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Lord & Thomas : advertising & marketing profile

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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:

Background

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.

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