Far away and long ago – Sam Katz’ memories from the creative revolution

I have written about Sam Katz in some of my Swedish blog posts. He was a columnist in Quo Vadis during the first years of the magazine (which I started and run for 20 years). He was feared but loved. His rhetoric was incomparable and entertaining. He crushed Golden Eggs (Swedish advertising awards) annihilated large but unclear campaigns, and scolded companies that did not conceive to market themselves in a sensible way. And no one could argue against him, because he was right and could justify why. 

I translated his chronicles into Swedish and it was extremely inspiring to work with him. 

Sam Katz in 1989. Photo by Niclas Tilosius

Unfortunately, our cooperation only lasted for a few years and he was just 62 when he passed away in October 1990.

We spoke at the phone, the day before his stroke and he ended the call, just as usual: “Talk to you soon, kid!”

That didn’t happen, but I still miss him and he is still a great inspiration to me. 

He was in many ways a strange bird in the Swedish advertising industry. Born in New York, professionally brought up by heroes like Bill Bernbach and David Reider.

To Sam, absolutely nothing was sacred, except the customer’s best and the purpose of advertising. It made him completely fearless and uncompromising. His analysis was sharp and crystal clear and his truths as well measured as uncomfortable.

Much of what he wrote related to current Swedish advertising, industry issues and advertising awards. But it was also timeless. Some were completely timeless and without any borders. Not least when he wrote about his own heroes and teachers. The greatest advertisers of the 1960s, the leaders of the creative revolution.

I therefore re-published a chronicle he wrote in Quo Vadis on June 11, 1989. Translated back from the Swedish translation into English.

I wish every creator, advertising professional and marketer to print it and put it above their beds, so that it will be the first thing they see in the morning and the last they read before going to rest in the evening.

So, over to Sam Katz :

Far away and long ago

“It’s a very early morning. My family is still sleeping. But I’ve been awake for hours wondering what to write in my column this time. My wife and my friends constantly ask why I always write such angry and grouchy chronicles. This morning I have asked myself why I am always at the boiling point, steamy and furious about everything that relates to today’s advertising climate. Why do I never like something I see? (You, who read this, do you ever get tired of yourself? I often do. I often wish I could change my head to someone else’s.)

While I lie in bed listening to the birds outside, an old song pops into my head. I heard it once in France a long time ago. It is sung by Napoleon’s veterans who lie in their graves. They sing that they should remain dead in their graves, asleep and dreaming, until Napoleon returns. Then they will rise, and again leave their wives and children to beg for their daily bread and to once again follow their general into the eternal battle. It is an incredibly beautiful and stupid song.

Once I followed my Napoleon. His name was William Bernbachand I was one of his infantrymen. And I guess I still, within myself, sing the same beautiful and stupid song. I am waiting for my general to return. I wait for the days of honor to return when advertising was a way of life and not just a way to make money. If I could only relive the feeling once when I show my general a campaign as my art director and I’ve worked with for three months, and hear him say, “That’s a good start”.

I remember when a team was working with Heinz Ketchup. The customer explained that Heinz cost more than other ketchup because it contained more tomatoes and less water. It was clear from the label, but people do not read labels. So how would you prove it? The working group struggled for weeks without making the slightest progress. But one day, early in the morning, there was a great stir at the office. Something was going on in the Art Director’s room. The entire 24th floor rushed over to see what was going on – and there the art director was throwing ketchup at the wall of his room. There must have been hundreds of ketchup bottles on the floor and he opened one bottle after the other and threw the contents on the wall.

“What are you doing, Bert” someone asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. And continued to throw ketchup on the wall.

But what Bert discovered, after a long while, was that Heinz Ketchup, because it contained more tomatoes and less water, ran down the wall more slowly than any other ketchup. And then the expression was born:

The Ketchup Race

Heinz Always Loses

I also remember when we were working on with a campaign for roofing. The customer came over with a test and said it was the strongest roof ever made. It would outlast months of rain, acid, tree trunks that fell on it in the storm, and so on. 

“Be careful with the plate”, the customer said, “It’s a prototype and the only one I have”.

This happened on the 24th floor. The copywriter immediately opened the window to the backyard, looked down to see if the yard was empty, then took the ceiling tile and threw it out the window.

The customer almost fainted. 

“Good God, what are you doing? Are you mad?”

“If we were to use all the facts you just gave us, Bill Bernbach would immediately ask us if that was true. So we have to check it out first,” the copywriter explained.

It was true. The plate was undamaged. The customer went home. And the team went to work.

I also remember when I was assigned to work with UniRoyal Royal Master tires.

My art director and I worked for about three weeks and finally came to what we “knew” was a fantastic concept. I wrote some copy, which took five days and then we went to our creative director.

He refused to look at it.

Instead, he asked how long we had been working on it.

Three weeks with concept, five days with copy.

“That’s what I thought,” he said. “It would be a waste of time to look at it. Keep working.”

We went out and got ourselves drunk instead. How we hated him.

The next day we went back to work. And after a while, we made a great discovery. We discovered that what we had been doing before was just advertising, in the everyday sense of the word. Now we started selling.

Finally, we were ready to go back to our creative director. But before we did that, we wrote accurate time reports where we summed up all the hours – days, nights and weekends – that we used. When we got back, the time reports were the first thing we showed him. Then we showed the campaign. He tore the copy into pieces, line by line, tore the layout into pieces in a dozen different ways – and then he said, “I think you have something now. Start working on it.”

This is what it looked like when we were ready:

I remember many times when a project manager had presented a campaign to the client and got it approved, with enthusiasm, only to return to the working group and get the message that the campaign was dead. They had a better idea.

“But the customer loves it,” the project manager used to scream (and they really screamed).

“Of course he loves it. But he will love this new idea even more.”

So the poor project manager had to call the customer and try to explain what had happened. 

Customers were often understanding on such occasions – although they were sometimes a bit confused. But the truth was that the new ideas that a team produced after the campaign was already presented were often both better and more profitable for the customer. That is why companies were queuing up to become clients at the agency. 

Because our general taught us integrity. William Bernbach taught us that integrity was not just morality. It was also profitable.

He taught us why we should not work with products we did not really believe in.

He taught us why we would kill a campaign that the customer had approved if we thought we could achieve something better.

He taught us that it could tear an agency in pieces if someone said “I did this” or “I did it”, because we didn’t just work in teams – but every campaign at the agency was processed over and over again from every angle by everyone at the agency. So in reality, there were usually many people who contributed to a successful campaign. By saying “I did this” or “I did it”, one would underestimate all those who contributed. Without them, we would soon have been just like anyone in the industry. Ordinary.

We were the lowest paid in New York’s advertising industry. We did not care. We just cared about advertising. We never talked about money. We never thought of money. Just advertising. We were all offered jobs at other agencies with incomparably better salaries. But what was money compared to coming to work every morning knowing that we worked at Doyle Dane Bernbach?

That is why I sing within myself the same song as Napoleon’s grenadiers. I wished I could quit. I wish I could say goodbye to William Bernbach and let him rest in peace. I wish I could acclimate myself to today’s advertising climate and today’s advertising people.

Then, maybe, I could use my column to show and explain to my readers how they would create more interesting and effective advertising – in the same way that our general showed and explained to us.

I think I should try, from now on, to be helpful instead of angry. You can’t imagine how tired I am of always getting angry at everything in advertising.

Have a nice day.”

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