Ed McCabe On The Spot

“It’s 50 years of Ed. It’s more than enough,” McCabe, 65, says of the “Strong Words” exhibition, opening today at New York’s School of Visual Arts, which is also honoring the adman with a Masters Series Award. The 175-piece show features McCabe’s most famous ads for Perdue, Hebrew National and Volvo, among other clients. McCabe, who co-founded Scali, McCabe, Sloves in 1967 and McCabe & Co. in 1990, now lives in Miami Beach, Fla. “Advertising is something you’re either in or out of,” he laughs. “I’m watching three dolphins cavort in the water in front of me as we speak.”

Q: What’s been keeping you busy in Miami?

A: Oh, I’ve been doing some consulting, some writing. I’m working with the School of Visual Arts. Right now I’m figuring out how to further market the expertise they already possess. And I’m also working on a film for them, a history of modern art.

How is it being honored by SVA?

It’s wonderful. I mean, it’s a lot of work—just finding all the stuff, and you know, there’s a lot missing. I was a pretty avid record keeper and kept slide records of everything. But the slides don’t blow up well or show well. So I’ve had to scurry around and track down work from other sources.

Which pieces are missing?

All my radio commercials. You very rarely hear of an advertising person bragging about their radio commercials, but I had one of the great radio reels ever, and it’s all missing. I felt in a visual show it was important to do radio, because radio in a lot of ways is the most visual of all mediums. It has to conjure up images that aren’t there.

You’ve said being one of the most famous copywriters in the business is “something I’ll never live down.” Do you want to?

You have no idea how many people have said—when I mention that this [show] is happening—but … but … you’re a writer! It’s like we’ve created this invisible wall between art and copy. It’s as though a writer can’t see and an art director can’t write.

What was the best time you’ve had in the business?

In the early days, going out to L.A. and staying in nice hotels and doing commercials. All you had to think about was the work you were doing. I was in the business at a time when the best things that were ever going to happen in it were happening.

What work are you most proud of?

I read an article recently by somebody who claimed that some agency like Chiat\Day or someone invented branding. Which is a lot of nonsense. When you look at Purdue and our first campaign for Pioneer, I think we invented branding as it’s known today. I see a 3-D billboard and I say, well, wait a minute, we sort of invented that with Cutty Sark when we wrapped all the billboards in ribbons and bows for Christmas.

You’re a big practical joker. Which joke are you most proud of?

I played one on Marvin Sloves. It’s one of the classics. He had developed himself a wine cellar at his country house. I got two months’ notice of a time he was going away, so I went to every great restaurant in New York and collected empties for two months. I knew what he had in the wine cellar because I’d seen him printing lists. So I went down there and I sawed the lock off the door, and I put empties all over his property. I got a phone call the next day, and I swore the man was having a heart attack.

What’s the dumbest business decision you’ve ever made?

I think I made a big mistake when I started McCabe & Co. I way overstaffed it with higher-up people, and that put such a tremendous financial burden on us from the get-go that it made it really hard going. It was the right idea if we’d gotten a couple of $50 million accounts in the first year, which is what I had hoped and anticipated would happen. And it was a misjudgment.

Didn’t you take out an ad at that time saying, “Build it, and they’ll come”?

Something like that. It created a furor. In effect, it was saying that it was very important for agencies to be independent, and it just misjudged the times. The world was going one way, and I obviously wanted to go the other way. And I thought I was going to win.

Do you TiVo?

You know, it’s funny. When I do my TiVo, I do fast-forward through the commercials. But when a commercial comes up, I stop and I want to look at it. I like the Mini advertising. It’s cute. It’s in keeping with the personality of the car. I drive a Mini.

Do you watch any reality TV?

I do, just to see what kind of idiocy people are putting into their minds. And you know, I’m just appalled. I think it’s going to create a whole unfortunate bad trend in advertising, because all advertising really is is a reflection of society at the time.

Do you have any regrets?

Somebody once came to me with all of Cole Porter’s unfinished music and asked me if I would write the lyrics for it. And I said, I’m just starting an ad agency here. And I always sort of look back and say, Boy, that would have been a beauty.

Give me three words to describe yourself.

Short, aging and funny.

How would others describe you?

In. Cor. Rect. Ly. That’s four words.

What is your biggest fear?

Food poisoning. Being buried alive by mistake.