How I Got to Madison Avenue. And beyond.

As with life, this blog is developing and changing. It began with a lot of stories that occurred on my career path from Albany to Madison Avenue and back.

There were some similarities to the AMC series "Mad Men," and then I went even farther back in time with a somewhat fictionalized version of growing up in Troy's Little Italy.

And now, a new development. As my free lance advertising and marketing career winds down, I'm becoming more interested in the theatre arts that my father and his 3 brothers helped instill in me as I grew up.

As a result, I've volunteered to help promote the Theatre Institute at Sage, and now, to continue a long-interrupted desire to be behind the proscenium, I've joined the newly formed Troy Civic Theatre, and was actually fortunate enough to appear in their first production.

So, I hope you'll enjoy the new stories that will develop from this latest turn.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


Before I begin, I want to thank the beautiful, talented and gracious Christina for posting another restaurant review that I helped write, in her blog for foodies: le plat du jour.

And, it just so happens that today's Ad Missions entry deals with beverages to help wash down all that food.

If I had to name the one thing that Kenyon & Eckhardt was best at, it would be service. As I've written before, the levels of quality at the ad agency varied greatly in the 1980's. That itself may have been the reason for their greatest attribute: clients got what they wanted, and, as every advertising pro knows, some clients want less than others.

The Coca-Cola Company wanted a lot more; and while K&E was not their primary agency, we handled the advertising for some of their more interesting products. And that led to my involvement.

Today, some unusual beverages and agency practices.

The Wine Spectrum.

When I tell people that Coca-Cola bottled and sold wine, they're surprised. It wasn't for very long, but it made a big difference. The thinking then was that the company was in the beverage business, and wine shouldn't be off-limits. (It's the kind of thinking that – if the old railroad companies had seen themselves as being in the transportation business – might have led to present-day airlines named New York Central Air, Baltimore and Ohio Airlines, and Achison, Topeka and Santa Fe Air Cargo.)

Another thing K&E creatives were good at was at developing products with their clients. My creative director, Monte Ghertler, created and named Taylor California Cellars. It's a brilliant name. Taylor, from the New York winemaker Coke bought; California, another word that signifies wine; and Cellars, giving it the image of quality and aging.

What the brand really was was a consistent blend of bulk wines, bought on the open market. In the bargain of buying wineries, Coke also ended up with New York's Great Western brands, plus California's Monterey Vineyards and Sterling Vineyards, a name with established cachet. And to add to their stable, they became the importers of Cinzano brands from Italy.

With the buying power of Coca-Cola behind him, Monte & K&E challenged two established Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms advertising rules for television, one of which forbade endorsements for alcoholic beverages, and another that such beverages could not be shown being consumed. Challenged and won. We found – and established – wine experts to praise Taylor California Cellars, and sip it on camera.

I didn't have anything to do with that policy, but I did write copy for the voice who introduced the experts – none other than great actor Frank Langella, reading my words with the smoothest, snobbiest voice imaginable.

I played a greater part in the campaign to establish Monterey Vineyards as a great restaurant house wine. I was sent to New Orleans to interview the owner of a great restaurant there, Commander's Palace, and write a first person ad. It was so well received, that I came to the attention of the on-premises division at Coca-Cola, and was made the first, and only, K&E copy/contact on an account.

Copy/Contact is unusual at a large agency, because it short-circuits the normal process of client supervision – instead of dealing with account managers and account executives, the client dealt directly with me, and I dealt directly with art, production, research and media departments.

It needed to be done, because going through the normal process would have meant missing an important deadline for introducing the major double page ad I had written – promoting Coke's Wine Spectrum as the new leader in the distribution of wine. The black and white version here was promoted in the trade paper, now online, Ad Week.

It's rare, but always good, when you can use a superlative, and my headline was all about Coke's big, calculated advantage in wine.

Ramblin' Root Beer

This was another Coca-Cola product that Monte Ghertler and Coke collaborated on. The product's advantage was built-in so that K&E could create a campaign around it. It was made extra creamy and foamy, so that Monte and the agency's music director, Charles Strouse, could write a jingle called “Something More.”

Yes, the same Charles Strouse who created “Annie.” In fact, this rather dated national commercial even featured a young actress you may know dressed as Annie – Sarah Jessica Parker, who grew up and is now known as the star of the “Sex and The City” franchise.

Where the national spot sang about America's something more, local versions would highlight local features. The idea was to roll-out the product, one market at a time, with a re-sung jingle tailored to that specific city or geographic area. My job was to research each market, and write lyrics to Strouse's music that highlighted the features of the area, and rhymed, as well. It was a difficult challenge that I really enjoyed.

For example, the jingle for the New York Metropolitan area began, “New York is terrific, it's got something more. The Hudson Valley, Shubert Alley... something more.” A few couplets like that, and then the song would introduce Ramblin' Root Beer, and its something more: more foamy, more creamy, etc.

I would have our research department buy tour books for the areas that were on the rollout schedule that I had never been to, like Atlanta and Seattle, and find features that rhymed. The easiest version for me to write was for the Albany, New York region. It had been my stomping grounds for forty years, and family and friends were there. The area had a very popular comedy rock band named Blotto, and the jingle I wrote included their name, because I knew their fan base matched Ramblin' Root Beer's demographic ideal.

Two sets of lawyers told me that I couldn't use their name without their legal consent, so it was arranged that I meet them backstage at a New York appearance at The Bottom Line. That's how I got to meet Blotto, and ten years later, when I met Eileen, the beautiful woman who was the love of my life, we discovered the band was quite a connection – she had been their biggest fan, and her son – who would become my stepson – was even known as “Baby Blotto.” Much later, after Eileen had passed, I hired the band to play at a very special New Year's Eve birthday bash.

Next time: more legal wrangles.

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