Hall of Fame Copywriter Julian Koenig Dies at 93
A creative force behind some of advertising's greatest campaigns, Julian Koenig, has died at the age of 93.
Mr. Koenig is the sixth person to be inducted into the Copywriting Hall of Fame, in 1966 joining luminaries such as David Ogilvy, Bill Bernbach and Leo Burnett. He is widely credited with creating Volkswagen's "Lemon" and "Think Small" campaigns, the latter of which was named by Ad Age as the top ad of the 20th Century. Mr. Koenig "is a writer of friendly, free-from-bombast ads and declarative sentences," wrote Ad Age's former Editor Fred Danzig of Mr. Koenig at the time of his induction.
The copywriter might not have ended up in advertising had he not been thrown out of Columbia Law school following his graduation from Dartmouth in 1941. Five years later, Mr. Koenig joined the Freund Agency, where he was hired for $21.50 a week. He agitated for a raise to $35, and when it came through decided to up the ante to $60 a week, he told Ad Age in 1982. "Freund reviewed my work and said my radio wasn't good, my print wasn't and I had no future," recalled Mr. Koenig in that story.
Long a lover of horseracing and baseball, he left to work for the semi-pro Yonkers Indians. He later rejoined the agency world, working at Hirshon-Garfield, Ellington & Co. and DDB, where he was hired after impressing Mr. Bernbach with a Hires Root Beer ad he created that never ran. It showed a little boy with the bottle under the copy, "The finest beer I ever tasted." DDB Chairman Emeritus Keith Reinhard, reached in Cannes, said that while he never worked with Mr. Koenig, "his name and his pattern breaking work are held in reverence by all of us at DDB."
Mr. Koenig became a partner in Papert Koenig & Lois in 1960, which was formed, Fred Papert recalls today, mainly because of the opportunity to become the first tenants in the gleaming new McGraw Hill Building. Mr. Papert, now president of the 42nd Street Development Association and himself a copywriter, calls Mr. Koenig "one of the greatest copywriters of all time" who brought in a lot of top talent to the agency. "He was a special character," said Mr. Papert. "He was not interested in honorary dinners. He was interested in good advertising."
The straightforwardness in Mr. Koenig's copy was also reflected in his life. During his induction speech in 1966, Mr. Koenig said "the brute fact is that advertising is not an art form – though it uses forms of art. It is salesmanship in print…When design dominates ideas, you commit a crime against our craft. Esthetics without the cutting edge of ideas is merely self-indulgence. Mastubatory. What small boys are spanked for. Your job is to reveal how good the product is, not how good you are."
During his time at PKL, the agency hit billings of $40 million and created a number of classic campaigns including the Xerox commercial showing a chimpanzee operating a copier; National Airlines' "Is this any way to run an airline? You bet it is"; and the Herald Tribune's "Who says a good newspaper has to be dull?"
Advertising is a business where credits are often fought over, and Mr. Koenig's are no exception –- he had publicly sparred with his former partner George Lois over credits.
But Mr. Koenig's creative genius and wit was never in dispute. Consider an ad he did after leaving PLK to form his own shop, Julian Koenig Inc., for Timex. A takeoff of the "Takes a licking but keeps on ticking" line he is credited with originating, the 1975 spot showed an elephant crushing a Timex. "It worked in rehearsal," deadpans John Cameron Swayze as part of the commercial.
"Frankly, I don't know why I'm here," said Mr. Koenig at his Hall of Fame induction. "I have no omniscience, no gospel, no easy way out and more questions than answers. I recall some 10,000 ads ago when my only expectancy was becoming the world's oldest living copywriter and I finshed each ad with no hope of getting an idea for the next. I may have been right on both counts."