ADVENTURES IN ADLAND #3: "Peter the Copywriter"

Peter the copywriter was terrified by Reva Korda.  Reva Korda had only the slightest idea who Peter the copywriter was.

In the early 1970’s most agencies operated with about 8 people for every million dollars in billings. (Today the ratio is less than 1 per million).  Ogilvy & Mather New York had about 800 people on staff, which meant that Reva, the agency’s Executive Creative Director, couldn’t possibly know everyone in the creative department… especially someone like Peter, who studiously hid from her.

Most creative people of that era “dressed for business.”  Peter took that look seriously; his daily “uniform” was a dark Brooks Brothers suit, a white shirt, a muted tie, socks with clocks and wingtip shoes.  His hair was thin, his horned-rim glasses were thick, he smoked a pipe, and his neatly trimmed goatee gave him a distinctly professorial look. He was a very good – and sometimes even inspired – copywriter.  But he was also somewhat paranoid, and fully expected to be fired every single day.  In his view, anonymity was a virtue.  “If they don’t think about you, they won’t fire you” was his mantra.

Reva, who had succeeded the great David Ogilvy as creative head of O&M’s flagship New York office, was known to be a very tough cookie.  At a time when most agencies consigned women to the secretarial pool, Reva had climbed over no fewer than seven male creative group heads to grab the top spot.  So Peter assiduously avoided seeing her.    

But one day in 1973 he made a terrible mistake; he wrote a commercial for the then new Nabisco account.  Unfortunately, Reva had decreed that she wanted to personally approve everything that was to be presented to Nabisco before it left the agency.  So like it or not, Peter had to present his commercial to her.  I was his ACD and went along with him to offer moral support.

Reva was a small woman who sat behind a very big desk that was piled high with papers, notebooks, reels of film and comps.  She always seemed preoccupied… and it wasn’t uncommon for her to barely acknowledge creative people who came into her office.  She would sort of signal that it was okay to present to her.

So, given the signal, Peter, very quietly, explained that the commercial was for a toaster pastry called Krazy Glazy. Barely looking at him, Reva nodded.  He continued, his voice dropping to a whisper, “the spot has three characters: a chubby man in a toga who thinks he’s the Emperor Nero, a woman in a pink tutu who flits around like Tinker Bell, and a fellow with a big nose (to be painted yellow) who moves and sounds like a chicken.”  Reva scribbled a note on a memo she had just read and stuffed it into one of those interoffice mail envelopes that were sealed with string.  Peter then LOUDLY burst into song: “Krazy Glazy makes you go pop (created with his index finger in his cheek), awk (a bad chicken sound), and ‘la la la’ (to be sung by the Tinker Bell character).”

Reva was suddenly fully engaged.  As Peter continued, “It’s got a crazy glaze and so, pop, ark, la la la,” she started to grin, and when he went on to sing the flavors, “inside there’s a tasty goo, cheery, chocolate, strawberoo,” she actually clapped.  “I love it,” she said.  “Who are you again?”  Peter, back to sotto voice, reintroduced himself to her… and together, we backed out of her office… in triumph.

A month later we screened the rough-cut for her, expecting more applause.  But there was none; instead, Reva was livid.  “This is the stupidest… no… worse than that… this is the most completely shitty (I’d never heard her use that word before) commercial I’ve ever seen.  How dare you produce this without my approval?!?”

Peter was stricken and couldn’t speak.  “But Reva,” I said, “you did approve it.  I was there!”

“I did not!”

“Yes, you did.”  I now fully expected to be fired along with Peter; Reva was not keen on being contradicted… especially by an ACD. 

Reva then stood up and said, “I know you were there (pointing to me)… “But the commercial I approved was brilliant… it was so SIMPLE!  Just a very sane-looking man on camera… in a very sane suit… with a very sane little beard… and sane looking glasses… singing a very INSANE SONG!  That would have been funny!  I can’t imagine how you ended up with this DREK.”

The agency ended up eating the cost of the Krazy Glazy commercial.  Peter and I somehow survived.  And he even presented to Reva again… wearing chinos and an open-necked shirt after shaving and getting contacts.  

Author Bruce Silverman is one of America’s best known and well respected marketing-communication and branding experts. He is writing a series of posts titled, “Adventures in AdLand” for THE FIVE. During his Madison Avenue days, Bruce was the creative mind behind “Don’t Leave Home Without It” for American Express, “Bullish on America” (Merrill Lynch), “Something Special in the Air” (American Airlines), “Not made in Nooo Yawk Ciddy” (Pace Picante), “The Shell Answer Man” and a dozen other award winning campaigns for such clients as IBM, Hershey, Baskin-Robbins, Coldwell Banker, Sizzler, Suzuki, Pabst, Sanyo, Mattel, Greyhound and Post. He currently spreads his words of wisdom, offering strategic and tactical counsel to marketers of consumer and business-to-business products and services and to advertising and public relations agencies, as well as serving as an expert witness for legal firms. 
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