Writing up a blue streak

One of my favorite pastimes is exploring used book stores in search of out-of-print issues by famous ad men and women.  Several years ago, I hit the jackpot discovering Fairfax Cone’s collection of memos to his staff at Foote, Cone & Belding in Chicago.

The book is titled, “The Blue Streak” and it was published in 1973 by Crain Communications, publishers of ADVERTISING AGE and BtoB Magazine.  The title comes from the distinctive, blue-striped letterheads that were used to deliver more than one thousand memos “to the organization” over a 22-year span.  The book contains less than 10% of his total writings.

You can bet there were snickers and rolled eyes from staff members each time a new memo would arrive.  Management diatribes are always received that way.  And to be sure, Fairfax Cone jumped on his soap box frequently and with little provocation.  But it’s amazing the amount of insight and knowledge these memos reveal, and how well some of his prognostications hold up.

For example, in 1948 he made the observation that “An advertising agency cannot be better than its clients.  It may be weaker, or it may be equal, but it can’t be better.”  Every agency knows this to be true.  Some clients routinely allow/demand good work to be created.  Others never let it happen.

In 1959, he warned of the dangers of using stock photography by telling of a situation in which rival dog food manufacturers, Friskies and Purina Dog Chow, used the same photo of an Irish setter in magazine ads within a 12-month period.  (It’s even worse today.)

He described the concept of “narrowcasting” in 1961 (30 years before the term was coined) by pointing out how FC&B client Hallmark Cards used its famous Hallmark Hall of Fame television show to reach selective audiences with high quality programming not intended for “the masses.”

Cone also lobbied persistently for “rotation” of TV spots so that networks would be free to produce a wider variety of shows to satisfy all tastes.  In other words, you couldn’t just buy one (highly rated) show.  Unfortunately, this concept never caught on.

Cone worried in his memos about new “creative” trends in advertising that appear to be off-base.  In 1953, he noted, “I think a good many advertising people today are making ads instead of trying to sell somebody something.” And in 1963, he said, “Most misadventures in advertising are attributable to the mistake that is easiest of all to make, which is designing an advertisement instead of planning a proposition.

This is especially good advice today, given the over-emphasis on humor, borrowed interest and computer effects.

He reminds copywriters of the importance of aiming messages at one person versus a faceless, impersonal mass of prospective buyers and describes, in several different forms, the imperatives of good advertising:

1.         Clearly state the proposition,

2.         Demonstrate how the proposition is of value to the viewer, listener or reader,

3.         Fashion the proposition so it appeals personally to the logical prospects,

4.         Express the personality of the advertiser, and

5.         Demand action (i.e., ask for an order or exact a mental pledge).

Reading these memos not only gives you insight into the man’s philosophy and core principles, but it makes you feel “plugged in.”  For FC&B staffers many miles removed from the board rooms and conference rooms where key decisions are made, it surely must have helped their understanding of how things happen and why.

He set the record straight when accounts were lost or when the agency elected not to participate in client reviews.  He held up examples of ads he considered good, and lambasted ones he thought a waste of money.  And he constantly defended the profession of advertising against attacks from liberal media or conservative academics.

Cone’s main accomplishment, however, was to encourage his creative people to use sound logic and proven fundamentals in the presence of unorthodox techniques being tried by others in the great “creative revolution” of the 60s.  While I’m sure that some of these untested approaches were successful, it’s also well documented that many of the more famous ones generated more awards than sales for the advertiser.

Not only did FC&B campaigns help produce sales, but their consistency produced advertising recognition of the highest order.  In his memo announcing the selection of Shirley Polykoff as Advertising Woman of the Year (1967), Cone noted with pride that her classic Clairol campaign was now in its twelfth year.

Many of today’s practitioners would be well-served to read those comments over and over again.  It’s a shame more people like Fairfax Cone are not reminding their staffs to look for memorable ways to deliver selling propositions, rather than develop spellbinding special effects that entertain, but leave you wondering who the advertiser was.

We could all benefit from a few well-timed “blue streaks,” I suppose.

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