Guest Column: Matchbox Remembered

NEW YORK The obituary of the inventor of Matchbox cars, Jack Odell, 87, on July 7, reminded me of the great relationship I had with Matchbox, as one of the earliest clients of Levine, Huntley, Schmidt & Beaver. It was in the early ’70s when we acquired Matchbox as a client. And I had sent a memo to the entire staff of eight people announcing, “We have a car account.”

The client was Lesney Products USA, responsible for the distribution and sales of Matchbox cars in this country. The president, Elliott Harrow, and I established such a close relationship that he became a working partner alongside our creative people. Soon after acquiring the account, Larry Plapler and Alan Beaver, our creative partners, suggested going over to London to visit the factory. It sounded to me like a boondoggle, but when I discussed it with Harrow he thought that it would be a good idea.

While on their visit they asked the foreman how many cars the factory produced in a day. They made note of the number, and after returning to the office they checked on Detroit car sales. This information provided the necessary research for an award-winning trade ad with the headline, “We Sell More Cars Than Ford, Chrysler, Chevrolet and Buick Combined.” Elliott was right. Their visit paid off.

In working with the creative group, I suggested that they turn the trade ad into a TV commercial. Larry reminded me that the client had told us that all TV was to be directed to children on Saturday morning programming. Disregarding his comment, I went on to describe my vision of the commercial: Just have a camera looking down at a parking lot and as the camera comes down for a close-up, the voiceover says, “We sell more cars than Ford, Chrysler, Chevrolet and Buick combined. Each for about a buck.” At that point a hand reaches out and picks up a Matchbox car.

I recall that when we presented the storyboard, Larry told Harrow that since their three most important customers were Sears, Penney and Toys R Us, with a major portion of sales from catalogues, Matchbox should advertise to adults, because three-, four- and five-year-olds don’t read store catalogues. Elliott came back to us a few days later and agreed to a schedule of early and late news shows. Three days after the spots appeared, he called and announced that a Penney district manager, after seeing the late news commercials, ordered all stores to place Matchbox product displays next to their checkout counters.

Another incident that came to mind was a Sunday afternoon phone call that I received at home from Harrow. He was going to Detroit on Monday morning for a presentation of the line for the Christmas season. He wanted to discuss some sales and promotion strategy with me. We were on the phone for 45 minutes discussing pricing, promotion, packaging and display as it related to Sears stores. I later learned that his meeting with Sears resulted in their largest order ever.

I will never forget that phone call. It was the greatest tribute I could get on the importance of our agency/client personal and business relationship. I would hope more agency chairmen today would get calls like that from clients. The more human, personal relationship is getting lost, and with it, the creative excitement that produces great thinking.