Images of the Great Depression certainly conjure up really, really tough times. Whatever economic inconvenience we're experiencing this year would be considered a boom time back in those days.
The beginning of the Great Depression in 1930 was the time my dad, the late G.D. Crain Jr., chose to start Advertising Age. What he had going for him was not much money but lots of optimism, which he somehow held onto during a six-year struggle to show a little black ink.
In words that still apply in today's downturn, Dad said: "It was very hard for Advertising Age to get business when media were reducing their promotion during the Depression, not increasing it. But I found out that enthusiasm was a great factor."
When Dad would make calls on the magazines and newspapers of the day, he'd launch into a very animated pitch on the attributes of Ad Age. At the conclusion, his listeners would say, "You really believe all this stuff, don't you?" And Dad would respond: "Yes, I think it's great!" And then they said: "We can't give you any business right now, but when we start promoting again you'll get the business." And we did.
When Dad started Ad Age, the news of the advertising world was a completely unknown area. There were no newspaper advertising columns and no regional publications; ad news was simply not being reported. Our major competitor, Printers' Ink, was basically a how-to-do-it magazine. Any reports of account changes were printed in the agate type at the bottom of the page.
Dad didn't have any reporters at first. In Chicago, where we started, he was writing stories and the editorials. His brother, Murray, was managing editor, and he had nobody else helping in Chicago. We had one person in New York, who was the New York editor. Dad's crew used the telephone a great deal, and they watched for news breaks in the daily papers and on radio. They dug up a lot of exclusive stuff, but it wasn't easy.
Dad always thought there were advantages to starting out in such awful times. "Looking back, I have the feeling we might have been lucky in starting in the Depression, because if we had started under more favorable conditions it's quite possible other people would have been able to establish a publication with much better facilities than we were able to muster with our limited resources. But we worked it out, adding to our staff as our revenues grew, so little by little we built up a successful operation. It took a lot of time and effort," Dad told me in a tape-recorded conversation that we published in a booklet, "I Always Wanted to be a Publisher."
Dad had a very good employee, Ellen Kebby, who was in charge of office operations and accounting. She kept the wolves from our doors by negotiating with our printer and paper suppliers, "and, apparently without telling me, she kept our credit in reasonably good shape," Dad recalled.
He said he was never in doubt that Ad Age would eventually succeed because of response from readers and promises from advertisers. "But if I had been looking at it from the outside and seeing the limited amount of advertising we were getting and the struggle we were having to put out a decent paper, I probably would have written it off after the first four or five years. In actual fact, I never had the slightest doubt about it being a success. It's because I just didn't know enough, I guess, to be doubtful about it."
I'm not saying this year's downturn is a walk in the park, but Dad's experience in the `30s helps my brother Keith and me to keep things in perspective when we come into a rocky period. It also helps us remember that intangibles, such as optimism and enthusiasm, can be the difference between success and failure.
It certainly helped that Dad believed deeply in what he was doing. "I was convinced that this service was needed," he told me, "and as long as the service was needed and I felt qualified to provide it, I had no doubt of its ultimate success."