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In its heyday between 1910 and 1930, Lord & Thomas was the world's biggest and most influential advertising agency. It was the forerunner to what later became Foote Cone & Belding, which was subsequently absorbed into DraftFCB in 2006, before regaining its post-war name once more in 2013. Although his name never appeared above the door, its creator was Albert Lasker, a tireless taskmaster and one of the advertising industry's greatest pioneers during the first half of the 20th century. With the assistance of Claude Hopkins, one of the first great professional copywriters, Lasker transformed brands such as Kleenex, Kotex, Pepsodent and Lucky Strike into household names. In the process, he established himself as the industry's first tycoon, accumulating a considerable personal fortune. In 1942, though, almost on a whim, Lasker decided to withdraw altogether from advertising, and sold the business for a nominal sum to three of his most senior managers. His only condition was that they change the name, resulting in the elimination of Lord & Thomas and the creation in its place of Foote Cone & Belding. See also:
Daniel Lord set up in business as an advertising agent in Chicago in 1873. Eight years later, he brought in Ambrose Thomas as partner, and changed the name of the firm to Lord & Thomas. For several years they specialized in selling ad space in Christian magazines, and gradually followed the trend initiated by J Walter Thompson towards creating the advertisements they placed on behalf of clients rather than merely serving as a broker. "Advertise Judiciously" was the company motto, and by the late 1890s, clients included local brewery Anheuser-Busch, Chicago meat packer Armour and the laxative Cascarets (which was itself owned privately by Ambrose Thomas). Billings were around $800,000 a year, enough to rank the agency as the country's third largest behind Thompson and NW Ayer. Yet the most significant development in the agency's history came with the arrival of Albert Lasker in 1898. From inauspicious beginnings as a copyboy, Lasker went on to become one of the true giants of modern advertising.
Albert Davis Lasker was born in Galveston, Texas in 1880, the son of a wealthy self-made businessman. Morris Lasker was a German Jew from a well-to-do liberal family in Poznan, East Prussia (now Poland). Attracted by the adventure and potential of the developing United States, Morris had arrived in America in 1856 with nothing and made his way across the country as a peddler. He eventually settled in Galveston, took a job in grocery wholesaling, and gradually made a considerable success of himself. By the time Albert Lasker was born, his father had branched out into flour and corn milling, and was the president of three separate banks in Galveston.
Young Albert hated the idea of becoming known merely as "old Lasker's son", and was keen to strike out on his own, much as his father had done. From an early age he had developed a keen interest in journalism. At the age of 12, he launched his own hand-produced four-page newspaper, which he called the Galveston Free Press. He paid for the cost of printing by selling advertising space to local businesses. After leaving school at the age of 16 he took a job as a trainee journalist at the town's main newspaper, The Galveston Morning News, and was appointed as the paper's drama critic a year later.
Although Lasker enjoyed theatre, he was more interested in writing news. His big break occurred entirely by chance when he was able to secure an interview with Eugene Debs, a controversial union leader who was to become the Socialist candidate for the US Presidency in five consecutive elections. Debs had recently been released from a jail term for organising a strike of railway workers, and had gone into hiding to avoid press coverage. Lasker discovered that he had arrived in Galveston and was planning to make his first public appearance at a railwaymen's convention. In the meantime he was staying at an obscure boarding house on the edge of town under a pseudonym. The enterprising Lasker managed to borrow a telegram messenger's outfit. Wearing that disguise he called at the house, and delivered the following message by hand to the stormy labour leader:
I AM NOT A MESSENGER BOY. I AM A YOUNG NEWSPAPER REPORTER. YOU HAVE TO GIVE A FIRST INTERVIEW TO SOMEBODY. WHY DON'T YOU GIVE IT TO ME? IT WILL START ME ON MY CAREER.
Impressed by the young reporter's cheek and cunning, Debs granted Lasker the interview, which was syndicated across the country. The editor of the New York Sun newspaper was equally impressed and wrote to Lasker to offer him a staff job if he moved to New York. His father, however, refused to give permission for the move. "My father had a dread of my becoming a newspaper man," Lasker said later, "because in those days almost every newspaper man was a heavy drinker. I was very devoted to my father, and he proposed instead that I go to a firm that he considered a kindred field." This was Lord & Thomas, with whom Morris Lasker had already had some dealings. As a prominent local businessman, Lasker Sr had five years earlier helped to manage the liquidation of a Galveston trolley car operator which had failed in the panic of 1893. One of its major creditors had been Lord & Thomas to whom it owed the not inconsiderable sum of $30,000. Lasker met with Daniel Lord on several occasions and agreed to settle the agency's bills in full out of the bankrupt's assets. Lord was very grateful and promised to return the favour if ever he could.
According to Lasker's later Reminiscences, he agreed to take the job under sufferance. Newspapers were what he wanted to do, but he felt that by putting on a good show in Chicago at Lord & Thomas, he could persuade his father to let him go on to New York when the three-month trial was up. That plan came to naught however. Freed from his father's direct supervision, Lasker took full advantage of Chicago's exotic nightlife, and quickly fell in with bad company. One night he lost $500, equivalent to his salary for the whole year, in a crap game. Knowing he could not ask his father for the money, he instead applied to Ambrose Thomas for an advance to pay off his debts. Thomas agreed, allowing Lasker to repay the company's loan at the rate of $2 a week from his $10 per week paycheck. As a result, when Lasker came to the end of his three-month trial at Lord & Thomas, he was still paying off his debt to the agency and had to stay on instead of go to New York. "I never got what I wanted to do," he said later. "America lost a great reporter when I was forced into other channels."
Soon frustrated with his position as office boy, Lasker persuaded Thomas to send him out on the road as a salesman to canvas for accounts. Keen to do well so he could pay off his debt to the agency, he worked hard, generating more than $50,000 of new business in just a few months. By 1902, the 22-year-old Lasker was Lord & Thomas's star salesman. When Daniel Lord retired two years later, Lasker bought a quarter interest in the firm, becoming junior partner as well as an increasingly influential voice in its growth. Yet he was still only just getting to grips with the mysteries of his trade, and spent much time trying to resolve which sort of approach worked best in selling products on behalf of clients.
Most advertising was at the time uncomplicated, relying on a simplistic illustration of the product accompanied by a catchphrase and a bare-bones description of the product, both of which were usually supplied by the client. Although Lord & Thomas was the third largest agency in the country, it employed just one part-time copywriter and a single graphic artist. As a journalist at heart, Lasker needed no convincing of the power of written argument, but wasn't sure at first how it could be turned to the service of advertising.
Ironically, the answer simply walked through the front door one day in an incident that bears a remarkable similarity to Lasker's own encounter with Eugene Debs. One day in Spring 1904, a note was delivered to Lord & Thomas's offices, which were situated above a public bar and restaurant. The note read simply: "I am in the saloon downstairs, and I can tell you what advertising is. I know that you don't know. It will mean much to me to have you know what it is and it will mean much to you. If you wish to know what advertising is, send the word 'Yes' down by messenger."
Against Ambrose Thomas's advice, Lasker was deeply intrigued by this cryptic epistle and agreed to meet with its author. The word 'Yes' was duly sent down and John E Kennedy was ushered into Lasker's office. A former Canadian Mountie, Kennedy was one of a small group of individuals who were then carving out a surprisingly lucrative living as freelance copywriters. Kennedy's main employer at the time was the maker of a patent medicine known as Dr Shoop's Restorative. Lasker spent the rest of the afternoon talking with Kennedy, who began by asking what Lasker considered to be the secret of good advertising. Lasker said something vague about news. No, explained Kennedy. "News is a technique of presentation, but advertising is a very different thing. I can give it to you in three words. It is salesmanship in print." Kennedy explained that an effective advertisement should say in print what a good salesman would say to a prospective customer face to face. "Advertising should be judged only by the goods it is conclusively known to sell, at a given cost. 'Keeping the name before the people' is wrong and 'salesmanship on paper' is right".
Inspired by these words of wisdom, Lasker persuaded Thomas to let him not only take on Kennedy full-time, but also recruit another nine young newspapermen who could, with Kennedy's help, be trained up as copywriters. One of the first campaigns Kennedy worked on for Lord & Thomas was for the 1900 Ball Bearing Family Washer, which was considering changing its agency. Kennedy junked the negative headline that had been coined by another agency ("Are You Chained To Your Wash Tub?") and replaced it with "Let This Machine Do Your Washing Free." The illustration, which had shown a woman tied to her washer with chains was replaced with one showing the same woman sitting happily in a rocking chair reading a book with one hand and casually turning the handle of her machine with the other. For another product, Ambrose Thomas's own sideline Cascarets, Kennedy produced copy which promised that Cascarets "don't Purge, nor Weaken nor waste Digestive Juices in flooding out the Bowels like Salts, Castor Oil or Cathartics. But they act like Exercise on the Muscles that shrink and expand the Intestines, thus pushing Food on naturally to its Finish."
To measure the effectiveness of this new approach, Lasker also set about establishing a "record of results" department, which he said would form "the guiding spirit of our business". All Lord & Thomas clients were requested to submit weekly reports to the agency indicating the increase in sales or customer enquiries generated by new advertising. These were carefully collated and tabulated so that the agency could identify which ads and which publications worked best. If several campaigns performed poorly in a particular newspaper or magazine, Lasker ordered it to be dropped from Lord & Thomas's schedules altogether. He was just as rigorous with his copywriters. Although he never wrote advertising copy himself, he had a reporter's natural instinct for how to tell a story, and trained his juniors rigorously to produce precisely the kind of advertising he liked. "What goes into the space – that makes the difference," he said in an interview with Printers Ink magazine in 1906. "Ninety per cent of the thought, energy and cost of running our agency goes into the copy. We have stated that our copy staff costs us four times as much as any other agency. No one has disproved this statement."
John Kennedy, however, soon proved more of a burden than an asset. He had negotiated an excellent salary for himself (totalling $75,000 a year by 1906), but was excessively shy, unable to address more than one person at a time. He was also too slow a worker to keep up with the relentless expansion of Lord & Thomas, often spending days at a stretch working and reworking individual headlines. He eventually left the agency in 1907. Instead Lasker found a new chief copywriter, and his new man was to become almost as influential on the industry as a whole as Lasker himself.
Claude C Hopkins was brought up on a farm outside Detroit, a quiet, cautious and prudent person from a deeply religious family. As a child his devout Scottish Presbyterian mother had forced him to attend no less than five church services each Sunday. In his autobiography My Life in Advertising, he said later that she and his equally devout Baptist grandfather "made religion oppressive. Seemingly every joy in life was a sin". Forced at an early age by his mother into a career as a lay preacher, he eventually rebelled, turning his back on the church to take up a job as a bookkeeper for the Bissell carpet-sweeper company.
While there he came across promotional literature produced for Bissell by John E Powers, one of the first freelance copywriters, who had made a considerable name and fortune in the late 19th century producing sales literature for clients. However Hopkins was disappointed by what he read. Although Powers had style and elegance, his prose demonstrated little real understanding of the products he was selling. Hopkins adapted the brochure, going straight for the wallet with a description of the company's product as "the Queen of Christmas Presents". His skill eventually led him to a career in Chicago, initially as advertising manager for meat packing company Swift & Co. Like Kennedy, he believed strongly in the idea of salesmanship, and he applied this idea more widely, and not merely in print. "No argument," he said later "can compete with one dramatic demonstration."
The most lavish example of such a demonstration was the stunt Hopkins conceived for Swift & Co to promote the company's product Cotosuet, a butter and lard substitute made from cottonseed oil and beef suet. The Chicago department store Rothschild & Co had recently opened new premises which included a grocery department on the fifth floor. The main feature of this department was a huge bay window which was clearly visible from the street below. Hopkins arranged to borrow the use of this window, and then commissioned a local baker to make "the largest cake in the world" using Cotosuet. This huge confection, which reached almost the ceiling, was then installed in the bay window, and widely advertised in the local press. The ads promised a prize to any visitor who could guess the cake's weight. The catch, of course, was that each contestant also had to purchase a pail of Cotosuet as price of entry. But the real victory was measured by size of the crowd of over 100,000 people who climbed the four flights of stairs to see this miracle cake over the next few days.
Unlike other pioneers in this area, Hopkins had no desire to use advertising as a form of education. "We advertisers must take the world as we find it. Our business is to win people over, not to make them over." He had a number of rules as to what constituted good advertising, such as short fact-based sentences, avoiding the over-use of capital letters. Scientific claims were especially effective, but the resulting advertising should be based on a single argument, not a host of different claims ("You cannot chop a tree in two by hitting every time in a different place") and it should make that core argument with skill and drama. "I consider advertising as dramatic salesmanship. I dramatise a salesman's arguments… Advertising must be better than ordinary argument, just as a play must be stronger than real life." The copy should also have a personal quality, so that it has the "impact of a bell-boy paging a man in a crowded room". His view was that advertising was "dignified sensationalism", offering "provocative statements that tickled but did not abuse the truth". Above all it should avoid overtly ornamental language and especially humour: "Spending money is a serious business and people do not buy from clowns." Later, Hopkins' approach was to become known as "Reason-Why" advertising.
His next big success was with a campaign for the patent medicine Liquozone, in which he persuaded the client to offer a money-back guarantee, and one free bottle for every six purchased. It was an enormous hit with the public, few of whom ever took the trouble to claim their refunds. This time Hopkins benefited personally as well – the owner of Liquozone had offered him a quarter share in the business in part-payment, and the resulting profits set Hopkins up very comfortably indeed. More successful still were a series of ads for Schlitz beer, for whom Hopkins coined the phrase "the beer that made Milwaukee famous". On a tour of the brewery, Hopkins was fascinated by the machinery which piped boiling steam into bottles before filling to sterilize them. There was nothing especially unusual about this – indeed other brewers used a similar process. However, Hopkins was enraptured by its "scientific" nature, and felt that Schlitz could gain an advantage by highlighting that fact. His campaign played upon the differences between the "Pure Beer" made by Schlitz, which spared no expense to use "live steam" to sterilize its bottles, and its "Poor Beer" competitors. These ads came to the particular attention of Albert Lasker, because his client Anheuser-Busch was by implication one of the "poor beers" attacked.
Lasker was convinced that Hopkins was the man to replace Kennedy. Persuading him to swap his lucrative freelance career for a steady job at Lord & Thomas was more difficult. Lasker achieved it by offering Hopkins what was then a vast salary of $185,000 a year, and topped it off by buying Hopkins an electrically powered automobile. The two were perfect foils for one another. Lasker was voluble, excitable and emotional. Hopkins was quiet, methodical and softly-spoken. (Like Lasker, who was addressed always as "A.D." by friends, Hopkins was known to his closest acquaintances only by his initials, in this case "C.C.". However, in Hopkins' case, because of his pronounced lisp, he was sometimes referred to affectionately as "Thee-Thee".)
Hopkins applied the same missionary zeal to his job in advertising as his family had to their church. With few if any personal interests outside the office and absolutely no vices, he spent most of his time at the office, rarely leaving before 2am. He later calculated that the 35 years he spent in advertising were actually equivalent to 70 years, because he worked twice as hard as anyone else he knew. He was not just a hard worker but a fast one, capable of turning out a whole campaign within a day or two of first meeting with a new client. Lasker would often sit on the resulting work for several weeks so that clients didn't feel cheated out of the commission they paid the agency.
Lasker too worked tirelessly, with an intelligence that roamed constantly in search of subjects to occupy it. A later profile in Time magazine described his "dynamo of a mind and bovine physical endurance [ready] to turn loose upon anything - from a lukewarm bean factory to an all-night bridge game - and the current he generates is seldom grounded." He was a prolific and voluble talker, constantly firing out ideas, thoughts, opinions on a hundred different subjects. Another profile, from Collier's magazine in 1923, described him thus: "His thoughts catch up with his words and overtake them, and get ahead of them – until at last he seems to be talking on six or seven different points of the subject at the same time."
His biographer John Gunther described in Taken At The Flood Lasker's "unique" vocal style: "When he was interested in something, his mind went faster than his tongue, and he would continually hesitate, with little hems and haws, to let his voice catch up… He would interrupt himself to utter little nasal exclamations like 'Unh… hunh!' These interjections were like question marks; he was saying in effect, 'Are you following me?' If Lasker feared that people were not paying close enough attention to him, he would insert other phrases into the middle of sentences, like 'Huh!-Ha!' or 'Do you [understand]?'. He was too hurried to add the word 'understand' and would content himself with the simple 'Do you?'"
In an extension of its "record of results" department, Lord & Thomas was the first agency to introduce campaign testing. One of the more notable examples was what was then an unusual campaign to relaunch an odd-coloured toilet soap for Milwaukee manufacturer BP Johnson & Co. At the time, all soap was cream in colour. However, Johnson's product was green because it was made from a mixture of palm oil and olive oil rather than fat, a combination which also inspired its name, Palmolive. Hopkins' approach presented the soap as something rare and exotic ("Soap from trees - nature's gift to beauty") and suggested that "Women like Cleopatra must have sat under palm trees and used olive oil." That approach was considered extremely risky. As a result, Lord & Thomas gambled a small sum to test the Cleopatra concept in the town of Benton Harbor, Michigan, to see if it worked. It did, and the same campaign was introduced used across the country, and successfully established Palmolive as the country's best-selling beauty soap.
For another client, Quaker Oats, Hopkins borrowed the same approach he had used so successfully for Schlitz, seizing on a dynamic and scientific-sounding manufacturing process to make the client's product appear extraordinary. Having already suggested that Quaker change the names of its poorly performing Wheat Berries and Puffed Berries cereals to Puffed Rice and Puffed Wheat, Hopkins was fascinated by the contraption used to explode the wheat and rice grains. "The grains that are shot from guns" shouted the resulting headline, "eight times their natural size" as a result of "125 million steam explosions caused in every kernel". Sales rocketed in response. Hopkins came up with a number of lasting slogans for another client, Goodyear, but few were as ageless as his description for the company's anti-skid tires, for which he invented the term "All-Weather". In 1916, the entrepreneur who had previously hired Hopkins to devise advertising for Liquozone gave Lord & Thomas another assignment, for a toothpaste which he called Pepsodent. It was Hopkins who made "plaque" into a household word in the resulting ads.
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.
See Foote Cone & Belding profile for more.
Last full revision 13th April 2016
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