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Jack Smith on Making Music and Growing People in the Industry

Advertising Hall of Fame (and 'King of the Jingle') Shares His Musical Memories

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Rance Crain
Rance Crain

It was the early '80s, and McDonald's was getting a little nervous. The owner-operators wanted to hit the competitors head on. "It would have been a real ugly war, like political advertising," recalled Jack Smith, one of this year's inductees into the Advertising Hall of Fame .

The fast-food company was running a sweet little campaign called "McDonald's and you." It was, Jack told me in a video interview (see clips below), "all about growing up together. But times weren't very gentle out there. And so we needed something that had to do with the food and yet didn't leave out the heartfelt stuff and the homespun stuff."

Jack Smith has been called King of the Jingle. He's composed music and written lyrics for Leo Burnett clients such as Hallmark, Nestle, 7Up, Schlitz, United Airlines and Heinz, in addition to McDonald's. Jack 's won 20 Clios and three Cannes Lions. He even won Ad Age 's song of the year.

So McDonald's needed something like that with some sizzle in it -- and fast. Sitting at his office piano, Jack and copy supervisor Margie Gaynor wrote the lyrics together and Jack wrote the music. But they still needed a theme line.

"And so Margie Gaynor got off the bus one day and just came into my office. She just came up with the line ... what do you think of this? 'It's a good time for the great taste of McDonald's.' I said, 'It doesn't seem to miss much, in my opinion. It seems to be right on the money.'"

And then, "in one of the greatest presentations that I can ever remember in my life," he said, in came the McDonald's brass. "And I wheeled my little Wurlitzer in this room, and we put a big brandy snifter on it for tips, just in case we got lucky.

"And we just had a big sheet of paper. We scrawled the campaign line on it, 'It's a good time for the great taste of McDonald's.' Stuck it up on the wall and said 'Here's the line, you guys. Here's the song.' Marge and I sang and I beat away on the Wurlitzer and there was, you know, a little reaction.

"So I said 'What do you think?' And they all got up and walked out. And as they left, they all put $20 in the brandy snifter. That just isn't gong to happen these days, you know?"

I said, "No, they wouldn't part with the 20." And Jack said: "No. Right. But that was the greatest presentation I've ever been a part of ."

I remarked that the McDonald's people didn't even confer with one another. They all knew it was great.

"They loved it," Jack told me. "McDonald's is good about that . They go a lot by their instinct. They knew it was right, just like when Margie walked in with the line."

Jack said he never liked the "King of the Jingles" tag. "I don't even care for the word. I think jingles went out a long time ago. Jingles to me are like 'Rinso white, Rinso bright, happy little washday song'. ... But in the 1960s with some of the great advertising that was going on, jingles became songs. And that 's how I got into advertising."

His first musical rendition was his favorite, and the one he holds "the closest." "Mother Country" for United even made the pop charts on the MGM label.

A year before that , Jack said he had had his heart broken. He, his art director and a friend had come up with the idea of using Carole King's "You've Got a Friend" for United. Ms. King gave her approval and the head of United went along, but at the last minute James Taylor, who was living with Carole King at the time, nixed the deal because he "didn't like the idea of selling out to the corporate establishment," as Jack recalled.

The following year Jack and his art director Bud Watts came up with the idea of using the Woody Guthrie song "This Land is Your Land" because it fit right in with United's boast of flying to more places in the land than any other airline.

The Guthrie commercial went a little too well. The next year the Guthrie estate wanted to double the cost of the song, so Jack and fellow songwriter Jerry Liliedahl spent a rainy weekend writing "Mother Country." And it was used one way or another for six years.

"That got me off the pavement after Carole King knocked us down," Jack laughed.

Jack told me what he's proudest of in his career at Burnett is not the music but the job of "growing people." "Because that 's what I was taught to do as a boss."

He said he's seen big bosses produce the work of a young art director and a young creative director. The big boss gets the credit. "But meanwhile, these two youngsters who could be stars are withering away."

Jack added that he always liked to send his young creatives out on their own productions. "And that 's a perk. You work. You sell a commercial. The client buys it. That's great. That's part of the business."

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