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When longtime agency executives grumble that they're little more than vendors to their clients, it's because they remember a time when they were gurus.

For many of the industry's leaders, the early days of TV were the most exciting time in the agency business. In the post-World War II boom, advertisers were willing to experiment, and they relied on their agencies not only to develop their commercial messages but the programs on which they would appear.

"In the 1950s, agency guys looked great because they were riding on the power of television," says Martin Mayer, who's authored several books about advertising and TV. "It was a world in which everyone watched one of three networks and [an advertiser] could reach 60% of the country with a budget that was affordable."

Large domestic agencies at the time, such as J. Walter Thompson Co., Young & Rubicam, McCann-Erickson and Ted Bates & Co., led Madison Avenue into TV because they handled the package goods and durable goods behemoths, such as Procter & Gamble Co., Bristol-Myers Co., Colgate-Palmolive and Westinghouse Electric.

JWT claims to have staged the first commercial TV show ever, for Libby, McNeil & Libby in Chicago, in 1930. For Standard Brands, now merged into Nabisco, the agency created one of the first variety series in 1946.

"We had the money to do unbelievable things," says JWT Chairman-CEO Burt Manning.

For example, he says, "JWT had a 5,000-person consumer panel we monitored every other week. They told us what toothpaste they bought, what movies they went to and we had people on staff who tabulated answers and made them available to clients." TV gave agencies remarkable status with their clients.

"We felt like we were at the forefront of what was going on," says Alvin Achenbaum, an industry consultant whose first agency job was in McCann's research department. "Everyone watched intently. People listened to the ads intently. It made anyone in TV successful .*.*. including agencies." Indeed, longtime TV executive Sylvester "Pat" Weaver, who became president of NBC in the 1950s, once grumbled that he made better TV shows when he led Y&R's broadcast production department than he did at NBC. The network, he says, was a distribution system and Y&R was closer to the consumer.

Steve Frankfurt, who helped found Y&R's TV art department in 1955, remembers the agency as being one of the most progressive during the 1950s.

"We were the leaders because package-goods companies were the leaders and we had a lot of clients like General Foods, Bristol-Myers and Johnson & Johnson interested in TV," says Mr. Frankfurt, now chairman of Frankfurt Balkind Partners, New York. "But what was thought of as advertising was having a TV announcer holding a cup of Sanka and telling you how well Sanka let you sleep. It was a funny time when TV was dealt with by radio writers, who saw the medium as radio ads with pictures."

In forming a TV department, Y&R wanted a designated group to experiment with the possibilities of the medium. Mr. Frankfurt says the small department operated like a laboratory. Even flops broke new ground.

One controversial idea, the advertising of feminine hygiene products on TV, lived only two days in test in Pennsylvania, in 1960.

"We went to J&J because we wanted to experiment with the possibilities of communicating with women on daytime TV; J&J was highly experimental," Mr. Frankfurt says. "The Modess `Because' campaign ran for two days in test and caused a revolution. We were censored and thrown off the air.

"I don't think [that type of advertising] went back on TV for 10 years."

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