A proud tradition of house ads

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Is there any profession so willfully ignorant of its own history as advertising? Ask a doctor about the history of viruses, ask a lawyer about the court system in the 19th century, ask a professor about curriculum changes in the 1940s, and they can at least bluff something. But ask someone in advertising about the history of the commission system, or what product placement was like in early radio, or even the genealogy of the great agencies, and you will be met with a look of dumb amazement.

That's not because people in advertising are not curious; they are, insatiably so. Maybe it's because people in advertising live in the present, always looking for the next wave, and don't care about the tsunami that came crashing through yesterday. Or maybe it's because they feel slightly ashamed and hence want to be reminded that selling stuff has always had a checkered history. Or maybe (and here I grind my own ax) it's because advertising departments have neglected advertising history in favor of hands-on, how-to courses.

I was thinking about this the other day after I unwrapped a present sent to me by a friend in California: a bound copy of issues of Fortune magazine from May to August 1939. Bound in calf's skin-soft, still supple light brown leather, the volume was from the library of Clark Gable, given by his widow Kay to my friend who, knowing how I love old ads, sent it to me.

Fortune was once the vade mecum of the Masters of the Corporate Universe. All you have to do is flip through these old issues to smell the money and power. Doubtless that's why Mr. Gable went through the trouble to have them so lavishly bound. I doubt if he perused the volume I now hold because the binder's notes are still stuck in the pages and some of the pages are uncut and folded together. But it's clear why they would be worthy of a shelf in any man's library: They show proximity to power.

In this context it is interesting to look at the ads. They are beautiful to look at-glowing color on lush 80-weight paper. The ads are from the usual suspects: heavy-equipment makers, builders of factories, big city banks, insurance companies, cigar makers, whiskey distillers, golf clubs, cruise ships and ... advertising agencies. In fact, ads from agencies make up the most frequent category behind the steel companies and the burgeoning plastics industry.

Advertising agencies had a cozy relationship with Fortune almost from the get-go. Raymond Rubicam, quoted in Julian Watkins' book "100 Greatest Advertisements" (Dover Publications, 1959), tells how this happened: "[O]ne day Harry Luce and Dussosoit Duke (then with Time Inc.) came into my office with a dummy of a new magazine to be called Fortune. I was so struck with the idea behind the magazine that I immediately bought a 12-page schedule for Young & Rubicam. Duke, who was advertising director for Fortune, told me then and says now that ours was the first schedule bought in the book. Anyway, I know we were given our choice of position, which was the so-called Campbell Soup Position-the first page following reading matter."

Mr. Rubicam is pleased with this placement for a reason lost on us today. It's hard to believe, but until after the Second World War, ads were separated from editorial content by a Chinese wall, a vestige of the hostility magazine editors initially felt as advertising encroached on their territory. Ads were ghettoized in the back of the book as a way of displaying who was in control. The editor, not the publisher, called the shots. The prize position in the Saturday Evening Post was the first page after content, and the Campbell Soup Co. locked it up. Today, things are totally reversed, so that in a magazine like Vanity Fair, editorial content is shuffled to the back and advertisers vie for prime position before the editorial content. In fact, the privileged position is in the first handful of pages.

Right behind Young & Rubicam's ad, on the very next page, is J. Walter Thompson's ad, as if to say, "Hey, don't forget we're here, too." Sprinkled through the rest of the book are ads from the likes of Lord & Thomas, Benton & Bowles, Blackett-Sample-Hummert, and others now long forgotten, absorbed into global holding companies.

These agency ads are a kind of adverting almost unseen today. They are house ads, the self-conscious voice of this new and suspect character in the marketplace. These ads are like a Mobius strip drawn by Escher: ad agencies advertising ad agencies. The agency struts its stuff. Mr. Rubicam himself was responsible for what is possibly the greatest house ad, which ran off and on in Fortune for 20 years.

House ads do more than foreground the agency. They unfold the concerns of the business community. If you look at house ads before the Depression, you see that agencies invariably promoted themselves as purveyors of data and technique. We buy space, we monitor the numbers, we make a pitch, and you close the deal. We promise impact. The best place to see what these early house ads looked like is Duke University's online collection from the J. Walter Thompson Co. archives (http://scriptorium.lib.duke.edu/eaa/jwt.html).


But when you look at the house ads of the late 1930s you see something quite different. Agencies had sold themselves as sellers; now they were selling themselves as long-term compatriots and collaborators.

In a two-page ad from Blackett-Sample-Hummert in May 1939, an entire page is devoted to listing client logos while the body text trumpets, "The fortunes of an advertising agency are a barometer of the progress of the clients whom it serves. For an agency can only prosper indirectly. Its clients must prosper first." The agency, initially famous for developing the soap opera, went on to become Dancer Fitzgerald Sample, eventually acquired by Saatchi & Saatchi.

A few pages later, J. Walter Thompson foregrounds the success of Pard, a dog food from its client Swift & Co., whose annual sales have skyrocketed thanks to JWT's advertising. The next month Thompson's ad makes the same argument with another of its clients, Kraft. Under the headline: "He [James Lewis Kraft] helped double a staple industry," JWT implies that Kraft and Swift are partners of the agency and that this partnership is rock-solid-just like the Rock of Gibraltar, an image developed by Thompson for another client, the Prudential Insurance Co., and subject of other house ads.

A few pages after this June ad from JWT comes one from Lord & Thomas (to become Foote, Cone & Belding). Here it's just a list of clients and how long they've been with the agency. The argument is the essence of simplicity. The question is not "Can we sell?"-but "Can we preserve a relationship over time?"

In the July issue there appears a house ad of the same ilk, a two-pager from Benton & Bowles (to become part of D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles). The point is once again that the client and agency are joined not at the checkbook but at the hip. So candid is the agency that it even lists its disappointments. To the query: "Have you ever lost any accounts?" the agency replies, "Yes. In 1931, a cosmetic company which, in the past 11 years, has tried seven different agencies." And, "In 1935, a well-known company, which we lost through our own mistakes-mistakes that taught us a very valuable lesson." As if to make sure we don't forget such candor we are later told that Benton & Bowles "tell[s] our clients when we feel they are wrong-even though our disagreement may, at times, seem impolitic. And at all times to have the courage to recognize and admit our own mistakes."

When you hear agencies today moaning about how they have become just another transient supplier, when you hear clients complain that agencies have become interchangeable parts of worldwide conglomerates, when you look at ads and wonder which of 100 agencies could have produced the product, remember that such was not always the case. Advertising agencies did have voices, voices that were quieted during World War II and then finally stilled in the 1950s and '60s as agencies went underground.

Agencies had shown in the 1920s that they could sell, and they had demonstrated in the 1930s that they could forge powerful alliances with producers. After World War II they certainly didn't need to show the American people that they were responsible for manipulating desire and causing us to buy all that stuff we didn't really need. Vance Packard and John Kenneth Galbraith did indeed stir popular sentiment against advertising. And the agencies skedaddled from the pages of Fortune.

Such a pity that the house ad is now a thing of the past. From time to time one sees an agency, usually a new one, try its hand in a venue like Advertising Age. And of course agencies come front and center when they receive awards or are given retrospective articles in professional publications. But that a large agency will speak in public is unheard of. Why? Maybe because with new remuneration systems agencies feel they would be seen as wasting clients' money. Maybe they feel the case for selling has already been made. Or maybe they feel they no longer have the confidence to have a voice, let alone to raise it in public.

There's another reason that might be seen by looking at these house ads of the 1930s. Is there any agency today that would dare make the case that it is in a long-lasting relationship with its clients? Any agency that would dare to list its clients and the number of years they've been together? Any agency that would foreground its client's success as a way of proving agency expertise? Not bloody likely. In the era of manic free agency, in which all parties hopscotch-better yet, slam dance-their way from partner to partner, no one would consider such a proposition, let alone act on it.

I don't mean to wax nostalgic about how things were, but rather to point out that if the history of advertising shows us anything, it is that relationships among clients, agency and media have been ever-changing. This may not make one less depressed about the quicksilver conditions of modern advertising, but it does show the role of lowest-cost supplier has not always characterized the client/agency relationship. In fact just as the Depression was ending and before World War II began, the relationship between producer and salesman was candid and stable. And trusting. Little wonder this was advertising's golden age.

Mr. Twitchell teaches advertising at the University of Florida and is author of "Adcult USA: The Triumph of Advertising in American Culture" and "Twenty Ads That Shook the World" as well as "Living It Up: Our Love Affair with Luxury" (forthcoming).

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