For Industry Vet, Past Was Great, but Future's More Exciting

Howie Cohen Hits Half-Century Mark With Eye on Road Ahead

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Howie Cohen
Howie Cohen

Howie Cohen, who celebrates 50 years in the ad biz this month, isn't one of those guys who laments the good old days. Things are not only cheaper and faster now, he believes, but advertisers can reach consumers in new and smart ways.

Howie, who alongside art director Bob Pasqualina at Doyle Dane Bernbach, created the great line "Try it, you'll like it" for Alka-Seltzer, and later, "I can't believe I ate the whole thing," points out that, thanks to technology, "we can do everything faster. If it took six weeks to create and produce an ad in 1965, we can do it in six days, maybe even six hours in a pinch."

Back then, Howie remembers, "Everything we did was original and new, so we were always reinventing the wheel. That takes more time and costs more. You couldn't just go online and grab an image like you can today. Creative campaigns were basically made by hand. Art directors slaved over layouts, cutting and pasting with a sharp blade." The internet also brings photographs and music on the cheap, and video cameras and even iPhones have replaced expensive shoots.

It was on one of those lavish shoots, by the way, where Howie came up with his most famous line for an Alka-Seltzer commercial (the commercial is in the Clio Hall of Fame). The crew was celebrating the wrap of a commercial shoot in London. "There were 20 of us around the table, and [director] Milos Forman ordered for everyone -- chicken, steaks, lobster. I am a nice Jewish kid from the Bronx, so I ate everything, until I couldn't fit one more thing in my body," Howie told the Los Angeles Times. "I leaned back in my chair and said, 'I can't believe I ate the whole thing.' And my wife said, 'There's your next Alka-Seltzer commercial.'"

Howie also notes that agencies are getting by with far fewer people these days. "The old, and wonderful, 15% commission system is long gone, so agencies need to do more with less, justifying everything we do supported by time sheets, like accountants. How I miss the days of 'pay the creative lots of money and give them time to dream.'"

In terms of "glamour, fun, lifestyle and accolades," Howie told me you can't compare then and now. Creatives were "young darlings, pampered, kind of spoiled. We did amazing creative stuff." And were well paid for their efforts.

Howie started at DDB as its youngest copy trainee at $6,200 a year. He got a raise a year later of $1,000, then jumped to Gilbert Advertising for $12,000, was given a $3,000 raise and then went to Wells Rich Greene for $25,000 -- serious money in the 1960s. As he says, he quadrupled his salary in five and a half years. After that, he started his own agency, Cohen Pasqualina Timberman, then went back to WRG in Los Angeles.

Howie points out that creativity is no longer the number one goal of advertising. "It is to connect with consumers on multiple levels, getting into their lives with all the pieces -- social media, advertising, PR -- working together."

"In the early days, it was more of an us vs. them mentality, creative vs. the suits, advertising vs. PR. There was a lot of unhealthy disdain. Now we're all on the same team, cross-training each other."

Howie is now the chief creative officer at the Phelps agency in Los Angeles. And the name of the game is figuring out how everything fits together. In the old days, the creative work was not shared with anybody until it was considered perfect, but at Phelps, ideas in all forms are posted on a big wall and feedback is encouraged. Instead of departments that are in conflict with one another, everyone works together.

As Howie says, nowadays "ad people aren't the only stars." Everybody is looking for the big idea, and the agency has started something called Brain Bangers' Ball to come up with as many ideas as possible. Ninety to 100 staffers throw out their ideas, putting "more brains on the business," generating faster feedback and hopefully nurturing bigger ideas.

Howie said that today, "we have all kinds of talented people in our business who did not grow up on the advertising side. There are digital experts, SEO experts, web designers, user-experience professionals, along with PR and social-media people. This has created strange bedfellows. We all come from different backgrounds and experiences, but we all need to be on the same page."

Howie likes his new role as "coach, mentor, guide and elder statesman." He says he loves seeing the light in a young copywriter's eyes that sends him in the right direction. "I love helping our teams find that kernel of truth that leads to a great strategy … and I still feel the thrill when we develop great creative campaigns across multi-platforms that help build our clients' brands."

The one thing that hasn't changed over the years, Howie asserts, is what motivates consumers. "There will always be a need to communicate on an emotional level. People will always think with their heads but buy with their hearts." And, he added, the new technology creates a sense of empowerment, where ad people can do more, "and anything that opens up new doors to creativity is exciting to me."

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