Viva Carl Ally!

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.”


10 responses to “Viva Carl Ally!

  1. Pingback: OK, this book is about to be released. It will be the best book ever about advertising. It costs a couple of hundred bucks. But it will be worth it. « ESCAPOLOGY (the escape pod’s blog)

  2. 1, 2 and 4 are so good I’d like to eat them on toast. Don’t know that Donut campaign though.
    I want that book!
    I’m not a student in the usual parlance but I suppose I am, to some degree, still a student of advertising, perhaps not as geeky as you but a student nonetheless. Recently Mr Trott over on his blog had set my pulses racing with his nods and winks to a certain Mr Lois and in particular one of his books, The Art of Advertising. I checked out the availability and found it to be way beyond my financial means to purchase. Plus it only seemed to be available in the u.s. So I set about trying to find it in the u.k. I searched high and low and then I lucked in. I travelled to the other side of London last week and sneaked into a college library for two days and read and took notes. It was brilliant. I also glanced at the 1991 D&AD annual and found it to be insipid by comparison, apart from Arden/Fink’s ‘World’s Favourite Airline – face’ ad for British Airways and Indra Singh’s London Met Police recruitment press ads.

  3. …and the last time the book was taken out by the students of East london was way back in 2006.
    Education is wasted on the young!

  4. it’s going to be good john. we have Lois’ book here at the agency. he was a nut. met him once. a surplus of energy to say the least.

  5. AWESOME DUDE! Really enjoyed this post. Always missed Dunkin all the years I spent in Los Angeles.

    Plus very impressive on the Central Park thing. I always talk to the NY cabbies and so many are from other countries, working hard and going to school and I have always admired them (and over tipped them). Last summer I used to jog the park often cruising past the carriages wondering what those horses are thinking in their heads stuck in the city traffic.

  6. howie, let me tell what’s in the horse’s head: “oats,hay,oats,hay,oats,hay,oats,hay…etc”.

    horses aren’t nearly as smart as people think they are. they’re like cows. their reaction to everything is to run away. the carriage horses are treated very well btw. much as PETA would like to imagine otherwise. it was good fun but strange. lots of great stories.

  7. Pingback: My Ally and Gargano book is in the mail! | ESCAPOLOGY (the escape pod’s blog)

  8. Dana Carpender

    FYI, my father, John Carpender, was the account exec on the Hertz campaign, and the story is he came up with the “we’re going to tell you why” line. I grew up with Hertz swag, including big black-and-yellow golf umbrellas, and my dad’s Zippo that had a car on the bottom part and the driver on the top part — so he “fell” into the car when you closed the lighter, just like in the old “Let Hertz put you in the driver’s seat” ads. (I also had a sweatshirt with Carl Ally’s face on it, and the caption “Our Founder.”)

    Dad worked for Carl Ally for a decade. I think it was his happiest time, professionally.

  9. really dana? very cool. you should be proud of your dad. that was a real breakthrough. i always loved the carl ally work as you know. it was just so tough. they were tough guys! the so called mad men were the guys they ate for breakfast. they were heretics, frankly.

  10. H. Michael Terreri

    Dana — I worked with your dad for a little while at the Ally shop. Just like Carl, he was one in a million — a different kind of account executive. We were small then (I think there were only about thirty of us), but there was so much talent! McCabe, McLaughlin, Berla, and many more. I left the agency business (drafted during the Vietnam era) and never went back to it. My loss. I often take a fond look back to my time at Carl Ally, Inc.

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