Two Parts Genius

There are two major differences between writing an ad and writing a column.

You write an ad for other people; you write a column for yourself. Also, an ad demands single-minded focus (if you’re doing something for Saab, let’s say, you can’t suddenly diverge and start raving on about Cocoa Puffs, let’s say). But in a column, you can go in any direction at any point and it’s unlikely someone will stop you. (Well, they might try, but what are they going to do? Call in Pile and launch a review?)

For example, this column was supposed to be about Victor Navasky:

His running magazines such as the startup Monocle and America’s oldest weekly, The Nation;

A clever seriocomic article he did for The New York Times Magazine in November 1966 in which he identified certain advertising agencies as being emblematic of certain schools of philosophy (BBDO was pragmatic, and Carl Ally was existentialist, to cite two connections);

His new book, A Matter of Opinion, which demonstrates the wide-ranging knowledge a magazine-phile needs if he wants to take his love of magazines and scratch a living out of it (everything you ever wanted to know about second-class postal rates and their importance to a free press and a potentially profitable press);

And last, his new association (initially uncredited, now as chairman) with the Columbia Journalism Review, the only magazine I know of that should put “buzz” in its rate base, since buzz creators and sustainers are its readership. Accuracy in Media attacks the news media from the right; Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting attacks the news media from the left; the Columbia Journalism Review attacks the news media from the middle. Read all three and you will be convinced that nothing the news media put out can possibly be accurate, fair or journalism.

But then, just as I was winging my way through Navasky’s book, Bob Kuperman of DDB and Purchase, Riviera and Fenway golf clubs asks me if I saw Helmut Krone. The book. Graphic Design and Art Direction (concept, form and meaning) after advertising’s Creative Revolution.

I hadn’t, but two hours later I went online and found that was spelling Krone “Crone” and had no copies under any spelling and that had run out of the book as well. I borrowed Kuperman’s copy, promising not to spill gravy on it.

The Krone book, like Krone*, is on another level. It is about what advertising could be if we were all geniuses. It completely destroys the theory that age cripples a creative force. Krone’s later stuff, spec stuff that has only found an outside viewer in this book, is as bright, engaging, persuasive, definitive, hypnotic, intelligent and “breakthrough” as stuff he did when he first left Ridgewood, Queens, for the city.

The author, Clive Challis, writes up to his subject. He’s explored every angle, but all the detail goes breezily by, and at the end of the book you find yourself immediately going back to the first page and reading it again.

He finds the late Jack Dillon’s out-of-print novel, The Advertising Man, and takes from it a line I have remembered for 33 years: “Brooke [the Helmut figure in the novel] was a genius. He could take absolutely nothing and make a problem out of it.” It’s almost theological.

He recognizes that Helmut was pre-computer. His Quark was razor blades, rubber cement, photostats and assistant art directors. But what anyone could learn from Helmut was hard work, if you were sufficiently driven to work as hard as he.

And, getting back to Navasky and magazine development, while Helmut was at Case and Krone, he art directed a short-lived sports magazine, Jock, which would have been long-lived if launched in the 1990s. Its famous October 1969 cover was four New York Mets players hoisting the pennant flag on an Iwo Jima pitching mound. Jock offered a poster of the cover as a premium for a subscription. I got it and hung it up in my office at Doyle Dane Bernbach. A year or so later, Helmut Krone returned to DDB and one day poked his head into my small windowless office because he saw the poster hanging on the wall next to some Volkswagen ads I had done. (At that agency at that time, one put on their wall the best ads they had done—kind of an ongoing way to show that you belonged or deserved a raise or a better office. You never put someone else’s ads up; that would be like filling your portfolio with cadged work.)

At any rate, I said to Helmut, “I really liked that poster. That’s why I, uh, put it up there on my wall.” I was really hoping at that point he’d look at the VW ads and say something like, “Those VW ads you did are really great. I just got a requisition for a New Jersey dealer ad. Want to work with me on it?”

But the old DDB nostrum about initially punishing people who came back to Doyle Dane wasn’t true about Helmut. He narrowly escaped.

*One night last week, I went in to the agency that employs me. A young art director said hello and said she had seen my column on Deep Throat in Adweek. Before I could find out if she liked it or loathed it, I said that this week’s column would be on Helmut Krone. She said, “Who’s that?” So, in the interest of not being assumptive, Helmut Krone was the greatest advertising print art director who ever lived. He was a significant percentage of the reason DDB achieved what it did, being responsible as he was for Volkswagen and Avis in the first half of the 1960s, and being responsible in general for his intention to create advertising that looked like something you had never seen before.

Tom Messner is a partner at Euro RSCG in New York and a monthly Adweek columnist. He can be reached at