Copywriting legend Neil Drossman died Nov. 25 of cancer at age 83. Drossman, who began his career during the Mad Men era, first earned fame at Della Femina Travisano & Partners before going on to open a number of agencies bearing his name. Here, leading industry creative Lee Garfinkel writes about Drossman’s impact on the ad world and his own career.
Once I read Jerry Della Femina’s book, “From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor," I knew that I wanted to get into advertising.
After months of working on my portfolio, I decided to finally show my work around. I very naively decided to call Della Femina’s agency. And I remember the conversation I had with the receptionist.
“Hi, can I please speak with a creative director?”
“Which one?” she asked.
“Any of them would be fine.”
I don’t know if she laughed or not, but she did connect me with a creative director named Neil Drossman.
Little did I know that she not only connected me with a creative director, but she connected me with one of the best writers in the business.
Our conversation was short, but he agreed to look at my portfolio.
On the day of our meeting, I had two interviews lined up. One was with a well-known creative director from a big agency who hated my work.
The second was with Neil, who also didn’t like most of my ads. But Neil’s comments were the exact opposite of the first guy and I really liked his point of view.
Probably feeling sorry for me, Neil took a couple of award show books off his shelf to show me what good advertising looked like.
The books were filled with Neil’s ads.
Seeing his work transformed my views of what advertising could be. Each headline was smart, funny, insightful, unexpected and thought-provoking.
I didn’t know that advertising could be so clever and feel so fresh.
Neil’s Teacher’s Scotch ads written in the voice of famous comedians were simply brilliant. They were so good that people like Groucho Marx, Mel Brooks, Tommy Smothers and Zero Mostel never changed a line of Neil’s copy.
For Mel Brooks (dressed as a caveman holding a glass of scotch while sitting on boulders), Neil wrote “2,000 years ago when you had a scotch on the rocks, you really had a scotch on the rocks.”
For Groucho, Neil’s headline read “Whenever I think of Scotch, I recall the immortal words of my brother Harpo.”
The body copy for all of these ads was equally brilliant. Imagine long copy ads that people actually enjoyed reading.
Neil also wrote ingenious headlines for Emery Air Freight. Over a photo of the world-traveling Henry Kissinger exiting an airplane, Neil’s headline simply read, “Emery flies to more places than he does.” Another lesson learned. Using current events to make your advertising relevant and fresh.
When Purina introduced a new cat food called “Meow Mix,” Neil wrote the great tagline, “The Cat Food Cats Ask For By Name.” A turn of a phrase, a twist on a cliché, a wordplay, a pun. Neil could take anything and make it fresh and provocative.
His headline for Chemical Bank’s local branches read, “Flatbush Ain't Flushing.” How do you read that headline and not want to read the body copy?
At the end of my interview with Neil, he said, “Now go home, write some more ads. When you have 12 that you like, come back and show them to me. If I like them, I’ll recommend you to a few people.”
That short time with Neil changed everything. It was the best advertising lesson I ever had. It changed my perception of what advertising could be and just as importantly, it gave me hope.
True to his word, Neil met with me again a few months later. He looked at my work and occasionally banged his fist on his desk. I realized much later on that when Neil banged his fist, it usually meant he liked something.
Finally, he closed my portfolio and said “Here’s a name. Call this guy.”
Luckily for me, that guy was the super talented John Russo. And thanks to Neil, John hired me at Levine, Huntley, Schmidt, Plapler and Beaver. Which was one of the best creative shops in New York.
Once I started working, I never stopped looking out for the latest Neil Drossman ad. The list of his groundbreaking work is limitless.
One piece that many copywriters say is their favorite Neil ad is for Goodwill Industries. The visual shows a man in a wheelchair fixing a TV set. The headline reads, “What you see here is a TV set repairing a man.”
I always looked forward to his weekly Einstein Moomjy carpet store ads in the New York Times. Imagine looking forward to reading advertising? For a carpet store?
But that’s part of what made Neil’s work so special. It didn’t really feel like you were reading advertising. Neil’s work not only sold, it enticed and entertained you. His ads made you smile.
Once when I was at Lowe and Partners, I needed to hire a freelance writer. I called Neil who was working at his new agency, Ryan Drossman. Neil said as a partner in a new agency, he couldn’t freelance. So I did exactly what you would expect, I hired his entire agency.
Years later, when I was chairman of the Andy Awards, I asked Neil to be a judge. At the judges’ dinner, I thanked Neil for helping me out and for changing my life. He seemed a little shy and maybe perplexed by how important he was to me.
Over the years, we had become friends and perhaps he even forgot about those first two times we met. Which in retrospect makes sense. Neil has helped and inspired so many great creative people, how could he possibly remember every person or moment.
But I for one, will always be thankful to this brilliant genius and the time he spent with a naïve guy from the Bronx.