American Association of Advertising Agencies

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On June 4, 1917, the New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston advertising associations and the new Southern Association of Advertising Agents formally announced the formation of the American Association of Advertising Agencies at a meeting in St. Louis. (The advertising agency business had tried unsuccessfully five times since 1872 to form a national association in the U.S.)

The five regional groups became the original councils of the Four A's, which started with 111 charter members. William H. Johns of George Batten Co. was the group's first president (the role subsequently called chairman). Later in 1917, James O'Shaughnessy sold his Chicago agency and moved to New York to become executive secretary (later called president) of the association, its first paid post and one he held until 1927.

Since the formation of the Four A's coincided with U.S. entry into World War I, one of the earliest actions of the new association was to urge its members to sound a patriotic note in ads in support of the war effort. In December 1917, the Division of Advertising of the Committee of Public Information office opened under the auspices of the Four A's, with a government charter to coordinate all wartime campaigns, including advertising for the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, liberty bonds, victory loans and the Red Cross.

Media relations

In 1918, the association adopted a document, "Agency Service Standards," which defined agency service for advertisers and publishers, discouraging the less professional while encouraging those equipped to provide effective services. While advertising agencies traditionally had acted as agents for the media, that changed as more agencies began creating and placing ads on behalf of advertisers.

Pressure to form an association had come from the media, particularly newspapers, whose growth was hindered by abuses and inconsistencies in procedures on the part of advertising agents. By the same token, agencies wanted to strengthen their bargaining power with the media and protect themselves in the face of ongoing media consolidation.

Along with its "Agency Service Standards," the Four A's in 1918 issued a media rate card that standardized reporting of media rates and allowed agencies to evaluate the media more effectively. In 1920, it published the first standard order blanks-copyrighted forms that facilitated relations with publishers and eventually covered all media. By 1921, the Four A's had helped obtain for agencies a uniform commission of 15% from most publishers.

The Four A's Standards of Practice was adopted in 1924, and its Creative Code was incorporated into the document in 1931. This statement of standards is a professional code of ethics and defines topics such as fair competition among agencies.

From the organization's inception a grievance process was established to address complaints against members for violation of Four A's codes of practice. In 1945, the Four A's established a committee to deal with objectionable advertising. The Four A's Interchange of Opinion (1946) enabled members to register comments. If two or more complaints were received, they were passed on to the offending agency, which could then take corrective steps. Shortly afterward, the Four A's put more bite into the procedure by authorizing the ejection of any member that refused to cooperate.

Educational efforts

The Four A's established its Educational Foundation in 1967. Originally designed to act as a bridge between advertising and university research, the foundation funded several academic research studies on marketing and advertising topics and jointly sponsored projects with the Marketing Science Institute and the National Bureau of Economic Research. (In 1983, the Four A's Educational Foundation merged with the Educational Foundation of the American Advertising Foundation to form the Advertising Educational Foundation.)

In response to concerns from critics that advertising was often misleading, the foundation underwrote an academic research project on the miscomprehension of advertising and other forms of communication. The result was a report published in 1980 by Jacob Jacoby, titled "Miscomprehension of Televised Communications," that showed that the public misunderstood about 30% of all communications, not just advertising. In fact, the study found that viewers understood a larger percentage of advertising than programming content.

The Four A's Multicultural Advertising Intern Program was established in 1973 and, in its first 25 years, placed more than 1,000 minority students in advertising agencies as summer interns. Many of those interns went on to careers in advertising. In 1997, the Four A's Foundation began to provide scholarships to advertising students from various cultural backgrounds with a goal of providing a more diverse pool of practitioners. (Proceeds from the association's prestigious O'Toole Awards help fund the foundation.)

Promoting advertising

Over the decades, the Four A's has undertaken many projects to improve the image of advertising among consumers and to demonstrate the value of advertising and advertising agencies to clients. Among those efforts, it retained Hill & Knowlton in 1961 to make recommendations for a public relations program for advertising. The result was a 1964 benchmark study of consumer attitudes toward advertising, subsequently published by the Harvard Business School in a 1968 book, "Advertising in America: The Consumer View," by Raymond A. Bauer and Stephen A. Greyser. A follow-up study resulted in the 1976 book "Advertising and Consumers: New Perspectives," by Rena Bartos and Theodore F. Dunn.

Four A's committees have worked with each major medium to resolve issues of mutual concern. In the early 1980s, the Four A's Newspaper Committee approached newspaper associations to reduce the number of standard advertising units accepted by newspapers, simplifying the agency production process and stimulating growth of newspaper advertising. In the 1990s, the Four A's and the Association of National Advertisers formed CASIE (Coalition for Advertising Supported Information and Entertainment), a joint task force to foster advertising's role in interactive media.

In 1985, Phil Joanou, chairman-CEO of Dailey & Associates, called upon the Four A's to help wage a war of unprecedented scope on illegal drug use. Acting on that call, the Four A's in 1986 enlisted other advertising and media groups to create the Media-Advertising Partnership for a Drug-Free America.

Contemporary concerns

The Four A's spent 80 years as the association for traditional full-service advertising agencies, but the 1990s brought sweeping changes to the industry. Advertising agencies no longer just created ads and bought media but also performed a host of marketing services, including public relations, direct marketing, sales promotion, interactive projects and corporate identity programs. In 1998, in recognition of the new realities of the advertising business, the Four A's changed its constitution to open up membership to marketing communications companies in addition to advertising agencies.

The structure of the Four A's serves its three basic aims: to foster, strengthen and improve the advertising agency business; to advance the cause of advertising as a whole; and to aid member agencies in operating more efficiently and profitably.

The association is based in New York, with offices in Washington and San Francisco, and is run by a paid president-CEO and governed by a national board of directors composed of chief executives from member agencies.

Each of four regions (Eastern, Central, Southern and Western) has a board of governors elected annually by member executives in its region. The Four A's regions are further divided into 26 local councils representing metropolitan areas. Councils sponsor activities of local interest such as seminars and training programs. The Four A's has 47 committees that represent the major functions of agencies and marketing communications companies. The committees work with related industry groups and suppliers to solve industry problems.

The association provides member services that include management surveys and advice, secondary research on U.S. and international topics, media and production information and printed guides, and a Web site ( The Four A's also represents the agency business in negotiations with talent unions. Its Washington office, which opened in 1969, monitors federal and state government activity and works to protect agencies and the advertising industry against burdensome legislation and taxation.

In 2004, the Four A's had 437 member agencies with more than 3,000 offices in 293 cities in the U.S. and 1,190 offices and affiliates in 135 countries. The membership comprises agencies ranging from large multinationals to small and mid-sized shops across the country. Its members handle approximately 75% of the total advertising volume placed by agencies in the U.S.

Four A's chairmen since 1967 have included Barton Cummings, John Elliott Jr., Richard Christian, Ed Ney, Stuart Upson, Eugene Kummel, Paul Harper, Louis Hagopian, Charlotte Beers, Keith Reinhard, Alex Kroll and Shelly Lazarus. Presidents of the Four A's have included: John Benson (1928-43), Frederic R. Gamble (1944-61), John Crichton (1962-77), William R. Hesse (1978), Leonard S. Matthews (1979-88), John E. O'Toole (1989-93) and O. Burtch Drake (1994-present).

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