Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Adventures In Advertising: Standing Up To A Client

Apropos of all the discussion today about branding and social media and the power of companies and people to affiliate or not with other brands and companies, I thought I would tell a true story.  It happened a long time ago.

In 1977 I was briefly the head of account management at what may be the worst agency in the city.  I didn’t know until I got there because a good friend of mine worked there and introduced me, telling me it was a wonderful agency.  They offered me a lot of money, so I took the job.  The agency was called Hicks & Greist.

One of their accounts was Borden’s.  They had a number of brands, including ReaLemon and Wyler’s Lemonade.  One day in the spring of that year, the agency received a letter signed by the president of Borden’s.   In no uncertain terms, it instructed the agency not to buy any spot or network television in or adjacent to the upcoming new series, Soap.  Soap was to debut in the fall.  It was a comedy about a couple of different families and their relationships, ostensibly, it was about adultery, divorce, homosexuality, secret affairs and the like.  The cast included Billy Crystal and Robert Guillaume.  It came several years after All in the Family was on the air and became very successful. By today's standards it was very mild, but in those days it was very cutting edge.

I had previously seen the pilot and thought it was innocuous and fairly funny. Despite prior publicity and controversy, it was harmless and in many ways, far more mundane than All in the Family. But then, again, I am a liberal. I was incensed at the censorship by my client.  I called the director of marketing of the food division and nicely asked about the letter; he was a good guy and a friend (enough of a friend that I was present at his elopement, but that is merely a coincidence.)  His comment to me was astounding.  He told me that no one there had ever seen it, but said his management was a bunch of old and conservative men and there was nothing he could or would do about it. 

I thought it the client's right not to advertise on the show, but I objected to the fact that they had never seen it.  My thought process was that how could a company boycott something they knew nothing about. 

I asked him if he and his management would be open to screening the show.  I called ABC and, they thought it was a great idea and offered to go out to Columbus with me.  They volunteered to pay my airfare, so I did not have to obtain internal approval for the flight.  In a couple of days the marketing director got back to me and said that his management would be open to ABC and me coming out to Columbus for a screening.  Both he and I were surprised by the invitation.

So on the appointed day, I flew out there with a group of ABC executives.   We got there mid-morning.  The client was quite cordial and, I thought, receptive.  We played the pilot for them, which was half an hour (actually much less because there were no commercial breaks).  The entire executive group laughed all the way through it.  The client president looked at me afterwards and thanked me.  He told me he would not withdraw his memo and did not want commercials in the show because he wanted to protect his franchise from any negative publicity.  He did concede that if a scatter spot buy ended up in an adjacency, he would be inclined to look the other way, but he wouldn’t announce it because he did not want to create any controversy.  I was actually pleased with the response.  At least now they would know the facts and could make a decision based on knowledge, which is all I wanted.

They invited us to have lunch and, after a nice meal, I flew back to the agency. It had been a very cordial meeting.  By the time I returned to New York and arrived at the agency, they had been told about the meeting by the marketing director who was very complimentary towards me.  Nevertheless, the agency was furious with me, despite the positive results.  They made it clear that the agency was not the arbiter of their clients’ social actions and that I had no business making the trip or challenging their actions or beliefs (think of this in today's terms).  This, despite the fact that the marketing director had told the president of the agency that he and they were proud of the stance I had taken and thought better of the agency for it. I was bawled out and told that I had to clear all subsequent out of town trips with agency management.  The agency’s position left a bad taste in my mouth. 

Soap ran for four or five successful years and, immediately after it first aired, most of the controversy died down and was forgotten.  I resigned from the agency shortly after this event. I had only been there about six months.  They were not my kind of people.

I have always felt that ad agencies should be the conscience of their clients and their brands.  That discussion has come to the fore in recent weeks and months; the issues with the NRA is a good example.  It has taken a very long time.   

Ad agencies should always stand up for their beliefs.


  1. I commend your actions but condemn your methodology. While it was "your account" to run and manage, it was, ultimately, the agency's account to care for. By going to ABC and the client without at least telling the agency what you were going to do, you were saying to management that it wasn't their business, it was yours. As a creative person who was fired MANY times for "going off the reservation" (political incorrectness, no offense intended), I admire your chutzpah but don't blame the agency one bit. I think you already suspected the agency would take that kind of stance, which is why you did it beforehand. As Admiral Grace Hopper so cogently observed, "It's much easier to ask forgiveness than permission."

    1. Fair enough. Looking back on it, I am sure you are right. Nevertheless, I am really glad I did it. H&G was an absolutely terrible agency with terrible people. I have no idea what I was doing there.

    2. Ah, we all have one or two of THOSE agencies on our resumes. Mine was six weeks at the old Ted Bates. So I understand perfectly.

    3. Hey PS ... I started my agency career at Ted Bates 40 years ago and I attribute almost ALL of my fundamental brand marketing and agency lessons back to Bates. Sorry to hear you had a bad personal experience there, but it wasn't a place for the faint-of-heart or those looking for "warm fuzzies". Yes, just business ... but the greatest place to cut your teeth. Thanks, Bob Jacoby.

  2. A decade later I was working on the Borden grocery business at Grey when the show Thirtysomething showed a gay couple in bed. The media director's phone was blowing up, but the Borden client did not change the buy. All the more reason to stand up and fight the good fight.

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