Mr. Freeman got his start in advertising at a small shop in Atlanta called Liller Neal in 1967; 18 months later, he joined McCann-Erickson. In 1971, he moved to New York to work as a copywriter at Dancer-Fitzgerald-Sample, where in 1973, he penned his memorable jingle for the Mars brand candy bars Mounds and Almond Joy. "Sometimes you feel like a nut" swept the country seemingly overnight, despite modest media expenditure.
Although Mr. Freeman worked with a small and highly creative team that developed other successful campaigns, few came close to the success and notoriety of the campaign for Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers, which hired DFS in 1983. A distant third behind McDonald's and Burger King, it was barely mentioned in the big "burger wars." But Mr. Freeman, by then creative director at DFS, was determined to show that Wendy's had a product that was superior in beef content to the Big Mac and the Whopper.
First aired in January 1984, the Wendy's spots made this claim using three elderly ladies who carefully inspected a burger at a counter modeled after those of Wendy's competition. Dumbfounded by the burger's tiny size, one woman—Clara Peller, who became an ad icon—looked up at the camera and demanded, "Where's the beef?" Mr. Freeman developed the concept and script; Joe Sedelmaier directed the spot and cast the diminutive 83-year-old Ms. Peller.
The commercial's brash humor was unlike anything seen before. Although Wendy's executives threatened to pull the campaign a week before it aired, Mr. Freeman stood by the spot. The campaign, which also featured less-remembered elderly men in a similar scenario and Mr. Freeman's personal favorite, a tongue-in-cheek Russian fashion show, was credited with boosting Wendy's sales by 31% and its profits by 24% and with making the chain a major competitor in the burger wars.
The "Where's the beef?" commercial was No. 47 in Advertising Age's ranking of the top 100 campaigns of the 20the century, and "Where's the beef?" ranked No. 10 on its list of top 10 slogans for the century. In 1984, U.S. presidential candidate Walter Mondale, in debating the substance of proposals presented by his Democratic primary opponent, Gary Hart, demanded, "Where's the beef?" demonstrating the extent to which the line had entered the national lexicon.
The success of the Wendy's campaign piqued the interest of Little Caesars Pizza, which was lagging Pizza Hut and Domino's Pizza in sales. In 1987—the year DFS was dissolved—the marketer gave Mr. Freeman the $40 million account provided he set up his own ad unit within Saatchi & Saatchi, which was already marketing a restaurant chain. As a result, Mr. Freeman and two other former DFS creative executives, Arthur Bijou and Pete Regan, founded Cliff Freeman & Partners and began work for the agency's first client.
The U.S. was in a recession, so the goal for the Little Caesars campaign was to address and entertain families while offering them a product of great value and convenience. Mr. Freeman created a likable cartoon character who wore a Roman toga and appeared at the end of humorous commercials that told stories to which regular people could relate. Mr. Freeman himself spoke the "Pizza! Pizza!" mantra for the Little Caesar character in the spots. "Two great pizzas for one low price" was exactly what American families were looking for.
By the end of 1987, Little Caesars was a national chain with restaurants in every state. By 1992, the restaurant had grown from 900 stores to 4,600. According to a 1992 Wall Street Journal survey, Little Caesars had became the most popular and recognized brand in the country, even though it was being outspent tenfold in advertising by its competitors.
In February 1998, the shop resigned the pizza account; Little Caesars had begun to lose its national grip and subsequently began to look for advertising that was more product-oriented. Some believed the agency could not survive without its signature account, but Cliff Freeman & Partners quickly attracted new accounts. In 1999, the agency won more industry awards than any other agency or agency network worldwide for its outrageous work for Outpost.com, Fox Sports Network and Hollywood Video.
In October 1999, Mr. Freeman used these victories to buy his independence from Saatchi & Saatchi. In the new Cliff Freeman & Partners, he chose to prioritize creativity over rapid global growth, taking only accounts for which he felt the agency could do its best work. Mr. Freeman still preferred brands that were trying to make a play against the front-runners, but in 2000 his cutting-edge style attracted the attention of Coca-Cola Co. for its Coke Classic brand (the agency had already done some spots for the marketer's Fanta and Cherry Coke).
Looking to the 21st century, the agency augmented its creative and research departments, seeking new and different ideas and a better understanding of its target audiences. In 2003, the agency had 100 $15.2 million in U.S. revenue, down 39.&% from the previous year.
However, the recession and the departure of several executive committee members in 2003 resulted in a downward spiral for the agency. A number of key clients left, including Quiznos and Midas. Mr. Freeman did not replace staff such as creative talent Eric Silver, who moved to Omincom Group’s BBDO, or Ari Merken, another senior creative talent, who exited for Fallon, part of Publicis Groupe. New business head Charles Rosen also took a number of staff to launch a new agency.
Mr. Freeman struggled to rejuvenate the agency with a new positioning. The shop, once known for its TV spots that included physical humor appealing to a more male audience, moved toward a broader audience with work for Value City’s DSW Shoe Warehouse, and appeared to be turning its fortunes around.
In early 2004, it sold a 20% stake in itself to MDC Partners, Toronto, with an option to extend that to 70% within two years.
Over the course of his career, Mr. Freeman has won nearly every major ad industry award multiple times, including 97 Clios, 34 One Show awards, 41 Lions from the Cannes International Advertising Festival and six Best Campaign of the Year honors for five different clients. His agency won the 2001 Grand Prix at the International Advertising Festival.
Born Feb. 14, 1941, in Vicksburg, Miss.; started in advertising at Liller, Neal, Atlanta, 1967; moved to Dancer-Fitzgerald-Sample, New York, 1971; founded Cliff Freeman & Partners within Saatchi & Saatchi, 1987; left Saatchi & Saatchi to set up as an independent shop, 1999; sold 20% stake in the company to MDC Partners, 2004.