What My Dad Taught Me

Today, my dad, Court Crandall, was buried.

Together, we’ve spent 61 years in the ad business. During my childhood, I watched him go from copywriter to creative director to chairman of Cabot Advertising. He, in turn, spent his latter years watching me graduate from college, to copywriter, to cd, to agency owner. And now, as I ride the train from his funeral in Boston to my shoot in New York, I find myself thinking of how much I learned from him.

Maybe this is no more than a tribute to my dad, a member of the Advertising Hall of Fame and one of Boston’s famous ad figures. Maybe it’s a cathartic way for me to publicly deal with a personal loss. But I hope this short piece will provide an opportunity for people to pause, look back and consider what we gained from those who preceded us. The ones who made this a business we all wanted to be in.

My father entered the industry at a time when there was still magic in advertising. It was a business of outlandish characters who wrote the rules of the trade on the cocktail napkin beneath their dry martini at lunch. To give you an idea of just how different things were, my dad’s second job was at a direct mail company called Dickie-Raymond. For those who don’t know, Dickie is the guy who invented the window in the envelope. Suffice it to say, a lot of stuff happened between Dickie’s oval-shaped breakthrough and the pop-up fashion show we held on Santa Monica’s streets for our Kohl’s client last week.

As different as life in advertising is these days, most of the lessons my father taught me while he sat at the piano in our living room with a stopwatch in one hand and the ivory piano keys beneath the other still apply. Why? Because they weren’t based around a certain discipline, media outlet or craft skill, but in basic human decency, moral integrity and class. The tenets on which you ran an agency back then were very similar to those on which you lived your life. The three points he made over and over again were as follows:

The client pays the bills. My father was a firm believer in the idea that our first duty as creatives is to sell the client’s product. He used the word “huckster” to describe himself as if it were a good thing. Far from wanting to reduce the size of the client’s logo or not include the 800 number, he liked the idea of selling. That was the fun part. Give them something they couldn’t forget, even if they tried. For the Boston Gas Company, this philosophy manifested itself in a jingle called, “The Montreal Express”—a ditty about the cold winds that blew down from Canada. The song became so popular that the agency burned LPs to satisfy demand. Before long, local TV weatherman had picked up the phrase and the Boston Pops were covering the song. Today, we’d use all sorts of pretense and call this effort “branded content.” He wouldn’t. He’d just say it was a good way to position the client’s product as the solution to the problem of icy February winds.

This focus on the client’s product extended beyond the 30-second ad and infiltrated the very way our family lived. It’s the reason we only shopped for clothes at Andersen Little and only drank Hood milk. My dad believed his clients were supporting our family and, in return, we owed them complete loyalty. Even if that meant going to Howard Johnson’s every Thursday for “All-you-can-eat fried shrimp night” and pretending there were actually shrimp in all that batter.

You’re only as good as your last ad. Ours is a “What have you done for me lately?” profession, he would preach. And no amount of shiny bowls on your shelf or award certificates in your drawer were going to help you write your next ad. You had to attack each assignment as if it were your first, remain humble and treat everyone you met with respect. In his words, “Be nice to the people you pass on the way up, because they’ll be the same ones you pass on the way back down.” I watched him speak reverently of people like Harold Cabot, who first hired him for $55 a week in 1948, while embracing each new creative talent who came through the doors—Mike Fortuna, Terry MacDonald, Dave Lubars. He knew it was a business inherently rooted in change, and he found a way to stay true to his values while still adapting and transforming with the times.

The people who work for you are everything. More than anything else, my dad taught me this. “It’s the only business where the inventory goes down the elevator every night,” he would say. He treated every writer, every account person and every secretary like they were vital to the company. Which probably explains why so many of them were gathered around his casket years later.

As is often the case with fathers and sons, lessons don’t always take immediately. Truth be told, I probably spent more time questioning my father’s practices than I did extolling them. But that was my role as I saw it. Now, alone on a train, I realize he was more right than wrong, more sensible than not and more caring than the job required.

This is not the same business my dad entered 58 years ago. It’s more evolved. More professional. More scientific and precise and accountable. And yet, as much as we can benefit from consulting new media, new compensation models and new metrics, we can probably all still learn a few things by recalling the teachings and principles of old timers like Court Crandall. A huckster.