Ad Veteran Curvin O'Rielly Passes Away at 70

Tom Messner Remembers His Longtime Friend

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Longtime ad exec Curvin O'Rielly passed away after a short battle with cancer on Friday, Aug. 3. He was 70.

Curvin O'Rielly
Curvin O'Rielly

Mr. O'Rielly was a respected creative in the ad industry whose career took him through shops across the country, in New York, Chicago and San Francisco. After his schooling at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D., he spent time in the creative departments at Ally & Gargano, Ogilvy, BBDO, Y&R, Hal Riney and McCann Erickson and left his mark on a slew of well-known campaigns.

He helped to bring new life to the dessert category for General Foods by introducing the Jell-O Pudding commercials starring Bill Cosby that elevated the brand over nearly three decades. The work made Ad Age 's Top 100 Ad Campaigns of the Century.

In the wake of the disastrous launch of "New Coke," Mr. O'Rielly convinced Coca-Cola's top management to run the out-of -the-box "Max Headroom" campaign that was a hit with consumers. Also in the beverage category, he was the copywriter behind the Dr Pepper commercial that was the first Grand Prix Lion ever won by a U.S. ad agency at the Cannes Festival.

The following was penned about Mr. O'Rielly by his former colleague, Tom Messner.

EULOGY FOR A COPYWRITER: The late Curvin O'Rielly was a restless soul in a restless business.

He worked at startups (Ammirati, Puris, AvRutick for one and his own agency for another). He worked at near startups (Hal Riney and Partners and Messner Vetere Berger Carey Schmetterer). He worked at humongous agencies (Y&R, McCann, Ogilvy) and minuscule ones (his own and Ammirati at the time). He worked in the Midwest (Ogilvy and Fallon ), the Far West (Riney), the upper Northwest and Madison Avenue, Lexington Avenue (McCann) and Sixth Avenue (BBDO). He missed toiling on Ninth Avenue as he left Ally before the moving vans went west from 437 Madison.

He was the direct inheritor of the virtues and foibles of David Ogilvy, Carl Ally, Hal Riney, Martin Puris, Amil Gargano -- five successful creators of brands who came at tasks differently, but equally successfully. He knew their thinking and approaches not from their books or speeches or articles, but from their living, breathing personas because he worked closely with all of them -- and contributed to their reputations substantively.

If you agree with me that automotive ad/marketing requires the deepest concentration and perhaps the most mature skills, Curvin displayed such concentration and skill for the launch of two automotive brands (BMW and Saturn) and the relaunch of another (SAAB) and he could slide from that kind of empirical heady persuasion to the shimmering constructs of Jell-O.

He was not a mere executor and not a mere strategist. The one time I was lucky enough to hire him for a series of difficult tasks, I told him it was because I wanted him to be both Bernbach and McKinsey, a worthy objective if an impossible one. At the very beginning of internet marketing, he worked on what was arguably (an argument continued most recently in Advertising Age) the first integrated print-TV-internet advertising campaign.

He was a friend who never tired of political arguments or literary discussions.

He had a quaint infatuation with liberal politics that was not tempered by his reading of Dostoevsky on Kindle. Last time I saw him he had driven down from Saratoga and, because I mentioned that Saratoga water was my favorite sparkling water (an addiction), he dropped off a case of Saratoga at my front door, direct from the plant or the springs. We went to lunch and he told me (31 years after he worked on the account) what SAAB could do in 2011 to improve its market share and extend its viability. He clearly was a true believer -- far more than I could ever muster.

The only mistake we made simultaneously was in 1986 when his restlessness and my stubborness caused him to withdraw from our partnership before incorporation, business cards, agency Christmas parties.

Curvin, requiescat in pace. But let's hope no end to the restless spirit.

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