Although he never wrote advertising copy himself, Lasker too had a genius for a lasting advertising concept. After Hopkins left Lord & Thomas, Pepsodent's manufacturers added a new detergent agent, sodium alkyl sulphate, to the paste, Lasker told his writers to make up a name which had three vowels and two consonants. They came back with "Irium", a term which Pepsodent made famous. Later Lasker was fond of joking with friends: "I invented Irium. Tell me what it is." During the course of a long meeting with the head of another client, Studebaker, he was asked to come up with an idea that would make the company's new cars unusual and noteworthy. Lasker is said to have suggested building the first automobile with four doors rather than the standard two.
Not all of Lord & Thomas's advertising broke new ground. Lasker also sometimes borrowed ideas shamelessly from key rival J Walter Thompson. When the latter's ads for Woodbury's Facial Soap promised "The skin you love to touch", Lasker was for one rare occasion temporarily lost for words. After he recovered his composure, he told staff, "You see what Thompson has done. They have gone us one better and put sex into soap advertising." He was later to identify that ad as one of the three most important landmarks in American advertising alongside the standard 15% commission rate introduced by Ayer, and his own "Salesmanship in Print" concept. He responded to Woodbury's campaign on behalf of his own client Palmolive, advising readers to "Keep That School Girl Complexion", and after JWT recruited testimonials for the first time from society ladies and movie queens to promote Lux, Lasker hired opera divas and movie queens to endorse Lucky Strike cigarettes.
During this period, Lasker gradually took full control over Lord & Thomas. When Ambrose Thomas died in 1906, Lasker acquired his shares, and finally bought out the remaining partner (Erwin Wasey, later founder of his own agency) in 1912. By this time, Lord & Thomas had been transformed from a regional agency into the nation's largest, with offices in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, and billings of $6m. No one disputed the fact that it was the boy wonder Albert Lasker who was responsible. "Mr Lasker enjoys a degree of confidence and an initiative," said the trade magazine Printers Ink, "that have probably been given to no man of his few years in publishing or advertising." The otherwise reticent Claude Hopkins echoed these sentiments when addressing a meeting of advertising figures in 1909, when Lasker was still not yet 30. "Ten years ago this man was an office boy, drawing ten dollars a week. No man in all the history of advertising has gone so far in a lifetime as this man has gone in ten years. When we mark where he stands at the age of 28 we can only gasp to think of where 40 will find him."
By 1918 Lord & Thomas had begun to establish an international presence with offices in Toronto, London and Paris. Lasker himself was sole owner, not yet 40 and paying himself a salary of $1m a year. Lord & Thomas's ideas of "Salesmanship in Print" and "Reason-Why" advertising had been adopted by every other agency in the country. Perhaps the only areas where Lasker's approach to advertising could be faulted were his views on art in advertising and consumer research. For his first 20 years in advertising he refused to employ an art department, believing that anything more than a simple illustration was a waste of time and money. The other was consumer research, which he derided for similar reasons. "Research," he was fond of saying, " is something that tells you that a jackass has two ears."
Having achieved a virtual miracle at Lord & Thomas in the space of less than 20 years, Lasker's restless mind now began to seek out new fields of interest. He had been encouraged in this by his father, who never fully approved of Lasker's career in advertising, and chivvied him to live up to the example set instead by his uncle. When Morris Lasker had left for America in the 1850s, his elder brother Eduard had stayed in Germany and became one of the most celebrated liberal politicians of the time. A member of the Reichstag, he was one of the first German Jews to take a public stance against the country's growing anti-Semitism. Later his career was crushed by the Iron Chancellor Bismarck in his elimination of liberal politicians during the 1870s. In 1915, a year before he died, Morris Lasker wrote to his son in no uncertain terms: "On various occasions, as you know, I have felt deeply impressed ... that you were destined to carry out some mission in this life of importance to the world, and that your mere business career, great as it started out, and has continued so far - was but a trifle compared to what you were destined to accomplish to humanity at large."
Morris's comments weighed heavily in Lasker's mind over the following years, and he began to dabble in a small way in politics, advising Woodrow Wilson's administration on food marketing. In 1918, a more significant development came with an approach from the Republican party to take charge of publicity for the forthcoming presidential election. At a lunch organised by the luminaries of the party, Lasker was singled out by former President Teddy Roosevelt, and asked to work for the party's national committee. As a result, Lasker handed over management of Lord & Thomas to Claude Hopkins and launched himself into a new career in politics on behalf of the Republican party.
At first he supplied advice to regional candidates, and his influence within the party grew steadily. In 1920 he was recruited to become publicity manager for Presidential candidate Warren Harding. Following Harding's election, Lasker had hoped for an appointment as Secretary of Commerce, but that position went to Herbert Hoover. Instead Lasker was rewarded with the position as head of the US Shipping Board. However this was a poisoned chalice indeed, which he later described as "the unhappiest time of my life". His main task was to supervise the liquidation of the huge merchant marine fleet accumulated during the First World War to supply the Allies in Europe, a task which involved the elimination of hundreds of jobs and complex and depressing sell-offs of obsolete stock.
There were other sidelines. Lasker was passionate about baseball, and in 1916 had become part-owner of the Chicago Cubs team. It was he who persuaded a good friend, the chewing gum tycoon William Wrigley to co-fund the venture. Wrigley had no interest in baseball, but liked Lasker's suggestion that they could change the name of Cub Park to Wrigley Field. Later, Lasker played an even more significant role in the history of baseball, after the World Series of 1919 in which another Chicago team, the hitherto unbeatable White Sox, were sensationally and unaccountably defeated by the Cincinnati Reds. It subsequently transpired that several White Sox players had been bribed by professional gamblers to throw the series. Lasker took it upon himself to clean up the game, and wrote a four-page code of ethics which was for decades the gospel of organized baseball.
In his absence, Lord & Thomas had begun to lose its momentum, and the meteoric growth of the previous two decades stalled under the shy and retiring Hopkins. In the early 1920s, the agency was overtaken in billings once again by both J Walter Thompson and Ayer. As a result, Lasker gave up his political career in 1923 to return to advertising. He was soon at loggerheads with Hopkins, and as a result the latter left the business in 1924. Lasker immediately set about remaking the company in his own image, not least by firing the entire staff of its New York office.
For the next 20 years Lasker ran the company like a more or less benevolent dictatorship. "I am the owner of this business," he told his staff, "and therefore I decide the policies. Lord & Thomas is the trade name of Albert D Lasker practicing advertising." Fascinated with his own opinions, he had a habit of delivering protracted monologues to employees on a variety of different subjects. In one bravura performance at a staff conference, he delivered a speech which lasted, with an occasional interruption for sleep, for three consecutive days. He also demanded complete loyalty from his employees - not only to himself but also to the clients they represented. At one point he was reported to have told his employees that "there is no advertising man in the world but me".
Oddly enough for a man with such a commanding presence and strong opinions of his own ability, he had comparatively little desire to establish a public reputation. In his later Reminiscences, he said "It is my eccentricity, or fancy - or maybe egotism - to want to be behind the throne and not on it. Even in businesses of which I was the sole owner, I've very seldom had any position but secretary. If I was not in the public eye, I felt I could cover more territory - I could be a free lance, a lone wolf, and I liked that." In fact he always refused to have any honorary title such as chairman, or president or chief executive. '"I don't need a title," he would say, "I'm Mr Lasker,'" remembered Draper Daniels, who served under him.
There were two notable successes during Lasker's second period at Lord & Thomas. The first was his association with the Kotex and Kleenex brands; the second was a long, stormy but lucrative association with George Washington Hill, the famously irascible owner of the American Tobacco Company. Kotex had been developed by a Wisconsin paper manufacturer, Kimberly-Clark. During the First World War, the company had devised Cellucotton, an absorbent creped cellulose, as a cheaper alternative to cotton in military bandages. The company's sales managers soon became aware that nurses had found another important use for the highly absorbent towels, and were pilfering them for use as disposable sanitary napkins. As a result, Kimberly-Clark took the decision to launch Kotex sanitary pads commercially in 1920. However the problems were immense. Because of the taboos associated with menstruation, Kimberly faced an uphill struggle making its huge potential audience aware of the product's existence, and then breaking down their unwillingness to ask for it by name. Early advertising for Kotex was equally shy. A typical ad - not by Lord & Thomas - depicted a nurse comforting a wounded solider, while the accompanying copy explained coyly that she used a kind of bandage too, without going into any further detail. Lasker developed a keen involvement in the account, and even took it upon himself to attend Kimberly-Clark's offices in person for the pitch. Asked why he was so interested in the brand, he explained with a grin that "The products I like to advertise most are those that are only used once!"
Once they had been awarded the account, Lord & Thomas quickly set about breaking down the taboos associated with sanitary napkins. Lasker set Kimberly-Clark the task of securing retailers' assistance in a new method of distribution which was then widely advertised in newspapers and magazines with a female readership. Instead of having to ask for Kotex by name, women could simply pick up discreetly marked packages from displays in-store and deposit the requisite 50 cents in a specially designed box. It was in effect the very first form of self-service retailing. Magazines such as Ladies Home Journal were persuade to support the advertising with educational articles about menstruation. The results were enormously successful, and in 1924, Lord & Thomas was rewarded with another of Kimberly-Clark's "difficult" products, then known as Kleenex 'Kerchiefs. Lasker devised a campaign which depicted cloth handkerchiefs as a germ-ridden menace to society and championed instead this "handkerchief you can throw away". He was so proud of the work he did for the two products that he persuaded Kimberly-Clark to sell him $1.5m of stock in International Cellucotton Products, the subsidiary responsible for manufacturing Kotex.
It was one of many investments Lasker made in the clients for whom he worked. One of the first was in Van Camp's, an Indianapolis cannery which was the first company to begin putting foods such as soup, milk, even pork and beans into cans. In the case of Van Camp, Lasker was more or less obliged to take a holding in the business in the early 1900s because despite Lord & Thomas's best efforts - including a campaign for tinned milk which promised "You can now have a cow in your pantry" - the company was struggling to pay its bills. As a result, Lasker agreed to take shares in lieu of payment, and made a huge profit when the company's fortunes were bolstered by the First World War. He also invested with great success in Pepsodent and Quaker Oats.
However the product most closely identified with Lord & Thomas in the 1920s was American Tobacco's Lucky Strike cigarette brand. At the end of the 19th century American Tobacco had enjoyed a near-monopoly of the country's entire tobacco industry. But because of its huge size, it had become a considerable concern to anti-monopoly regulators by the early 1900s, and the business was eventually broken up into four separate businesses in 1911. Of these, RJ Reynolds quickly established itself as the market leader, with its Camel brand. It was closely followed by Liggett & Myers with Chesterfield, while what was left of American was trailing in 3rd or 4th place by the early 1920s.
When Lord & Thomas took on Lucky Strike, the brand was selling around 25m cigarettes a day, compared to 60m for Chesterfields and as many as 100m for Camel. By 1926, Lucky Strikes had overtaken both of the leaders, and was up to over 150m a day. It remained America's best-selling cigarette for more than two decades. (It's important not to judge Lasker or indeed Lucky Strikes by what we know now about cigarettes and their dangers. In the 1920s no one yet realised the potential risks to health.) More importantly for Lord & Thomas, Lucky Strike was America's most advertised brand, and its expenditure accounted for well over a quarter and possibly even as much as half of the agency's billings.
At the time, Percival Hill was president of American Tobacco, but it was his son, George Washington Hill, who was in charge of advertising and it was he who became head of the company after his father's death in 1925. Lord & Thomas was originally asked to take charge of one of American's other brands, Blue Boar, but Lasker was intrigued by Lucky Strikes, which featured a prominent green and red pack design, and the slogan "It's Toasted!", and he persuaded American to switch all its advertising budget into Lucky Strike. Hill was almost willfully impossible to deal with, bullying, bad-tempered and deliberately vulgar. "His normal behaviour was aggressive," recalled publicist Edward Bernays in his book Biography of an Idea. "He swaggered around his office, his arms swinging. At the slightest provocation he exploded, his face purpling with rage." In an incident later recounted by Fairfax Cone, to illustrate the importance of memorable advertising, he once knocked a glass of water into his listener's lap. "See," he added. "You won't forget that."
Hill was later the model for Evan Llewelyn Evans, the tyrannical client who torments ad executive Victor Norman in The Hucksters, a best-selling novel published in 1946 by Frederick Wakeman, formerly an account executive on the American Tobacco account. In Wakeman's version, Evans is in the cosmetics business not tobacco, but most commentators of the time spotted the resemblance, not just in a number of small personal quirks shared by the two men, but the general air of foreboding and vulgarity that surrounded both Hill and the fictional Evans. Even Lasker found him a challenge. "I would not call him a rounded man. The only purpose in life to him was to wake up, to eat, and to sleep so that he'd have the strength to sell more Lucky Strikes… It was just a religious crusade with him – which made it very difficult at times to work with a man so narrow-minded on a thing which was all out of focus."
Difficult at not, Hill was a man who believed strongly in the power of advertising, and was prepared to commit what were then vast sums to promoting his brand. Lasker set out to reposition Lucky Strike for a female audience. At the time, it was extremely unusual and was even considered shocking in America for a woman to smoke, especially in public. But it was already widely known that cigarettes acted to curb appetite, and some doctors were in fact beginning to prescribe a cigarette before meals to reduce hunger. (Lasker's own wife Flora, who had put on a lot of weight, was herself advised by her doctor to smoke before a meal).
Lasker's first instinct was to advise Hill to change the brand's packaging from its original green to a clean white, like Chesterfields. Influenced by the growing popularity of market research, Hill demanded a survey to prove Lasker's theory. Lasker, a lifelong enemy of consumer research, got the art department to mock up an experimental white packet, then took it into the lobby of the Lord & Thomas building, and showed it to a lone tobacco salesgirl. When she liked it, he telephoned Hill: "I've just completed a survey; the new package is a hit."
For the advertising, Lord & Thomas recruited testimonials from female movie and opera stars, who appeared in print promising "Cigarettes Are Kind To Your Throat" or "I Protect My Precious Voice with Lucky Strikes". The resulting growth in sales was startling, as women all over America were encouraged to smoke. This persuaded Lasker to go further. He and Hill between them came up with a campaign to reinforce the idea of smoking as a weight-loss remedy, with advertising which encouraged women to "Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet". Sales reportedly tripled.
The huge success of Lucky Strike restored Lord & Thomas to the position of #1 agency by the end of the 1920s. But Lasker was already tiring of the advertising industry for the second time, and began a search for a man who he could select as his successor. One such had been Thomas Logan, whose smaller New York agency Lasker had purchased in 1926. (Lord & Thomas changed its name for a while to Lord & Thomas & Logan). Logan, however, died two years later. Other men were also considered but found wanting (or perhaps preferred an easier life at another agency). Lasker himself was becoming increasingly preoccupied with his health. His tendency to push himself to the limits of emotional and physical endurance on behalf of Lord & Thomas resulted in at least three nervous breakdowns over his career.
The first of these occurred in 1912, shortly after he became sole owner of Lord & Thomas, when one day he could not speak to anyone for five minutes without weeping uncontrollably. Another took place in the 1930s. Even then, he made allowances for the demands of important clients. At one point he rose from a hospital bed in Baltimore to go to New York for a meeting with American Tobacco to resolve a minor crisis. At the end of the meeting, he reportedly turned to the other executives in the room and announced "Gentlemen, I have done all I can for you. Good day, because I must return to Johns Hopkins hospital now and continue my nervous breakdown." On another occasion, he became very annoyed when the movie producer Sam Goldwyn cut short Lasker's complaints of various pains and aches by accusing him of being a hypochondriac. Lasker responded, "I would have you know that hypochondria is an extremely serious disease." In 1928, he gave a very generous grant of $1m to the University of Chicago for study into the degenerative illnesses of old age. Asked why he had specified the study of old age, he replied, "Because if there are only two men left alive in this world I intend to be both."
At the same time, as the industry expanded, Lasker felt that his own importance was being steadily eroded. In his autobiography With All Its Faults, Fairfax Cone wrote of Lasker's relationships with his clients, that they "had been cemented at the top. When their structure began to change, when he became a supplier instead of a valued consultant, Mr Lasker lost interest in the business. He saw that the day of the individual owner or the lasting partnership of two or three men in any large undertaking was gone. Business had become too big for that."
Lasker's own wealth by that time was considerable, making him very much richer than any of his agency's clients. In addition to his investments, he had consistently paid himself a large salary, and never cut the amount even at the height of the Great Depression. No one has ever disputed that he was the richest man in advertising before World War II, but there is no reliable estimate for just how much he made. According to Fairfax Cone, the amount he himself quoted varied according to his mood. "Once when he was losing an argument I heard him say to his opponent 'You are right. I am wrong. I am so wrong that I have only made $60 million in this business!' At other times the amount was somewhat less." A fortune of $60m in 1942 would be the equivalent of around $800m in modern money.
In 1937, Lasker's beloved wife Flora died suddenly of a coronary thrombosis, and he was distraught for several months. Eventually he took nine months off from the company in order to travel round the world. Shortly after returning in early 1938, he decided to retire as head of the company, although he retained his ownership. Soon afterwards, apparently on another whim, he married the actress Doris Kenyon, but that relationship was a disaster almost from the start, and they divorced after just nine months. He found a more suitable partner in Mary Reinhardt, whom he married in 1940. Eventually, with a new life seemingly ahead of him, Lasker decided to sell the agency altogether in 1942.
The war also played a significant part in his decision. Lasker's son Edward had joined up after Pearl Harbor, and made it clear that he would choose a different career when he returned from the war. Lasker considered various options, such as merging Lord & Thomas with another agency or selling it, but his ego could not countenance the idea of another owner running down a business into which he had put so much of his own personal energy. He decided instead that would be no Lord & Thomas without Albert Lasker.
In December 1942, he summoned his three most senior managers to a special meeting. Emerson Foote was head of the New York office; Don Belding ran the Los Angeles office; Fairfax Cone was president of Lord & Thomas in Chicago. He told them that he had decided to liquidate the existing company before the end of the month, and offered them the opportunity to each take ownership of their respective offices to create separate agencies. Astonished by this news, they argued in favour of keeping the business as one single group. 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. 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. (At the same time, Lord & Thomas's main international office in London was acquired separately by Leonard "Mike" Masius and later became the local outpost of D'Arcy Advertising).
For the remainder of his life, Albert Lasker devoted his time to charitable fundraising, political campaigning and to his new wife and family. Although he retained no financial interest in Foote Cone & Belding, he kept himself informed of its affairs, and remained in regular contact with Fairfax Cone. Later he wrote to a friend, "The Lasker of the advertising business died in 1942. I never think of him, and I'm not sure I even knew the man." He died a little less than a decade later, in October 1952.
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Last full revision 22nd March 2018
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