These Days He's Carefree, But O. Burtch Drake Still Tells It Like It Is

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O. Burtch Drake (the O stands for Owen, his father's given first name, although he went by Obie) has always been candid and forthcoming. He was president and CEO of the 4A's in 2007, when I called him for a comment about media commissions. He told me he'd "been waiting for years for some media owner to say it's ridiculous" for the media to continue to pay what amounts to fictitious commissions.

So I was curious to see if Burtch was still the same "tell-it-like-it-is " guy when I did a video interview with him on the day he was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame .

O. Burtch Drake
O. Burtch Drake
The ad industry's major hot potato is diversity, and I asked Burtch why it has been such a difficult issue. "I think the biggest challenge is that the advertising agency business does not appear to be really attractive to young minorities yet, despite all the efforts of the portfolio schools, the scholarships that the 4A's are putting up, the work the AAF is doing. I don't know. Nobody has cracked the nut, and it doesn't seem to be, frankly, getting any better."

On a brighter note, one of Burtch's proudest achievements is starting Advertising Week, and he thinks Ad Age missed a great opportunity by not backing it.

The idea for Advertising Week came when the industry was "kind of in the depths," coming out of a recession. The late Ken Kaess, former CEO of DDB and then chairman of the 4A's, wanted a "signature initiative" to boost the spirits of the industry, Burtch recounted. The original idea was a one-day affair that would be centered on an awards show at Rockefeller Center. They took the idea to the ANA, and while they thought the 4A's was on the right track, they weren't convinced the industry needed another awards show. Ron Berger, who was on the 4A's board, suggested they make the event run for a week, modeled after Fashion Week.

That was kind of the thinking behind it," Burtch said. "I always thought that Ad Age should have done Advertising Week, and I always thought Ad Age was a little harsh on the week in its initial coverage. They gave us good coverage, but they were pretty tough on us."

(Our people recall things a bit differently.)

He pointed out that some of the other industry weeks have been developed and run by the major trade publications for those industries. "Frankly, I think it would have been a pretty good thing for Ad Age to do. You guys are the bible of the industry, and my God, you're big in the conference business these days."

However, Burtch said, "I don't think the 4A's will let you have it."

Oh, well. On to another topic. I wanted to know his thoughts on whether media-buying agencies should fold back into general-service agencies.

"To me, the genie is out of the bottle," Burtch said. "They're not going to get them back. I, personally, always thought it was a mistake to separate them. I came out of media myself. I loved being a media guy. I understand why it happened -- because media never really got the respect."

On the digital side, Burtch believes digital agencies are moving toward being fully integrated into the general-market shops. "Digital is going to be everything anyhow," he contended.

Back in 2003 Burtch wrote a piece for us in which he said: "It's time to put an end to the worst practices of disreputable consultants." How does he feel now?

"My sense is that the issue of compensation has pretty much died down, and people are learning to live with the way it is today. That means procurement, that means spec creative, that means compensation consultants and all that goes with that in the agency search process. So I think it was unfortunate. I never thought agencies made enough money when the commission system went away."

In an editorial a few years ago, we said the 4A's needed to address "head on" why advertising and marketing-services companies are not interchangeable pieces, as some marketers seem to believe.

Burtch doesn't see it that way. "Agencies are loaded with really smart, talented people and strategic thinking. They can differentiate brands, and they should be able to differentiate themselves. I think the 4A's can and does provide support, but eventually that 's the agencies' job. If they can't do it, how the hell is the 4A's going to do it?"

I said maybe the agencies feel they'll get criticized if they take time away from their clients to show how they're different from their competitors.

Burtch said one of the reasons his father was inducted into the Hall of Fame was because he wrote "incredible" house ads that appeared in Fortune in the 1930s. "He wrote a famous ad for beer and he got the Rheingold account. He did one for airlines and he got an airline account. I've always thought that a really smart agency might differentiate itself by the things they do best, by creating some great ads [on itself], but it hasn't happened, and it probably won't."

Burtch was not a big fan of agency holding companies -- "I was kind of beat up in my career by some of these holding-company maneuvers" -- but he now sees their value. "They managed their way through the recession, and thank God they had the diversity of assets that they had. So if the general agency was crashing, the digital was coming on strong -- or direct marketing, or PR or whatever. So the concept, I guess, has proved itself.

"It's unfortunate that you don't have these wonderful, great agencies that were stand-alone and weren't publicly held. I never thought the business lent itself to public disclosure and a quarterly business, but, boy, have I been proved wrong."

Burtch thinks he retired at just the right time. The holding companies now provide much of the information and analysis that a trade association used to provide.

"They've got it across a huge raft of companies in great detail, and I think that 's why some of the holding companies themselves don't get that involved in the trade associations."

The ever-dapper Burtch is now carefree in Carefree, Ariz. "I thought my timing was impeccable, frankly."

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