Mirror, mirror: Who are the giants of today?
Tub-thumpers come in short supply along Madison Ave.
By John Emmerling
September 29, 1997
There is a large, ornate mirror in my bedroom that my wife got from the estate of Mary Lasker, widow of the legendary ad man Albert Lasker. I often look at its big, imposing surface and think about Albertone of the first warlords of advertising straightening his tie in the morning before striding out to some new conquest. In 1912, at the tender age of 32, Lasker became the sole owner of the Lord & Thomas advertising agency. An opinionated tyrant who ruled with an iron fist, Lasker relentlessly drove his shop to become the largest agency in the world. (As a matter of policy, to keep things hopping, he would fire a certain number of employees every four years!)
The other morning, I worked up my courage and spoke to my mirror: "You in there, Albert?"
I heard the clearing of a long-dusty throat, then a booming voice: "Never thought youd ask, son. Now, who are youand what business are you in?" So I told him.
"Advertising, eh? How are my pals Ray and Bruce? And whats up with those new kidsLeo and Bill? And that English bloke, David?"
I guess you mean Ray Rubicam, Bruce Barton, Leo Burnett and Bill Bernbach... well, they should all be there with you," I said, not sure if my eyes should be glancing up or down. "And the English chap would be David Ogilvy. He retired to France years ago."
"Well, then," he growled, "whos kicking ass in the advertising business today?" I explained about mergers, acquisitions, and told him that accountants and financial people had become pretty important.
"Accountants are people who nudge numbers," he declared with annoyance, "I asked you whos kicking ass!"
Thats an interesting subject, Al," I stammered, stalling for time while trying to come up with a plausible reply. "Today, the term kicking ass is sort of relative. The big ad agencies are headed by some very accomplished managers. They are smart, personable and tend to have nice, straight, white teeth. You would find them quite polishedand they do make a lot of money on their stock options."
A disdainful grunt emerged from my mirror. "Tell me this, sonare these personable agency bigwigs able to take their clients by the hand and lead them into the marketplace jungle? Do they wrestle competitive advertisers to the ground and stomp em? Do they sit at the right hand of the client CEO?"
"Tough questions, Al," I mumbled. Then I rambled on about the growth of client marketing and research departments, about the incredible proliferation of media options, and about the development of global branding concepts.
"Son, I was asking you about the personalities of your leaders. Where are your tub-thumpers? Have you got any P.T. Barnums out there on Madison Avenue?"
I explained that most agencies had abandoned Madison Avenueand that very few tubs were still being thumped.
"How about the clients themselves? Are any of them giants?" He asked with an almost wistful tone, "You must have some big, domineering clients who make headlines in the dailies and get splashed all over the cover of Life Magazine?"
I was now backing away from the mirror. "Well, I guess there are a couple of client executives who could be called colorful."
"Like George Washington Hill of American Tobacco, right?" he continued, chuckling warmly as he recollected his old client. "Old George would spit on the conference table to make his point. So todays clients are still rambunctious rascals who need to be corralled, eh?"
"Not exactly, Al. No spitters these days. And very few clients are in ad agency corrals." I went on to say that his kind of "giants" tended to be found in related industries like media, entertainment, and technology. I told him about Ted Turner and Rupert Murdoch ("My kind of guys," he grumbled approvingly.) I described the innovative deeds of Bill Gates and Steven Spielberg.
("Those smart, creative thinkers can actually be good business builders," he allowed.)
But he was relentless, returning again to his passion, ad agencies. "Give it to me straight, kid. Are you really saying there are no giants in the ad business today?" I frantically mind-searched my mental Rolodex. As I checked under B (for Biggies) I spotted a dozen prominent agency execs. But when I flipped to G (for Giants) the card file was bare.
"It seems, sir, we are definitely out of giants at the moment." Edging out the bedroom door, I promised to get back to him when the industry produced a genuine, high profile, ass-kicker. "Ill be here," he said, barely concealing his disgust.
Lately, Ive started to avoid the mirror.
Actually, its only a little inconvenient getting dressed in the kitchen.
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