Famous Last Words: 3 Truths About Ad Agencies
In the 1970s, I was hired to save Meredith’s Better Homes & Gardens Family Book Service. It had lost $250,000 ($1.5 million today) and my two-word order from divisional president Jack Barlass was, “Fix this.”
Four guys saved the club: Frank Vos and Peter Vane of the Vos & Reichberg Agency, Meredith controller Harold Schwartz and ringmaster Denny Hatch. You don’t turn an aircraft carrier around on a dime. It took a painful 18 months before we showed a profit.
At the time, I had never worked with an ad agency. Here’s what I learned:
1. The Agency President Brings in the Business
Ad agency presidents are dazzlers at selling. David Ogilvy, Lester Wunderman and Frank Vos would show up to deliver the pitch. Hire the agency and you are lucky to see these brilliant sweet-talkers once every six months.
Before you say “yes” to their magical spells, meet and get to know the worker bees. Among them: your account executive and the team charged with your strategic planning, budgeting, media selection, copy, design and, above all, record keeping.
Ogilvy had Drayton Bird; Wunderman had Lew Smith; Vos had Peter Vane. All three were world-class.
2. Your Agency Is Your Institutional Memory
Damn few people stay in a corporate job very long. I had nine jobs in my first 12 years in business (and was fired from five of them). When I took over the Meredith Book Clubs, I had to do reverse engineering to find out what went so terribly wrong during the prior two years.
Controller Harold Schwartz had the performance numbers locked away in the two huge IBM S/360 mainframe computers — the third-largest data processing installation on Long Island (after Grumman Aircraft and Doubleday’s Literary Guild).
Peter Vane and the Vos Agency had all the records: the promotional history of budgets, lists, samples of ads, direct mail and results. Plus the names of the list brokers, printers and lettershops who got the offers out.