Foote Cone & Belding


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Foote Cone & Belding - later known as FCB Worldwide, then Draftfcb, and now once again FCB - was one of the giants of American advertising in the post-war era. It was formed from the ashes of Albert Lasker's Lord & Thomas, which had dominated the industry before World War II. Yet despite its importance in the US, the agency struggled to establish a similar reputation in worldwide markets, despite a series of initiatives designed to enhance its global profile. The least successful of these was the creation of a joint venture with Publicis which ended in 1996 in a bitter divorce. The creation of holding company True North in 1994 provided some stability, until it too was caught up in the wave of consolidation which swept the industry in the early 2000s... See also:

Lord & Thomas True North / FCB Draftfcb & New FCB

Background

The agency known as Foote Cone & Belding spent most of the first 60 years of its existence trading under the name Lord & Thomas. For much of that time it was run with an iron hand by Albert Lasker, one of the industry's most important figures, and certainly the most influential before World War II. (See separate profile). Unable to find what he considered to be a suitable successor to lead his empire, Lasker decided to liquidate Lord & Thomas in 1942. In December of that year he called the heads of Lord & Thomas's offices in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles to a meeting and told them that in two weeks time he was planning to close down the company, but gave each man the opportunity to buy his own individual agency. Astonished by this news, Emerson Foote, Fairfax Cone and Don Belding argued in favour of keeping the business together as a single entity. Lasker relented, and agreed to transfer to them the physical assets, such as furniture and office leases, for a nominal sum of just $170,000. His only condition was that they must change the name Lord & Thomas to avoid tarnishing his legacy. In December 1942, Lord & Thomas's stock was liquidated. On January 1st 1943, its place was taken by the brand new entity of Foote, Cone & Belding.  

It was not merely Messrs Foote, Cone and Belding who were amazed at Lasker's decision to sell up. Time magazine commented at the time that, "To the advertising world it was almost as if Tiffany had announced that from now on it would be known as Jones, Smith & Johnson." Lasker's three successors were talented admen, but although they happened to be in charge of the agency's three main offices in December 1942, they were hardly well-experienced. Cone, for example, had only been appointed as general manager of Chicago two months earlier, and only met Lasker in person for the first time the previous year. Foote had been running New York for only a year or two, and although Belding, the oldest of the three, was well known in some circles he had nothing like the stature within the industry of his employer. 

Despite his first billing, Foote was in fact destined to play a far smaller role, at least within this particular agency, than either of his colleagues. As president of Lord & Thomas's New York office, it had been Emerson Foote's dubious privilege to be responsible for its flagship account, American Tobacco. Indeed, according to Foote's version of the story, Albert Lasker had originally proposed that his three successors' agency should be named in alphabetical order as Belding Cone & Foote until American Tobacco's CEO George Washington Hill insisted that his own representative be given top billing. (Fairfax Cone's rather different version of the story was that the order was determined by geographic positioning, to give a westward progression from Foote in New York through Cone in Chicago to Belding in Los Angeles). 

Emerson Foote was in many ways a remarkably unlikely advertising man, especially one to be appointed to hand-hold the notoriously abrasive and vulgar GW Hill. He was described by Lasker's biographer John Gunther as tall, good-looking, "respectable as a bishop... and unselfishly devoted to public service". Usually calm and charming, with courtly manners, he was said to have an extraordinary ability to win over others to his point of view, "to sense disagreement ahead of time and eliminate it". It was later said that getting attention was his forte, and that - in the manner of George Hill himself - he was known "to break out in a stream of angry oaths at a meeting to be sure he has attention". However those outbursts are more likely to have been the result of Foote's own struggles with severe manic depression which, by his own account, recurred several times during his business career. 

Emerson Foote grew up in Alabama, and moved with his family to California in the 1930s. He ended up in advertising after several odd jobs, latterly as VP and research manager at J Sterling Getchell. In 1938, Foote was hired by the New York office of Lord & Thomas as a junior account executive looking after print advertising on the American Tobacco account. He quickly became a particular favourite of Hill, and was appointed as the senior account handler a year later, and then president of the New York office. After Lasker's departure, however, the pressures of not just running but co-owning the new Foote Cone & Belding office in New York soon took their toll. After Hill's death in 1946, American Tobacco's board appointed a new boss, 71 year-old Vincent Riggio, formerly head of sales. Though Riggio was a far more approachable and amenable manager than his predecessor, Foote found the relationship difficult, and also felt that this account had come to overshadow everything else that the agency did. In 1948, his main point of contact within American Tobacco, Hill's son George Hill Jr, also head of its advertising, resigned citing irreconcilable differences with Riggio. Foote too was finding it impossible to persuade Riggio to accept his ideas, and sales of chief rival Camel were increasing steadily and threatening to seize Lucky Strike's position as America's #1 smoke.

In 1948, after what he said was "long and prayerful wrestling" with the dilemma, he took the decision to resign the account, despite the fact that it accounted for as much as a quarter of the agency's billings. He even suggested to his partners Cone and Belding that he would resign from the agency if they wished to keep the account, but they backed his instinct. (Foote later admitted in an interview that "In retrospect, I recognize that this was the wrongest decision I ever made.") The announcement that the agency was dropping its biggest client caused a sensation, prompting acres of press coverage. Yet the reaction of the business world, including several other Foote Cone & Belding clients, was extremely negative, so much so that the firm was forced to hire General William J Donovan, former wartime chief of the OSS, as special counsel to protect the agency's reputation and good name. Soon afterwards Foote suffered a severe mental breakdown. He remained in hospital for several months. When he returned to work he was persuaded by his partners to surrender his role, and he left the company in 1950. 

Finding another job was not easy, and Foote was unemployed for several months before being singled out by Marion Harper to become a troubleshooter at McCann-Erickson. However that job did not always run smoothly either. In 1957, in the midst of another manic episode, Foote resigned abruptly from McCann, against Harper's wishes. He was tempted back the following year, eventually taking on the role of chairman in 1962. Despite a long history as an inveterate chainsmoker, he gave up in 1959, and eventually left Interpublic in 1964 following publication of a ground-breaking report which confirmed the damaging effects of smoking on health. Foote declared that he would no longer have anything to do with any advertising agency which promoted the sale of cigarettes. After a couple of years of anti-tobacco campaigning, he bought his way back into the industry by acquiring his own small agency, which he renamed Emerson Foote Inc. He sold it to Bozell in 1967. He died in 1992.

The third and oldest of Foote Cone & Belding's three founding partners was Don Belding, who had been responsible for Lord & Thomas's Los Angeles office. Born in Oregon in 1897, he held down a number of different jobs including as a telegraph operator and a newspaper editor, before securing an internship at the San Francisco office of Lord & Thomas. He gradually worked his way up the ladder and, when Lasker opened a new Los Angeles office in 1938, Belding was appointed as its general manager. There, Belding earned a reputation as the "father of West Coast advertising", playing key roles in the early development of Walt Disney Studios, of Howard Hughes' movie interests, and of clients Sunkist and Lockheed. Following Emerson Foote's departure in 1950, Belding took over management of the New York office as well as Los Angeles, and played a key role in securing the TWA account before he retired in 1959. Eventually became executive chairman of shaver manufacturer Schick in the early 1960s, and died in 1969. (Belding's secretary in Los Angeles, Helen Gurley Brown, later became more famous than he had ever been. Following Belding's retirement, she quit the agency to write what turned out to be a best-selling novel, Sex & The Single Girl. In 1965, she became editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine, which she ran for the next 32 years). 

Of the three partners in Foote Cone & Belding, it was Fairfax (or "Fax") Cone who became the most recognised face of the agency within the industry. Having grown up in California, Cone spent time in the ad department of the San Francisco Examiner during the late 1920s and progressed to jobs as a copywriter for various local ad agencies before ending up at Lord & Thomas's San Francisco office, eventually taking over from Don Belding as general manager in 1938. He spent some time working on American Tobacco in 1940 before being transferred in 1941 to the Chicago office, initially to look after the Pepsodent account. 

In general, the new agency of Foote Cone & Belding did well during the 1950s. Indeed, two of its biggest successes were campaigns conceived by female copywriters, then still a rare breed within the advertising industry. In 1952, Catherine Haynie O'Brien came up with a bold new slogan for anti-bacterial soap Dial: "Aren't you glad you use Dial? (Don't you wish everybody did!)". Three years later Shirley Polykoff was responsible for coining the slogan for a new home hair colorant named Clairol: "Does she... or doesn't she? Hair coloring so natural only her hairdresser knows for sure." Clairol sales quadrupled in the space of six years, although at first, the agency had to fight to get its ads accepted. Several magazines including Life refused to run the "Does she... or doesn't she?" ads because they seemed too suggestive. 

Other clients proved rather more troublesome. In 1955, Foote Cone & Belding was one of several agencies invited by the Ford Motor Company to compete for the business of a new experimental model it was developing. After a feverish pitch, Foote Cone & Belding was awarded the account and asked to conceive a name for the car, then known only by the code name E (for Experimental). The agency came up with the name Edsel, after Henry Ford's son who had run the company alongside his father until his untimely death in 1943 at the age of just 49. The conception and creation of the Ford Edsel has come to be the archetype for disastrous product launches, a failure from almost the very moment it was first shown to consumers. The company had budgeted to sell 200,000 of this "hi-tech" saloon, but the car was a disaster, selling only 30,000 units. The model was ditched at a reported cost of $350m.

Following Don Belding's retirement in 1959, control of the business passed to Cone and lawyer and businessman Robert Carney. Carney persuaded Cone to float the business, and in 1963 it was one of the first major agencies to offer its shares to the public. The 1960s were a golden age for the company and it established an iron-clad reputation as one of the country's biggest television advertisers. Cone's influence on this key period in advertising history was considerable. Something of an intellectual, he worked hard to maintain the intelligence of not just the agency's output, but that of the industry in general. He argued forcibly in favour of the television networks taking over production of their shows, rather than accepting overtly hard-sell programmes made by agencies. As a result, many of the shows which Foote Cone & Belding supported were among the most memorable of the period, including Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, The Dean Martin Show, The Jackie Gleason Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, and Ironside. Once referred to by Time as "the most respected scold of the industry", he was always willing to criticise what we would now call "dumbing down" in advertising or the media. In the 1950s he attacked the casual use of sex appeal in advertising to sell products, calling this permissiveness "a general blot upon our age". Towards the end of his career, he was a vigorous defender of what he called "straightforward serious advertising" against more radical ideas proposed by the new generation of hip creative boutiques. Cone retired in 1969, and died in 1977.

During the 1970s, under president & CEO John O'Toole, Foote Cone & Belding bolstered its resources with a string of acquisitions including Hall & Levine (1972, sold again in 1978), Whalstrom & Company (1973), Honig-Copper & Harrington (1975), and Carl Byoir & Associates (1978). The group also began to establish an international profile, acquiring agencies in Europe, South Africa and Australia. An attempt to broaden its scope into broadcasting in the form of a joint venture with Cablevision was a notable failure, leading to a $1.4m write-off. 

As it entered the 1980s, Foote Cone & Belding was still a giant of the American advertising industry but had failed to establish a presence in other markets as significant as that of its main American rivals. The following two decades were to prove the most turbulent in the agency's history as it attempted to fix this problem through a misguided joint venture with Publicis of France that ended in a bitter and painful divorce. This was to prove a major distraction from the main business of producing advertising. The creation of holding company True North Communications and a string of acquisitions was not enough to save the company from the quickening pace of consolidation within the industry. 

See True North Communications profile for more. 

Last full revision 18th June 2014


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