young & Rubicam.

Interpublic, under Philip H. Geier Jr.'s direction, had positioned itself for the future as well. Actually, the term "agency of the future" was first used by founder Mr. Harper, and it is that giant's vision of a multifaceted conglomerate, this time global in scope, that today dominates the ad industry-as did these numerous larger-than-life individuals during all the decades of the past.

In this article: