Mr. Michel first began working in the agency world almost 50 years ago; he helped invent Procter & Gamble Co.'s first TV soap opera. He was in on the birth of one of the classic programs of TV's Golden Age, "Ford's Fiftieth Anniversary TV Special," starring Mary Martin and Ethel Merman. Half a decade later he was still working his magic, this time for another automaker, helping create the "Chrysler Showcase."
Talk to Mr. Michel and you learn almost as an aside that he once ran Voice of America and was hauled before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the '50s As head of SSC&B's media operation for 12 years, he developed a reputation as a tough negotiator. Now in his 80s, Mr. Michel is still at it, as senior partner-programs and broadcast affairs at BJK&E Media, New York.
For career accomplishments that are singular in this industry, Advertising Age is presenting Mr. Michel its first Media Maven Lifetime Achievement Award.
DAY TO REMEMBER
Werner Michel will never forget the day he married his current wife.
"It was Feb. 12, 1969, the day the upfront broke," he recalls. "And everyone in the industry was at my wedding. One of CBS' top salesmen, Jimmy Rosenfield, was my best man. His boss called in a frenzy, worried that I was getting Jimmy drunk."
What's most striking about the story today is that the network TV upfront marketplace, a ritual now frequently associated with Memorial Day, used to begin on George Washington's birthday.
The upfront market gradually shifted later and later, Mr. Michel says, because producers wanted more time to work on the new shows, and networks wanted to keep the excitement going between the upfront buying season and the start of the fall season.
Born in the Alsace region of France, he spent most of his youth in Vienna, learning to be a musicologist. With Hitler's rise, Mr. Michel's family fled, finally arriving in the U.S. in 1938.
HIRED IN 1940 BY CBS
Being multilingual, Mr. Michel was hired by CBS in 1940 to listen to news programs on a shortwave radio and put whatever news value they had into English.
It was there he first started creating shows for radio. Because of his language skills, he was recruited by the Voice of America, where he wound up as director of the VOA broadcast bureau during World War II, working with legendary broadcasters from Edward R. Murrow on down.
"My neighbor during the war in London was [CBS founder] Bill Paley," Mr. Michel recalls. "After the war he said, 'Why don't you come and see me?' and I was rehired at CBS in the program department."
In 1951, he left CBS to work at Kenyon & Eckhardt, where he produced "Ford Theater," a 90-minute TV show that lasted another two years. Those were the days when agencies and clients owned almost all the shows on TV.
"The show was on every other Friday night on CBS," Mr. Werner says. "Henry Ford was very involved in it. But Friday night, it turns out, was the night everyone went out in Detroit, so his buddies never saw the show.
"So one day he tells me, 'Why am I putting this on when none of my friends ever sees it?' He canceled the show."
APPEARS BEFORE CONGRESS
Not long after, Mr. Michel found himself summoned before the House Committee Un-American Activities.
"Some actor didn't think I used him enough, so he said I was a Communist and God knows what," Mr. Michel says.
Also, he once had produced a comedy on TV in which a colonel chased a young woman around a desk in the War Department.
"The committee had a problem with it because the woman character was married to another soldier," says Mr. Michel, explaining, "In those days it was considered unpatriotic."
Fortunately, the committee believed him when he said he wasn't a Communist, he says.
After K&E, Mr. Michel went to the fledgling DuMont Network to head up programming.
"Mr. DuMont was a fascinating guy," Mr. Michel remembers. "He practically invented television, but he never understood you needed programming, so he wouldn't give us any real money. We presented him with a plan to produce programming for the entire week, which would have cost him $5 million. We said, 'If you do it now, you'll be a real network and survive.' He bought one show, that was it. So DuMont fell apart."
Then Mr. Michel got a call to help develop the first half-hour TV soap opera. P&G had told one of its agencies, Benton & Bowles, to take the radio show "Perry Mason" and make it into a TV soap opera, Mr. Michel says, but unknown to the agency the "Perry Mason" TV rights had been sold to CBS for a prime-time show.
"We holed up in a hotel room and created 'The Edge of Night' in four weeks," Mr. Michel says.
Two years later, he found himself at SSC&B as head of television, which included programming, media buying and commercial production. He stayed there 12 years.
When top ABC programmer Fred Silverman asked Mr. Michel to come out to Los Angeles in the '70s as a top lieutenant, Mr. Michel couldn't resist. He stayed on the West Coast long enough to develop "Fame" and "CHiPS" at MGM.
IN NEW YORK FOR GOOD
He then returned to New York for good, joining BJK&E.
Michael Drake, president of BJK&E Media, says, "Working with Werner for the last 11 years has really been one of the highlights of my career. He's one of the true innovative programmers in our business, and it's rare for such people to work at agencies anymore."
Just last year Mr. Michel came up with one of his most innovative deals. He was making the rounds of the networks with a top PepsiCo executive, looking for a way the marketer could break through the commercial clutter.
An ABC executive mentioned the network "had just hired [actor] Dana Carvey," Mr. Michel recounts. "My eyes lit up and I asked, 'What are you going to do with him?' "
Mr. Michel helped design a package where various PepsiCo divisions would practically "own" Mr. Carvey's new prime-time variety show, or so it would appear. The products would be integrated into the title of the show each week.
"It was the first example [in TV of] tasteful, appropriate.*.*.product placement," Mr. Michel says.
When the show began, however, PepsiCo found itself associated with an opening skit that many felt was tasteless.
"We tried to stop the sketch," says Mr. Michel. "Unfortunately, the producer wouldn't listen. The next morning all hell broke loose, and I agreed with the client that we had to pull out. I was very disappointed."
Would he try something like that again? Mr. Michel's eyes light up at the suggestion.
"I'm always looking," he said. "I haven't found anything like that again, but