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AD ACTIVIST CUMMINGS DIES AT 80 LONGTIME AGENCY VETERAN WORKED TO RID MISPERCEPTIONS ABOUT HIS BELOVED BUSINESS

By Published on .

NEW YORK-Barton A. Cummings, who devoted his 58-year agency career to building bridges of understanding and cooperation between his beloved advertising business and government leaders, educators and consumers, died Oct. 9 at his Princeton, N.J., home at the age of 80.

Death was attributed to a pulmonary fibrosis condition.

Mr. Cummings spent his last hours on the telephone, recalling old times with friends like Ken Gill, former managing director of Garland Compton, London;Hearst Corp.'s retired Publisher Ray Petersen; and Milt Gossett, former Compton CEO and now advisory director at Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising Worldwide.

If his height (nearly 6-foot-5), athletic figure (he was an end on Bob Zuppke-coached University of Illinois teams), and dimple-chin, leading-man good looks weren't enough to distinguish him in any crowd, Mr. Cummings could be recognized by the bow ties he alone among his peers seemed to favor.

But as industry leaders past and present learned, there was more to the energetic, forward-thinking Bart Cummings than his bearing. As a lad in his native Rockford, Ill., working odd jobs in his dad's agency, Earl H. Cummings Advertising, young Bart Cummings knew he would pursue an advertising career. And it would be a career devoted to change. He showed concern about what he found to be a misperception of advertising's role in the American economy. He concluded the great enemy of economic and social progress wasn't advertising, but society's deep distrust and misunderstanding of the marketing process and advertising's contributions to it.

After graduation from college, Mr. Cummings was hired by Swift International and sent to Argentina as a production trainee. The plan was to transfer to advertising and sales after six months, but when Swift reneged, he quit and went to work in Buenos Aires selling space for a daily tabloid, El Mundo. There, an American agency executive told him that if he expected to make advertising his life's work, he should get his training at a New York agency. He thereupon moved to New York in 1936 and hired on as a $15 a week office boy at Benton & Bowles.

In 1938, after a stint in B&B's traffic department, he switched to copywriting. His teacher: the legendary Walter O'Meara. Mr. Cummings was promoted to copy supervisor and did client contact on the General Foods account.

He also was given an opportunity for broader service. Encouraged by Chester Bowles, who was leaving B&B in 1942 to become a wartime Office of Price Administration director, Mr. Cummings moved to Washington to serve as an assistant to OPA Chairman Leon Henderson. One of his OPA sidekicks was another transplanted agency executive, Lou Maxon of Maxon Inc.

Commissioned a Navy lieutenant junior grade, Mr. Cummings spent time with the Office of War Information in Washington and then served overseas, commanding a landing ship that saw action in the South Pacific.

After the war, it was friend Lou Maxon who hired him in 1945 as a Maxon Inc. account exec. Two years later, Mr. Cummings joined Compton Advertising in New York as an account exec on Nestle Co. On shifting to Procter & Gamble Co.'s leading laundry soap, Duz, in 1949, he began a 45-year association with P&G. He eventually became supervisor of all P&G business at Compton (now Saatchi & Saatchi).

P&G was to introduce Tide, its heavy-duty detergent, and Duz would fade fast. Mr. Cummings later joked that he and the Duz brand manager, Ed Harness (later to become P&G chairman-CEO), "rode to great success by taking the No. 1 laundry brand down to minor-league status."

Mr. Cummings, Mr. Harness and a brand assistant named Ed Artzt (now P&G chairman) soon persuaded P&G to bring out a low-sudsing detergent to compete with the high-sudsers like Tide. Whereupon P&G developed Dash and assigned it to Compton and Mr. Cummings.

P&G and Bart Cummings were one of advertising's greatest long-running partnerships and mutual admiration societies. The Compton executive once wrote of his P&G friends, "The personalities of these great leaders have differed widely, but their methods and their standards were and are much the same-first-class."

Mr. Cummings helped turn his agency's attention to TV as he saw how it was transforming modern advertising. He became a director in 1952, and that year was elected president of the agency at age 41. He became CEO in 1956, chairman-CEO in 1963, chairman of the executive committee in 1970, and chairman emeritus in 1982.

As Compton chairman, his agency prepared ads for college publications that sought to change student attitudes about the business. In 1961, when the legendary "hard sell" advocate Rosser Reeves' book, "Reality in Advertising," was all the rage, Mr. Cummings expressed shock about the Ted Bates Co. leader's view that advertising people were believers in "ghosts ... voodoo drums ... magic incantations ..." who needed to "begin to look objectively at their craft."

Said Mr. Cummings: "I am convinced that the advertising business stands as one of the most responsible institutions of our economy and of our culture. There are no magic incantations in advertising except on the part of prototypes of ambulance chasing lawyers, quack doctors and fast buck businessmen."

Even as the battle between private label and national brands raged more than 30 years ago, Mr. Cummings was advising brand marketers to project a "stronger personality, quality and integrity, rather than the weaker personality of price. Sell quality and build new values" into brands rather than attempt to emulate the "no-name merchandise."

In 1969, with the agency business undergoing tremendous change, the American Association of Advertising Agencies elected Mr. Cummings chairman and he actively involved himself in the changing business. At the time, agencies were going public, creative boutiques were sprouting, full-service agencies-grappling with a serious profit squeeze as their costs increased-were looking at diversification; conglomerates were moving into the agency business; and consumerism was gaining strength.

An activist leader, Mr. Cummings took to his volunteer role with his usual passion. He also called on colleagues to help change students' attitudes toward advertising. Pointing out that "They do not agree with our values ... They abhor the idea of competing for the almighty dollar," Mr. Cummings believed such attitudes bespoke a need to modernize educational institutions.

He chided the industry for "not trying hard enough" to hire black executives. He headed a study of publicly held agencies, argued the Four A's should allow profit-crunched agencies to own media (a proposal the members rejected) and reiterated his belief that consumerism's lack of information about the marketing process was hurting the business community.

In 1973, as president of the Advertising Educational Foundation, he asked that advertisers, agencies and the media contribute funds to get that organization started. He chaired a joint committee of the Association of National Advertisers, the Four A's and the American Advertising Federation in 1974 that encouraged consumers to familiarize themselves with nutritional labels.

While president in 1975 of the industry's self-regulating unit, National Advertising Review Council, he said "truth and accuracy are more important to consumers in local advertising than in national ads because local ads often contain prices."

And he found time in 1976 to serve on an advisory board for Campaign '76, the in-house agency working to elect President Ford.

Another project Mr. Cummings enjoyed was his book, "Advertising's Benevolent Dictators," an Advertising Age-sponsored collection of his interviews with leading agency executives.

Just days before his death, on Oct. 6, the AAF announced that a Barton A. Cummings AAF Gold Medal would be presented annually to those making a unique contribution to advertising through AAF activities. And his alma mater, the University of Illinois, has established the Cummings Center for Advertising Studies.

The Cummings family asked that friends wishing to memorialize Mr. Cummings contribute to the Center, located at 810 S. Wright St., Urbana, Ill. 61801.

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