With "Mad Men" mania a fading memory and a Presidential campaign in full throat, now seems a good time to reflect on an advertising man who was at his creative peak in the period depicted in that runaway cable series and later created an advertising campaign that helped elect a President.
A creative giant, Hal Riney won new business from the biggest and toughest clients, gathered almost every creative award, and was so admired that marketers would offer him their business -- no questions asked -- if he would create their advertising. In 1981, Fortune named him one of the year's most fascinating people.
Yet it is ever more apparent that Riney did not run with the crowd. Like the characters in "Mad Men," he did indeed smoke (four packs of Marlboro a day), drink (Jim Beam, not martinis), and womanize. He drove a Bentley turbo, glamorous but, as David Ogilvy put it in his iconic Rolls-Royce advertisement, "for the diffident."
A world apart from
It was no surprise that Riney, a conservative, would go to work for the Reagan campaign as part of the so-called Tuesday Team - although he professed no personal conviction. "I'm not really for Reagan myself," he said, claiming he only took on the assignment because he wanted an ash tray from the White House. At lunchtime, he would go downstairs to Reno's, a dimly lit North Beach bar owned by Reno Barsocchinni (Joe DiMaggio's close pal and best man at his wedding to Marilyn Monroe), and sit at the end of the bar with his cigarettes and a bourbon, writing Reagan commercials. Asked what he was doing, he grunted, "I'm trying to re-elect the President of the United States."
Making its appearance in a world of negative ads, "It's Morning Again in America" showed people going to work, a kid delivering newspapers, couples getting married, families working on their homes, raising the American flag in their yard. Buttressing the emotional images were facts -- about jobs, low interest rates, home ownership, lower inflation, and consumer confidence, delivered in Riney's cadenced, husky narration.
"It's morning again in America. Today, more men and women will go to work than ever before in our country's history. With interest rates at about half the record highs of the 1980s, nearly 2,000 families will buy new homes. This afternoon, 6,500 young men and women will be married. And, with inflation at less than half of what it was just four years ago, they can afford to look forward with confidence to the future."
At the end, a simple photograph of President Reagan and an American flag.
"Under the leadership of President Reagan, the country is prouder and stronger and better."
Reagan was moved to tears when he saw the commercials, saying, "I wish I were that good." He went on to victory, his sunny personality reinforced by the inspirational commercials. Political pro Ed Rollins called the campaign, "the best ads ever made in politics." Reporters were stunned into silence. Time magazine dubbed it the most effective political advertising ever.
"I think the truth about Hal's work is that he never oversold, never made a promise the product couldn't live up to," says Tom Tieche who was creative group head of Ogilvy & Mather San Francisco. "In the end, the product would be better than anybody thought it was, and be successful. 'Morning in America' was based on facts. More people were getting jobs, more people were getting married, there was a big job market."
Riney was raised in a home with an absent father, a writer-cartoonist jack-of-all-trades who was something of a failure and landed in the "pokey" for passing bad checks. "I suspect advertising became an avenue to express some of the things I might not have experienced in my life," he reflected in the film "Art & Copy." "To some degree, a part of my life that had been left out. I missed a lot of things."
His advertising frequently portrayed what Jeff Goodby, a Riney disciple who went on to found his own successful agency, called "an optimistic, perhaps even romantic vision of America. A land populated with people of simpler values, small town Fourth of July parades and rocking chairs on shady porches."
Riney was inclined to observe where the world was going -- and often tack in the opposite direction. As he put it, "Whatever success I've achieved has come from pretty much doing the opposite of what I've been told or expected to do."
It was not contrarianism for the sake of being different. It was a search for honesty -- and authenticity, foretelling today's search for that quality in many areas. He abhorred clichés and empty promises.
"The beauty and whimsy, the cleverness and the suggestion seems to be gone from everything. And it's been replaced by two people holding up a product they would never hold up; and talking about it in a way that no one has ever talked; and being astonished, pleased, delighted or surprised about characteristics of a product which in real life would actually rate no more than a grunt, at best." –Hal Riney
His commercials bristled with strong brand identification and other good advertising practices. A creative director asked him why an independent cuss like him signed up with a huge outfit like Ogilvy & Mather, with headquarters thousands of miles away in New York. Riney replied, "Oh, I don't know, I think it was all that shiny paper" -- meaning the red-covered O&M booklets, brochures, magazines, all attesting to a serious study of the business.
Riney had a solid reputation before he opened an agency in San Francisco for Ogilvy & Mather in 1976.
He had become known for a commercial for the now-defunct Crocker Bank. Telling the bank it had nothing unique to say to prospective customers, he commissioned a song to reach young people just starting out in life. A tearjerker, the song, "We've only just begun" (recorded and turned into a hit single by The Carpenters), drew customers in droves. When the bank couldn't handle the volume of young couples, it franchised the song to banks across the country.
If you plan to start a new advertising agency, it helps to win a high profile local client to showcase your creativity. Starting his new agency for O&M, Riney met with the Oakland Athletics, who had just hired Billy Martin as manager. A brilliant tactician, Martin was better known for arguing with umpires on the field and fighting in bars and just about anywhere else off the field. He had been hired and fired five times by New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.
The A's offered Riney their advertising account -- with one condition: "You can't touch Billy Martin. He's too controversial." Riney, who didn't know much about the current baseball scene, asked about this Billy Martin guy. "He's a mixed bag," Goodby told him. "A lot of people think he's a genius. Lots of people hate him. But he's famous for pushing the base running, manufacturing runs. He's got a style all his own. Some writers have called it 'Billy Ball.'" Riney reacted instantly. "Billy Ball? That's your campaign right there." He delivered the news to the A's: "The only thing you have is Billy Martin."
TV spots depicted Martin as a deferential manager who is unfailingly polite, especially when dealing with umpires, whose calls he never questions. Goodby created the campaign with art director Rich Silverstein. John Crawford wrote half the spots, and added the line "It's a different brand of baseball."
Martin told his runners they could steal at any time, and they did – seven steals at home plate, 14 double steals, even a rare triple steal, all led by rookie Ricky Henderson, who broke Ty Cobb's long-standing American League record. (The agency memorialized Henderson's base-stealing skills with a seven-foot black and white poster of him, holding his spikes … rendered in gold.) "Billy Ball" sold out the stadium on opening day, and built attendance to the point that owner Charlie Finley was able to sell the team.
Man of the West
One of the most admired advertising men of his time, Riney was less broadly known -- much of his best work was for regional products. He was a man of the West, more particularly the Pacific Northwest. He was born in Seattle, grew up in Washington, and started in advertising in San Francisco, in the mailroom at BBDO.
His commercials for Blitz-Weinhard, an Oregon beer now vanished, idealized glimpses of Western life. A rancher gazes across open fields to snow-capped mountains, as Riney's voice-over intones in rich, measured phrases: "I haven't been to too many places in the country, but I don't think there'd be many like this, any more. Blitz Country ... natural country ... natural beer."
The scenes weren't just idealized -- they were real, and existed. Long before they were married, Riney's wife Liz Kennedy was hired by him to go to the Steen Mountains to find someone who could say all the things the rancher says in that commercial. And she found him.
"He said all those things. And they were all true," she says. "His grandfather came to that area and settled there. What was so interesting at that time was that Hal picked that area out, and just knew there were people like that there … a forgotten area of the state. And there they were. Old-fashioned buckaroos -- they used that archaic language."
Riney's voice-over was an integral part of many campaigns, for his clients … and a number of others. His voice, "like his painterly visuals," wrote Bernice Kanner in New York magazine, "with his studied inflections and frequent pauses, tugs at people's heartstrings and appeals to their sense of whimsy." Variously described as mellifluous, direct, sincere, resonant, mellow, laid back, relaxed, comfortable, comforting, down home, smoky and bourbon-soft, his voice became a descriptive in looking for "Hal Riney-esque" announcers for many products.
A taciturn man, about 5'11", Riney was imposing in a rugged sort of way. A former colleague describes him as having the bearing of the lumberjack he once was -- big hands, strong arms, broad back. If he wasn't peering over his glasses at someone, they hung around his neck on a lanyard he tied himself, using special nautical string and fly fishing or boating knots. At times, he grew a broad brown mustache or a close-cropped stubble. Like the Cheshire Cat in "Alice in Wonderland," he watched the scene from afar, an amused smile on his handsome weather-beaten face. He could have been a model for the Western rancher in his Blitz-Weinhard campaign. His wife threw some photos of him into a casting session she was doing for Marlboro Men, to get a reaction. The client loved them; then they found out who he was.
Even the best advertising wasn't enough to help one of America's smallest and oldest breweries survive against the marketing gun power of national brands like Budweiser and Miller. Blitz-Weinhard needed a new product. But, as Riney pointed out, nobody wanted a new beer -- a beer has to come from somewhere. From overseas -- imported brands like Heineken. Or from "history" -- like Sam Adams.
Riney often made friends with the CEOs of his clients, fishing together or just talking. With Blitz-Weinhard, he worked directly with Fred Wessinger, the great, great-grandson of the founder and president of the brewery. Together, they set about to develop and introduce a new, traditional beer ("sort of a contradiction from the start," Riney conceded.)
Also not easy, he dryly noted in a speech: "we had done a market survey and found there were already other beers for sale." Riney named it Henry Weinhard's Private Reserve. Blitz-Weinhard would charge a little more and make the best beer they knew how to make -- using the finest hops and barley. "Hal always wanted to base advertising on some kind of truth," says Andelin. "If they could only make small batches, let's put batch numbers on neck labels."
Acknowledging the introduction of a new product in a parity category already saturated with similar products generally required television to generate trial, the introductory advertising recommendation was: "None." They would rely on word-of-mouth.
After a few months of making the beer available only in the brewery's hospitality room, the brewery president carried a couple of cases across the street to one of Portland's finest bars, a trend-setting "pouring spot." Andelin designed the packaging, special tap knobs, bar mirrors, new trucks, table tents for on-sale outlets, and a folder explaining why the product was special. With the bartender in effect their salesman, the brewery ran out of beer and they were forced to run an ad: "Apology."
Drolly observing that beer ads talked about beer, Riney decided the advertising would talk about anything else -- and settled on quality. Print ads (written by Dennis Foley) showed an Oregonian famous for his quality fishing flies. Two Oregon saddle-makers, whose saddles had to be ordered years in advance. A boot-maker whose concern for doing things well was the same as the brewery's.
After a year, "Henry's" was ready for television. Quirky stories about people's extraordinary interest in the new product. A man from Chicago shipping it home in his suitcase, beer being found in remote places like Alaska, thieves taking nothing but four cases of Henry's. Henry's passed Michelob, America's leading super-premium, in Oregon.
For a radio campaign, Riney brought one of the world's great beer experts to the U.S. to try the beer, and offer his comments. "He was a terrible presenter, so we immediately signed him up. People apparently thought he was terrible, too, and so they believed him."
"By any standard I know in the business, we did everything wrong. We introduced our beer with no advertising. When we did get around to using some media, we chose print. When we expanded the effort, we used radio. When we eventually produced some TV spots, instead of :30s we used :60s." – Hal Riney to the San Diego Ad Club in 1983
Star director Joe Pytka, who shot many of the Henry's commercials, is particularly proud of one called "Future." It was tour de force. "It was so dark you could hardly see the people. Steven Spielberg wanted to know how we did it. We pushed the lighting as far as it would go. That was Hal -- push everything to the limits."
A man playing solitaire while another kibitzes, in a tavern evoking the Gold Rush. A gnome emerges from the darkness to prophesy: "100 years from now, only little girls will ride horses. Men will walk on the moon. And Henry Weinhard's will be sold in Gallup, New Mexico."
Henry's became the second largest super-premium in Southern California, grew throughout the Western states, and was imitated (less successfully) by at least four other beer companies.
Other doors opened when Blitz-Weinhard was sold to Pabst and ultimately to G. Heileman Brewing Company. Riney's work drew the attention of Anheuser Busch. At the same time new ownership at Heileman starting milking the business for profit, so he resigned the business, including Blitz-Weinhard.
Anheuser-Busch didn't amount to much for Riney, just one memorable commercial celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty. It did lead to assignments with Stroh's Light. He always wanted to do beer advertising, but losing Henry's was tough.
"It broke Hal's heart," says Pytka. "Hal worked on one commercial for a year. He would personally write, and rewrite, everything. The intensity was insane. He was always looking for perfection. Everything was so specific -- he had specific ideas of what should be done.
"I met a Brit, an arrogant guy, who said American advertising is so bad. Then I showed him the Henry's reel -- 10 or 12 commercials. His jaw dropped to his knees. The writing and production values were so great. David Ogilvy considered the work we did a turning point in his view of advertising -- and the use of emotionalism."
Pytka had been making documentaries before he worked with Riney, and generally felt commercials lacked truthfulness. In the beginning, they fought, but then discovered they were soul brothers. "He brought a quality of truthfulness," says Pytka. "He was the first person I was in harmony with. There are huge thinkers like Bernbach, Riney and Dusenberry. The others are just looking for work."
The Gallo win
The agency had been stalking the fearsome Gallo account for two years. Gallo had a huge advertising budget, a reputation for making cheap "jug" wine, and a tough Ernest Gallo noted for firing agencies with alacrity -- 12 by one count. Riney was happily surprised to find Ernest "a nut on product quality." Gallo had started making first-class wines, but was frustrated by the lingering jug wine reputation that prevented him from charging the price it deserved.
The first commercials Riney proposed for Gallo dismayed his associates. "A truly lame campaign," remembers Jeff Goodby, "about the medals Gallo won with their wines. We groaned about this total sellout. But the night before the presentation, when we had all resigned ourselves to being tomorrow's cannon fodder, Andy Berlin called me up. 'Goodby,' he said. 'I was watching TV and Inglenook's running that exact same medals campaign. Riney's screwed. He can't present it.'"
"Mine's the best thing we've got," argued Riney when told. "I'll have to present it and tell them there's something else out there kind of like it," confident his campaign would make the other shrink into history. Gallo sided with Riney. "Inglenook? We spend ten times as much as they do. It won't be their campaign! It'll be ours!" And it was.
Medals dropped one by one on a table, as the announcer intones: "First prize. First prize. First prize." At the end, the wine bottle turns, exposing the label: "The varietal wines of Ernest and Julio Gallo."
Riney was starting to change minds about Gallo wines. The next commercial was set in a French village. A glass of wine is offered to a Frenchman, as an off-screen voice asks, "What do you think of this wine?
"How much do you think this would cost?"
"Oh, tres cher."
"Suppose I told you this wine came from California?"
"You are keeding."
"Ernest doesn't like people speaking French," Riney told the applauding Ogilvy board. (Meaning he wouldn't run the commercial or pay for it.) "But he'll buy the next one."
The next one showed a truck, laden with wine casks stamped "Gallo," driving through the countryside, as two Frenchmen try to deal with the Italian name. "Gallo?" "Oui. Galleau."
Next, magazines. A half-dozen different campaigns, each worked out in luscious four-color two-page spreads, covered the board table. "Ernest doesn't buy print," Riney told the deflated Ogilvy board. He did, eventually.
To ease younger consumers up from soft drinks, wine companies had started to introduce wine coolers in the 1980s, sweetened spritzer-like beverages, with advertising in a soft drink idiom -- kids dancing on the beach.
Gallo saw California Coolers tearing up this new market, and decided to jump in with his own brand. The Gallo marketing people wanted their own youth lifestyle commercials. Riney gave them two old codgers -- he christened them Frank Bartles and Ed Jaymes -- sitting on the porch of their country home, mouthing marketing clichés.
Frank did all the talking:
"My name is Frank Bartles, and this is Ed Jaymes. You know, it occurred to Ed the other day that between his fruit orchard and my premium wine vineyard, that we could make a truly superior premium wine cooler.
"It sounded good to me, so Ed took out a second on his house, and wrote to Harvard for an MBA, and now we're preparing to enter the wine cooler business. We will try to keep you posted on how it's going. Thank you very much for your support."
The stone-faced Ed Jaymes, played by Ed Maugg, was not a professional actor, but a childhood friend of Riney . . . and a contractor who built the agency's San Francisco headquarters.
Riney named the product and wrote 143 of the 230 popular spots. The campaign worked until wine coolers were sunk by taxes on wine and the emergence of malt coolers.
Ernest liked to tell people that Riney knew more about wine advertising than anyone in the world, and insisted that he join him on cruises on his yacht, so they could talk wine. Riney dreaded these trips, and hated working on Gallo – "like going to prison."
"In the end, Riney fired Gallo," says Pytka. "It was too demanding for the money. He put his heart and soul into the ads, and couldn't concentrate on other work. Ernest would manipulate him into coming out to Modesto two or three times a week." The staff asked him to resign the account. He agreed: "When you win $60 million in new business to replace it with." Eventually, with new business on the horizon, he fired Gallo, which was half the agency.
It had been seven years. Before Riney, no Gallo agency had lasted more than a year or two.
Member of the board
Before starting his own shop, one of Riney's most effective creative efforts was produced only for a board meeting of Ogilvy & Mather. His start-up San Francisco office was producing such sparkling work that he was invited to join the agency's U.S. board of directors.
David Ogilvy was horrified. "What is he going to do at those meetings? Shouldn't he just be making commercials?"
Riney came to his first meeting, and said little. The agenda followed a familiar pattern -- financials, new business, clients, people, reports from each of the six U.S. offices, followed by a review of their advertising.
He didn't come to the next meeting. Instead, he sent a six-minute video as his report, featuring two scruffy muppet characters, Jasper and Milo, on their visit . . . to Ogilvy & Mather.
Jasper asks if this a bank. "They're all wearing suits and vests and ties, with little pieces of jewelry stuck in their collar." "No," Milo responds. "This is Ogilvy & Mather creative advertising. You're looking at some of the most creative people in the world."
"It must be a bank," Jasper insists. "They're talking about mergers, margins, cash flow, profit and loss." He asks how to get a job in this bank ("Get an MBA.") and how to get one of those ("Learn about mergers, margins, cash flow, profit and loss.")
Finally, Milo points out Bill Phillips (then Chairman), saying last summer Bill did something very inspiring and very creative, and went all the way to Switzerland to do it. ("Open a Swiss bank account?" Jasper asks.) "No," says Milo. "He climbed the Matterhorn."
JASPER: "Is that the name of the bank?"
MILO: "No. It's a mountain."
JASPER: "Very inspiring. Very creative".
Pushing Milo out of the way, he addresses the camera:
"How are your numbers, Bill? How are the numbers in New York? How are the numbers in Chicago? How are the numbers in San Francisco? Did you see him – he was dancing! He was doing a little jig."
"The Ogilvy Bank" hit home. Board meetings changed. From that point, agendas started with a review and discussion of the agency's current creative work. "The Muppets" (as the video became known) went around the world to other offices, to reinforce that great advertising was the agency's top priority. A year later, in 1983, with help from many offices, Ogilvy & Mather was Advertising Age's Agency of the Year.
The Saturn Saga
Some feel the quintessential example of Riney's contrarian approach was his campaign, created out of Hal Riney & Partners -- what he called his shop after buying Ogilvy's San Francisco office -- to introduce the Saturn car.
"We looked at everything that was being done in Detroit for car advertising, and decided to do the opposite. We won't show any cars driving around pylons on wet roads. Instead of naming colors 'Santa Fe sunset,' just 'red.'" –Hal Riney
The cars were not remarkable, so the advertising sold the company. Everything was different. There was no negotiating the price -- the sticker price was the price. The cars were sold in "stores" -- not dealerships, with no pressure on the prospect. Owners accepted invitations to drive to the factory in Spring Hill, Tenn., in their Saturns. "A different kind of company. A different kind of car," said the ads. It was a sensation, almost a cult, the most successful new model launch in General Motors history.
Over time, the original managers who launched Saturn moved up and were replaced by new managers who "Detroit-ized" the car. Sales stalled. Dealers wanted to change advertising, and go after a younger, hipper market.
Greg Ketchum, who took over as creative director after the launch, describes the demise. "Hal hated that kind of stuff. He talked about how Bartles & Jaymes had youth appeal. He got up and showed a picture of his daughter when she was born -- and the Saturn. Then a picture of her ten years later -- a beautiful little smiling girl. The Saturn hadn't changed at all.
"Saturn was a very average car, with very little to talk about. GM was milking the brand -- not investing in it. Hal basically said, 'I've done my job, now you guys do yours.' There was huge resentment. It was the beginning of the end. The originators had moved on, and were not around to protect the idea. And Hal didn't respect the people who replaced them."
The honesty and integrity of the brand that Riney created worked for almost ten years.
There was an unattractive side as well. He could skewer people in meetings. He never shared credit with those who did a lot of the work, says Tom Tieche. He could be intimidating to some, says creative director Helayne Spivak, one of those not intimidated. "You learned to stand up to him – Hal didn't like confrontation. You learned not to say anything trivial to him. There was no small talk." He competed with his own people. "If you did something good, he would take it home and do something twice as good," says Goodby.
Goodby, who went on to found with Rich Silverstein perhaps the most successful of Riney-bred agencies, talks of their boss' intimidating style. "It was the release of that intimidation through humor and moments of warmth that made us so attentive and willing. He got better work out of us than we'd ever done before. Any place ever."
"He expected it from himself. And somehow, he got you to know that, and made you expect it from yourself. Better than anyone I've ever met. It pissed you off sometime, sure. But looking back on it, I think it was sometimes more us being disappointed with ourselves, rather than be angry at him."
Working at Riney's agency was "probably like working at The New Yorker in the Harold Ross days," says creative director Paul Mimiaga.
"Style mattered. Accuracy mattered. Wit mattered. He didn't like slapstick or smart-ass humor. He was more middle of the country (like Will Rogers or Mark Twain.) It was a revolution against the New York ad world.
"He was only interested in idea people. Whether they wrote or drew was not important to him."
Riney motivated people with standards -- not compliments. He was so sparing in his praise that it became someone of a running joke.
"That's not a bad memo," he once conceded to then-account executive Jack Rooney, later presenting him a framed certificate at the annual staff meeting: "The Hal Riney Annual Compliment, for The Most Coherent Memo of the Year." Singular. It remains one of Rooney's proudest accomplishments.
David Ogilvy was more extravagant in his praise, proclaiming Riney "far better than I was at my best, and he may be better than any other person I have known in this business."
Early in his tenure with Riney, Goodby describes overhearing him on a phone call with a well-known director, who'd apparently asked what he was doing. After a pause, he said "Not much. Just trying to do some of the best advertising in the whole fucking world."
Goodby suddenly realized something: "At JWT, they talked about being good. Hal demanded it, expected it, did anything and everything to get it, here in this office of 28 people at the time. Weirdly, this tiny place was the biggest of the big leagues. It was like a pick-up baseball team aiming for the World Series. He expected us to be the best, anywhere."
When Riney bought the San Francisco office from Ogilvy & Mather to launch his own agency, there were two large photos in the O&M office -- one of David Ogilvy with his trademark red "braces," the other of Riney about eight years old, wearing suspenders. The last thing he did when he left was to take his photo off the wall.
His elegant, wry style was widely copied, and his disciples went on to found 28 other advertising companies. One of those disciples, Goodby, wrote in an obituary:
"Riney held fast to his roots throughout his life, never leaving the West Coast, which served as a source of inspiration for his body of work. There was little tolerance for fakery. He aimed to reconnect with some inner sense of integrity and trust, a structure than was inside all of us and embodied, he said, in the towering figure of the Western cowboy."
"There are a lot of people in this business," Riney reflected. "But damn few really good ones."
He died at 75 in 2008, from cancer, at his home in San Francisco. Toward the end, Pytka had dinner with him and his daughter. He was enjoying a Chateau Margaux -- "He loved Bordeaux," says Pytka, "and being with his beautiful daughter. He was happy. He passed a few weeks later. A seminal figure in our business."
As a young man, Riney spent summers as the fire lookout on Mt. St. Helens in Washington. He was a gifted fly fisherman, fishing all over the world, an outdoorsman all his life. "He was only truly comfortable in the outdoors," says his former wife Liz Kennedy.
An occasional song-writer, Kennedy composed a piece that starts:
Wading through the shadows
That flicker on the stones
The river holds the boy
And the boy reflects the sun
The water is his anchor
And the forest is his home
The river never leaves him
Like a father scarcely known
Riney was married five times, in addition to multiple relationships. He was a doting father, who wrote hundreds of sentimental letters to his children -- including a poem explaining that the Easter Bunny was actually a lawyer for a special interest group who, once a year, assuaged his guilt by distributing candy.
Asked why he married so often, "I'm an old-fashioned guy," he explained. A contrarian to the end.
Ken Roman, a former Chairman/CEO of Ogilvy & Mather, is the author of "The King of Madison Avenue: David Ogilvy and the Making of Modern Advertising."
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