Mal MacDougall On the Spot

MacDougall was a newly minted Harvard grad when his first ad for BBDO Boston almost bombed on the Today show. In the almost five decades since, MacDougall, 68, has served as a partner at two shops and as president/creative director of SSCB/Lintas and Hill Holliday Connors Cosmopulos in New York. Along the way he introduced Diet Coke with the tag, “Just for the taste of it,” and coined Heineken’s “Come to think of it, I’ll have a Heineken.” Now cd at Christie MacDougall Mitchell Bodkin in New York, he has not forgotten what he learned from that first brush with disaster. Q. What work are you most proud of?

A. The introduction of Diet Coke. That campaign created more customers than any other campaign I did. The campaign also changed the way people look at diet drinks. We brought men into the diet franchise.

What do you think of soft-drink ads today?

Pretty dreadful. Cola advertising has always had its ups and downs. I frankly think Diet Coke advertising has been a disaster. Coke was bad for a while, but it may be getting better. A new soft drink launched by Pepsi Cola on the Super Bowl, Sierra Mist, they were pretty hot. I loved the dog and the fireplug—it was funny. Advertising has to be more than funny, but in soft-drink ads, it’s appropriate.

Why has Diet Coke been a disaster?

When I introduced it, it was going to be a celebrity drink. To me, Diet Coke should’ve been People magazine in a bottle. It was the simplest marketing idea in the world: If you look around at all the important people in the world, they have a Diet Coke in their hand. This could have been a no-brainer for a great advertising campaign that could’ve lasted 20, 30, 40 years. Forever. And they blew it monumentally. But that’s just because I’m bitter—I walked away from that one.

What’s the last work that made you think, “I wish I’d done that”?

I’m always saying, “I wish I’d done that.” The Apple campaign with real people honestly swiping the competition in a simple, straightforward way is great advertising.

Tell me about your ad debut.

It was a live [Polaroid] commercial with Dave Garroway on the Today show. I had written an outline for it, and the client was there beside me. Jack Lescoulie was supposed to take a picture of the monkey J. Fred Muggs and open the back of the Polaroid and pull out a picture. They had rigged the camera so there was already a good picture there. But somebody had forgotten to put the picture in. So Dave Garroway said, “Well, the great thing about this camera is, if it doesn’t come out the first time you see it, you can shoot it again.” And he then took a real picture of J. Fred Muggs, and it came out beautifully. It turned out to be one of the best lessons I ever had in the advertising industry: Honesty beats out fakery every time.

Is there a client you would refuse to work for?

Republicans. I ran Gerry Ford’s campaign, and I wrote “Vote Republican for change” in the ’80s. But I was always a liberal Republican, and there aren’t such animals anymore. Political advertising now is the cheapest, chintziest, dirtiest, crookedest advertising being done in America. Back in the ’80s, when we were doing those ads for the Republican Party, we had a lot of funny stuff. But the stuff you see today, yech—all attack ads. I wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole.

What’s the smartest business decision you ever made?

The decision to stay a creative director/ copywriter and not try to manage a company was a decision I made a long time ago, and it cost me a lot of money, but it gave me more happiness and more longevity in the business. About 25 years ago, I promised myself I’d quit this business the moment I stopped having fun. It’s a lot harder these days, but I’m still having fun.

What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in the industry?

The consolidation of almost all the agencies into six conglomerate holding companies. It’s difficult to be true to your client if your No. 1 thought is the quarterly profits of your holding company. That changes everything.

In the age of globalization, how does a small to midsize agency stay competitive?

What we’re doing is concentrating on leveraging our clients’ message every conceivable way possible. We created this thing called pinpoint cable in which we literally do commercials that run in only one neighborhood. You do things the big agencies don’t want to do because there is not much money in it for them. To compete today if you’re independent and medium-sized, you’ve got to offer something different.

If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?

I would stop the overzealous love of award shows. I’ve judged almost all the award shows. We picked the ads that were the most outrageous [ones] that the creative guys got by the client. Some of the winners do represent great advertising. But at least three-quarters is creative without sell. And I don’t think, in our business, you can do great creative without great sell.

How did you get into advertising?

I was still in Harvard, and I was working on The Lampoon, had written the Hasty Pudding show. A guy named Frank Hatch, who was the dean of Boston advertising, was also a Hasty Pudding guy and a Harvard guy. I sent up everything I had written that year, and he was too busy to read it, so he hired me. I wanted to be in some form of writing that would actually pay, and copywriting pays more per word than anything in the world—except ransom notes, as somebody once said.