Congratulations to MARKETING for 30 years of reporting on the Seattle advertising community, a period that introduced profound and accelerating change. For those of us who were deep into our careers three decades ago, it’s head-spinning to consider how it was, versus how it is now.
1986, the year that MARKETING began, was a pivotal one that changed the trajectory of our industry and the nature of the skills necessary to thrive in it. Back then, tens of millions of people were easily accessible, because most of America gathered in front of their TV sets each night, with a choice of only three networks to watch.
For those brands with serious money, the key phrase was “reach and frequency.” Determine who you want to reach, what they watch and then run a commercial with enough frequency that the message sticks in peoples’ minds. Brand message were extended through radio, newspaper, magazines and outdoor. If the parts were put together with flair, brands could watch their market share grow.
Ad agencies were, in almost all instances, considered strategic partners with brands. They were paid via retainer and, for this, provided research, strategy, brand management and creative. They nearly always placed media, which earned them 15% of the buy. Money flowed and agencies were staffed with the best and brightest minds, who provided constant guidance to their clients on how to outsmart their competitors.
Agencies were expected to bring big ideas that could transform brands in the marketplace. Most agencies were independently owned by fiercely creative people who fought for great ideas, knowing that this is what ultimately kept the agency-client relationships alive.
Consider the 1986 case of the California Dancing Raisins. The Raisin Board had just $3 million to spend to promote the sales of raisins. Their research provided evidence of a number of ways raisins were good for people. FCB San Francisco considered the research, ignored it and suggested to the client that people would eat more raisins if they thought raisins were “cool.” Gulp.
The client wasn’t happy that the agency ignored the research. Jack Boulasek, FCB West’s CEO at the time, stood by his team and offered to resign if the client didn’t like the result of the campaign.
California Dancing Raisins launched on network TV to the tune of “Heard it on the Grapevine” and entered the cultural milieu of the time. Within 18 months, sales of raisin merchandise exceeded the entire sales of the raisin industry, and fees from the licensing of the merchandise fed a huge media campaign that drove raisin sales skyward. Such was the power of commercial TV, combined with creative inspiration.
Television was king, and reaching mass number of people was relatively easy.
However, 1986 was a watershed year. Creating advertising was fairly complex and took an army of people, who oversaw extensive production processes. All things print went through multi-layered steps, requiring original photography (there were no photo banks), typesetting (what’s that, younger readers might ask?), repeated proofing and lots of expensive equipment.
Seattle-based Aldus Corp. introduced PageMaker that year and, with it, the era of desktop publishing. What took a village (agency) now could be accomplished by a talented person and a cheap computer. Paul Mattheus, founder of Digital Kitchen, saw desktop publishing as the “democratization of creative” that would lead to an age of individual creativity. Years later, he used this idea to harness talented young people to create Emmy Award-winning work, on a shoestring.
Cable television was just entering the scene in 1986 and offered the potential to target audiences in narrower interest groups. Yet, this narrowcasting complicated the economics of TV production. The smaller cable audiences put downward pressure on the dollars that were allotted to producing commercials. No one knew cable would become what it is today.
One of the more significant events of 1986 was the formation of what would, in later years, become the world’s largest ad-agency holding company, Omnicom, via the merger of BBDO and DDB Needham. The adverting industry was going public and major ad agencies yielded their independence, in return for lots of money.
This mirrored the globalization of brands, where scale and infrastructure were required, as major advertisers took their products worldwide. Two of Seattle’s best-run agencies later became part of Omnicom—Hornall Anderson and Elgin Syferd.
It would be another 10 years before the Internet, once again, changed everything. But the seeds of change were in place the year MARKETING first appeared. For all of the changes, some constants still hold firm: this is a business of talent and brains; today’s tools, as they were then, are best wielded by people who are rule breakers, love people and love the game of outsmarting competitors.
Bill Fritsch is vice chairman and former CEO of Digital Kitchen. He began his advertising journey at Disney, where he helped launch the Disney Channel. Over the last 35 years in Seattle, Bill has founded and sold agencies and worked with some of the largest brands in the region. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.