Q&A: Jerry Della Femina

A beanball never thrown in Brooklyn and a near-death experience on the threshold of DDB could have changed the future of advertising. Jerry Della Femina’s best survival story predates an illustrious 45-year advertising career, to his less than glorious athletic career in his native Brooklyn, where he prayed for a teammate to make the last out so he wouldn’t have to face childhood friend Sandy Koufax who was, he recalls, out to “throw bullets” at him. Years later, after repeated attempts to get hired at DDB, Della Femina collapsed at the agency door with chest pains. After he collected himself, he had the gallows humor to look up and say, “Don’t worry. This isn’t the first time I’ve died at Doyle Dane Bernbach.” Della Femina eventually left the playground for a lifetime of fun, founding Della Femina Travisano & Partners in 1967. “I’m greatly honored,” he says of his induction into The One Club Creative Hall of Fame in New York on June 10. “It had been my dream to be the first to make it while his prostate still worked.” He is still actively influencing advertising as chairman and CEO of Della Femina Rothschild Jeary and Partners.

What does it mean to a man who’s been in advertising so long to have seen the passing of the copy-literate era to a postliterate era?

I think it’s good to have switched to a much more visual world and that people are not all that interested in words. Look at all the wonderful special effects they can have, what with the computer. And I see how my kids text me and each other, and they don’t even use whole words. But I don’t think that words are dead. There’s still a place for someone to come up with a strong headline, some copy in a commercial that’s well written. I’m not saying it was better in the old days; it’s just a totally different way of communicating. I have very talented art directors in my agency who start out telling me, “Well, this is what the picture is …” I ask, “Well, what’s the headline?” and they say, “We haven’t done that yet, but it looks this way.” But I’m still writing copy, almost every day.

How did you get into advertising, and are you glad you’re still in it?

I got in because I was a messenger for The New York Times for 11 years, because I couldn’t get a job, and saw people with their feet up on desks. Anyway, I had a big career as a messenger that I gave up to be in advertising. I thought, “What do these guys do?” They were playing darts on the side. It seemed like it was so much fun. You know what? I was right. I never want to stop it.

Looking back over your career, what’s your favorite single ad and favorite campaign?

An ad for McGraw-Hill that I wrote with Moshe Dayan. I wrote a headline, “Before Hitler killed 6 million Jews, he had to burn 6 million books.” I went to Moshe Dayan’s literary agency, Moshe Perlman in London, and the request went to Dayan’s wife. I told her the headline and she said, “My husband will write that for you.” He wrote a wonderful essay about always wanting to be a farmer instead of a warrior. We put that together for an ad for McGraw-Hill that was about the glory of books and trying to get writers to submit to McGraw-Hill. That won the Advertising Writers Club award for best newspaper ad in 1968, and I wanted it inscribed, Copywriters: Jerry Della Femina and Moshe Dayan. And my favorite campaign [through current agency Della Femina Rothschild Jeary] was for SIDS (sudden infant-death syndrome) that basically got people to lay their babies to sleep on their backs (“Face up to live”) and there was a dramatic drop in deaths because of it. It’s one of my favorites because it didn’t sell soap, it didn’t sell beer, but it saved a lot of lives. And I’m also proud of Joe Isuzu in the ’80s. The Trooper became the No. 1 off-road vehicle in the United States.

Since you spent an early year in the ’60s at Ted Bates just to learn how to sell packaged goods, can you tell us what you learned?

Focus on product, repetition, taking one unique selling proposition and hitting over and over again. We did that for Beck’s beer, hitting them in 10-second commercials — we didn’t have that much of a message — with the one thing, that it was the No. 1 selling beer in Germany, and the stein coming down with a clunk. It became the No. 1 German import in the country. We did that with Ralston’s Meow Mix, for example, with “The cat food that cats ask for by name.” We did it with “Scrubbing Bubbles” for Dow Bathroom Cleaner. We sold soap. I always used to tell people, “We have no style.” But we did. We looked at whatever would sell it.

What’s the most fun you’ve had in advertising outside the job itself?
Proving the worst thing that’s happened to advertising is human resources. We were the only agency that had, for almost 30 years, an agency sex contest. Everyone voted for the person they most wanted to go to bed with. There was a gay vote and menage a trois vote, too. It was solemn vote counting, with poll watchers and everything. Talk about a well-kept secret; if it had come out, it would have destroyed us. It was the wildest thing, and good sophomoric fun. We’d do it around Christmas season. The winning couple would win a weekend at the Plaza Hotel. We don’t know if anyone ever used it. I can’t remember the second prize, but third place was offering Ron Travisano’s couch. There were people who campaigned. One woman, an account person, had posters, “Like Bloomingdale’s, I’m open after 9 every night.” There’d be times when every wall was taken up with campaign slogans and pictures. That was under the heading of good, harmless fun.

Speaking of fun, do any of the Mad Men anecdotes refer to you?

I’ve done a lot of work with them. Certainly, the incredible smoking of cigarettes. We had clients from R.J. Reynolds [Carter Hall Pipe Tobacco] who came into my office where we had this giant ashtray with beach sand in it, for people to put out their cigarettes at the elevator door. They would get down on their hands and knees and sift through the sand to see if anybody was smoking anything but their cigarettes. That’s true.

Why did you change partners so often?

My first one, Travisano, decided he wanted to become a director. When I sold to the French, Louise [McNamee] stayed. And it became Eurocom McNamee Schmetterer … that whole thing. I left. I couldn’t get along with the French. They once told me that once the contract is signed, that’s when the negotiation begins. But if they want to buy my agency today, I’ll listen. I couldn’t use my name, so I became Jerry Inc. Then my next partner was a guy named Jack Taylor. Then he retired after a year and a half. He had one of the best lines about me I’ve ever heard. He said, “I’d always had the impression that Jerry did it all with smoke and mirrors. But I was under the impression that he’d done it with real smoke and real mirrors.”