Q&A: Ed McCabe

NEW YORK Ad industry legend Ed McCabe is known to many in the business as “The Wizard of Words.” Some of his most lauded work is featured in The One Club exhibition, “The Real Men and Women of Madison Avenue,” which is running through the end of September in the Science, Industry and Business Library, a division of the New York Public Library.

Speaking to Adweek media reporter Shahnaz Mahmud, he reflects on the industry during his heyday as well as the current state of advertising.

Q: Since you yourself are considered to be one of the “real men,” what do you think is the most significant impact that advertising has had on American culture?
A: I think one of the most significant impacts advertising has had on American culture, for example the advertising agency business, is real women. If you look at the show, you’ll see that there were a lot of women who were in professional positions, not like the television series [Mad Men], where everybody seems to be a secretary. There were great art directors and writers in the advertising business. And I think the advertising business was an early adopter of women in high positions. And I think that’s something we should be proud of.

How did you get your start in advertising?
Well, I went to an employment agent and she said we’ll send you to an ad agency — they’ll hire anyone. I didn’t have a high school diploma, I didn’t have any job experience, and so I got a job in the mailroom of an advertising agency.

What’s a favorite slogan that you created?
I don’t like to pick favorites; it’s like picking your favorite child. I like pretty much all of what I’ve done. I think the work I did on Volvo and Perdue and Hebrew National — the list is long and I am very proud of that. I don’t believe in doing one good thing. I think everything you do should be of some merit. And I’ve tried to live up to that standard.

Among your work, what do you think has had the greatest impact on American popular culture?
It’s really hard to say. I think Hebrew National was important because it sort of challenged the government. And we did that again with Perdue — offering a higher set of standards. And that was sort of unheard of at the time — to pick on the United States government. But, there have been very many that have had lasting impact.

What’s most interesting to you in the exhibition?
I think the women in the exhibition are fascinating. I think historically it puts things together in a nice way. And I think calling it “The Real Men and Women of Madison Avenue” is interesting with this television show that’s on [Mad Men], which I find has absolutely nothing to do with advertising the way it was. To me, that isn’t it. It was much more exciting than that show makes it out to be. There was a great deal of travel, fame and glitz. We were flying out to Hollywood to produce commercials all the time, traveling around the world. And it just wasn’t like [the series], it was really much more fun.

What advice would you give to someone starting a career in advertising?
Read as much as possible on the subject. Also, look at the kind of work being done in advertising and say, ‘I relate to that. That’s the kind of work I’d like to do.’ And go after that as a piece of homework. Try to meet people that are involved in making it and learn from them.

What are key changes you have seen in the advertising industry?
It’s interesting — I was standing here at the show talking to someone a few minutes ago about how much of this stuff really does stick in your memory. I don’t know how much of today’s advertising is going to be remembered. Because I think so much of it is not based on any true fact or knowledge. It’s all just about some kind of show business. And I’m not sure it’s sticking to people’s ribs or their brains.