Harry Jacobs, an ad industry veteran who helped build a global reputation for The Martin Agency, died at his Richmond home on Sunday. He was 87.
Jacobs spent more than five decades in the advertising business, shaping two major agencies and receiving many of the industry's top plaudits in the meantime. At the time of his death, he held the title of chairman emeritus for The Martin Agency, where he led the creative team that won Geico and turned it into one of the world's best advertisers.
He was colloquially known as the "Dean of Southern Advertising" and admired for a focus on quality creative that made him something of an anomaly in the pre-Mad Men era.
Jacobs was also unusual in that—unlike most of the agency world's mid-century figures—he was not based in New York or Chicago.
Harry M. Jacobs was born in New Bern, North Carolina in 1929 and studied design at East Carolina University and the Corcoran College of Art & Design before being drafted into the army in 1954; he later served as a communications specialist at the Pentagon before entering the advertising business in 1959 as an art director at Atlanta's Cargill, Wilson & Acree, which was the South's largest agency throughout the '60s and later merged with Omnicom's TracyLocke.
He ascended to the role of president at that shop, earned the AAF's Advertising Man of the Year designation in 1972, and joined The Martin Agency in 1977 as president and its first creative director.
In a June 2015 interview with Virginia's Richmond BizSense, Martin CEO Matt Williams said, "Harry is the one who was responsible for really evolving The Martin Agency to regional, then national, prominence on the basis of its creative work. … He spent upwards of 30 years running The Martin Agency, and he really is one of the creative beacons in this business and for our company."
Williams added that Jacobs and agency founder David Martin "formed the core leadership team" at the agency along with creative director Mike Hughes and current chairman John Adams, who joined Martin right before Jacobs and worked with him for more than 35 years.
"Harry Jacobs was one of the most elegant gentlemen I have ever known," said Adams on his passing. "But he was also one of the most fierce. His standards for the work were unrelenting. I'm convinced that the success of our company is due, in no small measure, to the high creative bar Harry set and one that we're continually working towards. We are heartbroken about this news. But Harry and his legacy will live on here for years to come."
"I saw Harry about a month ago, and I brought some work with me. He loved to see what we were up to. I showed him a print campaign and he gushed. Harry never gushed. When I told the team back at the office, you would have thought they had just won a One Show gold," said Joe Alexander, chief creative officer at The Martin Agency. "Harry was never satisfied, and that's just one of the lessons he leaves with us. I'm going to miss him—he was a mentor and dear friend."
During his time with The Martin Agency, Jacobs led creative on campaigns for such clients as Coke, Hanes, Mercedes-Benz, Saab, Geico, PING, UPS, Walmart and many more. He later became a global representative of sorts for the larger industry, traveling around the world to promote the power of creativity as part of The Wall Street Journalʼs Creative Leadership Series.
He served on many boards and panels and was recognized for his work with membership in four industry halls of fame: The One Club Creative Hall of Fame, the American Advertising Federation Hall of Fame, the North Carolina Advertising Hall of Fame and the Virginia Communications Hall of Fame.
In a 2005 interview following his retirement, Jacobs told Adweek that he wanted to be remembered for "having sense enough and enough pride to have hired and worked with some of the outstanding talent in the business, and helping develop some of the outstanding people in the business."
He remained active at The Martin Agency, which kept a separate office for him, in various consulting roles for more than a decade after stepping down.
Jacobs is survived by his wife of 54 years, Barbara "Bobbi" Mills Jacobs; their three adult children; his two children from a previous marriage; and eight grandchildren.