Carl Ally sounds like a made-up figure. Originally from Detroit, he was a decorated fighter pilot in WW2. And he claimed he was the basis for the Yossarian character in Joseph Heller’s legendary novel Catch 22. A claim the author disputed. Either way, it demonstrated an instinct for thinking big. And recklessness. He started an ad agency bearing his name in the 1960s and created some of the most powerful advertising of the time. If I were to cast the role of Carly Ally (who i never met btw) in his biopic, I would have cast Walther Matthau. That’s my second-hand image of him.
I can vividly remember the first time I encountered Carl Ally’s work. I was eagerly devouring the advertising annuals in the Pratt Institute’s Brooklyn library on a hot summer Saturday afternoon. They had a complete set of every ad annual ever published. I was in heaven. I wasn’t actually a student of the Pratt Institute. I would sneak in pretending to be a student. I would just greet the librarians with familiar enthusiasm as I walked in. My day job was driving tourists around Central Park in a horse and carriage. This was the early 1990s.
I was working my way chronologically from their earliest annuals from the 1900s to the present day. I wanted to absorb EVERYTHING. And I was surprisingly disciplined about it. I knew enough to know that the 1960s would be the most exciting decade. But knowing that would make finally getting to read those annuals all the sweeter.
So when i finally hit the late 1950s i was really excited. Expecting to be entranced by the wonderful DDB work. Which I was. But I was even more entranced by the work of Carl Ally Inc. These guys leapt off the page, grabbed you by the collar, slapped you in the face and you thanked them for it. I was blown away.
DDB were the artful persuaders. Carl Ally put a gun to your head and made you feel like an idiot if you didn’t buy what they were selling. They were hardcore sellers. You couldn’t argue with their ads. They had thought everything through. Their strategies were made of solid steel. And their executions were viscerally powerful. Effectiveness was clearly everything to Carl Ally. And I loved it. I felt an immediate kinship. I wanted to be back in the 1960s.
Alas, Carl Ally had retired by 1990. I recall being majorly bummed out by this news. But one of his former proteges, whose work i dug for similar reasons, was still working. And he was arguably as good as Carl ever was. If not better. He would have to do.
He ended up hiring me. It was my first job. I felt like i’d finally connected with the Carl Ally “force”. I was home.
A smattering of ad campaigns Carl Ally Inc. (later Ally and Gargano) created:
1. Volvo. Carl established the template of Volvo as a reliable car.
2. FedEx. Carl’s agency launched the brand. Arguably the most successful brand launch ever. You can still hear echoes of Carl Ally in their ads today.
3. Dunkin Donuts. The “time to make the donuts” baker campaign.
4. Carl Ally’s Hertz campaign effectively destroyed the much more lauded “we try harder” campaign DDB created for Avis by counter-punching with such beauties as “We have a competitor that says it’s only number two. That’s pretty hard to argue with.”…and… “For years Avis has been telling you Hertz is No. 1. Now we’re going to tell you why.”