Five things you didn’t know about advertising agencies 1970s (2)

1/ The most important adman in the world in the 1970s was Marion Harper (a bloke), head, first, of McCann-Erickson and then of Interpublic, the marcoms groups that grew off the back of McCann’s.

Harper, who was born in Oklahoma City in 1916 and died there in 1989 was hardly a Mad Men-type operator like the show’s Roger Sterling or even less Don Draper.

Like many leading US admen of his time he sought to make advertising into a science, resting on the findings of market research to guarantee clients results for their spending. This was quite sensible (it’s what clients want isn’t it?) but is hard to enforce in the unruly realms of adverts.

Anyway Interpublic became the first big global marcoms unit, shortly to be followed by Japanese operation Dentsu.

But none of the agencies Harper bought, like SSCB: Lintas (the old Unilever in-house agency) or Wasey Campbell-Ewald ever managed to duplicate the success of McCann’s.

2/ But Interpublic, aka McCanns with a bit of Wasey, did manage to lord it over London for most of the 1970s, winning big local accounts like Tesco to add to Esso, Coke and Martini. Harper’s eventual successor Phil Geier was sent to London and helped to turn McCann’s London into a new business-winning machine.

This was overseen by managing director Nigel Grandfield, an account man of the old school who, because he wasn’t as posh as his rivals at JWT and Masius actually worked a bit harder, and creative director Barry Day, who positioned himself as the intellectual about matters creative although his rivals along Howland Street in London’s Fitzrovia, Collett Dickenson Pearce, scoffed at the notion.

3/ Mary Wells was the queen of Madison Avenue, a striking-looking copywriter who went from ad manager of Macy’s to creative stints at McCann’s and DDB (in those days leaving a client for an agency was regarded as a step up in the world) before founding Wells Rich Greene with Richard Rich and Stewart Greene in 1966.

In !967 she married one of her clients Harding Lawrence of Braniff Airlines for whom she penned the immortal line ‘this is not a plain plane.’

But the blonde and beautiful Mary was the business, becoming the highest-paid adperson in the world and the first woman CEO of a company quoted on Wall Street.

Alas Wells Rich Greene never quite cut it on the world stage, eventually succumbing to a merger with French upstarts Boulet Dru Dupuy Petit in 1990 shortly after her retirement. BBDP subsequently absorbed hotshot UK agency Gold Greenlees Trott before overreaching itself and being absorbed into Omnicom.

For her part Mary wrote a best-selling book ‘A big life in advertising’ and became part of the US business and political establishment. She’s probably the inspiration for copywriter Peggy in Mad Men, a woman creative making it in a man’s world, although there don’t seem to be too many other similarities between the vulnerable Peggy and steely Mary.

But she was (and as far as I know still is) class.

4/ In 1970 Bill Tragos (American), Claude Bonnange (French), Uli Weisendanger (Swiss) and Paolo Ajroldi (Italian) came together to form TBWA, a sort of United Nations agency. TBWA subsequently had its ups and downs, doing pretty well on the European mainland although failing to crack it in the UK despite the presence of John Bartle, Nigel Bogle and John Hegarty, who went on to form BBH.

It had a foothold in the USA but, like nearly all European-based interlopers, got munched beneath the armoured tracks of the big Madison Avenue and mid-west agencies.

But in 1990 Omnicom, an amalgam of BBDO (Batten Barton Durstine & Osborne as it was known in the 1930s) and DDB Needham bought TBWA and, three years later, added Chiat Day, the creative West Coast agency founded by Jay Chiat whose creds included the legendary Ridley Scott Apple ‘1984’ commercial.

By which time the TBWA founders had all long gone but this venture, which looked quixotic almost from the start, became one of the world’s biggest agency groups, much as the founders might have imagined.

Except it was American of course.

5/ In 1974 chocolate firm Cadbury was trying to expand into different areas of the UK food market and it came up with the bright idea of instant mashed potato. Instead of boiling up the damn things and then mashing them for ages you just poured in some potato powder, a bit of hot water and off you went.

It didn’t fly although it probably would if they did it now and got Jamie Oliver to front the thing.

But it did give Boase Massimi Pollitt creative director John Webster the opportunity to come up with his celebrated ‘robots’ campaign for the brand with the less than ground-breaking slogan ‘for mash get Smash.’

In fact Webster’s fantastic commercial with robots just seemed to reinforce consumers’ feelings that this stuff was just too artificial.

But it’s since been voted the best commercial in the world ever in numerous polls and certainly helped BMP to win a (deserved) reputation as the best creative agency in the world.

BMP, for those of you who like to round these things up, was eventually bought by Omnicom and became DDB London after fighting off a bid from French shop BDDP (see Mary Wells story above).

Its chairman Martin Boase, usually the most urbane man in adverts, famously instructed the French to ‘”frog off.”

Anyway here’s Webster’s brilliant and highly unsuccessful commercial for Smash:

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.