By Mark Tungate
Chapter 5: The Chicago Way
‘The advertiser wants ideas, needs ideas and is paying for ideas’
Maybe it was just good advertising, but Chicago immediately struck me as a friendly city. On a breezy autumn morning, as I stood in the middle of the street with an unfolded map trying to wrap itself around my face, three different people came up to ask me if I needed directions. After twice insisting that I would be OK, I finally gave up and admitted to the third person that I was hopelessly lost. ‘Leo Burnett?’, the man repeated. ‘It’s on West Wacker Drive. You’re on East Wacker. Just go back in the direction you came and keep walking: you can’t miss it.’
As I walked on, I realized that I hadn’t asked the man if he worked in advertising – I’d just accepted the fact that he knew all about Leo Burnett. While Ogilvy and Bernbach are not part of the mythology of New York City, Burnett has entered Chicago folklore. He remains as larger-than-life as the characters his agency created, from the Jolly Green Giant to Tony the Tiger – not to mention the Marlboro cowboy.
The Leo Burnett Building at 35 West Wacker drive is a 50-storey skyscraper with a lobby big enough to provoke agoraphobia. An elevator whisks visitors up to a crescent-shaped reception area featuring banks of television screens, a battery of black-clad receptionists, a bowl of rosy red apples and – suspended from the ceiling – a giant black pencil. The significance of these last two items will be discussed shortly. Beyond the reception area is the usual maze of offices, including the lair of Tom Bernardin, the agency’s chairman and CEO.
Leo Burnett Worldwide has always been considered a solid, reli-able, unpretentious agency. Under Bernardin’s leadership, its brand positioning is a curious blend of the homely and the cutting edge: a multinational with a family atmosphere. Bernardin says, ‘My intent since I arrived [in 2004] has been to emphasize our unique heritage and the core values of our company, while demonstrating that these very qualities, properly applied, can be utterly modern, relevant values.’
Perhaps Leo Burnett owes some of its corporate culture to the city itself. Is there a Chicago school of advertising?
‘I think there is – which can be both a good and bad thing. Being headquartered here arguably takes us out of the mainstream New York advertising community. On the other hand, we leverage that as a point of difference from the mainstream. But Chicago and New York aside, one of the things I’ve been working on is reinforcing the fact that we’re a global company, rather than a company based in Chicago with offices around the world.’
And perhaps it’s slightly unfair to link Leo Burnett inextricably with Chicago. After all, the man himself wasn’t born in the city. ‘I snuck up on her slowly by way of outlying cities,’ he once said. ‘When I finally got there, I was 40 years old and stuck in my colloquial ways.’
An unhurried start
Leo Noble Burnett, the first of four children, was born in St. Johns, Michigan, on 21 October 1891, to Noble and Rose Clark Burnett. Noble Burnett owned a dry goods store, and Leo grew up watching his father lay out ads for the store on the dining room table. The shopkeeper would use ‘big pieces of wrapping paper a big black pencil and a yardstick,’ Burnett recalled. In her 1995 book Leo Burnett, Star Reacher, the agency’s former corporate communications director Joan Kufrin explains that this was how Leo discovered the big black Alpha 245 pencils he used throughout his career – and which the agency has adopted as part of its brand identity.
Leo eventually laid out some of the ads for his dad’s store, although working there didn’t appeal to him, so he got a job as a ‘printer’s devil’ on the local newspaper – at first cleaning the presses and later setting type and running the machines. After that he became a reporter. ‘Rarely a week passed that I did not scoop the rival paper with a hot obituary,’ he said dryly.
In 1914 he was offered a job on the Peoria Journal – but after a year, like so many budding journalists, he was lured away by the prospect of a better-paid job writing advertising copy, in this case for the Cadillac Motor Car Company. Burnett had the good fortune to arrive at the moment that the celebrated copywriter Theodore F. MacManus was turning out groundbreaking ads for the company. ‘MacManus taught me the power of the truth, simply told,’ Leo said. Inspired, he realized that advertising was the business for him.
Burnett rose to become advertising manager of Cadillac, which kept his job open for him even while he served for six months as a seaman second class during the Great War (he spent it building a breakwater in Lake Michigan, which ‘undoubtedly caused a great deal of agitation among the German High Command’, as he observed).
In 1919, Burnett moved to Indianapolis to work for a new auto company called LaFayette Motors, founded by a former Cadillac executive. Although LaFayette went out of business in 1924, Burnett stayed in Indianapolis, landing his first agency job at an outfit called Homer McKee. While it’s fair to say that McKee has not had the same impact on advertising history as Theodore MacManus, he was an important Burnett mentor. Leo was undoubtedly influenced by some of McKee’s basic rules of advertising, which included ‘Don’t try and sell manure spreaders with a Harvard accent’, and ‘If a kid can’t understand it, it’s no good.’
Burnett could have coasted through his career in Indianapolis, but the Wall Street Crash of 1929 seems to have jolted him out of complacency. One of Homer McKee’s biggest clients, Marmon automobiles, was in trouble and Leo guessed that his time at the agency was coming to an end. ‘At my age. I thought I’d better get the hell out of Indianapolis if I was ever going to amount to anything in the ad business.’
Burnett had kept in touch with Art Kudner, a copywriter who had worked on the LaFayette account at the Chicago arm of the advertising agency Erwin, Wasey & Company. Now, following up an earlier offer, Leo put a call in to Art and asked if there were any jobs going at the agency. And so, in late 1930, his wife Naomi pregnant with their third child, Leo Burnett found himself moving to Chicago in the middle of the Depression.
A seething morass of jazz, mobsters, prohibition and poverty, Chicago must have presented a dramatic contrast to Indianapolis. In Star Reacher, Joan Kufrin says that there were 750,000 unemployed in the city. ‘During the fall of 1930, the International Apple Shippers Association, faced with an oversupply of apples, hit on the bright idea of wholesaling them to out-of-work men who could resell them for a nickel apiece. There was an apple seller on every corner.’ As Naomi Burnett told Kufrin, ‘Everybody we knew had suffered financially and many men had no jobs at all. I thought [Leo] was a miracle worker.’
Burnett moved his family to the comfortable suburb of Glencoe and set to work as chief copy editor at Erwin, Wasey & Company, based in the splendid Union Carbide Building. Busying himself with accounts like Minnesota Valley Canning Co. (which later became Green Giant), Real Silk lingerie and Hoover, Burnett couldn’t have known that one of the world’s biggest agencies was about to begin a slow decline. One executive even referred to it as ‘advertising’s fall of the Roman empire’. In late 1931, the agency lost radio manufacturer Philco as a client. This was followed in the spring of the next year by General Foods and Camel cigarettes.
At around this time, Burnett’s clients quietly began suggesting that he set up his own agency. A colleague, Jack O’Kieffe (whom Burnett had originally hired as a 21-year-old copywriter back at Homer McKee), also urged him to go it alone. But given the state of the world, Burnett reckoned he had too much to lose. ‘Although I thought I knew something about advertising, I knew practically nothing about business administration and all of the other things that go into running an agency, small or large.’
In 1935, however, he changed his mind. Later he wrote to a friend: ‘What really pushed me into a decision was the fact that I just plain couldn’t stand the ads coming out of Chicago agencies. I knew damned well I could make them better and had a couple of close associates who felt the same way about it.’
In unconscious imitation of his father, Burnett drafted the plan for his new agency on the ping-pong table of his home. Prefiguring the revolution that was to sweep through Madison Avenue some 10 years later, this document emphasized the importance of risk-taking creativity. ‘The advertiser wants ideas, needs ideas and is paying for ideas,’ Burnett wrote. ‘We are going on the principle that every possible cent of income from an account should go into creative and productive efforts on that account.’
Burnett started his agency with US $50,000: half borrowed on his insurance, and half invested by Lazure Goodman, one of the founders of Real Silk (it took Leo another 10 years to buy him out). Alongside the lingerie company, Minnesota Valley Canning and Hoover were his founding accounts. He took with him a handful of Erwin, Wasey people, including copywriter and ‘ideas man’ Jack O’Kieffe. The agency officially opened for business at 360 North Michigan Avenue on Monday, 5 August 1935, with a bowl of red apples on the reception desk. As well as brightening up the place, the cheerful offering of fruit was a way of saying to visitors, in O’Kieffe’s words, ‘we’re glad you came – have an apple while you’re waiting’. Today, a bowl of apples sits on the reception desk of every Leo Burnett agency around the world.
Quite a character
To say that Leo Burnett did not look like a thrusting agency chief is something of an understatement. While Ogilvy looked donnish and Bernbach simply resembled the guy next door, Leo was beyond plain. Rumpled, pillow-shaped, balding and jowly, his heavy horn-rimmed glasses perched on his spud-like nose, he was the very opposite of dapper. His suits were invariably navy or grey, with the jacket often buttoned askew. A famous picture of Burnett shows him setting off for a meeting clutching his trusty black leather portfolio, clad in a raincoat that even Columbo might have raised an eyebrow at. Neither was he a great orator – although he could make the written word soar from the page, a colleague once described his speaking voice as ‘a medium-low rumble with a slight gurgling overtone’.
Stubborn and indefatigable, he built an agency based on family values while working so hard that he was rarely at home. To the exasperation of colleagues, he did not flinch at impossible deadlines or overnight turnarounds. The only time he ever entirely forgot about advertising was when he was at the racetrack, one of his few diversions. Asked to sum himself up for a journalist, he wrote that he was ‘naively respectful of the simple verities and virtues, but venturesome in the pursuit of fresh ideas. Direct and outspoken, but mumbles his words’. Indeed, he preferred to fire off telegrams and memos. In person, he mostly limited his praise to ‘damn good’. He disliked confrontation and hated firing people. During meetings, staff measured his opinion of the ads they showed him by the LPI – or the ‘Lip Protrusion Index’. The more Leo’s jutting lower lip stuck out, the bigger trouble they were in.
Yet there is no doubt that Leo was capable of inspiring immense affection: his wife Naomi, recalling when they first met at her mother’s restaurant, summed up his appeal. ‘He wasn’t tall, handsome or that type. but there was something about his personality and bearing that intrigued me. He was a charmer: the darlingest sense of humour.’
He believed in loyalty and repaid it – even as far as clients were concerned. When he collapsed due to low blood sugar before a meeting, a colleague rushed off to get a chocolate bar. Leo croaked from the floor: ‘Make sure it’s a Nestlé’s.’
In a sense, the contrast between Burnett’s apparent disadvantages – humble origins, unlovely appearance – and his achievements is summed up by the agency’s original logo, which depicts a hand reaching for the stars. Jack O’Kieffe came up with the idea just after the founding of the agency. It was inspired by a line in Virgil’s Aeneid: ‘So man scales the stars.’
Some years later, Leo asked the agency’s copy director, John Crawford, what he thought the logo meant. Crawford blurted, ‘Why, Leo, when you reach for the stars you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either.’ Burnett wrote down the explanation and used it from then on – but he never forgot who said it first.
Even today, Leo Burnett staffers occasionally refer to themselves as ‘star reachers’. ‘And we don’t consider it corny,’ one of them says.
Always a distance man rather than a sprinter, Burnett saw the agency carefully through the lean years of the 1930s. ‘Even the person who ducked out at midnight to get coffee for the crew knew he was helping to hold the place together,’ he later recalled, unwittingly confirming the agency’s reputation for hard slog. It’s difficult to believe there was enough work to merit such agonizingly long hours: new clients came and went, but the place was hardly a roaring success. Net income for the agency in 1937 was only US $5,889, according to agency records sourced by Kufrin. By the end of 1938 the agency had gained a handful of new accounts – including the Pure Oil Company, the Brown Shoe Company and the Standard Milling Company – and billings stood at US $1.3 million.
Although the war years were hardly less difficult for the agency – particularly as some of its younger men went off to fight – there were some highlights in the gloom. In 1942 Leo Burnett won the Santa Fe railroad account. But it was not until 1949 that the agency received the two phone calls that would change its fortunes, propelling it into the big league at last. They were from Procter & Gamble and Kellogg.
Cornflakes and cowboys
The call from P&G concerned only a project, but any contact from the Cincinnati, Ohio, company had to be taken seriously. P&G was the largest advertiser in the United States, with sales of US $696 million from some 18 household products. Indeed, at that very moment a congressional committee was looking into the impact of big corporations on business competition, a development that understandably made P&G nervous. It hired Leo Burnett to examine the ways it might defend itself against potential criticism. Burnett recommended a series of full-page ads, to be placed in influential magazines such as Time and Life, explaining how P&G’s wide range of innovative, affordable products benefited consumers.
In terms of working methods, P&G and Burnett were strictly opposed. P&G wouldn’t budge without research, while Leo Burnett had founded his agency on the principle of unhampered creativity. Client and agency disagreed over the very first campaign – P&G wanted to test the ads on smaller markets before running with big titles like Time and Life, while Leo would have preferred to trust his own judgement. In the end, the campaign tested badly and was cancelled. A TV campaign based on the same idea was somewhat more successful – and P&G was impressed enough to hand the agency its Lava soap brand in 1953. Over the years, Procter & Gamble turned the Leo Burnett Company into a more mature marketing organization, encouraging it to back up its creativity with solid research. The relationship survives to this day.
Also in 1949, Leo was called in for a meeting with W.K. Kellogg, the 89-year-old founder of a company supposedly dedicated to improving the diets of Americans through nutritious breakfast foods. In fact, Will Keith Kellogg had spotted the marketing potential of cornflakes when he first came across them at a health spa run by his brother, John, at the turn of the century. (The brothers were Seventh Day Adventists, which required a strict diet and a total ban on alcohol and tobacco.) After an abortive attempt to go into business with John – who was opposed to adding sugar to health food products – W.K. decided to go it alone. He founded The Kellogg Company in 1909, promoting breakfast cereal as a healthy alternative to bacon and eggs.
After meeting Leo (who was impressed by the elderly Kellogg’s undimmed commitment to providing ‘better nutrition for the human race’), Kellogg handed the agency the Corn Pops and Corn Soya brands. Burnett proposed television-oriented campaigns; the agency’s advice on the matter was so convincing that Kellogg handed over the Rice Krispies account as well.
It was while redesigning the packaging for Rice Krispies that the agency came up with the idea of using the box itself as an advertising device. Until then, cereal packets had been dominated by block letters identifying the product. The agency created a series of dummy designs that reduced the lettering and used the remaining space for colourful graphics. This was a packaging revolution – and it won Leo Burnett the Corn Flakes account. Soon afterwards, in 1952, Kellogg’s handed the agency all of its advertising across the United States and Canada.
It was, of course, for Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes that the Leo Burnett Company created one of its most enduring brand icons, Tony the Tiger. As we’ve established, the agency specialized in giving life to such characters, from the Jolly Green Giant (with his booming ‘ho, ho, ho’) to the Pillsbury Doughboy. ‘None of us can underestimate the glacier-like power of friendly familiarity,’ Burnett told executives in 1955.
Yet the agency’s most successful invention was a tough, ornery, brooding figure.
The Marlboro Man rode into view to confront a straightforward marketing problem. In 1954, a delegation from Philip Morris met with Leo Burnett to explain that the company wanted to change the image of its filter-tipped Marlboro cigarette, which was regarded as a women’s brand. The company was also excited about the new crush-proof flip-top box it had invented. In the end, Leo both changed the packaging and repositioned the brand.
He was certainly the right man for the job. Years earlier, conscious of the fact that his family had always lived in rented accommodation, Leo had purchased a 71-acre farm. Although toiling on his land was one the few things that could distract him from advertising, work life inevitably overflowed into home, and weekend brainstorming sessions at the farm had become an established tradition. It was here that a handful of colleagues found him one Saturday morning, brandishing a magazine with a cowboy on its cover. ‘Do you know anything more masculine than a cowboy?’ he asked rhetorically.
Not content with providing a rugged new image for the brand, Leo also gave the Marlboro lettering on the packs a capital ‘M’ and switched the colour from red-and-white stripes to solid red. He wrote to Philip Morris executives: ‘The cowboy is an almost universal symbol of admired masculinity. This almost sounds as though Dr Freud were on our Plans Board. He isn’t. We’ve been guided by research and old-fashioned horse sense.’
No fancy psychological motivation techniques for Leo. According to Joan Kufrin in Star Reacher: ‘The black and white cowboy ad titled “The Sheriff” broke in local newspapers in New York, Florida, Cali-fornia, Texas, Washington D.C. and Philadelphia in January of 1955, closely followed by the rollout of the new Marlboro cigarette in 25 major cities over several months.’ She goes on to quote Joseph F. Cullman, who was executive vice-president, marketing for Philip Morris at the time. ‘Marlboro became the number one brand in greater New York 30 days after the introduction, based solely on this one print ad.’
Subsequent executions featured other rugged, tattooed types who were not cowboys, but were not male models, either. But the agency later went back to the cowboy imagery and stuck with it. In this way, it turned Marlboro into the world’s best-selling cigarette.
It would be ingenuous to avoid discussing the moral implications of cigarette advertising here. Over the years, the standard response from agencies has been that they are hired to persuade people to switch brands, not to start smoking. They are within their rights, they say, to market legal products. This has become something of a moot point since the mid-1990s, when public anger at the tobacco marketers reached such a height that tough advertising restrictions were introduced in the United States and Europe. Cigarette sales are still rising in Asia, but opposition to tobacco marketing is growing there, too.
Leo’s own views are a matter of record. As far back as 1965, the New Yorker magazine wrote to him announcing that it would no longer carry cigarette advertising. Leo penned this response: ‘As a long-time New Yorker reader, I have always considered myself capable of making my own judgements of products exposed to me in the advertising pages of your magazine and never looked to it either for preachments, protection or coddling.’ After putting down his thesaurus, he added, ‘I guess it’s about time for another Marlboro.’
Of course, sensitivity about cigarette marketing rose to a far higher level in subsequent decades. But Burnett staffers are not forced to work on Philip Morris business. And Philip Morris has changed its marketing tactics. A 2003 article in Adweek commented: ‘The Marlboro Man, once a ubiquitous figure riding through the pages of US consumer publications, has disappeared from print altogether. Marlboro owner Philip Morris began taking dollars out of magazines in 1999 and is virtually out of print now’ (‘The Party’s Over,’ 5 May 2003). A more recent article, in The New York Times, suggested that Philip Morris ‘has not placed advertising in newspapers or magazines since 2004’ (‘For Tobacco, Stealth Marketing Is the Norm,’ 10 March 2006). And yet a survey from research company Millward Brown Optimor in 2006 still ranked Marlboro at number five in a list of the world’s most valuable brands, with an estimated value of over US $38 million.
In the end, however you feel about tobacco marketing, there is no denying the Marlboro Man’s status as an advertising icon – and a superlative example of simple, effective brand imagery.
The international era
In 1956, the Leo Burnett Company moved into new headquarters in the Prudential Building, taking up 100,000 square feet of space. ‘As I look down our seemingly endless corridors, I sometimes have to rub my eyes,’ Leo wrote in his end-of-year summary to staff. Two years later, the agency passed the US$100 million billings mark. Burnett was 67 years old – and still reluctant to retire.
The sixties were as rosy for the Leo Burnett Company as they were for other agencies. United Airlines, Parker Pen, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Vick Chemical and Nestlé were some of the accounts that arrived during that bustling decade. By 1969 the agency’s billings had soared again, to US $269 million.
In the meantime, Leo had finally started to let go, accepting that day-to-day operations were safe in the hands of his second-in-command, Phil Schaff. In June 1967, Schaff had become chairman and CEO, with Leo adopting the new title of founder chairman. A tougher moment came when he was asked to stop attending the Creative Review Committee (CRC) – the body that had the final say on much of the creative work that emerged from the agency. Now in his seventies, Leo conceded that it was time for him to step aside. But Schaff summarized the reality of the situation in an interview with Joan Kufrin. ‘No matter what Leo’s title was, whether he was chairman of the CRC or not chairman of the CRC, chairman of the board or founder chairman, his name was Leo Burnett and he was a legend, and people were going to pay attention to him, and not to whoever was in charge of the creative meeting.’
On 1 December 1967, at the agency’s annual breakfast gathering, Burnett made a speech that would be considered his curtain call. It’s known to insiders as the ‘When to take my name off the door’ speech, and it is something of a legend within the agency. It began: ‘Somewhere along the line, after I’m finally off the premises, you – or your successors – might want to take my name off the premises, too. But let me tell you when I might demand that you take my name off the door.’
The speech was a stirring evocation of the Burnett philosophy. Leo told staff he wanted his name removed ‘when you spend more time trying to make money and less time making advertising – our type of advertising. When you lose your passion for thoroughness, your hatred of loose ends. When your main interest becomes a matter of size just to be big – rather than good, hard, wonderful work. When you start giving lip service to being a “creative agency” – and stop really being one.’ Leo added that if these and other such horrors should come to pass, his staff could ‘throw every goddamned apple down the elevator shafts’. By the time he had finished, several onlookers were tearful.
But Leo hadn’t left the building yet – and he had a last chapter to oversee. In typically languid Burnett style, the agency had taken longer than many of its rivals to go global. Indeed, Leo rather disdained the expansionist policies of groups like Interpublic, which he referred to as ‘Interplanetary’. By the late 1960s, however, many rival agencies were reaping a large percentage of their billings from outside the United States – as much as 46 per cent in the case of McCann Erickson. Acknowledging that its clients required global reach, in May 1969 the Leo Burnett Company merged with the London Press Exchange – an agency of 23 offices around the globe. Burnett had at first been hesitant, but in the end he gave the merger his blessing at a decisive board meeting. Almost overnight, Leo Burnett became the world’s fifth largest advertising agency, with billings of US$373 million. In a brochure sent out with his year-end letter, Leo remarked: ‘I see in efforts like ours a modest advance towards the “single-family world” we so direly need.’ Elderly he may have been, but Burnett could still envisage the future.
In 1971, at the age of 79, Leo was still going into the office four days a week. On 7 June, he dictated a letter to Jack O’Kieffe, saying that he planned to cut this down to three days.
He died of a heart attack that evening, at home on the farm.
Life after Leo
A character like Leo Burnett was always going to be a hard act to follow – and in some ways the agency hasn’t tried. Having spent his life creating brand icons for others, Leo has become a brand himself: a logo, a philosophy, an identity. To this day his picture is on the agency’s walls, his black pencils lie on desks; on the website there is a grainy film clip of him telling staff when to take his name off the door. In 2002, an article in Advertising Age described Leo Burnett as ‘an agency so steeped in tradition that new employees are welcomed with a 1967 video of the late Leo Burnett and given the standard-issue thick black pencils he favoured’ (‘Burnett retools its legacy’, 1 July 2002). As we heard earlier, CEO Tom Bernardin fully acknowledges Leo’s importance.
Another fan is Jack Klues, who heads the agency’s media buying operation, Starcom. ‘I never met the man, but you get the impression that he still walks the halls. We’ve all read books about him and we try to live up to his ideals. He was about respect for people, he had a high degree of integrity and he was committed to the clients he worked for. I like what he stood for and the type of people his company seems to attract.’
And yet, life has undoubtedly changed at Leo Burnett. For a start, these days it is owned by the French. It’s hard to imagine what the bluff, forthright Leo – who liked to imagine that Chicago copywriters ‘spit on their hands’ before taking up their pencils – would have thought of this development. In spring 2002, the Chicago Daily Herald announced with barely disguised alarm: ‘The holding company for one of Chicago’s most famous home-grown enterprises, Leo Burnett Worldwide Inc., is being sold to Paris-based Publicis Groupe SA for US $3 billion’ (‘Merger reshapes ad world’, 8 March 2002).
But the newspaper also observed that Publicis was not acquiring Leo Burnett directly. It was acquiring Bcom3, the unwieldy name of an advertising group embracing several agencies (see Chapter 11, Consolidation incorporated). Earlier on, in 1999, the Leo Group had merged with The MacManus Group. Advertising historians will be pleased to note that this was the descendant of the agency formed in 1911 by Leo Burnett’s old mentor, Theodore MacManus. The advertising industry is nothing if not incestuous.
By the time the Publicis deal went ahead, the agency that Leo Burnett had planned on his ping-pong table had grown into a conglomerate with billings of US $1.8 billion. Allowing itself a moment of nostalgic pride, the Chicago Daily Herald pointed out that when the adman had set out a bowl of apples on his reception desk, ‘critics scoffed at his ambitions, predicting that he’d soon have to resort to selling apples in the street’.
Burnett saw off the scoffers long ago. And his name is still on the door.
Chapter 9: European Icons
‘The product is the same – the difference is the communications’
Every Christmas, without fail, a parcel the size and shape of a hatbox appears on my doorstep. Inside, entirely made of chocolate, are the intertwined letters A and T. It’s the logo of Armando Testa, Italy’s leading creative agency, in candy form. The parcel is a souvenir of the first visit I made to the agency no fewer than seven years ago. I’ve been back a few times since – but if I had never darkened Testa’s door again, I doubt it would have made much difference. All cynicism aside, this seems a little warmer than the average PR gesture. I wrote a positive article once, so I’ve been adopted.
Maybe the fact that we’re in Italy encourages metaphors concerning the family. And Testa is all about family. Armando Testa, a Turin-based graphic designer, founded the agency in 1946. He died in 1992, but by then the agency had been taken to even greater heights by his son, Marco, who took over as managing director in 1985. The agency remains stubbornly independent, refusing to be snapped up by an American leviathan.
Contributing to the familial atmosphere is the fact that, to a certain extent, Testa is the Italian Leo Burnett. The agency handles household names like Pirelli, Lavazza, San Pellegrino and Fiat-Lancia. And it has created much-loved characters like Pippo, a friendly blue hippopotamus, for a brand of diapers, and the immortal Caballero and Carmencita, two cone-shaped cartoon characters brought to life for Café Paulista in the 1960s and still going strong.
But there is another, hipper side to Armando Testa. It has a strong graphic design heritage and its print work, particularly, has an undeniable punch. Consider the groovy posters it creates every year for Lavazza coffee: ultra-glam confections shot by photographers like David LaChapelle, Jean-Baptiste Mondino and Ellen Von Unwerth. Outdoor advertising is often dismissed as visual pollution – but these babies actually brighten up a cityscape. The spin-off calendars wrench a vivid hole in your wall. Armando Testa would have approved, as his greatest goal in life was to make an impact.
The graphic world of Armando Testa
Armando Testa has something in common with the French affichistes Cassandre and Raymond Savignac. Unlike those masters of poster art, however, Testa managed to translate his talent into a full-service advertising agency that remains a force in Italy to this day.
He was born in Turin in 1917 and – like most of his generation who came from a humble background – he attended the school of life. By the age of 14 he had already been apprenticed to a locksmith, a sheet metal worker and a typesetter. The latter seems to have awoken his artistic impulses, because he began attending night classes at the Vigliardi Paravia School of Graphic Arts. Here he met Ezio d’Errico, a teacher at the school and one of the best-known abstract artists of the day, who became his mentor. Under d’Errico’s influence, Testa began winning competitions to design letterheads and leaflets.
But Testa was a perfectionist: he worked slowly and had, at that stage, an over-inflated opinion of himself, which combined to make him a difficult employee. Each printing company he joined fired him a few weeks later – until at the age of 18 he had been let go by 28 different employers.
In 1937 he won a competition to design a poster for ICI (Industria Colori Inchiostri SA), a Milanese company that made coloured inks for the printing industry. The brutally simple design – which resembles the letters ICI in origami form on a black background – indicated Testa’s future direction. In a catalogue of his work produced for an exhibition at the Parsons School of Design, New York, in 1987, he commented: ‘My love of synthesis – conveying a message by means of a single gesture, a simple image – and my use of white backgrounds, primary colours and the most basic symbols of visual communication (circle, cross, diagonal, angle) have unfortunately endowed me over the years with a distinctive style, and many people recognize my work on sight.’
After the war – which he spent as an aerial photographer – Testa opened a graphic design studio in Turin. He attracted commissions from the likes of Pirelli and (hat maker) Borsalino. Throughout his early career, he wrestled with the conflict between his desire to create abstract art and his interest in producing commercial imagery. Fortunately, he was able to work with clients who, like him, felt that art and commerce were not mutually exclusive.
Maurizio Sala, president of the Italian Art Directors’ Club and vice president of Armando Testa Group, still becomes animated when he talks about Armando. ‘Advertising today just refers to other advertising. But Armando made advertising that referred to art, to books, to cinema. He had a very wide frame of reference.’
As for the man himself, Sala remains knocked out by him. ‘When he entered a room it was like being hit by an ocean wave – he was extraordinarily energetic. And because of this charisma he could always get what he wanted. He was very good at seducing clients. He would sit down, draw his chair up close to them and ask, “So how much money have you got?”’
Testa needed his charm because his creative work was often provocative. Sala says, ‘He felt that great advertising should make the viewer a little uncomfortable. If it was designed to please everyone, it wouldn’t get noticed; it would just sink into the sea of banality that surrounded it.’
In 1956, Testa created a full-service advertising agency with his first wife Lidia and her brother Francesco de Barberis, a marketing expert. A year later, commercial television began in Italy. Sala says, ‘Many advertising companies went out of business because they didn’t know how to do television ads, while clients were shifting large chunks of their budgets to the new medium. Instead of being defeated, Armando set up his own production company to experiment with stop motion animation techniques. He was very inspired by Eastern European animation. The characters he created mirrored his poster work – very simple and graphic, like the blue hippo or the Paulista coffee characters, which are simple cones with eyes, mouths and hats.’
The success of Testa’s TV work was initially due to a quirk of Italian legislation that resulted in Carosello, a 10-minute daily ad break screened every evening at around 8.50 from February 1957 to the end of 1976. The slot forced agencies to create advertising that resembled TV content: series of cartoons and comedy sketches, which had to be entertaining and/or educational. The sell was so soft it was positively downy. At its peak it was the most popular TV show in Italy, boasting an audience of 20 million (half of them children). Sala explains: ‘This was a period when well-known directors and actors were making advertising. Audiences adored Carosello. Parents would say to their kids, “You can watch Carosello and then it’s time for bed.” That’s why Armando was able to develop such memorable characters for brands.’
Although the legacy of Carosello is occasionally blamed for Italian TV advertising’s comparative lack of bite today, it had the kind of following that agencies can now only dream about, and it transformed brands into popular culture icons. Meanwhile, Armando Testa had achieved considerable celebrity, dating back to 1959 when he was commissioned to design the official logo for the Rome Olympics. By the 1970s the agency had swelled in size and opened regional offices in Milan and Rome.
Testa’s son, Marco, came on board in the early 1980s. At first Marco had been reluctant to join the family firm, and his desire for independence was sometimes a source of strain. When he returned to Italy from Benton & Bowles in New York – where he had gone to develop a more international approach to advertising – he set up his own agency called, pointedly, L’Altra (‘The Other’). ‘We lost our biggest client in the first six months, and spent the next six months trying to get the money back from 20 small clients,’ he recalls, with a grim smile. Eventually, however, he was reconciled with his father. ‘He asked me, “Do you want to start where I am now, or do you want to spend your whole life getting here?” I realized he had a point.’
But Marco Testa retains his independent streak, which is perhaps why he hasn’t sold out to a conglomerate. He puts it in more strategic terms. ‘If the industry is divided between giant groups and small creative hot shops, where are the big clients who are not global mammoths supposed to go?’
Under Marco, Testa’s ads abandoned the saccharine of the Carosello era and became faster, wittier, and more transatlantic in inspiration. Yet one of the challenges facing the Italian industry is its relatively lacklustre performance on the international awards circuit, leading to the impression that the country is no longer a source of groundbreaking creative work. The Brits and the Americans have led the field for years; but the Thais and the Brazilians also attract far more plaudits. The Italian jeans brand Diesel may have produced a string of innovative, award-winning advertising campaigns – but none of them were made by Italian agencies. It’s a subject that preoccupies Armando Testa creative director Maurizio Sala – and a situation he is determined to change. He believes the answer lies not in aping the work of US or British agencies, but in redefining Italian advertising.
‘Recently I sat down to consider the elements of Italian culture that could be reflected in our advertising. The most obvious one is humour. Italians are very relationship oriented. They like to talk, they like to gesture and they like to laugh. In general, their humour is quite innocent – it’s warm and southern. British humour tends to be crueller, darker and more cynical than ours. For some reason we don’t seem able to express our own style of humour in advertising.’
His second big Italian plus-point is ‘style’. ‘We have a strong heritage when it comes to fashion, film, design and graphics. I think we should look back at some our triumphs in these areas and try to identify our own visual style, which we can then apply to our advertising.’
While Armando Testa is greatly admired at home, international accounts are still proving elusive. Despite the fact that it has offices in London, Paris, Frankfurt, Madrid and Brussels – and longstanding partnerships with agencies in more than 100 countries around the world – these generally service Italian clients. But is it necessary to become a moderately successful global network when you are already a phenomenally successful domestic one, with clients that have trusted you, in some cases, for more than 40 years? The family-owned Armando Testa remains Italy’s most powerful agency brand. It is, as its website states, ‘the world’s largest Italian agency’.
Copywriting, Italian style
If Armando Testa is the father of Italian advertising, then Emanuele Pirella is at the very least the father of Italian copywriting. He is Italy’s answer to David Ogilvy in the United States, David Abbott in the UK and Pierre Lemonnier in France. And he’s still in action, as chairman of the agency Lowe Pirella.
Pirella has always loved writing. After a degree in modern literature he took up his pen, never to put it down again. Determined to spill ink for a living, he wrote day and night. He wrote short stories for children, cinema reviews for a daily regional newspaper, copy for comics and cartoons – even a history of Italy from Ancient Rome to the post-war years, dashed out with three other journalists. ‘I knew I was a good writer,’ he recalls, ‘quick, funny, accurate, and able to put a paradoxical spin on a sentence. And I sold that attitude.’
In short, Pirella was a natural for advertising – but until he stumbled into a copywriting job by accident, he knew almost nothing about the industry. ‘At that time, advertising in Italy was still a mysterious world. Few people had heard of these entities called “advertising agencies”. They thought that inside companies there must be a secret room where a guy sat doing a job that was a mixture of advertising and public relations.’
When he moved from his home town of Parma to Milan in the early 1960s, he looked for a job at a newspaper or a printing company. Then one of his friends told him about a job as junior copywriter at an American advertising agency, Young & Rubicam. With armloads of written work to his credit, Pirella glided into the job. Most of the agency’s employees were English or American, but Pirella found his creative ‘other half’ at Y&R in German art director Michael Göttsche. Together, the pair went on to devise slick, funny advertising in the vein of (naturally) the ads being created in the States by Doyle Dane Bernbach.
‘I wasn’t getting paid much at first, so I’d be making ads during the day and doing freelance work at night,’ says Pirella. ‘I was lucky with my first couple of campaigns and in my second year at the agency – this was 1965 – I was named Copywriter of the Year. That meant I could demand a salary increase and give up some of my out of hours activities.’
Nevertheless, he didn’t entirely abandon freelance work. A lengthy collaboration with the news magazine L’Espresso, for whom he wrote a TV review column, ended only recently. And he still creates satirical cartoons with a friend, the artist Tullio Pericoli.
But with more recognition and a decent wage under his belt, Pirella was now firmly hooked on advertising. ‘It seemed to me that we were the best agency in Italy – the one that was using the most expensive photographers and directors, with an American copy chief, an English creative director, German and English art directors. All around us the other agencies were making dull and phoney advertising; typical home-grown Italian stuff, featuring poorly conceived illustrations with the product always in use.’
Pirella stayed at Young & Rubicam for five years, followed by a two-year stint at Ogilvy & Mather. Then, with Michael Göttsche and another colleague, Gianni Muccini, he went into business, launching Agenzia Italia in 1971. ‘For 10 years, we were the most creative agency in the business. We worked like hell, night and day and all weekend, just because it was fun to find new ways to say the usual things – to challenge one another.’
The ad that really got Pirella noticed was for a brand called Jesus Jeans, launched in 1974 by MCT (Maglificio Calzificio Torinese), the company that makes Kappa sportswear today. According to Pirella, the brand was vaguely inspired by the previous year’s hit musical Jesus Christ Superstar. Clearly something provocative was needed, so a young photographer named Oliviero Toscani was hired to shoot a young woman wearing the jeans, the zipper open in a manner that indicated she was not wearing any underwear, while casting a coy shadow over the evidence. Pirella’s copy read: ‘Thou shalt not have any jeans but me.’ Mixing fashion, sex and religion – in a Catholic country? No wonder Pirella got himself in the papers. The second execution was the line, ‘Whoever loves me, follows me’, printed over a pert bottom in denim hot-pants. (The bottom, by the way, was that of Toscani’s girlfriend at the time.) The Jesus Jeans brand clearly hasn’t stood the test of time, but the furore surrounding the campaign did much for Pirella’s career.
After five years, Agenzia Italia did a deal with BBDO that allowed the US agency entry into Italy. But in the end the new relationship didn’t suit Pirella, and he and Göttsche pulled out in 1981 to start another independent shop called Pirella Göttsche.
‘The first clients that called us are the type I prefer working with. Not the market leaders or the big brands that stick to the rules and try to maintain the status quo. I like the challengers, the number three in the market, the brand that is forced to take risks and break the rules. And we got a lot of those. In a few years we went from four guys to seventy, then eighty.’
In the early 1990s Pirella succumbed to the advances of another international group: this time Interpublic, which made Pirella Göttsche part of the Lowe group – the network that had grown out of Frank Lowe’s original London agency. The marriage seemed to work, although Pirella hadn’t finished innovating. In 2000 he launched the Scuola di Emanuele Pirella (‘The Emanuele Pirella School’), a training centre for budding creatives that was also a real live agency – a modern version of apprenticeship.
The rebel who sold Jesus Jeans had gone respectable: he had become the sage of Italian advertising.
Blood, sweaters and tears
‘I am not an advertising man,’ Oliviero Toscani points out, ‘I am a photographer.’
Of course – but Toscani’s disquieting images for Benetton enlivened the advertising scene of the nineties, and may have been responsible for the vogue in so-called ‘shock advertising’. It was certainly hard not to gawp at photos of a priest kissing a nun, a newborn baby with the umbilical cord still attached, or a dying AIDS patient surrounded by waxen-faced relatives – hardly the images you expected to see from the window of your commuter train. With the blessing of his client, Toscani created a giant public photography exhibition that was also an ambiguous running commentary on society. It made audiences think – and it made Benetton notorious.
The son of a photojournalist for Corriere Della Sera, Oliviero Toscani was born in Milan in 1942. He studied photography and graphic design at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Zürich from 1961 to 1965. He became a sought-after fashion photographer, working for Elle, Vogue, GQ, Stern and other leading titles. (After a while he found the job unfulfilling, once comparing a well-known supermodel to ‘a washing machine’.) In addition, his lens provided imagery for brands like Fiorucci, Esprit and Chanel. But in adland his name is most closely associated with that of Benetton.
Luciano Benetton started the family firm in 1965 with his brothers Gilberto and Carlo and his sister Giuliana. In fact, it was Giuliana who knitted the first ever Benetton sweater for Luciano, an item that prompted many admiring remarks and sparked the idea for a business. In 1982, when Benetton hired Toscani, the company had never advertised. But export sales were rising and communications had taken on a new importance.
Benetton was introduced to Toscani through their mutual friend, the fashion magnate Elio Fiorucci. Recalling their first meeting in an interview with The Independent newspaper, Benetton said, ‘I didn’t have any particular suggestions or restrictions to guide [Toscani], except that the campaign had to be different – very different – and that it had to be international. I had figured that the traditional system of advertising with a different campaign in each country wasn’t the way ahead. I wanted to make people aware of the spirit of the company’ (‘How we met’, 22 August 1999).
For his part, Toscani felt that Benetton was ‘essentially a teenager in the sense that he doesn’t have the cynicism that comes as we grow up: he is rash, he has the courage to try new things and see whether they work. I thought, “Here I can learn something, do something new.”’
In the same article, Benetton recalled Toscani’s first campaign. ‘It was for a line of children’s clothes, and instead of using kids he used teddy bears. I realized early on that he had extraordinary vision.’
But the teddy bears gave laughably little indication of how far Toscani would push his Benetton campaigns. His earliest images appropriated the theme of multiculturalism (‘United Colors of Benetton’), and although they remained within the boundaries of acceptable taste, they were already ahead of their time. Towards the end of the decade, though, Toscani’s work became more provocative, with an image of a black woman breastfeeding a white baby. This was followed a short time later by a picture of two little girls, one white and one black. The black girl’s hair had been sculpted into the shape of two devilish horns. Was the ad racist – or was it a comment on racism? It was impossible to tell, which was exactly what Toscani had intended. This was no longer advertising: it was fuel for debate.
The provocations continued throughout the 1990s: a nun kissing a priest, mating horses, a bloodstained Bosnian soldier’s uniform, black and white wrists manacled together, the aforementioned AIDS victim. The willingness of the press to deplore images that it would not have hesitated to exploit for its own ends guaranteed swathes of media coverage for Benetton and Toscani. In the meantime, the pair launched a stylish photography magazine, Colors, and a pioneering art school, Fabrica – ‘an electronic Bauhaus’.
Some articles sneeringly referred to the fact that Toscani had once compared his relationship with Benetton to that of Michelangelo and the Pope; but the jibes missed the point. What he meant was that he saw his work as art, and that he did not see any contradiction in the fact that it was funded by advertising. The original source is probably a quote in The Guardian newspaper: ‘Historically, a lot of art was publicity. It was selling an ideology or a product. In the Church, for example, Renaissance artists worked for the Pope. We all work for the Pope. There is always a Pope somewhere’ (‘Death is the last pornographic issue left,’ 2 February 1998).
Toscani could have quietly exhibited his imagery in a gallery in the depths of New York’s SoHo, where it would have generated little more than a raised eyebrow. Instead, thanks to the patronage of Benetton, he was able to confront the wider public with discomfiting scenes torn from the world around them. To an extent the images were pointless: they weren’t offering any solutions, and Benetton didn’t appear to actively support any of the causes it latched on to. But Toscani was not in the business of providing easy answers, just raising difficult questions. And one thing was for sure: he certainly didn’t set out to sell sweaters. Instead, he considered that Benetton was funding research into alternative approaches to communication. ‘A sweater has two sleeves, wool is wool,’ he told The Guardian. ‘The product is more or less the same. The difference is the communications.’
Other advertisers of the 1990s seemed keen to emulate Benetton. Confrontation was the order of the day. Coyness was abandoned, taboos were attacked; sex and swearing came streaking out of the closet. The British ‘master of shockvertising’, as The Express newspaper dubbed him (8 June 2001), was TBWA’s Trevor Beattie. In truth, Beattie’s much-talked-about ad for the Wonderbra was more sensual than shocking. The poster featured the supermodel Eva Herzigova showing off a décolletage that could literally stop traffic, accompanied by the words, ‘Hello Boys’. A little nearer the knuckle was Beattie’s campaign for French Connection UK, which made use of the fashion brand’s initials in the form FCUK. ‘FCUK Fashion!’ yelled a poster, to growls of media disapproval.
Not long afterwards, fashion designer Tom Ford commissioned an image of the voluptuous Sophie Dahl lying invitingly naked apart from, presumably, a dab of advertiser Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium perfume. Was the picture shocking, sexist – or just harmlessly titillating? Opinion was divided. The ad was the latest in a trend that the fashion community had branded ‘porno chic’.
Commenting on the ‘shockvertising’ phenomenon, Trevor Beattie observed, ‘These ads aren’t shocking; what is shocking is the rank mediocrity of 90 per cent of British advertising, which means that anything remotely different stands out.’
The same article pointed out that, thanks to Toscani’s advertising, Benetton had recently been judged the 10th most powerful brand in fashion (‘Why shock tactics work like a dream’, Sunday Business, 29 August 1999).
But if shock advertising was in vogue (not to mention in Vogue), Toscani was the doyen of the genre. His work was far darker and more serious than anything attempted by his contemporaries. His final cam-paign for Benetton was the most controversial of all. It featured pictures of men facing execution on death row. As might have been expected, it generated a storm of outrage in the United States, with calls for a boycott of Benetton products.
A little while later, in May 2000, Benetton and Toscani went their separate ways, ending an extraordinary 18-year partnership. In a press release at the time, Luciano Benetton thanked Toscani for his ‘fundamental contribution’ to the company. Toscani simply stated that it was time to move on.
The clothing company may occasionally regret Toscani’s departure. Since then, its advertising has slumped into cosy conformity. Certainly, nobody is defacing its posters or gnashing and wailing about it in the press. But the fact is that nobody is talking about it much at all.
The German conundrum
On the face of it, the advertising cultures of Italy and Germany don’t appear to have much in common. And yet they share certain problems. They are both seen as lacking in creativity – or at least, in the kind of accessible, border-busting creativity that reaps international awards. And they are both accused of insularity. Although Spain has traditionally had strong links with South America (see Chapter 15, Latin spirit), and both Britain and France are the hubs of multinational communications combines, German agencies have struggled to expand beyond their own borders. ‘For [us], 80 million people is quite good enough,’ one of the country’s top agency bosses told Campaign magazine in 2004 (‘Germany’s agencies to watch’, 10 September).
One explanation for Germany’s lack of creative edge might be its strong manufacturing base. Britain, like Holland and Spain, has a trading history. Germany is a producer. Thus Britain makes terrific ads for cars – but Germany actually makes cars. The country has also lacked a central creative hub, a Soho or a Madison Avenue, to act as a Petri dish for talent. German creativity is shared between Frankfurt, Hamburg, Düsseldorf and, increasingly, Berlin. The relative fidelity of German clients may also contribute to a more complacent creative environment. Finally, the very late arrival of commercial television, in 1979, has also been blamed.
But early into the new decade, Germany’s stolid, housebound image began fraying at the edges. In 2003, when McDonald’s challenged its agencies worldwide to come up with a new branding campaign, a German shop called Heyer & Partners won, creating the basis for the global ‘I’m lovin’ it’ positioning. Nimble creative agencies emerged, particularly in the digital arena.
No matter what happens in the future, however, the three most intriguing agencies in recent German advertising history remain Scholz & Friends, Springer & Jacoby and Jung von Matt. In November 2006 they were once again voted ‘the best agencies in Germany’ by the country’s leading clients in a joint survey called Agency Images, carried out by the newspaper Handelsblatt and the marketing magazine Absatzwirtschaft.
Juergen Scholz is another of those ‘founding fathers’ who play a role in every country’s advertising history. A respected creative, in the sixties he was one of the founding members of Team, which later became Team/BBDO. In 1981 he broke away to set up Scholz & Friends in Hamburg. Just over 10 years later he retired, having created what local trade magazine Horizont described as ‘the agency of the decade’. Following his departure, the Bates network moved in and acquired 80 per cent of the agency.
Scholz & Friends flourished by staying one step ahead of the game. When it lost a chunk of Mars’ pet food business, it threw its energy behind another of its biggest clients, the tobacco brand Reemstma, aiding that company’s expansion by setting up branch offices in several European capitals. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, Scholz was the first agency into the former East Germany, opening an office first in Dresden, then in central Berlin. In 2000 it merged with the TV production company UVE, giving the agency the ability to create branded TV shows for clients. And in 2003 it bought itself out of its network owner – then the Cordiant Group – with the aid of a private equity company.
Scholz even managed to wrench opportunity from the jaws of the recession that decimated the German advertising industry. By 2005, following its management buyout from Cordiant, it was effectively the biggest independent network in Europe, with 900 staff and turnover in the region of 80 million euros. It had also won clients including Ideal Standard, Siemens, Masterfoods, Nike and AOL – not to mention the job of promoting the 2006 World Cup.
‘We have the recession to thank for our success,’ joint chief executive Sebastian Turner told Campaign. ‘If we hadn’t found ourselves in a situation two years ago where we didn’t show a profit, we wouldn’t have had the courage to drastically overhaul the company’ (‘German creativity blooms as recession persists’, 22 April 2005).
The revamp knocked down the walls between marketing disciplines. Instead of treating, say, TV advertising and direct marketing as separate issues with compartmentalized budgets, integrated teams would apply their expertise to each campaign from the beginning. The idea was to create a fully integrated network, although the agency used the term ‘orchestra of ideas’. It’s the kind of thinking that is becoming increasingly common as agencies adapt to the digital environment (see Chapter 20, ‘The agency of the future’).
Nevertheless, one of Scholz’s most famous campaigns is a long-running series of print ads for the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ). Well-known personalities are photographed in dramatic settings, their faces hidden behind the broadsheet newspaper, in which they are clearly engrossed. The tagline reads, ‘There’s always a clever mind behind it.’
While Scholz & Friends has managed to remain coolly aloof, two of Germany’s best-known creative agencies, Springer & Jacoby and Jung von Matt, have a vaguely incestuous relationship.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The wild card in the history of German advertising is the Swiss-based agency network GGK (which later linked up with the Lowe Group). The original agency was founded in 1959 by the highly respected graphic designer Karl Gerstner, along with Paul Gredinger and Markus Kutter. GGK established several European branches – and in the 1970s its German office was considered the country’s most creative agency. It was at GGK that Reinhard Springer and Konstantin Jacoby met.
Reinhard Springer left to open his own agency in 1979, at the dawn of the country’s commercial television service, with copywriter Konstantin Jacoby joining him a little while later. Some say Springer & Jacoby invented modern German advertising. Together they mastered what was effectively a new medium, injecting a universal humour into their work while at the same time providing a disciplined, professional working environment.
Leading German creative Jean-Remy von Matt, who joined the agency in 1986, recalls, ‘There were many strict rules. The agency’s founders were the protagonists of a tough, rigorous approach.’ Self-respect was encouraged. ‘Reinhard Springer, for example, never waited longer than 10 minutes for a meeting – even if it was his first contact with a big prospective client.’
Although the agency operated on a modest scale for some years, it leapt into the big time in 1989 when Mercedes awarded its account to the agency. With this highly prestigious win under its belt, S&J gained more clients and secured the top slot in the country’s creative league table.
The advertising industry, you will have noticed, resembles a slide of amoeba under a microscope, with elements constantly breaking off and reforming. The German advertising scene is no different. And so in 1991 Jean-Remy von Matt and his colleague Holger Jung left Springer & Jacoby to set up their own agency, Jung von Matt.
Jean-Remy von Matt entered the advertising business in 1975 as a copywriter in Düsseldorf, ‘which at the time was a boomtown of creativity’. His first task was to create a print ad for a company that made shower screens. ‘I wrote the headline and the copy – and because the male model for the photo was sick, I did that job too.’
He later went to Ogilvy & Mather in Frankfurt, and then to a hot shop in Munich. Finally, after another five years of hard work at Springer & Jacoby, he – like his business partner Holger Jung – was ready to take a risk. Acquiring a former corset factory as their headquarters, they installed a 14-foot-high Trojan horse in the foyer. The horse reminded staff and clients that ‘good advertising has an attractive exterior, resembles a gift and delights the heart. But inside, the hard-hitting core is consistently aimed at a specific target’ (‘Germany’s creative hot shops’, Campaign, 17 April 1998).
Jung von Matt grew quickly. ‘We started with seven people,’ says Jean-Remy. ‘Ten years later we had 500 – so our biggest challenge in the early years was to find enough talent to fulfil our ambitions, as well the expectations of the market. Today we have a staff of 650 in four countries – with hopefully more to come in Eastern Europe.’
One of the agency’s flagship accounts was BMW. In a memorable TV spot, a good-looking guy gets into an open-top BMW Z3 sports car and roars off down a country road. He pops a cassette into the player and a song begins: ‘Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz.’ In an obvious jibe at the auto maker’s competitor (and its advertising agency?) the driver pops the tape out of the machine and chucks it over his shoulder.
This was a fine sentiment until the summer of 2006, when Mercedes announced that it was taking its account away from Springer & Jacoby and giving it to Jung von Matt. After much soul-searching, Jung von Matt had been forced to resign the BMW account. It started work as the lead agency for Mercedes in January 2007.
Meanwhile, after being buffeted by the recession, Springer & Jacoby found itself back in the role of creative outsider, hungry to prove itself again. Under new ownership and with a reshuffled management team, the agency pledged to reconfigure itself for the new era of digital marketing. It remained, as one German executive stressed, ‘a school and a reference for the German advertising community’.
AEF thanks Kogan Page USA for granting permission to post the above two chapters from Adland. Chapters 5 and 9 from Adland by Mark Tungate, ISBN 978 0 7494 4837 0, published by Kogan Page, $39.95. Copyright Mark Tungate, 2007. Reproduced by permission of Kogan Page. View more details about Adland.
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