Founded as Frank Presbrey Co. in 1896, Cecil & Presbrey owes its place in the history of advertising perhaps more to the unusual swiftness and completeness of its decline, over nine days in 1954, than to any single ad campaign it devised.
Frank Presbrey formed Frank Presbrey & Co. largely around travel advertising in New York. About 1900, Mr. Presbrey started working with Shredded Wheat Co. and made its product among the first breakfast foods to be advertised on the basis of health benefits. The agency began working with Computing-Tabulating-Recording Co. (which in 1924 became IBM Corp.) in 1914. The shop also handled Lamont, Corliss & Co., which marketed Nestle's EverReady Cocoa and Nestle's chocolate bars, as well as several dental products, including Polident and Jiffy Toothache Drops.
In 1931, Mr. Presbrey, then 76, relinquished the presidency to his son Charles, although he remained active until his death on Oct. 10, 1936. But Charles Presbrey lacked his father's passion for the profession. When James M. Cecil came in as president in January 1939, he became the de facto head of the agency. In 1943, Charles Presbrey withdrew from active involvement within the agency, though he continued as nominal chairman until 1953.
After World War II, the agency began to experience aggressive growth. In 1948 alone, billings rose from $6 million to $8 million, based to some degree on campaigns for the Ronson Art Metal Works' Ronson brand lighters and Speidel Corp., a marketer of watch bands. Even more dynamic was the growth of Block Drug Co., thanks to its development and introduction of new products such as Poli-Grip in 1946 and Ammi-dent toothpaste in 1948. The hugely successful launch of Ammi-dent alone pushed billings to more than $10 million.
C&P also won the Rayve Home Permanent account from Lever Brothers in 1946 and produced "Grand Marquee" on NBC for the marketer. More business arrived in 1949 when former employee Thomas J. Maloney returned to the company from Newell-Emmett, bringing with him about $2 million in billings. In 1953, Mr. Maloney became C&P president and Mr. Cecil, chairman.
In 1950, Advertising Age ranked C&P, with $15 million in billings, the No. 25 U.S. agency. Shortly after that, the agency acquired the account of Sylvania Electric Products and another weekly TV production, "Beat the Clock." The agency was already overseeing production of "Mystery Playhouse" for Block Drug and "Suspense" for Electric Auto-Lite Co.
In December 1952, the agency merged with J.D. Tarcher & Co., a $5 million agency that brought with it the Benrus Watch Co. account as well as four other clients, plus about 20 account execs and creatives. Tarcher President Jack Tarcher became a VP at the merged agency. But Mr. Cecil's growth strategy had one flaw: In bringing in a series of account execs, each with his own proprietary accounts, Mr. Cecil was not building a single, cohesive agency but what was in effect an amalgamation of small shops.
The fragility of C&P's structure, despite billings of nearly $22 million in 1953, became evident when Block Drug and Sylvania departed in late summer 1954. At the same time, Nestle was reviewing its agency situation, and Mr. Tarcher was talking with Milton Biow about taking Benrus to Biow Co., which was on the verge of losing the Bulova watch business it had handled for 33 years.
The fatal blow came to C&P on Sept. 21, 1954, when James Cecil died unexpectedly after a short illness. Two days later, Mr. Tarcher announced his departure from C&P.
Remaining clients rushed for the exits. IBM, which had started with Frank Presbrey Co. 40 years earlier, left the agency, as did Mennen Co.; Cunard Steam-Ship Co.; Block Drug's Poli-Grip, which had remained with C&P after the earlier departure of the marketer's Ammi-dent; and Philip Morris & Co.
On Oct. 1, Cecil & Presbrey announced its liquidation. McCann-Erickson picked up the Nestle, Mennen and Bulova accounts; Benton & Bowles got IBM; and J. Walter Thompson Co. picked up Sylvania. Stockholders were paid off, and some older executives even walked away with modest capital gains. Final dissolution came on Dec. 31.