Advertising Hall of Famer Bill Backer Dies

Legendary Adman Penned Coke's 'Hilltop' Among Other Iconic Campaigns

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Bill Backer, who created Coca-Cola's iconic 1971
Bill Backer, who created Coca-Cola's iconic 1971 Credit: T.J. Kirkpatrick/The New York Times

The man who taught the world to sing has passed away.

Bill Backer, a longtime creative at McCann Erickson before going on to co-found Backer & Spielvogel, died May 13 following a brief illness. It was just three weeks short of his 90th birthday.

Mr. Backer was best known for the famed Coca-Cola "Hilltop" commercial of 1971. But he was also behind a bounty of great advertising for Campbell Soup, Miller Lite, Wendy's, Hyundai, Avis, Beech Nut gum and more. Among the classic campaigns created by the musically gifted Mr. Backer are "Soup is good food" for Campbell and "Here's to good friends, tonight is kind of special," for Lowenbrau.

"I was always envious of Bill because he had a grand piano in his New York office," recalled Tony Adams, a former Campbell Soup marketing executive. "David Ogilvy was my advertising hero, but Bill Backer was not far behind."

Both an Advertising Hall of Famer (inducted in 1995) and named one of Ad Age's 100 Most Important People in Advertising in 1999, Mr. Backer made his name at McCann, where he worked for 25 years, leaving as vice chairman and creative director before forming his own agency with Carl Spielvogel, Interpublic vice chairman, in 1979. It opened with one client and was sold within seven years to Saatchi & Saatchi after it had rocketed to nearly $500 million in billings.

"Bill was a unique individual. A very creative, opinionated person who did brilliant work. Coca-Cola will testify that some of the most outstanding work for them over the years," said former Interpublic Chairman-CEO Phil Geier. "He always ran a tidy ship. He not only hired well, but was able to keep the good ones on board. Every so often, he would let an account guy have an opinion. He was a delight to work with and I enjoyed our years together."

One of Mr. Backer's most enduring campaigns was "Tastes great, less filling," for Miller Lite, which the AAF Hall of Fame website says was born out of a rare musical creative block. "Unable to come up with music and lyrics for a new beer, Miller Lite, he cobbled together a tough-guy script to be used as a short-term introduction in a few test markets," according to the Hall of Fame. "The results were successful, and as a result, the Miller Lite All Stars, with their famous argument of' 'tastes great' versus 'less filling,' became one of the longest lived and best liked campaigns in the history of advertising."

Mr. Backer. who also authored a book, "The Care and Feeding Of Ideas," has been quoted as saying "Miller Time" was his favorite ad creation.

While Mr. Backer's agency brought the world many memorable campaigns, including putting Dave Thomas into Wendy's advertising, his legacy may well be the Coke commercial which, thanks to "Mad Men," introduced the then 88-year-old Mr. Backer to a new generation. The final episode appeared to show Don Draper dreaming up "Hilltop" while at an ashram, bringing reporters to Mr. Backer's doorstep to talk about the show -- which he told the Wall Street Journal he had stopped watching after two years.

Here he is interviewed about the story behind "Hilltop."

"That was Bill," said his wife, Ann Backer, of the "I'd like to teach the world to sing" lyric. "He felt that way."

When asked by the Times whether he was anything like Don Draper, Mr. Backer said: "People that worked for me seemed to think I was like Don. They thought I was bedding a different girl every night and I let them believe it. But if I had really done that, I wouldn't have had any time to create the ads."

In that 2015 interview he lamented the state of the advertising business today. "I guess computers and robots will run the world eventually. But the human side of the business has gone out of the marketing business," he said. "Building brands is about making them human and personal. Today, I guess the agencies don't have the time to make brands have a personal connection."

Backer & Spielvogel was eventually merged by Saatchi into Ted Bates Worldwide and was renamed Backer Spielvogel Bates in August of 1987. In 1994, the agency dropped the name of its founders and became known as Bates Worldwide.

But the shop remained well-loved by its former employees, who staged a reunion in 2008 that drew 200 people and spawned a social networking site celebrating its success.

Raised in Charleston, S.C., Mr. Backer spent his later years on Smitten Farm in The Plains, Virginia, raising horses and cattle. He and his wife Ann were married nearly 33 years.

"Bill's only other enjoyment besides his wife was his horses he owned," said Mr. Geier. "If he broke even, he was happy. He was one of the best."

Contributing: Rance Crain

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