Y&R carries proud past to WPP but is Steve Frankfurt missing?

By Published on .

Those who forget the past are doomed not to repeat it.

This adaptation of the hoary old saw is meant to be a rumination on the uses of history in the advertising agency business. The aphorism may apply to Young & Rubicam, by anyone's estimation one of the grand agencies of the century just past, one where history has--historically, at least--been an important part of its self-image. Then again, maybe the bastardized maxim doesn't apply to Y&R at all.

But it was inspired nonetheless by a conversation with Stephen O. Frankfurt. Steve was one of the great agency's greats. But he believes Y&R has written him off; in a 75th anniversary celebration of the agency, published almost two years ago in Advertising Age, his successors barely mentioned him. The neglect rankled.

Steve Frankfurt was the boy wonder of Y&R. He was only 28 when he was made a vice president, back in 1960, when mantles like that were not placed on shoulders so young. But he'd earned the position--and a lasting place in the annals of modern advertising--by propelling agency and industry into the television age.

An art director, trained at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute, Mr. Frankfurt was one of the first to see that TV was not a branch of live performance, but an evolution of the cinematic form. It thus needed to draw upon all the tools in the film director's kit to lure in the audience emotionally and subconsciously.

Video advertising to that point had been a pitching machine set on fastball--a primetime parade of demonstrations, standups and endless selling propositions. Bill Bernbach had begun to change advertising's affect, but his work was mostly in print. With his love of cinema and Y&R as his palette, Mr. Frankfurt helped extend Bernbach's revolution to TV.

He hired young art directors who, like himself, dreamed of Hollywood and leapt at the opportunity to bring its essence to Madison Avenue. Memorable campaigns for Eastern Airlines, Johnson & Johnson, Dr. Pepper and others emerged from his creative department, which essentially staffed the TV ranks for the rest of the industry for years to come.

Such accomplishments usually make a man an eternal icon. Bill Bernbach's agency never forgot him--to the contrary, he remains its lode star, just as Jay Chiat and Lee Clow will forever be the stimuli to future generations at Chiat/Day, no matter how many ownership changes it endures. They are unifying influences, symbols of pride, the men and women whose accomplishments successors point to with aspirational envy.

Why does Y&R ignore Mr. Frankfurt--if it is indeed ignoring him? Certainly the politics are complicated. Although he rose through the ranks to the position of U.S. president alongside Edward N. Ney (who became chairman, CEO and architect of Y&R's greatest growth), Mr. Frankfurt's differences with Mr. Ney helped propel a parting of the ways.

But that was many years and careers ago. Other agencies have papered over their politics to celebrate their successes. I well remember a packed Doyle Dane Bernbach reunion almost a decade ago, when one retired executive, espying another across the restaurant, gleefully excoriated "John Q. Dickhead" to a phalanx of nodding colleagues. But they were all there partying, differences aside.

Young & Rubicam, on the doorstep of an epochal ownership change, needs to remember. From the moment I started writing about the agency some 15 years ago, its elders were engaged in an almost public fret over their inability to reignite the creative fires that in earlier decades, under Raymond Rubicam and George Gribben, had burned within.

The agency cycled through creative directors, announced new beginnings and, frustrated, started the cycle over again. Once, I asked a senior executive why, given the company's manifest success in so many areas, it bothered with all the creativity claptrap. He looked at me as if I was from Mars. "Because that's our joy," he said.

Today, recapturing the essence of the past is more than a joy; it's a necessity. The past often has specific lessons to teach the present.

David Ogilvy's principles of selling are not only relevant to the Internet age, they've helped guide his old agency into the forefront of interactive marketing. But beneath the specifics, there is a more significant truth: In a time of rapid, continual change, all organizations need to know the essence of what and who they are, lest they dissolve into meaninglessness.

Copyright September 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

In this article:
Most Popular