Lightning strikes in unusual places

By Published on .

Not too long ago, i heard a wonderful story about the "godfather" of American broadcasting, Bill Paley.

In the mid-1920s, in his mid-20s, Paley was a VP in the family cigar business in Philadelphia. While his dad and uncle were on vacation, he took some new steps to market the firm: He bought some advertising time on the fledgling WCAU radio station in Philadelphia and signed a contract to advertise the company's best-selling La Paloma cigar.

When "senior management" returned, they were aghast and quickly wiggled out of the contract. Then something happened. Every time they walked down the street, friends would say: "Hey, Sam, what ever happened to that great La Paloma show?" So they went back to young Bill's radio ads. While other cigar manufacturers lost share to the new manufactured cigarettes, daily sales for La Paloma grew from 400 thousand to 1 million cigars a day.

This story has personal meaning for us at Y&R-but also a broader message for all of us trying to sort out the meaning of the digital drama that's been unfolding all year.

Shortly after his experience with La Paloma, Paley went up to New York and made the rounds of all the ad agencies, asking, "Is there any future for radio as a commercial medium?" Again and again he was told-in no uncertain terms-"absolutely not! It's a flash in the pan."

Then he visited the two young admen who'd worked on the Paleys' Congress cigar account at a small start-up agency in Philly: John Orr Young and Raymond Rubicam. And they alone said: "Go with it. It's going to be great!"

So he went with it. And soon controlled the United Independent Broadcasters and Columbia Net-work. The rest, as they say, is history. In today's common digital parlance, you'd say Bill Paley "got it."

But I have a startling admission to make. When it came to the Internet, I was one who didn't "get it." I was put off by the McLuhan-esque notion that simply being there was message enough. I became road weary after speeding by banner ads that became a non-differentiated blur, like being condemned to an endless turnpike with endless billboards. Even more, I was left cold by those who questioned my worthiness and even my sanity every time I asked a question or raised a doubt. Wall Street was in love. Wasn't that enough?

So you might be surprised to know what I'm thinking now amid all the digital doom and gloom that's being shouted in public forums and whispered in private boardrooms. For today, like my forebears, I'm busy telling my cli-ents: "Go with it! It's going to be great." And ultimately, I believe that is going to be true.

In fact, I'll go one more. Now is the absolute, optimal moment to jump on the digital bandwagon. The time that real meaning and content will start to be defined. The moment we will get over our initial awe of the marvelous technology and start to really learn how to use it to its full capacity.

I realize that's a controversial generalization. Many suggest we've been in this position for years. And there are those who have labored, often with great success, to use the Internet's potential. Look at what accomplished despite its immense profit and margin challenges. Too many others, however, still are baffled. Their content lands somewhere in the middle of magazines and TV. Which is why the rush to establish an Internet presence, aided and abetted by the relative ease in doing so, has created an onslaught of eminently forgettable Web sites, with equally unmemorable advertising.

You may wonder why I am still so confident about the Internet's future. Let me go back to when Bill Paley caught the bug. When radio began, it wasn't much more than an announcer behind a mike, reading the day's newspaper. Then came Jack Benny and the Shadow, Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre and Walter Winchell.

When TV was born, it didn't spring out fully grown either. We've got reels of painfully awful programs and commercials that prove that point. We were pretty clueless at Y&R-but we were in excellent company. Not just with other agencies, but with the fledgling networks that turned to us for help. Soon TV attracted some of the finest talents in many arenas. In the end, TV changed the world.

That great challenge is here once again. We've already had a glimpse at the driving force of great ideas. Witness the Napster phenomenon. From a standing position, Napster didn't just walk, it soared. Napster drew nearly 20% of the online population! It now struggles to reincarnate itself viably, legally and profitably. The end is not certain, but it is clear that what made Napster so seductive to its audience-peer-to-peer file exchange-is here to stay. I would also venture a guess that other equally brilliant ideas are germinating all over the world.

It's up to us to make content the No. 1 priority. With it will come the excitement of creating a medium we know has enormous potential to transform. As CEO and citizen, I want to count among those influencing its development.

Thankfully, I'm not alone. In talking to clients, I'm discovering a weird inverse ratio. The more bearish the dot-com industry, the more bullish our clients are about its possibilities. If there is one message I have for all of them, it is not to fear the creative mistakes that we will make. They're inevitable at this stage. Maybe even desirable (it is surely better to learn as we go ahead than to be paralyzed by caution). If we keep pushing, there will come a day, as the senior Paleys found, for the major, creative-led payoff. The winners will already be on board.

Mr. Dolan is chairman-CEO, Young & Rubicam, a unit of WPP Group.

Most Popular
In this article: