The Stuff of Legends

If you stand on a high mountain peak and holler “Jerry Della Femina,” in two seconds he’ll holler back. This is very reassuring, because Jerry is one of the few real advertising legends who are not only still here but still making themselves heard. Along with Joe Pytka, Lee Garfinkel, Dan Wieden, Jeff Goodby, David Kennedy, Lee Clow and Cliff Freeman, to name but a few.

With the Advertising Hall of Achievement awards coming up in November, honoring advertising people 40 and under, I got to thinking about those of us who started as kids in advertising in the early ’50s. Where is the brash and brilliant fireball Ed McCabe? If you don’t recognize his name, it’s because you were born too late. Too bad. You missed one of the great mavericks of the last century. The McCabe in Scali, McCabe, Sloves. The curmudgeon McCabe who taunted young creatives to make themselves better. Is it true that many would trek to Lourdes to pray for his beneficence? Unfortunately, the apparitions of Bernadette did not include job offers from Ed. It’s a good story.

Those of you who were there when advertising was stunning, those who shared the planet with legends like David Ogilvy and Bill Bernbach (who fathered all the geniuses) probably wonder where they are and why we can’t find any clones. Hey, we haven’t found any Jack Benny clones either.

Yes, we’ll have our “smarties,” as Mel Brooks would say, but it’s doubtful we’ll have a Bob Gage or Carl Ally or Phyllis Robinson or Jack Tinker or Helmut Krone or Hal Riney or Phil Dusenberry or Ron Rosenfeld or David Abbott or Jim Durfee or BBDO’s Jean Rindlaub (the Queen Mother of fledgling copywriters). They all made paths through the woods so that others would follow in their footsteps.

Little did they know that, one day, the paths would no longer lead to Oz. Instead, they led to money and mergers. Agencies everywhere puffed up bigger and bigger like the Nutty Professor (while others got smaller and smaller until they finally vanished altogether). Some legends left us through natural causes. And some were squeezed to death.

As things changed, creatives functioned in a new digital world that made things far more efficient but not necessarily more magical or memorable. No question, special work was (and is) still turning up. And people are still winning awards. It’s just that what used to be a kind of spiritual mission of extraordinarily talented men and women has been overtaken by management’s deep devotion to the bottom line. Maybe it was always thus. But a merger or acquisition almost every day? I don’t think so.

Some of us who got into this business in the ’50s and stayed right through the turn of the century are trying to find an antidote for our culture shock. Nobody should be so crazy about a business as we were about ours. One should adore a spouse or children or a lover, but having a passion for making advertising is a little much, don’t you think?

Whether you think so or not, there it was. Teams of writers and art directors climbing in and out of each others massive imaginations, some becoming stars as luminous as the irreplaceable stars of other artful professions. Have the bosses found a new Humphrey Bogart or Katherine Hepburn or Richard Burton? Shirley Temple is 76. They’re still looking for her double. Not gonna happen.

Attention legends of all sizes and shapes: If you’re out there, would you be so kind as to let the rest of the world know? Get together on PBS or CBS or CNN and tell your stories. Mike Wallace would take you on. Larry King does stars all the time. What’s the difference if the average guy doesn’t have a clue or give a damn?

It’s important for people to at least have an inkling about who told us once to “Think small.” It was a big idea.