Mitzi Perdue on Frank: It Took a Tough Man to Choose the Right Ad Agency
It was 40 years ago that my late husband, Frank Perdue, became one of the first CEOs to appear in his own commercial, with the tag line, "It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken."
But before there was a chicken, there was an egg -- the advertising agency that created it all. And this is the story of how a small-town chicken farmer from Maryland found that shop, which helped him turn a father-and-son egg business into a multibillion-dollar international poultry company with more than 20,000 associates and sales in 114 different countries.
In the late 1960s, when chicken was viewed as a commodity, Frank decided to do what no chicken farmer had done before. He took a 10-week absence from running his company, went to New York and began a full-time study of the theory and practice of advertising.
There were people in New York, like Allen Kosovsky, one of Frank's early distributors, who remembered him back then as being so "countrified" that it was "as if he were wearing high-button shoes and a straw hat."
One of his first steps was joining the Association of National Advertisers, so he could access their library. In addition to reading books and papers on advertising, he talked with the sales managers of every newspaper, radio and TV station in the New York area. He also created a grid of food stores that might purchase Perdue chicken, and talked with hundreds of these potential buyers about what they wanted to hear about chicken.
When it came to selecting an ad agency, he interviewed 66 of them, and from those, narrowed the selection to six. "The finalists had billings of $19 million, $15 million and $12 million," Frank told me later. "I didn't go to any of the big ones because I figured I wouldn't be important to them."
Then he began systematically calling the clients of the six finalists to find out what kind of experiences the clients had had with these agencies. In the middle of this process, he got an angry phone call. "Why are you calling my clients?" demanded the president of one of the agencies, his voice bristling with irritation.
"Because," Frank answered coolly, "I can't tell by looking in your eyes whether you are a priest or a crook." With a certain relish, Frank continued his phone calls to the rest of the man's clients.
Even today, Ed McCabe, the copywriter who eventually made Frank famous, still remembers exactly how many agencies Frank interviewed and how many finalists there were. "I know this for certain," McCabe said in a recent email to me, "because we all spoke to and commiserated with one another on a regular basis about the hoops Frank was putting us through."
As told in Esquire Magazine, McCabe said, "You know, Frank, I'm not even sure I want your account any more because you're such a pain in the ass." Unperturbed, Frank agreed with McCabe's judgment and went right on asking more questions.
Barbara Hunter, a friend from PR firm Hunter, MacKenzie, Cooper, was one of Frank's sounding boards at the time. She remembers the progress of the search, and looking back on it, she told me, "I've never ever seen anyone so thorough. The amazing thing is he did all the research himself, rather than delegating it to someone."
On April 2, 1971, Frank made up his mind: It would be Scali, McCabe, Sloves, an agency that had been in business five years and had total billings of $12 million. Marvin Sloves, the agency's president, wrote to Frank, "If you spend as much time inspecting your chickens as you have our agency, you've got to have the best chickens in the world."
The initial problem copywriter McCabe faced was that with chickens, whatever selling point the copywriters came up with, a competitor could quickly copy it in their advertisements.
McCabe remembered, "Nobody had ever advertised a brand-name chicken before, and just looking at Perdue and listening to him was a new experience too: He looked a little like a chicken himself, and he sounded a little like one, and he squawked a lot. And about four or five weeks into the assignment it just clicked: 'Here's the answer.'" McCabe concluded that Frank Perdue himself should be the spokesman. Frank, he rightly decided, could give the campaign a unique identity that couldn't be copied by a competitor.
Initially Frank resisted the idea. It may be surprising to learn, given how famous Frank later became, that he was a shy man who hadn't even appeared in a school play.
Nevertheless, McCabe was able to convince Frank that having Frank Perdue himself was the best way to solve the imitator problem. The campaign based on "It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken" was born. Or hatched.
The ads paid off. In 1967, yearly sales had been $35 million. By 1972, after a year of "It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken," sales had leapfrogged to $80 million. The advertising budget for the first year was $200,000.
According to a July 13, 1971, column on advertising that appeared in The New York Times, the campaign was off to a flying start soon after Scali, McCabe and Sloves got the account. "In some New York area shops, at least, quotations from Mr. Perdue will become far better known than those of Chairman Mao. Examples: 'Freeze my chickens? I'd sooner eat beef!' 'My fresh young chicken is cheaper than hamburger. Good for you, bad for me.' 'Everybody's chickens are approved by the government, but only my chickens are approved by me.'"
The real story here is that a man who grew up on a chicken farm in a small town in Maryland figured out the importance of advertising; believed in it enough to act on it; had the mental courage to plunge into a field -- and a way of life -- that was entirely foreign to him; was willing to do the research himself as opposed to delegating it to others; and once he had made his decision, was willing to put himself in the hands of the professionals.
For the record, Frank admired the power of advertising, but he was always acutely aware that advertising by itself was not enough for success. He loved to quote Bill Bernbach, saying that "Nothing will destroy a poor product as quickly as good advertising."