The Story of Crain Communications: 100 Years of Family and History

Rance Crain Celebrates Two Anniversaries: Crain Turns a Century, Ad Age Is Better Than Ever at 86

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Gertrude and G.D. Crain, Jr.
Gertrude and G.D. Crain, Jr. Credit: Crain Communications Inc.

This is a big year for us: 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of our family company, Crain Communications Inc. And today, Jan. 11, we also celebrate the 86th birthday of Advertising Age. I've been with our company for over half of those years (yikes!), so I've had lots of time to think about how we got to this very special place.

If I had to name one thing, it would be enthusiasm. My father, G.D. Crain Jr., who founded our company, was a very enthusiastic guy. Dad started Advertising Age in the beginning stages of the Depression, but he said even if he had known how bad things would get, he still would have gone ahead because he had gotten enthusiastic about the idea.

Another important characteristic that got us here is having a distinct point of view. All of our publications -- from Automotive News to Crain's Chicago Business, from Pensions & Investments to Modern Healthcare -- did things differently from the other guys, and so gave readers new information they hadn't seen before and advertisers new opportunities.

Also high up is to treat your people with respect -- nobody has the right to make people feel bad about themselves, and we have always made it clear that such bad characters aren't welcome. While you're at it, make your place a nice place to work and your good people will stay for a very long time, as many of our people have. And by all means have fun -- what's the point of all the hard work without enjoying yourself? If you're having a good time, so will all your people and what a great place to work that will be.

If it weren't for a book, "Advise & Consent," about the machination of Washington, I may not have become a reporter in the D.C. office of Ad Age. I have often wondered if I would have ended up at our company if I hadn't happened to read that novel. It was never cast in stone that I would end up here.

My career at Ad Age began in 1960 after graduating from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. (I was sports editor of The Daily Northwestern when the Wildcats football team ranked No. 2 in the nation after winning its first six games of the season; unfortunately, we lost the last three.) I didn't wait around for the graduation ceremony -- I took off for Washington, D.C., in the green Ford Falcon my parents bought me, and went to work for the Washington editor of Ad Age, Stan Cohen, my first boss and my best boss.

I hope if we're respected for one thing during our 100 years, it's for hiring exceptional people who stay with us for most of their careers. Stan Cohen had a profound impact on Ad Age during his 44 years with us, and so did legendary people like Sid Bernstein (when you received one of Sid's notes telling you what a good job you were doing, it was your proudest moment).

Sid started as an office boy -- he got the job when the guy we first hired didn't show up the next day -- served as editor and publisher of Ad Age and became president of our company.

Sid was the guy my dad relied on most, next to my mother, Gertrude Crain, who played an extraordinary role in building our company and making sure it had all the attributes of a family company. My mom took over as chairman after Dad died in 1973, and before that she served as secretary-treasurer, handling our investments and getting a great return on our money. Mom got the job after Dad set up one of the first profit-sharing plans in 1941. Mom asked him how he was going to invest the money and he said, "Why don't you do it?"

Mom played a tremendous role during her tenure as chairman. She loved to celebrate with our people, and she worked effortlessly and naturally to make everyone feel appreciated and part of our family. And she also presided over some terrific growth years for our company, during which we started or acquired a half-dozen publications, including Crain's Detroit Business, Rubber & Plastics News, Crain's Cleveland Business and Crain's New York Business. When my brother Keith or I wanted to expand, she made sure it made sense and we were totally committed to the project's success.

Dad gained his publishing experience as a newspaper reporter in Louisville, Ky. He later started a business newswriting service, acting as Louisville correspondent for about 100 trade papers, giving out assignments to several reporters as he had done in the city room of The Louisville Herald.

Dad started his first publication, Hospital Management, because there was only one major publication in the field. His idea was to emphasize the administration of hospitals, with the focus on the practical work of superintendents and department heads.

Dad always had a knack for starting publications for trades that existing books largely overlooked. His next publication, Class, was aimed at b-to-b advertisers and he started it not only because he thought the field needed a publication devoted to specialized advertising in business publications, but also as an effective way to promote Hospital Management. (Class was so named because "class" publications were aimed at the classes of people who had the same general functions, like marketing, regardless of the type of business they were in.)

In the 1920s, both of Dad's publications were doing reasonably well, and he was looking for new worlds to conquer. One of the great publications of the day was Printers' Ink, which wrote about how to make advertising more effective but gave little space to news developments in the field.

So Dad started Ad Age on Jan. 11, 1930. In my next column, I'll tell you more about the history of Crain and our publications, including the one you are now reading. Like Dad, I'm very enthusiastic about it.

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