William Esty & Co. opened April 1, 1932, in New York. That November the agency won R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.'s Camel cigarettes and Prince Albert tobacco accounts. The agency added the company's Winston in 1954 and Salem in 1956, as well as Cavalier, Doral and other brands.
By 1945, Esty was the No. 21 agency in the U.S., relying mainly on RJR for about half of its $14 million in billings. Thanks to postwar ad spending, the agency broke into the top 10 in agency rankings, with billings of $27 million. Much of this growth was attributed to Colgate-Palmolive-Peet's Vel account, which was expanding into related soap product categories.
Esty created the "T-zone" campaign for Camel, referring to the sensitive mucous membranes of the nose and throat. In the late 1940s, the agency surveyed doctors and announced in its ads that "More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette." The ad copy went on to claim, "Not one single case of throat irritation. Let the 30-day test prove it in your T-zone."
By 1950, the brand achieved a secure leadership position that it would hold for a decade, beating out longtime rival Lucky Strikes. After the Federal Trade Commission curbed health claims by cigarette marketers in the 1950s, Esty fell back on quality and taste claims. Esty became a dominant agency in the early days of TV with its RJR and Colgate business. The agency won its first General Mills business, the cereal Sugar Jets, in 1953, followed in 1954 by O-Cell-O sponges. Two years later General Mills ended its relationship with Esty, but the agency profited when RJR entered the filter-tip cigarette market with Winston.
In 1955, Colgate announced it would move the Fab account to Ted Bates & Co. Mr. Esty told Colgate that if the agency could not continue on Fab, it would prefer to resign all its Colgate business. The calculated risk backfired, and the shop lost other key brands such as Vel and Rapid Shave, along with about $15 million in billings. The agency's relationship with Colgate resumed in January 1964, however, when Esty won back Fab. Cashmere Bouquet, Halo and Ultra Brite toothpaste followed over the next two years.
Despite its ups and downs, the agency continued to grow slowly but steadily through the decade. By 1960, Esty was billing $80 million from only nine clients. It broke the $100 million barrier in 1963.
In 1965, Esty lost one of its oldest clients, Thomas Leeming & Co., marketer of Ben-Gay, which had come to the agency in 1933. Earlier, Leeming had been purchased by Pfizer, which also moved Barbasol and Pacquin hand cream out of Esty. Another major loss was $10 million in billings from the P. Ballantine & Sons Brewery, which had been with the agency since 1955.
But the setback with the most emotional repercussions came in June 1966, when RJR reassigned Camel and the brand's filters, or about a sixth of Esty's $65 million in RJR billings, to Dancer-Fitzgerald-Sample. The stated reason was that the Camel filters business represented a conflict with Winston filters. In 1974, Winston, which had been launched by Esty in 1954 with the slogan "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should," also moved to DFS. To soften the blow, RJR moved Camel back to Esty, which still handled its Doral and Salem brands. In 1976, Salem moved to Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn after that agency ended its 28-year relationship with the American Tobacco Co.
Still, the 1970s were a good decade for Esty. Spending by Warner-Lambert grew from $3 million to $25 million in three years, and spending by Nabisco and American Home Products each grew sixfold from their early 1960s levels. Then, in June 1977, the agency was the victor in an intense competition for the Nissan Motor Co.'s $45 million Datsun account.
On Feb. 10, 1982, Esty, with $550 million in billings, announced its acquisition by Bates in the biggest agency merger to date. Esty continued with its name and management intact.
But while other agencies were growing in the 1980s, Esty watched its billings and income shrink in 1984 and 1985 with the loss of Winston, Chesebrough-Pond's and American Home Products' Riopan and Riopan Plus. In May 1984, the agency's relationship with Colgate ended with the loss of its Fab and Ultra Brite accounts; Colgate said Esty had been unable to grow on a global basis in accordance with it's the marketer's needs.
In May 1986, Bates merged with Saatchi & Saatchi, creating the largest advertising company in the world. Again, Esty continued with its identity intact.
However, in June 1986, Esty lost its last RJR tobacco business when Salem moved to Foote, Cone & Belding. Then in April and May 1987, Esty was hit with two devastating losses in quick succession: MasterCard and Nissan (formerly Datsun). The damage amounted to $190 million, or about 35% of the agency's billings.
Parent Bates, looking for ways to salvage its assets, announced on July 5, 1988, that it would merge Esty with Minneapolis-based Campbell Mithun. The new agency, Campbell-Mithun-Esty, had combined billings of $800 million and was the No. 16 U.S. agency at the time of the merger in 1989.