JERRY, ME AND THE MAILROOM: THE RUTHRAUFF BOYS WENT FROM LUGGING LETTERS TO SPINNING AD IDEAS

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In 1956, Jerry Della Femina and I (and 10 other guys) worked as mail boys for 40 bucks a week in the now-defunct Ruthrauff & Ryan ad agency.

Ruthrauff was about to merge with Erwin Wasey. Both agencies were billing roughly $50 million each. In a matter of months, the consolidation proved to be a financial catastrophe and earned Jerry his first memorable quote: "It's the first time that two $50 million agencies merged to form a $40 million agency."

Life in the mailroom was tedious, and all of us hated our lowly status. We also hated that guys at Benton & Bowles were making $45 a week and wearing uniforms. We thought of nothing but getting out and getting into copy, art, research, media-one guy even wanted to become an account executive.

Day after day, Jerry and the rest of us pushed shopping carts filled with mail around the agency and delivered it to people who mattered, who deserved a report or message of some kind. It was embarrassing, but not humiliating.

NICELY DRESSED `IDIOT'

What was humiliating was lugging a big gray bag of mail to the post office. It was like wearing a sign that said: "I may be dressed nice, but I'm an idiot."

Three times a week someone was chosen by our pale and decrepit mailroom manager (who must have been 70) to lug the dreaded bag. It was particularly rough on Jim, the Princeton grad, because the post office was right next door to the Princeton Club.

Jerry, just 19 with blond hair and a crew cut, refused to do it. "I will not lug," said Jerry.

Actually, he paid other guys in the mailroom to do it for him. And he wasn't cheap. As I recall, Howard with the deep "DJ" voice and Mario the ex-pilot-who were not such egomaniacs as the rest of us-were frequent volunteers and made quite a killing. Or at least never had to eat lunch out of a brown bag.

To my knowledge, only three of the 12 guys in the mailroom ever got jobs as copywriters. There was Jerry, Evan Stark (speecy, spicy meatballs) and myself. But none of us could break into the mediocre copy department at Ruthrauff. Any copy submissions had to go through Tom Foolery, a red-face copy supervisor who wouldn't have known a good idea if he ate one.

Although it's not widely known, Jerry was fairly shy and self-effacing in his earlier days, and needed a push to get started. Another little-known fact is that I am the push behind Jerry. It was I who first said: "Shave and oil your head-it'll make you stand out!"

`PEARL HARBOR'? BEEN DONE

When he decided to write his book about the Japanese, he wanted to call it, "Remember Pearl Harbor."

"Babe," I said, "it's been done."

"How about `Sneak Attacks by Sneaky People'?" he blurted out.

I patiently explained that it needed more charm, more wit.

Finally he came up with "From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor." I loved it; he went along; and the rest is history.

Rather than dwelling on my many contributions to Jerry's success, I'll give you one more example and let it go. I was the one who suggested he marry the beautiful Judy Licht. "A TV reporter with a bubbly personality could do a lot for your career," I recall saying.

The truth is, I was never at a loss for innovative ideas and had so many I didn't mind sharing them. During my 30 years as a copywriter at some of the world's biggest ad agencies, I enjoyed putting inventive spins on words like Free! New! Amazing! And, Buy One get One Free!

But long before I charmed the advertising world, I worked my magic as a sign writer. I suppose my most significant achievement was Stop! It was a model of pithiness. Come to a Complete Halt, for example, would have been all wrong.

I'm also proud of Bump, Men Working, No Spitting, Do Not Disturb, 10 Items or Less, Beware of Dog, Take a Number, Out of Service and Employees Must Wash Hands Before Leaving.

LOW PROFILE

As for Jerry, I guess he's keeping a low profile. Except for the restaurants, the grocery stores, the agency and owning his own newspaper, he's been rather subdued.

Jerry, if you're reading this, and you want to review some of those self-promotion stratagems that launched your meteoric rise, you can reach me on the Web. The address of my new humor magazine is http://www.looselywrapped.com.

It's a shame adpeople don't start their careers in mailrooms anymore. Looking at corporate life from the bottom rung not only toughens you up, it creates a strong incentive to climb.

Look at Jerry and me. He became a legend. And I no longer deliver mail or go to the post office.M

Mr. Lowe retired from N.W. Ayer & Partners, New York, in 1994, after a career that included stints at Young & Rubicam, McCann-Erickson Worldwide and other agencies. He is a writer and edits the Web humor magazine titled

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