Behind Della Femina's Funnyman Facade: 'I Want to Be Known as Somebody'

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Jerry Della Femina's reputation as a funnyman and a wiseguy have made it difficult for the ad industry to take him seriously. "I think about that all the time," Jerry admits to me in a video interview prior to his induction into the Advertising Hall of Fame.

"I'm working on my speech and I'm working very hard not to say just three words -- 'It's about time,'" he says with a laugh. "Actually, most people thought I was in the Advertising Hall of Fame. ... Yes, I want to be known as somebody."

Jerry points to the fact that he's been connected to many marketing and client successes, such as Isuzu, Meow Mix, Air Wick, Beck's beer and Blue Nun wine as a reason for the assumption. "You don't get these accounts and you don't move these accounts where they went and where they are by being just a funny guy. There had to be some thinking behind it. And I had wonderful people. I had the best staff anyone has ever had."

And a very diverse staff, I might add. Jerry tells me he had more women vice presidents than any other agency. "And I'm talking about agencies that were 10 times our size.It wasn't about, 'Oh, gee, let's do it for diversity or anything else.' It was, 'Let's just do it because it's good for everyone.'"

Jerry also says he believed that young black men and women were going to be the next group to take over the advertising business. He taught a class some 40 years ago at Young & Rubicam to about 20 to 25 black students.

"I still think [back then] there should have been more African-Americans running agencies. Not just having their own agency. But how about being the head of BBDO at the time? Or Doyle Dane? It never happened. And it's sad because it was a whole group of people who could have added to the advertising."

I ask Jerry why the business has done such a poor job on the diversity front. "In the beginning I think agencies were afraid of how their clients would respond," he says. "I had a client who shall go nameless who was really not a big fan of gays." So Jerry assigned a man to the account who was gay, and Jerry told the guy the client would never have the nerve to question him about it. "And he never did. And he got to like the guy, and he thought it was great."

Jerry says he "liked to break rules like that. So we had more gays, more African-Americans, more women vice presidents than any other agency. Not because I'm a great liberal. I'm not, I'm conservative. I'm just practical."

Jerry was exposed to advertising at an early age. Members of his family worked for The New York Times. His dad worked in the composing room for many years and Jerry would go on to work there as a messenger.

"I would see people when I was delivering to advertising agencies, people who had their feet up on the desk, and I'd say, 'Wow, what does that guy do?' I'd find out he's a copywriter. 'Oh, I want to be a copywriter.'"

Jerry writes in his book "From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor" that fear stalked the agency business. I ask if this is still true.

"Advertising agencies have changed," Jerry says. He had made a prediction that small agencies were going to take over. "Boy, was I wrong. The large agencies just got larger and larger and larger. There's big money involved and people are afraid to lose their jobs."

He tells the story of one agency guy who "was one of the meekest men I know and one of the most fearful." But he was a fighter pilot in World War II and had shot down more than 20 planes. So after that experience, why was he so fearful? He told Jerry: "The Nazis were never trying to take away my accounts."

And that, says Jerry, is the source of the fear. "You're going to lose something. And the agency business is always shaky. People are always nervous and people are always afraid."

Jerry is a Brooklyn boy who learned to write by reading Jimmy Breslin columns. "I don't have a gigantic vocabulary. I just have a few words; I move them around fast."

Jerry is not optimistic about the future of the ad business. I asked him if there was any hope for it.

"I don't know. I don't think so," he says. "The leaders of the revolution are dead and buried. And frankly, they're not going to come back. Nobody is going to say, 'I want to go to that agency for their creative' anymore."

One of the reasons that advertising isn't as provocative as it once was, he says, is "you don't get to see the head of any client. He's worrying about the board of directors and the stock market." But that access is a big reason why advertising worked in those days, he says, "and that's why it's now boiled down to people trying to save their jobs, not people who want to do great advertising."

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