How it looked when TV rocked ad world

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The year 2000 marks not only the 100th anniversary of this 'n' that. It is also the 50th anniversary of a major, everlasting change in advertising and the advertising agency. For it was in 1950 that an advertiser was first able to use TV to reach millions of consumers all at the same time. Why then? Because that's when coaxial cable was hooked up across the country, networking dozens, then hundreds, of TV stations.

The change at ad agencies was profound. All of a sudden they had to cope with the fact that almost nobody knew what TV was all about. Radio, yes -- many, but not all, of the major agencies had been producing radio commercials for a couple of decades. But TV? Pictures that moved and talked to sell stuff? Frightening! Nobody quite knew how it worked. And what you don't know, you're scared of, right? Plenty of agency people were plenty scared of TV.

Thinking about it takes me back to the summer of 1950.

I'm working at the famed Stromberg-Carlson (a name now long forgotten) station WHAM-AM in Rochester, N.Y. -- hired there 18 months earlier to help put WHAM's TV counterpart on the air. Got the job because I was then a radio staff announcer and writer of commercials who also had experience in film production and as an actor and stage manager in the theater.

WRITING RADIO

So at WHAM I'm on the air on the 50,000-watt clear-channel AM radio outlet (heard from St. Louis on the Mississippi to Paris on the Seine), and I'm doing voice-overs and occasional on-camera stints on TV. At the same time, I alternate in the control room as a TV director and, along with everything else, write commercials.

For me, writing radio commercials began three years earlier at the powerful little 250-watter WCTC-AM in New Brunswick, N.J., where I was hired on as a staff announcer but soon found myself doubling at the typewriter. That led to calling on retail advertisers (Muller & New Jewelers, a haberdashery called John's Busy Corner, and the like) down the street -- an invaluable learning experience in the basics of advertising, from copywriting to account handling to client relations.

Now it's the summer of 1950. Here at WHAM Rochester, I yearn to write copy in New York. The Madison Avenue agency with the nearest branch office in western New York is BBDO in Buffalo. I manage to line up an interview with its copy chief, Al Ward. When I show up, he includes the BBDO Cleveland copy chief, Carl Davis, in one of the most fun, most memorable interviews I ever had before or since. Al sends me to Bob Foreman, who heads BBDO's Radio-TV Copy Group in New York.

LUCKY NO. 13

When Bob hires me in August 1950, he has 10 copywriters and two TV art directors, so I'm No. 13 in the group.

Print copy, an entirely separate department, occupies most of the 11th floor of 383 Madison Ave. Its copywriters, I quickly learn, are not enamored of the idea that "TV people" are being brought in to create TV commercials. But I also learn that BBDO, which (according to water cooler gossip) missed the radio boat in the 1930s and became known as a "print and institutional" agency, is determined not to miss the TV boat.

Actually, the agency has long produced a couple of major radio shows -- the "Cavalcade of America" documentary series for Du Pont and the semi-soap opera drama show "Armstrong Theater" for the floor-covering folks from Lancaster, Pa., including, of course, their commercials.

But now it is house-producing "The Hit Parade" (later changed to "Your Hit Parade") for American Tobacco's Lucky Strike cigarettes, and one of my first assignments is turning out jingles for the "Be Happy Go Lucky" campaign, broadcast live on Saturday nights.

Through the second half of 1950, BBDO client after client is ready to buy TV. By year's end, with the completion of the coaxial cable nationwide, I've lost count of the products I've worked on and our 13-member group has grown to 60 copywriters and art directors, and is called the TV-Radio Copy Department.

But the print copywriters continue to look askance at us TV people -- some, we hear, consider us "too show biz," and account execs are still perplexed by the upstart medium. One I can never forget is a man who, on his first day as a reputedly high paid and widely experienced account exec brought in to handle several Betty Crocker products on the General Mills account, looks at a storyboard I'm presenting and says, "Umm, you read this thing up and down or across?"

PRINT FOLKS' PARANOIA

Just how perplexed by and scared of TV are the print-oriented agency folks?

I find out when I'm asked to work up some commercials for the Oneida Community Silverplate account up near Syracuse. We get several storyboards ready. The account exec, Carl Williams, says he wants the simplest but most professional way to present them. So we shoot frame by frame onto a 16mm filmstrip, to be projected using a simple light-weight machine called the Animatic -- a brand name that later becomes generic for all rough storyboarded presentations of ideas.

Two days before the big meeting at Oneida, we show Carl the filmstrip. He declares he can't cope with handling the projector and reading the voice-over aloud, and asks me to join the trip upstate. Flights are all booked so I occupy an overnight Pullman berth on the New York Central to Syracuse. There next morning an Oneida limo and driver pick up the Animatic and me. We drive to the airport, where Williams, art director Harold McNulty (BBDO's head print art director) and print copywriter Jean Rindlaub (then BBDO's first and only woman VP) get off the plane, laden with big wide brown paper-wrapped layouts.

As we pull up to the Oneida headquarters, Carl tells me he wants to start the meeting with my TV presentation. In the board room, I set up the Animatic and thread the filmstrip. A half-dozen Oneida people come in; we all howdy and shake hands. Carl speaks briefly about Oneida's first venture into TV, and I click off the frames as I render the voice-overs.

As I finish, I realize Carl is thanking me and saying he's sure I'd like to have a tour of the famed Oneida Community. He opens the board-room door. Waiting there is a pleasant young lady who escorts me on a tour of the vast community house and grounds.

She watches the time carefully, filling me in on the history of the community -- founded in 1848 on the idea that everybody was considered married to everybody else and that everybody raised all the kids, resulting in countless descendants named Noyes, the founder's name. After an hour and three-quarters, she returns me to the board room.

I find the BBDO people wrapping up their layouts. I have just enough time to pack up the Animatic before the limo speeds us to the airport. I have not been allowed to see a single print layout or hear a word of the plans for a new campaign for Oneida presented by the ad agency I work for.

BBDO's iron curtain between print creative and broadcast creative continues for more than 10 years. During that time, I have the fun of writing countless TV commercials for George Burns and Gracie Allen and Betty Crocker mixes, for Ronald Reagan and General Electric (we take a good three minutes of "GE Theatre" airtime to explain things like how a jet engine works), for Red Barber and Vin Scully and Schaefer Beer, and for dozens more.

The print people don't get in on the fun until some time in 1962, when BBDO President Charlie Brower -- himself an erstwhile print copywriter -- announces a whole new plan: Henceforward, creative is creative, no matter what medium you are writing or art directing for. One department and that's it. Now, 15 years after I started writing radio commercials, I'm writing print as well as broadcast.

Just before then, my office is next door to the corner office of Art Bellaire, who now heads the TV-Radio Copy Department. One day he pokes his head in my door. "Hey, I'm up to my ears," he says, "and I've got some kid coming in from Long Island for an interview. Would you see him?"

`SEND FOR THE KID'

I meet the kid. He's working at a small local radio station out on the island. As he pulls out a bunch of radio commercials, my mind goes back to 250-watt WCTC and John's Busy Corner and Muller & New.

I glance through the pile. Then, entranced, I read carefully. I thank the visitor and we chat briefly about where he's been and what he wants to do. He departs. I go to Art. "The next time you have an opening," I report, "send for this kid."

A couple of weeks later, a copywriter quits the group headed by Dick Mercer in our department. Art tells Dick to see the kid from Long Island. Mercer hires Phil Dusenberry.

Mr. Ryan retired as senior VP-public affairs, American Association of Advertising Agencies, after a long agency career. He has written or ghost-written 26 published books and is the author of "Here Comes the Pitch," a tale of the Brooklyn Dodgers and live TV ads for Schaefer beer from Ebbets Field, which appeared in the March 1999 Ad Age special issue "The Advertising Century."

Phil Dusenberry, now vice chairman-creative of BBDO Worldwide and chairman of BBDO New York, was installed as chairman of the Four A's this month.

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