Ally & Gargano art director Mike Tesch dies at 82
Mike Tesch, the award winning advertising art director who co-created the iconic Federal Express commercials of the early 1980s, died Nov. 11 at his home in Miami after a long illness. He was 82.
Tesch’s wife, Billie Vilano Taylor, said he had long been suffering from the aftereffects of COVID-19, which he contracted in June.
Tesch had a 40-year career in the advertising business, the bulk of which was spent with Ally & Gargano during its glory years as one of Madison Avenue’s top creative agencies in the 1970s and ‘80s.
The pinnacle for Tesch came during his wildly successful run with copywriting partner Patrick Kelly when they generated game-changing national campaigns for the package delivery service Federal Express.
Tesch and Kelly became the most celebrated creative team in the industry with their use of broad but on-message humor to convey the new rapid pace of the business world and the anxiety over getting packages delivered on time. The campaign’s tagline—“When it has to absolutely, positively be there overnight”—became a pop-culture catchphrase.
The company’s most memorable spot was conceived after the team saw an episode of an ABC reality series “That’s Incredible” that featured a segment on John Moschitta Jr., an actor able to deliver perfectly enunciated lines at rapid speed.
They hired Moschitta to be the star of a commercial known as “Fast Paced World,” where he played a hyperactive executive named Jim Spleen. Moschitta applied his tongue-twisting skills through a whirlwind succession of phone calls, meetings and lunches in the spot directed by Joe Sedelmaier. With lines like “I know it’s perfect Peter that’s why I picked Pittsburgh Pittsburgh’s perfect Peter may I call you Pete,” it became a classic.
The Federal Express campaigns won every major industry award from 1978 to 1982 and are included in the permanent modern advertising collection at the Smithsonian Institute. “Fast Paced World” won six Clio awards and in 2008, New York Magazine named it “the most memorable advertisement ever.”
Tesch’s body of work—which included memorable campaigns for Pan American World Airlines, Tonka, Dunkin’ Donuts and the New York clothing store Barneys —earned him hall of fame inductions in the Art Directors Club in 1988 and The One Club in 2004.
Tesch was born on Oct. 7, 1938 in Brooklyn, N.Y., the only child of Phillip and Millicent Tesch. His father was an insurance salesman who would find drawings by his son in the margins of the notebook used to keep track of premiums collected from customers door-to-door.
After attending Far Rockaway High School in Queens, N.Y., Tesch studied art at Pratt Institute, where he graduated in 1959. After stints in the graphics departments at Redbook magazine and Columbia Records, he joined the prestigious New York design firm Chermayeff and Geismar.
Several years later, Tesch made the move into advertising, but was fired from his first agency job in 1966 for protesting the dismissal of another lower level employee. His unemployment was short-lived. Days later, he was hired by Amil Gargano at Carl Ally Inc., (the previous moniker for Ally & Gargano) an iconoclastic creative shop at a time when the biggest agencies were still in the buttoned-down era depicted in the TV series “Mad Men.”
Ally was engaged in one of the most memorable advertising wars of the era, handling Hertz, the leading car rental company, which was locked in a market share battle with second ranked Avis. Doyle Dane Bernbach was the agency for Avis, which had actually acknowledged its status in the business with the tagline “We Try Harder.”
Tesch was put on the Hertz account and delivered his first ad in the program for the World Championship Game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Green Bay Packers, later known as Super Bowl I, in Jan. 1967.
The headline read: “To the loser of the game: Our deepest sympathy.” Underneath a photo of a forlorn football player wearing a jersey with a number 2 in Avis-red, the caption read, “You tried valiantly.” It was an example of the aggressive comparative advertising Ally was known for, executed with a clean, stylish graphic look.
Tesch soon developed his own distinctive approach, using emotion, bold visuals and often a combination of humor and humanity that depicted the beleaguered underdog.
A Hertz ad showed a photograph of man in a wrinkled suit, hunched over with overstuffed suitcases. “Death of a Traveling Salesman,” read the headline of the ad that depicted the challenges faced when, “You’ve just landed in a city that gets only seven inches of rain a year…All on the day you arrive.”
His work on Pan Am promoted overseas travel by showing Americans connecting with their ethnic heritage. (“Every American has two heritages. Pan Am is going to help you discover the other one.”) The campaign helped reverse an eight-year streak of losses for the airline in the 1970s.
Tesch specialized in simple ideas, elegantly staged. The durability of Tonka product was tested in a commercial showing an elephant stepping on a yellow toy truck. A spot for Travelers automobile insurance depicted a brand new car, legally parked on the street, being crushed by a truck backing into it in real time with its owner helplessly watching after coming out of an ice cream shop.
The Boston-based Dunkin’ Donuts was catapulted into a major national chain with a popular campaign featuring actor Michael Vale as the baker who dragged himself out of bed each morning while muttering, “Time to make the donuts.”
But it was the work for Federal Express that led the Washington Post to describe Tesch as “the hottest ad man in New York” in 1983. In the previous four years, the FedEx spots earned a total of 10 gold awards from the Art Directors Club.
Tesch was known for being a tenacious perfectionist at work, unafraid to display his passion. Adweek magazine once called him “Mr. Intense,” a nickname that stuck over his career. “I never want to be embarrassed by anything I do,” he told the Post in 1983.
He rose to executive VP at Ally & Gargano before leaving in 1991 to form a new agency with Gargano.
In 1994, Tesch moved to the Miami area in 1995 and joined the Fort Lauderdale-based agency Harris Drury Cohen. He went on to work for other agencies in the area, including Kelly Roy Swofford and Turkel. He was also briefly a partner in a start-up shop called 3 Ad Guys.
Tesch continued to work on advertising projects while starting a business called TeschPets, where he created custom paintings for dog and cat owners. A cat and dog lover himself, he also did volunteer work on behalf of endangered species.