Learning From a Pro.
Why good is never good enough.
The man I bluffed once, and only once was an Albany legend named Phil Voss. Later in my career, I wrote an article for a local magazine about him and all the other ad agencies that he spawned – there were at least ten in the late eighties, and those have probably doubled again since, as people grow and leave and start their own “shops.”
For that article, I sought memories of Phil from some of my contemporaries. Everybody had very strong recollections, and like the story of the blind men and the elephant, if you put them together you get a pretty good idea of the man behind the legend.
One TV station promotion director remembered Phil, in a well-cut, pin-stripe suit sprinkled with cigarette ashes, striding through the door of the TV studio that had been converted into a bar – a barrel-chested man with long skinny legs, a generous nose and the bearing of a flagship Mercedes. The crowded room grew quiet as he offered his congratulations on a new programming idea, and, realizing he was the center of attention, immediately transformed his message into a speech.
His copy chief and my boss at the time, remembered Voss's “incongruously boyish gray hair that framed his furrowed face, and very intense eyes. You couldn't ignore his eyes.”
An account manager from the sixties told me that “Phil's taste in copy and art was impeccable.” When Voss saw one photograph that he deemed unacceptable, an account executive said it was good enough, and that the budget didn't allow for retouching. Phil insisted on fixing it at the agency's expense, because, as he often said, “We will not turn out something that is not the best quality that we're capable of.”
Besides pioneering endorsement advertising, as he did in the early sixties with Monty Woolley for Saratoga Vichy, Voss also laid the groundwork for today's sophisticated research. Once he knew all about the product and its prime target, he took great advantage of that knowledge. For a local brewery, Fitzgerald's of Troy, he shortened the name to “Fitz,” as he knew its consumers did, and began a slogan that fit the aspirations of sports-loving beer drinkers: “Fitz fits the hero.” It worked, as the idea still does today.
When then Governor Nelson Rockefeller used his influence to create the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, once again, Phil's creative ability helped introduce the summer season of classical music and ballet to upstaters – this time by finding delicate ways to popularize the new center without causing it to lose its loftiness. He called it SPAC, and that name has stuck for over forty years. Then, Phil called on the radio experience of his newest copywriter to produce radio commercials with the most familiar themes from classical music, and to emphasize the athletic ability and star quality of principal dancers Edward Villella and Suzanne Farrell.
As my reward in writing and producing the first commercials for the new enterprise, I was invited to attend the premier gala performance at what has become a sparkling annual summer highlight. Attending the formal affair with my soon-to be ex-wife, it was the first of many heady affairs to come.
“Captain Hook” and the Bubbly
Cyril Ritchard Sells Saratoga's Most Famous Product.
Now that I was working at the agency that had brought Monty Woolley to Albany to sell Saratoga Vichy Water, we looked around the show business world to continue the celebrity endorsement. Woolley had died in 1963, only a couple of years after recording the commercials. In the late sixties, an actor/director of considerable talent and excellent taste was within our reach.
Children of the fifties had grown up knowing Cyril Ritchard as a fey “Captain Hook,” and you can still enjoy his performance in Mary Martin's musical version on you tube. But his talents far exceeded that performance – Ritchard was one of the earliest actors in Alfred Hitchcock movies, a musical comedy star in Australia with his wife, Madge Elliot, a frequent guest on American TV in the fifties and sixties, a frequent Tony Award nominee for his work on Broadway, a director, and performer with the Metropolitan Opera.
Widowed in the mid-fifties, he now resided in Ridgefield, Connecticut, and, through a talent search, we learned that he was available for commercial endorsements.
Despite his agent's warning us of a difficult star temperament, we wanted him. His image and his recognition factor among young adults were a perfect fit for the demographic profile we were looking for.
The entire creative department wanted in on this production, so we brainstormed TV and radio ideas to fit Ritchard's playful stage personality, and carefully researched his background. We learned that he was a devout Catholic who observed meatless Fridays and enjoyed fine foods. We resolved to show him all the respect and first class treatment that we firmly believed a talented performer of his ilk deserved.
We sent a chauffeured limousine to his home in Ridgefield to carry him to Albany in style, and met him, on a Friday night, in the finest suite of the finest hotel that Albany had to offer. Back then, there were still some traditional old hotels that catered to the politicians who demanded the capital city's finest treatment.
Upon his arrival on a Friday evening, we greeted him with shrimp and champagne, and found him to be gracious, warm and friendly, and during the weekend's production sessions at radio and TV stations, completely cooperative. In front of the camera and behind the microphone, his performances exceeded our expectations.
Cyril Ritchard was a consummate performer, and he passed away as a show business professional might prefer, suffering a heart attack while on tour in a production of “Side by Side by Sondheim” in 1977, at the age of 80. His funeral mass was officiated by another star of early television, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.
How to Write Good
You have to know the rules if you're going to break them.
As I look back at those three or four years working at Woodard, Voss and Hevenor, it seems as though every person was the best at the job he or she was doing. Copy, art, print production, proofreading, account management – everybody knew their job, and knew that good wasn't good enough.
We had a real old pro in the production department, Bert, who started me thinking one day, when he was looking over a piece of copy I had written. He told me with a smile, “The passive voice is to be avoided.”
Of course, he stated the rule by breaking it, because the active version would be, “Avoid the passive voice.”
It tickled me, and from that day on, I began collecting and writing rules of writing that break themselves, such as “Avoid Alliteration. Always.” And, “Avoid cliches like the plague. They're old hat.”
I would share them with coworkers, and even used some of them on a promotional coffee mug at the next agency I went to. And when I got to “Madison Avenue,” I even managed to get them published in Writer's Digest.
But I don't want to get too far ahead of myself. I just wanted to thank Bert, and make a transition to that next agency.
After a few years, I thought I had learned enough to become a copy chief myself. And, it turned out, a slightly larger upstate ad agency agreed.