Even at Age 90, the Irrepressible Stan Cohen Covers All the Bases

Often Quixotic, the Ad Age Editor Was a Force for Change in the Ad Industry

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Stan Cohen -- my first boss and my best boss -- celebrated his 90th birthday recently amid a gala get-together of his many friends and business associates.

In his own words, "there's still life left in the old curmudgeon." Stan has always had a fierce desire to right the wrongs of this troubled world, and he is not bashful about getting his views out to a wider populace. In fact, a letter his son Ed (who emceed the event) received from Donald Graham, head of the Washington Post Co., acknowledges the considerable volume of correspondence between Stan and the newspaper over the years and says Stan's viewpoint was even correct once or twice. In all, the Post has published 33 letters to the editor from him.

Stan worked for Advertising Age for 47 years, mostly as our Washington editor and, at the end of his career, as editor of our (short-lived) European marketing magazine Focus in London.

I joined Ad Age in 1960, right out of college, and Stan almost from the start gave me important assignments (such as the Kefauver drug hearings) and gave me the confidence that I could handle whatever came my way. The year after I started working for Stan, I took over the office for three weeks when he went on vacation. Once of the proudest moments of my life was getting a note from Sid Bernstein, longtime president of our company, saying he thought I'd covered "all the bases." Stan made that possible.

Anybody who's watched "Mad Men" knows that the ad business was far different than it is now. For one thing, ad people were in Ralph Nader's crosshairs, as Stan said, "because they defended a culture that assumed unsubstantiated claims and tricky production gimmicks were legitimate sales tools." In his column "This Week in Washington" Stan contended it was in the industry's best interests to clean its own house.

One person who agreed with him was Howard Bell, who as president of the American Advertising Federation started the industry's self-regulation body in 1971. Howard told me that some industry people at the time didn't want to make the decisions public or turn companies that didn't comply over to the FTC. Howard worked with Stan to build favorable momentum for self-regulation by printing some of the cases, and in the end it helped get Nader and the FTC off the industry's back because advertisers had curtailed many of their past sins.

Sometimes our advertisers didn't take kindly to Stan's progressive views. Five years into his career our biggest advertiser canceled its advertising over something Stan wrote. Stan said he didn't learn about it until the advertiser returned a year later. My father, G.D. Crain Jr., who founded Ad Age, told our editor (who eventually told Stan): "Don't tell Stan. It might inhibit him."

For Stan's 75th birthday, his two families concocted new words to old songs (Stan's first wife, Marge, died of cancer after 31 years of marriage; he married Esther in 1978 and she served as "arranger-in-chief" of the 90th birthday celebration). The songs they came up with were updated from a two-horn roast, and were originally created by Esther's daughter Rocky Delaplaine and Stan's late daughter Betsy, who, like her mom, also died of cancer. Betsy's son Jonah "has taken her place on the creative team" for the update.

An animated life history of Stan's life was the work of his son Dan, a documentary film producer who's just completed a 53-minute tribute to the Israeli astronaut who took a Torah from Buchenwald onboard the ill-fated space shuttle Columbia.

But let's get back to one of the songs, to the tune of "To Dream the Impossible Dream." Stan said he expects the family team that penned the new verse "hopes you will see an analogy between Don Quixote and me. As everyone knows Don Quixote was an idealist who bit off more than he could chew. Like Don, I feel it better to try and fail than never to try at all."

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