‘It Sure Did Good Advertising’

NEW YORK — The modern-day image of Santa Claus (1931), Mr. Whipple (1964) and the Budweiser frogs (1995) all belong to the pantheon of pop-culture icons created in the decades since William D’Arcy founded his shop in 1906.

In the week since parent company Publicis Groupe SA confirmed the demise of what is now D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, veterans of the agency mourned the end of an era. “I’m extremely disappointed, as you can imagine,” said former Benton & Bowles CEO Jack Bowen, 75, who spent 41 years at the agency. “It just makes me sick to my stomach. I have a sinking feeling in my gut.”

He’s not alone. “Having spent 20 unbelievably positive and productive years at that place, I feel like half of my lifetime was just erased,” said Norm Sherman, 54, who joined Benton & Bowles in 1976 as an account executive and ultimately became managing director of DMB&B’s New York office.

“An agency whose heritage was focused on doing what was right for its employees obviously lost sight of that important pillar,” added Sherman, 54, who left in 1998 and is now an evp at Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos in New York.

That’s just what galls Bowen, described by one former colleague as a “gracious patrician.” Bowen said the company’s legacy is its commitment to its people. “B&B was a happy place, a place people enjoyed being in,” he recalled. “The people came first, and the clients came next.” Two former colleagues recalled how Bowen turned down the Gallo business because he didn’t like the way the brothers treated his staffers.

“When you stimulate creative people, motivate them, pat them on the back and treat them well, that motivates them,” Bowen said.

Over the decades, the agency added to the national lexicon phrases such as “Look, Mom — no cavities” (Crest), “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin” and “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.”

“We did good work. We helped companies build brands. It wasn’t the hottest creative shop in the world, but it sure did good advertising,” said Bowen, speaking from his home in Rye, N.Y. “We were able to infuse that into the D’Arcy operation.”

The 1985 union of B&B and D’Arcy MacManus Masius created a multinational agency that ranked fifth in the U.S. and sixth worldwide. “There was very little fallout,” Bowen said of the merger. “People meshed very well.”

Arthur Selkowitz, 59, worked at Benton & Bowles from 1971-82 and returned to D’Arcy in 1989, serving as chairman and CEO from 1997 until 2001. “I feel personally saddened at the demise of a great, indeed legendary, agency brand,” said Selkowitz, now vice chairman and chief client officer of Bcom3. “Every D’Arcy employee should be proud that they worked there.” He noted, however, that consolidation in the industry is “inevitable” and, in this case, “made perfect sense.”

Bowen is not so ready to accept the reasoning behind the agency’s shutdown. “I think what’s behind all of this is a group of managers who wanted to make a lot of money,” he charged.

Top Bcom3 managers Craig Brown, Roy Bostock, Rick Fizdale and Roger Haupt will divvy up some $200 million from the sale. Bowen would not discuss the performance of Bostock, his handpicked successor. But as staffers anxiously awaited word of their fate, one particularly bitter employee accused managers of “creating equity literally on the backs of people who didn’t get a dime.”

Bostock could not be reached for comment.

Bowen, an economics major who graduated from Yale’s class of 1949, joined B&B in 1959 as an account executive on the Prell and Crest business. The high point of his career, he said, was teaming up with then-Procter & Gamble ad manager John Smale when Bowen was the account supervisor on Crest.

In 1960, “John got the American Dental Association to endorse Crest,” remembered Bowen. A new campaign, complete with the “Look, Mom — no cavities!” tagline, helped the brand surpass Colgate and more than triple its market share. “It was the most wonderful demonstration of the power of advertising,” Bowen said.

When asked last week about the low point of his career, Bowen paused and then said: “My wife looked at me and says this is a low. I guess she’s right.”