Hall of famer speaks: Riney pronounces 30-second ad dead

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The TV commercial is dead, according to the man who spent a 47-year career honing its art through his own work and by lending his voice to the work of others.

Hal Riney, who stepped aside as chairman of Publicis Groupe's Publicis & Hal Riney earlier this month, now says the Internet is the best means of reaching consumers.

"After at least two generations of television bombardment in the U.S., the magic of traditional advertising is no longer magic," declared Mr. Riney, a member of the American Advertising Federation Hall of Fame ranked by Ad Age as the 30th most influential person in advertising's last century. "The audience easily dismisses most of the messages they see or hear. As a result, more and more clients are abandoning conventional brand advertising in favor of efforts offering more immediate returns, i.e., coupons and price promotions."

Mr. Riney said the Internet "offers a better and far more extensive resource for information than the costly, predictable and often virtually ineffective 30-second commercial."

Mr. Riney, who turns 70 next month, has lent his voice to more than 200 commercials over the years and said that voice-over work accounted for 45% of his income at one point. It was also his commercial, created as part of the Tuesday Team that helped Ronald Reagan get elected in 1984. As part of the "It's morning in America" campaign, Mr. Riney created "The Bear," a spot that used a lumbering black bear as a metaphor for the Soviet Union during the Cold War era.

Now, with his original three-year Publicis contract concluded, Mr. Riney is working on a contract extension as chairman emeritus for the agency he founded in 1986, a title selected for "an opportunity it offered for others to assume some of the titles and responsibilities I'd vacated. That, I'm sure, will all happen."

He declined to comment on who those executives would be, and what role they would play. Publicis' Chairman-CEO "Maurice [Levy] is going to have some say in how this agency evolves," he said.

Mr. Riney's pronouncement comes as the agency he founded grapples with evolution. Publicis & Hal Riney, now with about 200 employees and an estimated $525 million in billings, has wrestled for a long time with how to move to the next generation. Currently, the agency's creative direction is shepherded by agency President Scott Marshall, who oversees its creative teams. He insists the shop will not be overhauled despite the loss of the $300 million General Motors Corp.'s Saturn account and its subsequent failure to win the $160 million Hyundai Motor America business.

`RINEY-ESQUE'

For a time, Mr. Riney said consideration was given to taking his name off the door. Eventually, "the consensus was that we might lose more than we'd gain," by doing so, he said.

However, Mr. Riney's name on the door also presents another challenge, since his familiar voice and tug-at-the-heartstrings style has become something of an ad genre that has been dubbed "Riney-esque" in the style of his defining E. & J. Gallo Winery's "All the Best" campaign and Saturn's "It's Spring in Spring Hill."

"Rightly or wrongly, incorrectly or correctly, for better or for worse, Riney's work has been tagged," said Russel Wohlwerth, principal of agency search consultant Select Resources International, West Hollywood, Calif. Even though some of his most famous work is of a different style, such as his Bartles & Jaymes ads for Gallo, the tug at the heartstring is "what he has come to stand for and what the agency has come to stand for," Mr. Wohlwerth said.

Mr. Riney acknowledged the issue, saying clients often came to his shop-and to other agencies as well-for commercials of a particular genre.

He also expressed consternation about the agency's loss of Saturn-a signature account for Mr. Riney, who was key in creating the breakthrough positioning and advertising for its "Different kind of company, different kind of car" campaign. Mr. Riney said Publicis' Mr. Levy, as is his custom, failed to consult other agencies in his holding company about the purchase of Saatchi & Saatchi, agency for Toyota Motor Sales USA, which drew fire from Saturn.

That alone, however, was not the reason the account went into review, Mr. Riney said. Changes at the client "fore-ordained" a new agency would be selected. "If we had Jesus Christ as the spokesman, it would have made no difference at all."

He's also miffed that after a 10-year relationship the auto maker did not spare the shop an expensive pitch. "It was discourteous," he said.

Mr. Riney, who said he loathes the idea of retirement, has mulled opening a new ad shop, one with a new organization better positioned for the future, likely consisting simply of a handful of creative thinkers freed from today's strategy-based ad development processes. "We've got to start rethinking the whole thing," he said of the agency business.

But don't expect Mr. Riney to put his name on the new shop's door. Publicis, he said, owns his name.

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