'Group think' is muzzling great creative: Calderhead

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The letter-writer's name was vaguely familiar.

The letter, from Richard Calderhead, was in Advertising Age's letters to the editor column last week ("Don't blame the poor creative department," Viewpoint, Sept. 1). Mr. Calderhead didn't want to be identified with any current business affiliation, but in 1967 he had opened New York advertising agency Calderhead, Jackson, specializing in a "tough, direct sell approach" (as we put it), only to see it go under after a recession in 1975. For a while during the early `70s, though, he was running a mildly hot shop.

His advice to other small agencies then has stood the test of time. His biggest mistake, he said then, was allowing a single client to dominate his shop-as happened three times at Calderhead, Jackson. Worse, two of the clients weren't committed to advertising and dumped their ad budgets when times got tough. And there was also a disastrous non-advertising business venture on the side.

In 1989, he wrote a poignant account of the strength and determination of Andrea Phin, his agency partner at the time, who battled (and finally succumbed to) cancer. "She was vibrant, full of energy and wit and quips," he wrote. "Her great sense of style and her business acumen made her a role model for lots of younger women executives. She also knew exactly how to make each client feel important and cared for." Mr. Calderhead said Ms. Phin's name would stay on the agency door. What he didn't say in his article was that she was also his "significant other."

In the letter that we published last week, Mr. Calderhead, an ex- Young & Rubicam, Doyle Dane Bernbach creative man, said, "don't blame the poor creative department" for lousy advertising. "The advertising money is on the Big Battalions," he wrote; "those clients nurture lock-step conformists. The Sorrells of the world know it. They follow the money, do whatever it takes to keep the client happy and laugh all the way to the bank."

But, I asked him last week, what's different this time around? Weren't there plenty of suits back in the `70s who tried to stifle good work?

Back then, he told me, "America was phenomenal"-anything was possible and people could achieve whatever they wanted. Today, corporate America is driven by "group think," where employees are told to shut up and do their jobs. Management has no tolerance for dissent, the Columbia space shuttle disaster, where NASA mission managers gave little credence to warnings of safety problems, being a good case in point. "The mood of the country is so fragile today," Mr. Calderhead said.

What's more, he contended, young people are no longer getting proper training in advertising so they don't even know what rules they're breaking.

Mr. Calderhead, in an e-mail to me, said he didn't want this column to read like "a funeral dirge." It wouldn't be accurate, he said. "A bloody nose now and then, but that's what you get for taking risks."

The man certainly is not risk averse. He said he is starting a new business venture that "rests on 40 years of invaluable ad agency/client experience. Plus all the best of the potential from the dot-com world, which lets us go online while avoiding the goofiness that allowed Webvan to blow a billion dollars."

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