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The Urban Strategist / John Emmerling


Or: What happened when a Y & R copywriter cranking out Jell-O cream pie ads answered a "free space in Time" offer…

Back in the spring of 1969 Dick Coffey, the promotion director of "Time" magazine, had a problem—television. How could you convince advertising agencies that consumer magazines were an effective place to spend the client’s money? Then Coffey had this terrific idea. Offer a free full page in "Time" to ad agencies. Just give away $2 million worth of space and let agencies "sell" anything except a product. The response to their own ad, Coffey hoped, would prove the power of print. And, just to make sure that the agency people worked extra hard, they would throw in an extra one-third page for credits, plus a $1000 honorarium.

May 14, 1969. The "free space in Time" offer was introduced in Phil Dougherty’s advertising column in the New York Times. (I was at Young & Rubicam then, writing ads for Remington shavers and Jello-O cream pies.) I ripped the column out. I don’t do that too often.

May 16. This morning the 100 or so writers and art directors at Y & R got a memo from Steve Frankfurt, our 37-year-old ex-art-director president. A copy of the Dougherty column was attached and the memo asked that everyone submit one ad. Steve, the copy chief, and the art department head would get together and pick a winner. And the $1000 would go to whoever did that ad.

May 19. Started doodling on the back of Steve Frankfurt’s memo. Thought about ads to stop war, to legalize grass and a few other idealistic but impossible tasks. Then thought: why not use the ad to actually accomplish some little thing? Like collect money for something? Like collect money for a vest-pocket park? In Harlem, maybe?

Began playing around with headlines, layouts and body copy for a park ad. Thought it’d be nice if I donated the $1000 prize, then asked people to match my contribution. Penciled in the headline: HOW YOU CAN GIVE $1000 AND HELP BUILD A SMALL PARK IN HARLEM.

June 3. Another memo came out and gave us just two more days to submit ads. Figured it was time to call the Parks Department and find out if park-building was feasible in New York. Got through to Al Shapiro, Director of Park Planning. "Sounds fine," said Shapiro.

June 4. Suddenly appreciating that my ad would probably have to compete against a hundred other Y & R ads, I called Shapiro back and asked if it might be possible to get a letter from August Heckscher stating that the ad was feasible. "I don’t see why not," said Shapiro. "Bring the ad over tomorrow."

June 5. Arrived at ten o’clock at the Parks Department’s Arsenal Building in Central Park. Shapiro was great. Read the ad and said he loved it. But would I excuse him a moment while he went to show the ad to Mr. Heckscher? After twenty extremely long minutes Shapiro came back and shrugged, "Heckscher killed your ad." Heckscher had just then decreed to Shapiro that New York City could not afford to maintain any more parks. "You mean if I were a big-deal multi-millionaire and wanted to give a park to the City of New York, you couldn’t accept it?" I asked. "Right," he said.

Returned to Y & R and went in to see Al Hampel, our copy chief. Showed him the ad and mentioned that Mr. Heckscher had already killed it. Al, a very cool head, suggested submitting the ad anyway with a note explaining things. "Maybe Steve will call Lindsay," he added. (Steve Frankfurt was rumored to be a buddy of the mayor’s—and it was common agency knowledge that Lindsay had attended Steve’s wedding.)

June 6. Hampel stopped by my office and said that he, Steve, and the head of the art department, Bob Wall, had reviewed all the agency ads. "Yours was Steve’s favorite," said Al. I began to envision a hot-line call to Gracie Mansion.

June 10. No word. Hampel thinks that Steve doesn’t want to bother Lindsay. The attitude seems to be "too bad about the park thing—it would have been a good ad." Nobody likes any of the other ads submitted well enough to pick something for Time. Interest begins to wane.

June 20. Al Hampel announces that he is moving over to Benton & Bowles to become executive vice president. Very nice for him but the park ad loses a key supporter.

July 2. My boss on Remington, Hanno Fuchs, is one of three favorites for Al’s copy chief job. If Hanno gets it, the park ad could regain some necessary backing. The word "politics" begins to take on new meaning for me.

July 9. The copy chief slot goes to Tony Isidore. Tony is probably the best writer in the agency (he just about singlehandedly did the "Give a Damn" campaign). Unfortunately, I’m not one of his boys.

July 30. Heard that the Time free ad project has been quietly reactivated with a select few writers and art directors assigned to do a new round of ads.

August 6. Fate. I worked a little late and went outside on Madison Avenue to catch a bus. Steve Frankfurt came out of the building, saw me, and asked if I wanted to share a cab uptown. Yes-I-would-thank-you. We hailed a taxi and promptly got stuck in traffic—I had the president of the country’s second-largest ad agency as a captive audience. "Hey Steve… what ever happened to the Time ads?" He explained that none of the proposed ads really knocked him out, also that it was too bad about my park ad. I went into a now-standard spiel about how the ad could have been good for Y & R, good for Time and awfully good for the people of Harlem. Steve asked was I sure that a park couldn’t be built? It had been two months since Heckscher had turned the ad down—maybe something had changed? We reached Steve’s corner and I promised to call the Parks Department again the next morning.

August 11. Called Shapiro at the Parks Department. "Oh, hi… sure I remember… you’re the guy who wants to build ‘Emmerling Park [laugh].’ " Shapiro then said that all requests for vest-pocket parks were now being handled by Mayor Lindsay’s Council on Playlots. "Call Bob Hoguet over there," he suggested. I telephoned the Council on Playlots. After my three-minute explanation, Hoguet said there should be absolutely no problem. "You give us the money. We’ll build the park. "Private money" he asserted, "is beautiful stuff." The Council neatly avoided maintenance problems by having neighborhood block associations sign a standard maintenance agreement. I hung up giddily, called Steve Frankfurt’s secretary and left word.

August 13. No official acceptance of any ad within Y & R yet. One or two of the "second round" ads have been set in type. Tony Isidore, our new copy chief, asked me to do a different headline approach for the park ad. I did a new headline and rough layout. Tony didn’t like it and told me to get an art director. (Until now I had been doing my own layouts, relying on early experience as a college cartoonist. All my layouts looked like cartoons.) Went and talked to Gerry Severson, one of the best art directors in the place. We started to do more variations on the park idea.

August 20. We have to satisfy Tony and art head Bob Wall before the ad can be passed to Steve for final approval. Gerry and I present 33 headline approaches. After a half-hour meeting we settle on an abbreviation of the original headline: HOW YOU CAN BUILD A SMALL PARK IN HARLEM.

August 22. Steve Frankfurt okays the park ad. But instead of its emphasis on large donations, Steve wants the ad to ask for anything—so a schoolkid could send a few pennies. Good idea. Later went to the Council on Playlots office to meet Bob Hoguet. Among other things, learned that park can cost anywhere from $7,000 to $100,000, depending on site problems, construction and equipment.

August 27. Spent the morning at Department of Real Estate making a list about 300 city-owned lots in Harlem.

August 29. Gerry and I spent the day crisscrossing Harlem. Found a good, city-owned vacant lot on West 115th Street between Lenox and St. Nicholas. The 115th Street Better Block Organization had written the Council on Playlots several months earlier requesting some sort of playlot for their block, so we were pretty sure of community interest.

September 4. Our park project has come of age. Today we got an account executive. Remar Sutton—young, extremely organized and accustomed to working 80-hour weeks. Gerry and I were trying to schedule a photo session on 115th Street for September 8. So we immediately filled Remar’s yellow pad with a long list of people to call, clearances and permits to get. In addition, we wanted a cop, and our photographer, Joe Toto, wanted us to get a cherry-picker crane for some high-angle shots. Unbelievably, Remar came back one hour later. Everything done.

September 8. Strange crew up on 115th Street at 6 a.m. A cop, our photographer, his assistant, cherry-picker and operator, four guys and a girl from Y & R. Somebody took one look out their window, didn’t see our cop, and called the cops. Had our shots and cleared out by 9 a.m.

September 13. By way of showing that I wasn’t totally wrapped up in this park project: took my flight test today, passed, and got a private pilot’s licence.

September 15. Steve Frankfurt took the ad over to Dick Coffey at Time. Coffey liked it but asked why, since the ad would run nationally, we couldn’t solicit funds for several cities in addition to New York’s Harlem. Worth a try. Remar Sutton got on the phone to city administrations around the country.

September 16. In less than 24 hours we have tentative commitments from Los Angeles (Watts), Chicago (Englewood), Cleveland (Hough area) and Atlanta (Buttermilk Bottom). We decide to run two versions of the ad: one for Harlem, where we have selected the lot on 115th Street, the second version for all five cities. Time agrees to run the two ads regionally in their October 24 issue.

September 22. Engraved four-color plates for both versions shipped to Time.

September 27. Further proof that I wasn’t totally wrapped up in this project: I got married today.

October 2. Prismatic Engraving Co. donated the $4,500 cost of making the four-color plates. Nice people.

October 3. Met with representatives of the Urban Action Task Force, the Mayor’s Council on Playlots and the 115th Street Better Block Organization. Meeting held in the block office, and all groups approved the ad. Block organization signed the standard maintenance agreement calling for general supervision and cleaning.

October 20. Ad appears in Time. Harlem version on the East Coast; rest of the country gets the five-city version. It’s been a long haul. Now, it starts to gnaw on us that the ad might not work. Could be embarrassing to go to the Post Office next week and find three letters containing $1.56.

October 24. Hanno Fuchs left Y & R today. Going to Richard K. Manoff, Inc. as the executive vice president.

October 27. The ad has been out for one full week. Remar, Gerry and I walk over to Grand Central Post Office. "Anything for Box 3887?" I ask the clerk. He goes off to look. And comes back with a sack full of mail. We bounded back to the agency, interrupted Steve Frankfurt in a meeting and dumped a pile of mail on his desk. I think he said something like, "Gosh."

October 29. Counting this morning’s we have almost $3000 for the Harlem park and a little over $2000 for the other four parks put together. Our goal is $7000 per park, and we figure Harlem is leading because it had its own ad on the East Coast. We’re getting hundreds of great letters along with the donations. "I like to play in the park. Please use the enclosed to build a park for another little boy. (signed) Bob, age 5." Another letter read, "My parents are rich, I’m poor. They don’t understand, but I do." A man from Brooklyn wrote "I would give more but I’m broke from paying parking tickets, impounding fees, real estate taxes, 6 percent city tax on $1 hamburgers worth only 35 cents, phones that don’t refund dimes, school tax for kids I don’t have, higher and higher rents, state and city agencies that steal… but how can you turn down kids?" Then there was the plaintive scrap of paper that read simply, "Please plant a tree."

November 3. Got a hate letter today. After a few hundred "thank yous" and "bless yous" it’s almost refreshing to get several lines of unadulterated poison. The writer, a man from San Diego, skillfully managed to include most of his pet hates. "Gentlemen: You must be out of your cotton pickin’ minds or full of dope, more likely the latter if homosexual bums like you imagine for one moment that the decent citizens of this country will subscribe one dime to build a park for a pack of wild cannibals to piss and fornicate in…" (As of today total contributions for all five parks passed $10,000—or, if you prefer, 100,000 dimes.)

November 7. Sitting around casually opening mail. A dollar here. A fiver there. Occasionally a ten or a twenty. Then Gerry sort of gasped. He handed me a Harlem check from the J. Robert Fisher Foundation for $7,000. We figured the Harlem park had just been "built."

November 17. We attended an evening meeting of the block organization. Discussed the park and asked whether it should be for little kids or teenagers. (In a small park teenagers don’t mix well with younger children.) The group decided the park should be for children under twelve.

November 20. Today, with our ad one month old, Harlem has $16,000; Los Angeles $2,500; Chicago $2,100; Atlanta $1,800, and Cleveland $1,400.

December 8. The Publisher’s Letter in this week’s Time talks about the dozen or so ads that have run in their free-space series and describes the Y & R parks effort as "the ad that has so far drawn the most active response."

December 22. Great letter from a Navy man today. "Dear Sirs: I didn’t have any cash on hand so I bet a buddy of mine I could do one thousand sit-ups. So here’s his five dollars. I could and did!" The $1,000 honorarium check arrived from Time. Gerry and I are donating it, $200 per park.

January 6, 1970. Slight problem. Bob Hoguet is leaving the Council on Playlots, and the Council is being forced out of business—no new funds appropriated. We had planned to turn our contributions over to the Council and sit back to watch a park grow. But this forces Y & R into the park-building business.

January 12. A young guy named Bill Hawkey called. He’s a landscape designer/contractor and president of Vest Pocket Landscaping Inc. Bill explained that he had heard about us (through my insurance man, no less) and would like to help; also that he had experience working on mini-parks in New York. Invited him to meet with us.

January 20. Word from Chicago that our park in the Englewood ghetto will cost about $20,000 but that no matter what amount is collected the Chicago Park District has pledged to make up the difference. Park number two is "built."

January 22. Conclusive proof of the "pass along" effectiveness of magazine ads: Today, with the ad three months old, we got $2 and a letter that started, "I saw the enclosed coupon in an old Time magazine at the laundromat…"

February 4. Y & R’s chairman of the board, Ed Bond, received a letter from a high official in the U.S. Department of the Interior. The letter compliment Mr. Bond on the park ad and requested that a staff member have the opportunity to meet us and discuss our experiences with these urban parks.

February 12. At tonight’s block meeting, Bill Hawkey is selected as designer-contractor for the Harlem park. He then talked some general ideas for the park. Because of a sharp, six-foot drop off at the back of the lot, we’ll need a concrete retaining wall around both sides and the back of the park. It’s work that wouldn’t have been required with a level lot. Meeting ended with soul—fried chicken, ham hocks, hog jowls and chitterlings.

February 17. Mr. William Spitzer from the Department of the Interior came to see us today. Greeted by Mark Stroock (a very senior Y & R exec), Remar Sutton and me. Spitzer had helped put together a Walter J. Hickel proposal to President Nixon requesting more recreational areas for inner cities. He questioned us on why we thought the ad had worked and on what sort of people sent the contributions. Very interested in the public reaction to a small-park-in-a-ghetto. Before we closed the meeting I mentioned that we were still short of our goals in four out of five cities. Could he possibly help? Spitzer said that "special money" might be available.

February 20. Contributions continue to dribble in. The ad is now four months old. Individual city totals are Harlem, $18,800; Los Angeles, $3,300; Chicago, $3,000; Atlanta, $2,600; and Cleveland, $2,050.

February 26. Final park plan approved at tonight’s block meeting. Hawkey will hire a few unemployed block residents as laborers. Our realistically projected budget has now overwhelmed the original hopes for a $7,000 park in Harlem. (With the remaining funds going toward a maintenance fund or, perhaps, for a second park.) The site preparation alone is going to cost about $10,000—concrete retaining walls are not cheap—and we’re too committed to the people of 115th Street to pick up and find a level lot on another block.

March 2. Dick Boulton, an account-coordinator who has been helping out, is assigned to work full time managing Y & R’s end during the park construction.

March 10. Work begins on the Harlem park with six previously unemployed men from the block on the job.

March 27. My last day at Y & R. After nine years am leaving to join Hanno Fuchs at RKM. Gerry Severson coming, too. Park project running smoothly so our departure shouldn’t cause any problem.

April 30. Advertising Club of New York selects the park ad as third best color magazine ad of 1969. (Doyle Dane Bernbach takes the first two places.)

May 2. The poured concrete retaining walls are complete—$2,500 worth of the concrete was donated by the Highway Department. Park now needs an eight-foot-high concrete block wall on three sides, trees, sandpit and equipment.

May 19. Dick Boulton took a trip up to Westfield High School in Massachusetts—a thank-you speech to the student body. They’d just completed a fund-raising week and presented Dick with a $600 check for Harlem. It’ll help quite a bit since construction problems have been extensive and we are close to exhausting the $19,000 in our Harlem budget.

May 20. Steve Frankfurt called me today. Seems that Secretary Hickel has written to Y & R and offered to match the money contributed for Los Angeles, Chicago, Cleveland and Atlanta. Good ol’ Bill Spitzer. The Interior Department money is just enough to assure at least a minimum park in all four cities.

June 26. Harlem park at 121 West 115th Street now almost complete. Twelve pin oak and crabapple trees are in place and a huge sandpit is filled with whooping kids. Climbing equipment is still needed and we are over the budget, but Dick Boulton promises that the money will be scraped up somewhere.

August 10. Remar Sutton leaves Y & R to join RKM. (In spite of what you think, the park project was not a long-range plot of the Judy Wald Personnel Agency.)
Epilogue, November, 1970. Walter Hickel—perhaps as one of his last official acts—came to the rescue of our Harlem park with a $3,000 grant. Then, Playground corporation of America donated part of the cost of one of their ingenious playscapes—a complex of climbing, sliding and jumping-off equipment that can accommodate over 40 children at one time. The Highway Department donated asphalt decking and cobblestones. The Model Cities people gave us a sturdy fence and gate for the street side of the park.

Next, along came Elois King, an energetic lady who’d been brought up in the building next to the park. Miss King, among other things, pulled together a mob of the kids to paint a mural on the park wall.

Then, the Mayor’s Council on Playlots appeared reborn as something called "Playlots Project," a part of the Highway Department. And the head lady there, Ann McCarthy, allowed as how the Playlots Project should certainly be able to help out with maintenance of the park—and since community maintenance can get a bit spotty, the city help was most welcome. (Incidentally, the work crews come from Vera Institute’s Bowery Work Project—a rehabilitation program for alcoholics.)

So, the park is complete and maintenance is assured. Considering all our freebies and discounts, we ended up with about $35,000 worth of park for less than $23,000. The ad produced $31,425 for all five parks, and Interior Department grants brought the total to over $45,000. (There’s that power of print you asked for, Time.)

Kenny's Park and some of the kids in the neighborhood.
People mentioned in this story (clockwise from left) are Remar Sutton,
Dick Boulton, John Emmerling, Bill Hawkey, and Gerry Severson.

The park even has a name. The kids of 115th Street were all crazy about a Chihuahua named Kenny—he sort of belonged to every child on the block—but six weeks ago Kenny scampered into the street and was hit by a car. If you go up to the park you’ll find a tiny, well-attended grave under the young oak trees. The kids are calling the park Kenny’s Park.


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