"When I applied for my first job in advertising, the personnel
department gave me an application to fill out. One question was: SALARY
EXPECTED? I wrote in the blank provided: YES."
One of the smartest guys to ever hit Madison Ave. Tom Messner is a co-founder of one of the most prominent advertising agencies of the last half century: Messner Vetere Berger Carey Schmetterer. If you don't know the name, you'll know the client roster: it's a Fortune 100 club that includes: Volvo, MCI, Evian, and Nestlé. They since been sold to global gian Euro RSCG.
When I wrote KNOCK THE HUSTLE, pretty much everyone in the industry wanted my head on a stick, on a platter or to see it shoved up a random disease-filled orface. Tom Messner was one of the very few people to not only not hate it, but reach out and offer kind words of encouragement at much needed time. So he's a good guy in my book.
But that's not why I reached out for an interview.
Every industry has its legends, pioneers... And when I first got in the advertising industry there were certain figures I was told to emulate and if possible, work for if I wanted to enjoy any real success: Bill Bernbach (he was dead so read his book) Phil Dusenberry (R.I.P), Pat Fallon, Jay Chiat, Dan Wieden...
And Tom Messner.
Tom Messner's somehwat of a legend in the corporate game. He's got a quick wit, his own take, and doesn't mind sharing what he's learned along the way. Sounds like a hustleknocker to me. Anyway, here's the result of our e-chat:
HK: You’re a co-founder of one of the great pioneering ad agencies
in Messner Vetere Berger Carey Schmetterer. What do you think was the
biggest key to your company’s success?
TM: Clients (both people and companies) that we had worked for at our previous agencies hired us after we went in business because they trusted us. That in itself pushed us to succeed for them and for ourselves.
HK: You come from a blue-collar background. How have those roots helped you in business?
TM: My father worked in a factory and then in the yards of the New York City subway system. He was a “family man,” as they used to say about men who put their children ahead of them.
My own blue-collar experience was a year as a letter carrier ($2.64 an hour) and three months as a janitor ($2.15 an hour). One of the floors I used to clean is now the office of Adweek.
We janitors had a keen eye for people who dismissed us or condescended to us. This trait carried over to my entire business career, not always productively.
HK: What’s your favorite campaign these days?
TM: On TV, I like UPS; in print, Jack In The Box. The copywriters write the stuff and also appear in it: the sincerest form of creative output.
HK: What campaign of yours are you proudest of?
TM: MCI gave me the advantage of working for great people (McGowan, Roberts, Taylor, Price, Dunlap, Proferes, Carter) who saw advertising as key to the company’s growth and profits. And I got the chance twice to work for them. First, at their very beginning when they had less than .001% market share, and then later when they survived attacks from AT&T, thrived, and (among other things) became the first evangelists for the Internet.
Before that, from 1976-1978, I did a Pan Am campaign that had the good fortune to break six months before the Roots TV series. We tried to induce Americans to discover their European, African or Asian heritage.
The campaign was so successful financially and esthetically that the client had no choice but to fire us (Ally and Gargano) so they could hire a single worldwide agency. The lasting impact of that action is my smiling, jovial cynicism. Both companies (MCI and Pan Am) have since been absorbed in acquisitions, disconcerting since my best work was done for companies that have disappeared.
HK: Next to India, America might be the most culturally and ethnically diverse country in the world, yet the ad world is still at least between 85% and 90% white in most every city. How can the ad world increase its talent pool without resorting to tokenism and quotas?
But everyone can learn something from the great anecdote in your book about your freelance gig to work on the CBA. Lot of lessons in that story. Page 209-210, Knock The Hustle, Second Edition.
I benefited from diversity more than I contributed to it. My high school valedictorian was a black guy (Spencer Edwards) who would have been my role model except that he studied too hard; my mentor at school was an English professor who was a black man (Eugene Blair) from Pittsburgh and Duquesne University.
It would be interesting to test the question whether an agency organized from its onset to reflect this country’s diversity would be successful or would actually offer something different. If you want to try that, I’ll represent the over-63 pre-baby boomer generation. I have thought through the notion of “general agencies,” “white agencies,” “black agencies,” “Hispanic agencies,” and “Asian agencies.” But it would take up too much space to go on about it. Plus by the time I finished the comment, I might change my mind again.
HK: There seems to be a gap between “old” and “young” in society and in the ad business in particular, with increased charges of ageism and examples of old people being laid off/ ridiculed in ads, etc. How can we bridge that gap?
TM: I don’t know the answer to this one either. Maybe getting older means you realize you don’t have all the answers.
Jim Durfee wrote copy at Euro RSCG until he was 77.
I saw no diminution in his talent, but he had a particularly logical, factual approach to work that didn’t require creating something out of nothing; he created something out of something.
On the other hand, firefighters deserve early pensions and early retirements for both their own health and for the safety of those whom they might be called on to save.
I can’t recall anyone at any agency I worked at being laid off because of age. (That term, “laid off,” I know from my father, but it used to mean temporary unemployment, that the factory would call you back when work picked up. Being “fired” meant you were gone.)
As for ridicule in ads or sitcoms, my criterion in the latter is whether it’s funny or not. In the former, I don’t see the efficacy in ridicule, except perhaps in political stuff or competitive product advertising where you ridicule the competition.
HK: What’s the biggest mistake agencies/brands are making in reaching out to consumers these days?
TM: Borrowed interest. Or, more accurately, borrowed disinterest.
HK: It seems like ad agencies are recycling the same creative concepts over and over. Are we out of ideas, afraid to take risks or what?
TM: The original is rare in any field. In advertising, it so revered and valued that it is immediately imitated. Imitation has risks too. So it is just lack of talent that prevents more originality in advertising, not lack of will.
HK: Many feel the ad industry is way behind properly leveraging web/online technologies. Why is the ad world still having such a hard time adapting to/embracing online tools?
TM: It is still new and incredibly varied. It took 20 years for the industry to learn to use television. TV’s problem in the early days was content: there was hardly any and the medium regurgitated radio shows and scripts and put them to film. One difference is that the Internet has come on faster and has been adopted by the public much more widely than TV at the beginning. TV was still social medium in 1965 as people gathered around it; nobody gathers around the Internet unless you think that everyone is gathering around it at any time.
Perhaps agencies might think to create more content and own it the way they did with radio and television in their beginning days.
HK: Any advice for young people trying to break into the business?
TM: When I applied for my first job in advertising, the personnel department gave me an application to fill out. One question was: SALARY EXPECTED? I wrote in the blank provided: YES.
Then when you do get a job, find a mentor.
HK: What are you up to these days? What's keeping you busy?
TM: I spend about a half hour each day on line in blogs: political, advertising, and sports blogs without giving up any time from my other stuff. I find that I just sleep a half hour less to do that.
As you get older, your time is more valuable since you have so much less of it left.
I also read, go to movies, play on-line poker so tight that I can read a book while I play, play golf, go to the gym so that my present out-of-shape condition doesn’t deteriorate even further.
HK: What’s your favorite quote (or scripture or philosophy)?
TM: “What’s worth doing is worth doing poorly.” From GK Chesterton who taught me to love paradoxes.
HK: Hustleknockin.com's about breaking constructs (i.e. paradigms). Which “construct” (paradigm) be it in business or society would you like to see broken?
TM: A political journalist (maybe William Buckley) used to write about the choice between the paradigmatic and the practical. Model behavior versus what you have to do to get by. I think that time and time again observation tells me that there is no conflict between the moral and the practical. What attracted me to so much of your book is that it tries to find agreement between what’s right and what works. And often succeeds.
TM: I decided to take the questions here seriously and avoided being flip. I hope that didn’t lead to boredom.
HK: Not at all, sir. It was an honor. I really appreciate it; and I know my readers loved this, too!