Louis Hagopian Gave N.W. Ayer Its Human Touch

Remembering the Legacy of Ayer's Former Chairman and CEO

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Credit: Crain Communications Inc.

On my office wall in New York, along with pictures of family and other people and occasions important to me down through the ages (including a photo of me and my hero Ernie Banks), there's a framed picture of an ad N.W. Ayer & Son ran in commemoration of Ad Age's 50th anniversary in 1980, headlined "Advice to a Friend on Reaching 50." The ad features me and Louis T. Hagopian, former chairman and CEO of Ayer.

Lou died Jan. 9 after a short illness at the age of 90. N.W. Ayer, founded in 1869, is no longer with us either, and neither is its most important invention: the commission system.

Ayer, at the time of our 50th, had a slogan, "Ayer makes human contact," and in those days, agencies had their own distinct personalities.

There was "the man from Cunningham & Walsh," who went into clients' stores to gain experience; there was Benton & Bowles' "it's not creative unless it sells," to show that the agency knew how to move the merchandise (it had better: Procter & Gamble was its big client); there was Young & Rubicam's "the whole egg," for its pioneering approach to integrated marketing.

Ayer was no slouch at coming up with great slogans for its clients. My all-time favorite slogan is the one the agency created for Morton Salt over 100 years ago: "When it rains it pours." Ayer also did "I'd walk a mile for a Camel," and under Lou's lead Ayer created "Be all you can be" for the U.S. Army and "Reach out and touch someone" for AT&T. "A diamond is forever" is also out of Ayer.

In Ad Age's list of the 100 top ad campaigns of the 20th century, Ayer had seven mentions, topped only by DDB with nine.

Lou Hagopian started in sales for General Motors in 1947, after graduating from Michigan State University. Six years later, he moved to Chrysler Corp.'s advertising department, where he worked on Dodge and Plymouth. When he joined Ayer in 1960, he said, the transition was seamless. "I left the Plymouth division on Friday and on Monday was management supervisor on the Plymouth account at Ayer," he told the Associated Press in 1985.

Lou moved up the ranks at Ayer on the account side of the business, and in 1976 the agency appointed him its sixth CEO. During the 13 years he ran Ayer, the agency's billings went from $220 million to $1.3 billion. He worked hard to shed the provincialism that had permeated the agency from its formative years in Philadelphia.

In the interview with the AP, Lou said the biggest problem in the industry was "the relative lack of stability in its relationship with clients. Accounts change hands far more than they should, and it is the fault of both clients and agencies," he said.

Agencies that failed to meet performance standards such as market share or product awareness may deserve to be fired, Lou told the AP. But he added that agencies were too often indiscriminately fired because of a client's impatience or desire to appear decisive.

Ayer might have run into that indiscriminate firing when it got dismissed on the 7Up account even after the client credited Ayer with "substantially improving the volume of the company's brands leading to record increases." Lou said in a memo to employees that "given what we've done for 7Up, that's a difficult decision to understand."

But then Ayer really got hit by a buzz saw. The agency received great acclaim for its "Be all you can be" ads for the U.S. Army at a time when enlistments were plummeting in the wake of the Vietnam War. But a scandal erupted when the government accused an Ayer employee of taking kickbacks from a New York film production company, and the agency was stripped of the account. (No charges were filed against Ayer.)

Ayer bounced back by making up for the $100 million loss and made big headlines when, in 1987, it won the largest account switch in advertising history up to that point. Burger King moved its $200 million account from archrival J. Walter Thompson (which also claimed to be the country's oldest agency) that year. But the restaurant chain was going through major management changes at the time. And Burger King owner Pillsbury was acquired by Great Metropolitan. Throughout this turmoil, the Burger King franchisees were squabbling about marketing strategies. The final blow came when Bob Garfield, our ad critic, gave Ayer's campaign "We do it like you'd do it" a devastating review.

"Getting and losing that account was probably the worst thing that happened to us," Pat Cunningham, chief creative officer of Ayer at the time, told The New York Times. "At one point we were working on 120 projects for Burger King. We weren't thrilled with the ads, we were being good soldiers. Then we got a bad review from Garfield and it was downhill from there."

Lou Hagopian stepped down as chairman in 1989 (he had given up the CEO title earlier in the year) to become vice chairman of the nonprofit Partnership for a Drug-Free America, which he helped found.
In his farewell remarks, Lou pointed out that his Armenian heritage made him the first "ethnic" to be chief executive of the oldest agency in America. His successor Jerry Siano, he said, was also "ethnic." The company "after too long a time, is open to Armenians, Italians, Irish, Jews and women.

"But it's not enough," he added. "This industry, like this country, must open its doors to African-Americans and Latinos.

"When the first ethnics came into this industry in the early 1960s, they gave it new life, a great excitement. When the next ethnics join them, bringing the vibrancy and energy of African-American and Latino culture with them, I believe there will be a new renaissance, a new golden age of advertising."

Four years after Lou's retirement, a Korean investor bought Ayer for $35 million. After that, the agency was kicked around like a beat-up football, punted by such entities as the McManus Group and Bcom3 until it disappeared altogether, after 133 years, when Ayer was absorbed into the Kaplan Thaler Group.

The merged agency didn't assume the iconic Ayer name because the Kaplan Thaler Group "doesn't carry the weight of a lot of history with it," Linda Kaplan Thaler told the Times at the time. Ironically, last June, Publicis, which scooped up Kaplan Thaler, changed the name of Publicis Kaplan Thaler to Publicis New York.

In a letter to our editor, one marketer said he read about the passing of Ayer with "great sorrow."
What impressed him most about Ayer, he wrote, were its people. The agency had a corporate mantra, "Ayer makes human contact," and in its offices were signs reading, "To Ayer is human." When the agency was led by Lou Hagopian, Jerry Siano (who succeeded Lou) and Patrick Cunningham (chief creative officer), "it truly described the corporate culture."

Lou's friendliness and openness were widely known. John Bowman, CEO of the Bowman Group and an Ayer alum, said he first met Lou when he was 23, starting at the agency. "He came from New York to the Ayer building where I worked at West Washington Square in Philadelphia. I was waiting for the elevator when he walked in. Much to my amazement, he greeted me by name!

"I was stunned that he even knew who I was. He smiled and asked about what I was working on and how it was going. He made a lasting impression on me that day in regarding what it means to be a leader, not just a boss."

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