An interview with Tom Messner

As promised, here is an interview with Ally & Gargano alum Tom Messner. Tom types fast and writes lucidly. The word “erudite” is frequently and rightly used to describe him. (Most ad folks probably think erudite is a brand of adhesive ;-)

Tom used the word “amanuensis” in an email exchange with me. I had to look it up.

Thanks Tom for playing along. I’m sure you have better things to do.

1. Where did you work before A&G and how did you break into the industry?

I did a short stretch at BBDO and 2½ years at Doyle Dane Bernbach. At DDB, I worked on VW and filled in blanks established years before by Helmut Krone and Julian Koenig.
I broke into the industry (1967) on the West Coast when I answered a Help Wanted ad in the LA Times placed by a life insurance company looking for a writer to ghost articles for agents and do trade ads that the consumer agency (DDB, as it happened) didn’t find profitable or creatively challenging, or both. The company hired me despite my having no degree and no professional experience (my previous jobs were Letter Carrier and Janitor). I remain grateful to the former Occidental Life of California and the guy who hired me, the late Jerry Farrell.

2. Would it be fair to say that Carl Ally attracted a certain type of writer/creative? Or did the agency mold them into its likeness?

It would be fair to say, but in my case I was merely looking for a job that would double my salary and offer an opportunity to do more television. Dick Fitzhugh, the copywriter who supervised the Pan Am account, hired me by fulfilling the former and hinting at the possibility of the latter.
The agency (Carl, Jim Durfee, and Amil Gargano) did a good amount of sculpting of the talents it hired and, although you were given latitude, it wasn’t looking for someone at my level to bring BBDO or Doyle Dane Bernbach sensibilities to their accounts. Like DDB with VW, Ally established a voice for the airline that copywriters followed (to my own benefit, as it turned out).
Later, Amil Gargano made two brilliant hires in Barry Vetere and Patrick Kelly. Not brilliant because they were obvious talents, but because Amil hired Barry for IBM and Patrick for Beefeater Gin. Like the NFL GM who opts to draft the best athlete available regardless of position, Amil didn’t care that Barry and Patrick were ill-suited for those accounts. He wanted talented people and the two of them displayed their mammoth abilities for more than a decade on everything except IBM and Beefeater.

3. Carl Ally seems to have been something of a hybrid. How would you describe his role at the agency?

Carl believed that in business there were leaders, managers, doers. He abhorred managers and thought them wasteful and a hindrance. He saw himself as a leader of the first rank.
In my first month there, he chaired a status/traffic meeting for the Pan Am account. Issuing orders and pounding the table at what he perceived was slow reaction by the team to Pan Am’s problems, however minuscule they were, he was anything but aloof about “the work.” He also seemed to be dangerously close to becoming a “doer” or, even worse, a “manager.”
Then he was gone. To Europe. To Paris. To Italy. To Switzerland. And I don’t know when I saw him again. Probably after Hertz fired the agency and Pan Am became a bigger percentage of the billings and, in the fuel crisis of ’74, in jeopardy of cutting its budget. Later that year, we were trying to “save the account” by doing what everyone at Ally could not do: a jingle for a client that wanted one. During that time, I remarked to him about something off-subject that I had read in The Nation. He said, thinking I was trying to get close to him on a different level from the business at hand, “I don’t need a friend; I need a copywriter.”
He was, first and foremost, a rainmaker. Volvo, Pan Am, Hertz, Fiat, SAAB, no doubt more since Ally never had a new business guy or girl. An occasional edgy critic (“Who writes this shit?” he asked me one day pointing to several print ads I had done) his praise was rare and honest. As far as I can recall, he liked my Pan Am work about Americans discovering their European or African or Asian heritage and some SAAB ads, the ones he didn’t toss out of the car on US 95 up to SAAB’s Orange CT headquarters. He showed up at the first MCI shoot in January of 1980, went to lunch, listened to the client Jerry Taylor, got up from the table, went to the phone, and bought 25,000 shares of the stock at 4.75. He held it through 60. Ever the true believer, he also invested in Federal and Commodore proving the value of faith-based economics.
He was a very tough, earthy competitor and oblivious to his image or his legacy. The next-to-last time I saw him, we (Messner Vetere Berger Carey Schmetterer) were pitching SAAB in 1988 and he was helping them choose an agency. In that role, he attempted to seduce one of my partners (Schmetterer) to leave our group and start an agency with him, an account guy, a copywriter, and the SAAB account.

4.What is your favorite Carl Ally/Ally & Gargano campaign or ad? And why?

The first Hertz campaign: the print, the TV, the boldness of the strategy, the executions that made the competition between two corporations interesting to readers, viewers, and even car renters. What I have come to see as the underlying current of the Hertz stance, hatred for the advertising business itself, was a never-to-be-repeated phenomenon. Here they (Amil, Ralph, Jim, Carl, the account guy John, and Ed) could attack not only a rent-a-car company (Avis) but as important, they could target an ad agency (Doyle Dane Bernbach). The winner? Both Hertz and Avis as their shares and the category both grew. The loser? As always, the ad agencies. They were fired after creating the brilliant advertising and helping to fortify what was then still a nascent business.
Before getting cashiered, the agency would develop the #1 Club for Hertz which still endures. And, I am told by someone who was there, Carl conjured up and gave Hertz the zipcar concept 40 years before it was eventually developed by someone else. The marketing concept (#1 Club and its blandishments) bored him; only products (zipcar) animated him.

5.Which ad/campaign are you proudest of from those days? And why?

Pan Am. (Every American has a
second heritage. We’d like to help you discover yours.)
Until then, I had merely done ads; with this, I began to do advertising helped along by Steve Horn, Don Sabeski, David Ford, Mike Tesch, and Morty Askinos.
It broke six months before the Roots series, its first permutation being a VO vignette spot with a litany. (“In America, there are millions of Italians who’ve never seen Italy. And millions of Poles who’ve never seen Poland.”) That style, which I picked up from David Altschiller and Martin Puris, worked for me for quite a while. It can be tedious if overdone, but Riney and I did it for Reagan in ’84 and I did it again for a Bush bio spot in ’88, after which I abandoned it for lack of opportunity.

6. A disproportionate number of writers from Ally and Gargano went on to found their own shops. Was there something in the coffee there?

Carl said so many times, “If you don’t like it, start your own agency.” And McCabe, Raboy, Puris, Altschiller, Kelly, Berger, and I were, if nothing else, dutiful employees. The agency encouraged me to feel that no matter how little or how much equity I had in the place, I was a partner. Berger, Vetere, and I were encouraged to deal with clients at the highest level. The agency didn’t need non-competes with us: it was more than four years after we left that we attempted to work with a former Ally & Gargano client.

7.What did you learn at Ally and Gargano that stood you in good stead later on as a creative/creative director?

They were very good at defining a product or a service. Whether a new car in the American market (Fiat) or an overnight package delivery service (Federal) or a long distance phone company (MCI). Our agency, too, had a knack for definition (NASDAQ), re-definition (MCI), and recapturing an age-old past definition (Volvo). Working for Carl, Jim, and Amil was the foundation for much of that work.

8.What did you learn at Ally and Gargano that stood you in good stead as an agency owner?

Nothing. But Carl Ally’s 4-day week was the noblest of experiments in generosity as he himself gained absolutely nothing from it except the satisfaction of knowing he was giving his employees what the updated ex-con Gordon Gekko sees as having the greatest value: time.

9.Ally and Gargano, to me anyway, seemed more obviously concerned with effectiveness than other agencies of the time. Is that fair to say?

You are too harsh with other agencies of the time, I think. Of course, I admit I was out of the mainstream after 1972 and can only guess what motivated work in the rest of the industry. I did very little packaged goods so seldom faced the artificial criteria of test scores that drove so much thinking in that arena. And with the exception of once trying to do a song to placate an unhappy client, the only thing I had to think of was doing effective work.
We all liked to win awards and get recognition, but we were not clever enough to create work for the award shows. I respected Tom McElligott’s discovery of that channel to publicize himself and later his agency.

10. A question from blog reader Bill Green “I’d like to hear
his take on where consumers stand now vs. then. They have far more tools to research and make their purchase decisions with, but are they any better off now that they’re a bigger part of the advertising equation?

I ask because advertising has shifted from treating the viewer as intelligent – Ogilvy’s “The customer is not an idiot, the customer is your wife” — to now being more about how clever the agency is.

I don’t know if Ogilvy’s bon mot ever became Gospel in the advertising business even for a short time. The tools of mnemonic devices and borrowed interest and bad taste and enhanced interrogation repetition recognize a constituency closer to idiocy than your spouse or mine.
Consumers have always acted in
their self-interest which leads to skepticism about any and all advertising claims.
That axiom, if believed, can lead to entertaining advertising that eschews any claim other than the creation of wispy brand personalities that the advertiser hopes has persuasive and pervasive value beyond the last frame or the passing click.
But Mr. Green asks “Are they (the consumers) any better off?” Yes, but for reasons that consumer advocates Ralph Nader and David Ogilvy had nothing to do with.
Modern consumers have added education, communication, medical care, entertainment, and transportation to the list of the basic necessities of the ancient consumer: food, clothing, and shelter. So the modern consumer is doing quite well. And when you consider the choices that have evolved in all those categories, it is the modern producer who is the servant of the consumer.
Agencies today appear to me to be more interested in studying, listening to, analyzing consumers than reaching into the product and finding its salable essence. I did a review of old and new advertising/marketing books for Adweek. I contrasted Claude Hopkins and Rosser Reeves with Lovemarks, a contemporary book by a Saatchi executive. I noted “the biggest difference between the Old Testament books by Hopkins and Reeves and present-day advertising thinking. Those two guys thought the essence of brands were within the product itself; the modernists, summed up by Yoshio Ishizaka (client of Saatchi), think that ‘we really cannot determine anything. The customer does that. That is the essence’.”

11.You’re from Queens! Whereabouts in Queens? I spent five happy years living in the Irish enclave of Woodside/Sunnyside. Real New York as I call it.

I grew up in Hollis in the years between Art Buchwald and LL Cool J, after Ralph Ammirati of Ammirati Puris but before
Donny Deutsch of Deutsch and Alain Sylvain of Sylvain Labs. The “Christmas in Hollis” music video by Run DMC sums up well the universal experience of living under the bright lights of Francis Lewis Boulevard whether Irish, German, Italian, Jewish, African-American or West Indian.

12. You worked with Hal Riney on the brilliant Reagan re-election campaign, arguably the best (and most effective) political advertising campaign of all time. I randomly met Hal in his Irish cousin John Riney’s pub in Queens one Christmas before I got into advertising. How did that Tuesday Team get together? And what was that experience like?

Nancy Reagan wanted advertising for the President that was up to her standards conceptually and in production.She asked Phil Dusenberry of BBDO, whom she knew, to do films for the convention and to put together an advertising team. He agreed to write and produce two films, one for the President and one honoring her. He also went out and recruited Della Femina Travisano & Partners.
Jerry made the mistake of doing an interview with Oui magazine in which he went on about drug use in agency creative departments. That was the end of his involvement since Nancy Reagan’s first lady issue was drug use and “Just Say No.”
Between Jerry’s hiring and firing, I called Ron Travisano and volunteered to work freelance with them for the President.
Some representative from the GOP, according to Amil Gargano in his book, went to Amil after the firing and sought Ally & Gargano to replace Jerry’s agency.
Meanwhile Jim Travis of Della Femina pulled together an ad hoc agency headed by Jim, Wally Carey (who later became our partner), Sig Rogich from Nevada, and Doug Watts, a young, very talented media guy from California. Travisano called me and asked me to join the group and I enlisted Barry Vetere. In addition, Hal Riney was recruited from Ogilvy and Jim Weller from Della Femina.
We all had our first meeting at Jerry’s offices with Dusenberry, pollsters Bob Teeter and Dick Wirthlin, and Roger Ailes in early March of 1984.
Roger, who later became my friend and a key supporter of our young agency, made a presentation of recent Presidential advertising. Reagan’s 1980 advertising seemed to be very research-driven as it emphasized and re-emphasized and reminded voters that he had indeed been Governor of California for eight years.
A discussion followed that went stumbling along in circles. What surprised me was that I did not see optimism about Reagan from Wirthlin and Teeter. They seemed to be struggling with what to say and apparently were stung by the negative advertising and campaign rhetoric from the Democrat primary contenders. They were also remembering the ’82 Congressional races as a rebuff to the President that it temporarily was.
I reached into my pocket and took out a crumpled up piece of paper with a 60-second script that began with: “This is America, Spring of 1984. And this is America. And this, too, is America.” It was to be synced up with positive imagery of people going about their normal lives. It continued “Yet, just four years ago, people were wondering if the job of President was too big for one man” And then: “Now look around. Jobs are coming back, housing is coming back, and hope for the future is coming back…” Etc. Etc.
Then Hal reached into his pocket and brought out three words: “Prouder. Stronger. Better” Weller whined about something just to show we weren’t unanimous, but in the Fall, Bob Teeter said to me that he was really amazed that a re-election strategy for Reagan evolved from that short “let’s get together” meeting. Roger Ailes made no contribution to the advertising itself, but came in after the first losing Reagan-Mondale debate to shore up Reagan’s confidence and make sure he’d come back and win the second debate.
The team added other people later in the Spring: Marvin Honig Creative Director of DDB, art directors Jim Perretti and George Euringer and copywriter Ron Berger from Ally & Gargano.
Dusenberry’s 17-minute film, with help from Sig Rogich; second-unit shooting from Pytka, Riney, Tibor Hirsch, and Vetere; and the White House staff writers who created the Pont du Hoc speech at the 40th anniversary of D-Day; and Lee Greenwood’s music, have not been topped in the 12 convention films since. In fact, in 1988, Vetere and I did the convention film for George Bush, and one of the networks decided, fearing the effectiveness of Madison Avenue propaganda or something, that it would only run seven minutes so we cut our 15-minute number to seven minutes and seven seconds; NBC studiously cut the first 7 seconds off. Jane Pauley, an independent reporter to be sure, came in at the conclusion and said, “Gee, that was very moving.” But she had the advantage of seeing the first seven seconds in the convention hall.

13. Your agency was very successful. Why? And why did you ultimately sell it to Euro RSCG?

We were successful because clients (individuals and companies) we had worked successfully with before hired us.
Wally Carey and Bob Schmetterer got along very well with Ron Berger and Barry Vetere. Larry Dexheimer, Ally’s media director, joined us part-time a year after we began and then came in fulltime. He, too, got on well with all the other partners. The time between our founding in 1986 and our anniversary party in late 1991 was my happiest in business. Creating something may be more fun than actually running it.
We sold to RSCG (Roux, Séguéla, Cayzac, and Goudard) two and a half years into the agency’s life. Eurocom acquired RSCG in 1992 and that’s when we became Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer Euro RSCG. I thought it a good hedge against my tendency toward indolence and incompetence. I didn’t need the money since my wife had a significant job at Levine Huntley Schmidt and I thought myself to be dependently wealthy.
The backing of an apparently solvent group helped us move to bigger offices and finance a couple of expensive new business pitches.
We had some debate about the deal among the partners. At the time we also talked to a British guy Michael Greenleas who wasn’t interested, to say the least. Bob and Ron went to lunch with him at “21” and he said that he thought “we were looking for a quick fix.” Sometimes when you look down your nose, you don’t see the whole picture. Dai-Ichi Kikaku, formerly a 25% owner in Ally & Gargano and whose rep commented positively that he thought we were Ally and Gargano without Ally and Gargano, thought “we were like Manhattan real estate: the view is great but the price is out of sight.” By contrast, Jean Michel Goudard bought us without looking at our books (the financial ones, not our ad portfolios), more out of a faith he saw in five weirdly different people who could talk at a conference table with one voice.
Our initial capital to launch the company was $10.00. $2.50 a partner. But we began with three paying clients who retained us for $37,500 a month.

14. How would you describe your relationship with Amil Gargano today? And what is he up to these days?

Our relationship at the moment is author and reader. We haven’t spoken in 24 years. I did send him a letter once around 1987, and he replied. It followed an embarrassing almost encounter on Madison Avenue when he did everything except throw himself in front of a bus to avoid me. The account guy I was walking with says he still laughs to himself every time he walks past the location, The Helmsley Palace on 50th Street.

15. What did you think of the Ally and Gargano book?

It’s a magnificent archive of a great agency’s work worth many times the list price of $240 or the discounted price of $138.
As for the narrative, the author’s Detroit years’ story of his family and his education are revealing in the best sense. The listing of every employee’s name is also an original, appreciated touch in a biography of a company.
But, the book is flawed by execrable proofreading (Barry Verere, more than once) that I hope is unintentional in a book of this dimension. Amil Gargano’s dismissal of the energy and talent Barry brought to the agency is, though, fully intentional and fucking pazzo. In 1984, when Carl Ally was trying to throw Amil Gargano out in defiance of the by-laws of the publicly-held company (meaning he’d need a shareholders’ vote to dump the CEO), Barry turned down Carl’s offer of the Creative Director’s job because of his loyalty to the man who hired him and nurtured his career. Barry also had just done the winning Polaroid pitch which won the account and ensured that Amil would not be in danger of losing a shareholder vote on the question of his tenure.
In high school, I first came across the literary device of dramatic irony. This was when readers of a play or novel understand what is going on and affecting the characters, but the protagonists don’t. Ally & Gargano may be the first book in which the author himself doesn’t grasp what is happening again and again or why or what could have been done about it. This is irony of a deeper level than Victor Hugo, the master of the device, could ever conjure.

As for me in the 1984 putsch, I was just back from bypass surgery in my leg and a long hospital stay. Carl came into my office to get a sense of which side of the barricades I was on. I said, “Sounds like you don’t need a copywriter; you need a friend.”

6 responses to “An interview with Tom Messner

  1. We all need a friend. Great interview, Rabbits.

  2. amazing read.

    to me, this is just great:
    “The tools of mnemonic devices and borrowed interest and bad taste and enhanced interrogation repetition recognize a constituency closer to idiocy than your spouse or mine.
    Consumers have always acted in their self-interest which leads to skepticism about any and all advertising claims.
    That axiom, if believed, can lead to entertaining advertising that eschews any claim other than the creation of wispy brand personalities that the advertiser hopes has persuasive and pervasive value beyond the last frame or the passing click.”

  3. i know riki. this guy was in advertising???

  4. And the reason you were never hired to do feature stories for 60 Mins is? You have range Vinny. That was really nice. I am a history buff. Never really pursued the history of Advertising beyond watching Art and Copy. but have a small group of really knowledgeable people like you who keep teaching me. Thank you.

  5. Pingback: | Blog | Messner Escapes.

  6. Curvin O'Rielly

    Tom’s a close friend. An intelligent, exceptionally deep and talented man I’ve always admired. Everything he says, excluding his political views, sounds like the gospel truth to me.

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