Backer & Spielvogel's life cycle stretched over a 15-year period of feel-good economics followed by a general recession that was marked by agency mega-mergers and rampant consolidation. Its passing marked the end of an era for veterans of the golden years of 1950s and 1960s TV advertising.
Backer & Spielvogel was launched in New York in June 1979 by Carl Spielvogel and William M. Backer, two executives with big-agency experience, and five other partners. The fledgling company debuted without a single client.
A native of Charleston, S.C., Mr. Backer had begun his advertising career in 1953 as a copywriter at McCann-Erickson. He co-wrote the memorable "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing" and "It's the Real Thing" for Coca-Cola, created the mellow "Miller Time" campaign for Miller Brewing Co.'s Miller High Life beer and the "Soup Is Good Food" campaign for Campbell Soup Co.
Mr. Spielvogel left Interpublic after two decades, as vice chairman and chairman of the executive committee. Mr. Backer was executive vice chairman and creative director of McCann when he left that agency. Perceived by many as "the odd couple" among New York ad agency heads, the patrician Mr. Backer and the street-smart Mr. Spielvogel did not seek traditional, small-agency start-up accounts.
Less than two months after opening, Backer & Spielvogel landed Miller Brewing Co.'s $85 million High Life, Lowenbrau and Lite businesses, which had been at McCann-Erickson. At the time it was the second-largest account switch in advertising history.
Seven-Up, like Miller a unit of Philip Morris, awarded a new product assignment formerly at Leo Burnett Co. to Backer & Spielvogel in February 1980. Two months later, the agency landed the $10 million Paddington Corp. liquor account and, soon after, a special assignment from Campbell Soup Co. for its condensed soups.
Backer & Spielvogel made Dave Thomas, founder of the Wendy's fast-food chain, a household name and achieved success with irreverent commercials for Magnavox TV sets (starring comedian John Cleese) as well as cheeky ads for Hyundai that depicted a self-help group composed of Hyundai owners.
But the small agency with big ambitions began to feel the limitations of its size. In April 1986 Backer & Spielvogel agreed to be acquired by Saatchi & Saatchi Co. for more than $50 million. At the time, the agency had total billings of about $450 million and its clients included Arby's, Helene Curtis Industries, NCR Corp., Philip Morris USA and Quaker Oats Co.
In July 1987 Saatchi merged Backer & Spielvogel with its Ted Bates Worldwide and British Dorland Advertising units to form Backer Spielvogel Bates Worldwide, which became the third-largest advertising agency in the world with Mr. Spielvogel as chairman-CEO.
But BSB entered the 1990s with a downturn. The agency lost the $25 million Xerox Corp. and $60 million Prudential Insurance accounts in 1990, and the $20 million Dole account followed in March 1991. The departure, also in March 1991, of the $110 million Miller Lite account-Backer & Spielvogel's original client-was perhaps the agency's most stinging loss. The flight of Miller Lite came after two years of attempts by BSB to find a successor for its long-running-and once much-loved-retired jocks campaign. Miller Lite was losing market share to its rivals after several years of slow growth.
BSB hired Don Easdon, a former creative director at Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos, as creative head in April 1991 in a move to slow the exodus of clients.
In January 1993, Michael Bungey was appointed worldwide president-chief operating officer at BSB, from chairman, BSB Europe, and chairman-CEO, BSB Dorland, London. Under the new leadership, the agency recorded substantial business gains, including Warner-Wellcome Consumer Products, with new products Benadryl, Certs and Cinn-a-burst chewing gum from Young & Rubicam and Sinutab and Bubblicious gum from J. Walter Thompson USA. Miller Lite Ice beer and Cunard Line also came onboard.
The new business helped offset the summer 1993 loss of the lion's share of Campbell Soup Co.'s $70 million red-and-white-label soup account and its $15 million print account as well as Philips Consumer Electronics' account.
Mr. Backer retired as vice chairman and worldwide creative director of BSB in November 1993. Andrew Cracknell succeeded him as vice chairman but remained less than a year. Messrs. Backer and Spielvogel's names were dropped in June 1994 when the agency was rechristened Bates Worldwide. Four months later, Mr. Spielvogel resigned as chairman.