Houston, Agency Founder, Dies at 52

BOSTON Doug Houston, one of the most colorful and controversial characters ever on the New England advertising scene, died on Tuesday at his home in Portland, Ore., following a battle with cancer. Houston was 52.

Houston was best known for building Houston Effler (later Houston Herstek Favat) into one of the nation’s hottest independents during the mid-1990s.

“No one in the history of New England advertising has ever built an agency so quickly and as successfully as Doug Houston,” said Jack Connors, chairman of Interpublic Group’s Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos in Boston. “He was very ambitious and had a certain style and brashness that I found quite refreshing.” Houston was frequently outspoken and always intent on doing things his own way, qualities that prompted Connors to draw this comparison: “[Deutsch chairman] Donny Deutsch became the New York version of Doug Houston.”

After copywriting stints at several agencies, including DDB in New York and Hill, Holliday, Houston founded his own shop in 1986 in a farmhouse in Wellesley, Mass., with local financial institution BayBank as the startup’s first client.

Six years later, with the agency relocated to Boston, Houston engineered a bold stroke still well remembered in the city’s close-knit ad community. He lured creative directors Pete Favat and Rich Herstek from crosstown rival Ingalls, Quinn & Johnson. That shop’s flagship account, Converse, which at the time spent about $25 million, followed. Seemingly overnight, the agency was a force to be reckoned with.

The agency reveled in its upstart image, at one point crafting a house ad proudly proclaiming that due to its swift rise it had become “envied and feared” by its more conservative competitors.

“When he saw an opportunity, he’d go for it,” said Favat, now a managing partner at Havas’ Arnold, Boston. “Doug taught me to trust people, to give them enough room to grow. I admired and respected him a lot.”

By its zenith in the mid-’90s, the agency claimed an estimated $200 million in billings, additional offices in New York and Venice, Calif., and a client roster that at various times included Castrol, Converse, Fidelity Investments, Hannaford Bros., ITT Hartford, Midas and NEC.

The agency may have done its finest work in late 1994, when it produced a memorable campaign for the Massachusetts Office of Public Health’s Tobacco Control Program. That effort included three stark black-and-white commercials featuring Victor Crawford, a former tobacco industry lobbyist who was dying of cancer. In a chilling moment, Crawford looked straight into the camera and said, “I lied, and I’m sorry” for helping to further Big Tobacco’s agenda.

Houston Effler was named New England Agency of the Year by Adweek in 1995, but things began to unravel shortly thereafter.

In January 1996, agency partner and president Don Effler departed amid much acrimony, after failing to convince Houston to merge with Lord, Dentsu & Partners in Los Angeles.

Bob Cauley, the agency’s treasurer, was sacked that summer. He promptly filed a complaint against the agency with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, claiming he was fired because he was gay, a charge Houston vehemently denied. Cauley also complained about financial improprieties in the agency’s handling of the Massachusetts’ Tobacco Control and tourism accounts, charges Houston also refuted.

The agency spiraled rapidly downward thereafter, shedding clients and staff at an alarming pace. In January 1998, Houston sold his Boston operations to Arnold in a deal valued at $1.8 million, and relocated to the West Coast, where for a time he ran Houston & Helm in Los Angeles before leaving the business about two years ago.

“Doug was the most passionate person about the ad business I ever met,” said Bob Curry, a principal at Boston independent Cronin/Wallwork Curry, who worked with Houston at both Hill, Holliday and Houston Effler.

Lisa Unsworth, now president of the Ad Club in Boston and a former president of Houston Effler, recalled: “When he gathered his staff together in the lobby of [the agency’s] Newbury Street offices and announced that … after many years, he was resigning the BayBank account, Mr. Houston cried.” Such intensity, she said, marked “the way he felt about all of his relationships.”

Houston is survived by his wife Victoria Hawkins Houston; his mother Elaine Cline; sons Spencer and D.W.; daughters Lindsay and Mallory; and brothers Stan and Paul.

A memorial service will be held on Aug. 12 at 3 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Church at 28 Mugford St., Marblehead, Mass. A reception will be held at the Corinthian Yacht Club immediately following the service.