New economy, old values

Back in the Stone Age, when television was black-and-white and radio commercials were sent out on vinyl discs called 'phonograph records,' I decided that maybe I wanted to be an advertising copywriter.

Back in the Stone Age, when television was black-and-white and radio commercials were sent out on vinyl discs called ‘phonograph records,’ I decided that maybe I wanted to be an advertising copywriter.

In those days, I had half a chance. Intelligent advertising agencies like Young & Rubicam had in-house training programs that attempted to mould copywriters out of people like me who knew nothing about the business beyond what everybody knows: i.e., ‘That’s a good one,’ and ‘That one sucks.’

Y&R in New York even had a summer program, eight weeks on Madison Avenue for greener-than-green university students. A New Jersey boy at school in Massachusetts, I applied and wrote a dreadful essay on what I considered good and bad advertising. Fortunately, it must have been slightly less dreadful than those of my competitors, because I received a telegram telling me I had a job. (A telegram is a message sent long distances by Morse Code, and…never mind.)

I received the princely sum of $62.50 a week. I later did the math, multiplying $62.50 times eight weeks times four trainees, and discovered that Y&R had blown a whole $2,000 on this summer training program. (‘It had better damn well work, Fred.’)

It did work. It attracted some brilliant people, several of whose names you might know, though ironically they stayed in communications but not in advertising. Bill Rukeyser wound up editing Money and Fortune magazines, and his brother yaks about investments on PBS. Joel Siegel is the showbiz critic for ABC’s Good Morning America.

And Harry Shearer has probably had more fun than anybody, except maybe me. He did a couple of years on Saturday Night Live, does jokes and voices for The Simpsons, and perhaps best of all, is the bass guitarist in This is Spinal Tap. (As for me, Y&R nurtured me, shipped me to Milan and then Toronto, where I got off the corporate ladder.)

But programs like these quite quickly disappeared. Money got tight (I’ve never figured out who tightened it), people got busy, and advertising agencies stopped spawning their own young. A big talent gap resulted, and the few guys who did know what they were doing, or pretended to, got reasonably wealthy by jumping their skills from agency to agency, adding a few dozen thou with each leap.

Lots of us saw this happening, and proclaimed it a damn shame, and did nothing. One woman saw it, and quietly did something.

Joanne Lehman developed an entire teaching curriculum, got the co-operation of Humber College, and created Canada’s first true educational program for young copywriters. Oh, there had been courses here and there in the past, but this was a two-year, multi-dimensional program that was serious about filling the huge gap that agencies had left themselves.

Joanne worked phenomenally hard, and got results. She taught classes herself, she recruited good people to do likewise, she built and expanded the curriculum. She made more phone calls than a four-armed telemarketer to find agency placements, much like my ancient one at Y&R, for her promising students. Her students thrived in the classrooms and inside the business; in the last eight years, seven Walter Bell Awards for best student TV commercial have gone to Humber undergrads.

And still, by and large, nobody noticed. A couple of years ago, I made a small try to rectify that (in full disclosure, I’m a member of Joanne’s Humber advisory board, and she is a close personal friend). I sent a written outline of her accomplishments to the ACA, nominating her for their annual Gold Medal for service to Canadian advertising. That august organization did not muster the courtesy even to acknowledge my communication.

Last month, somebody finally noticed. The Bessies Awards for TV Commercials gave Joanne their highest honour, the Fritz Spiess Award for her contribution to TV advertising. As is typical of Joanne’s modesty, when she saw her own excellent past commercials being flashed on the screen, she thought the award was going to her talented partner, art director, and husband, Dick Amedeo.

If you are one of the people who didn’t notice, please notice now. If you missed the Spiess Award news, notice now. That award has gone to many outstanding people, but none has ever deserved it more than Joanne Lehman.

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John Burghardt’s checkered resume includes the presidency of a national agency, several films for the Shah’s government in Iran, collaboration with Jim Henson to create the Cookie Monster, and a Cannes Gold Lion. The letterhead of his thriving business now reads ‘STRATEGIC PLANNING * CREATIVE THINKING.’ He can be reached by phone at (416) 693-5072 or by e-mail at burgwarp@aol.com.