The NYC interview at One Dag Hammarskjold Plaza in 1982 marked the beginning of my illustrious career as a big time advertising man. The skills I brought to the business turned out to be more than appropriate but the nature of the business was not entirely predictable. Wes bought himself a pinstripe suit and went into battle from the Hoboken railroad flat that he shared with his wife Lynn and their baby girl Lindsey.
The junior account executive was a success in breaking into a highly competitive ad biz and as such witnessed from the inside the launch of Diet Coke – an historic event that engaged an embarrassing number of celebrities in an atmosphere that felt like the academy awards meets the Nobel peace prize. The genius tag line for this blockbuster extravaganza: “Introducing Diet Coke. Just for the taste of it.”
Meanwhile my job included the periodic messenger/check pickups, trips to the distributor to pick up product in Grogan’s green Cadillac, carrying a TV monitor/VCR as side kick to Grogan on brisk walks to the client’s office (taxis apparently for wimps). It also fell to me to write the official internal strategy for the Van Munching account. The LINK document was a series of cleverly designed sheets that folded into sections suggesting a linear and logical flow of activities: competition, communication/message, media, promotion, marketing etc. (No-one ever read this document as near as I can tell.)
The low man on the totem pole doing this planning document was my first exposure to the reality that so much of the brainy tools were more about appearances that anyone really focusing on strategy. Every account at the agency allegedly had a completed LINK document that captured the important facts leading up to a brilliant brand positioning. So, in hindsight I wonder how the number one imported beer in America ended up with a relatively bland tagline, “Come to think of it, I’ll have a Heineken” and executions featuring "hero" product shots without even hinting about any demographics of the customer.
Leo Van Munching was convinced that hero product photography and a focus on a handful of major markets like NYC, Chicago, LA, SF and Miami was the way to go -- particularly as his company rolled out Amstel Light. It’s hard to argue with success, but time will tell. The the number one imported beer (Heineken) and this aggressive brand launch (Amstel Light) sold more than a few barrels.
In hindsight vision is 20/20. It’s remarkable however how much you don’t see. Up close and personal, you want to believe that a global advertising firm with all that Lever packaged goods marketing credibility would be smarter. What would I do differently in hindsight? Probably nothing. Because the reality is that advertising in the early 1980s was revealing itself to be a greedy business. It was not at all about the fantasy that I embraced -- creative excellence, being smarter than the competition and appealing in a relevant and compelling way to consumers who ultimately choose the brand that tells the best story. Chosen even if they are in a category with a preponderance of parity choices.
This was a lot to absorb in my first experience in the ad biz. I went on to hop scotch around from agency to agency over the course of the next fifteen years on an impressive list of brands at top flight agencies. I was never shrewd enough to secure my own position however. Accounts come and go. Agencies merge and fold. Brands die. The world is much more fluid than I ever imagined.