100 Most Influential Women in Advertising

What I Learned From Shirley Polykoff

By Published on .

Shirley Polykoff

Senior VP-Creative Director, Foote, Cone & Belding

My mom is pounding the keys of the upright in our living room, my little sister Laurie and I are the backup chorus (the "Shirlettes"), and my father has been roped in, too. We have just tape-recorded "take 26," but there'll be no stopping until we've got it right for Shirley's presentation of her new jingle to the agency tomorrow.

"Take 27!" says Shirley. ("Balls!" you can hear my father say in the background as we belly up to the piano again.) One, two, three, "Chock Full of Nuts is that heaaaavenly coffee" -- doing the final line full throttle -- "Better coffee a millionaire's money can't buy." This odd coda reflects the client's wish, a man of noted wealth, to include in the campaign some reference to himself! But the real reason my mother has written it is strategic: Chock Full of Nuts is more expensive than the leading brand, and Shirley believes any liability can be turned into a position-strengthening asset: You might say she was one of the inventors of spin.

No matter what family you grow up in, you absorb the lessons, the tricks of whatever trade your parents practice. My mother, Shirley Polykoff -- No. 24 on the Advertising Age 100 Advertising People of the 20th Century ("Does she … or doesn't she?"; "Is it true … blondes have more fun?"; "If I've only one life … let me live it as a blonde") -- was passionate about her career, and we kids were treated nightly at the dinner table to the challenges and triumphs of her day at work. We heard so much about it, in fact, that it was the one profession I vowed I'd never enter. But those dinner mini-dramas also conveyed the creative principles Shirley applied to any new product -- an inadvertent education in the craft.

This proved invaluable when, despite my earlier vows, I shifted over from a publishing career to become creative director and then CEO of Franklin Spier, the dominant ad agency for the publishing industry. Here are Shirley's basic three guidelines -- and note, they dovetail.

Think it out square, then say it with flair. This simple idea really works -- especially in reversing a copywriter's tendency to think first of gorgeous, arresting headlines, and second of the product's key benefit. ("Every woman should be a redhead at least once in her life." No one dyes her hair red. It's a market of two people. So, how to suggest it?)

Find the emotional trigger. If you can address a longing in yourself, you can be sure someone else shares the same hidden, fervent wish or anxiety. ("The closer he gets … the better you look." Meaning he'll think you're a natural knockout. Your secret is safe, even in bed.)

Believe the product you're selling is perfect, raise expectations. Never mind the reality -- sell it with your whole heart. ("To Know You're the Best You Can Be" requires products that deliver more than you dreamed.) That came in very handy for me when listing the bulleted reasons, in long copy ads, why some new diet manual or business-management book was going to change your life.

Of the three, the first is key. It applies not only to copywriting, but I find it useful in thinking through any issue where I need to persuade. Does she … or doesn't she still inspire? Yes, "She still does!" Those last three words were Shirley's headline for her final Clairol campaign, and a lot of my otherwise gray-haired contemporaries can vouch for it.

Alix Nelson-Frick is the author of "The Stuff of Legends," a daughter's take on Shirley Polykoff's lifelong collections of memorabilia, available as a Kindle Single on Amazon.com.

See more: Most Influential Women in Advertising: The Innovators
Most Popular