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History of BBDO

With its origins dating back to 1891, BBDO is one of the oldest of the world's surviving agency networks. Its roots were first laid down by George Batten, who was later to provide the first B in BBDO, although he was long dead by the time that acronym was created. Born on a farm in New Jersey, Batten came to New York in 1888 to become advertising manager for Funk & Wagnalls, then a publisher of religious periodicals. Three years later, he opened his own business, the George Batten Newspaper Advertising Agency. His experience at Funk & Wagnalls had proved to him that all existing advertising agents were "unprincipled scoundrels" who charged their manufacturing clients as high a fee as possible and then passed on the lowest amount possible to publishers. As the son of a minister, Batten on the other hand vowed to maintain firm principles of honesty, decency and truth, and to this end he insisted on complete accuracy in all advertising copy, as well as the use of plain, simple type, which he said, "stands out like a Quaker on Broadway". He was in fact such a stickler for honesty that the agency's very first ad, for The Macbeth Lamp Chimney Co, made a special point of warning prospective purchasers that the glass lamp would break if dropped. Batten's conspicuous morality did much to improve the respectability of a profession famed until then for its tendency to bend the truth as far as it would go, and then some. Yet he was also notoriously bad-tempered and deeply unpopular among his staff because of a habit dismissing employees for the slightest misdemeanour. One member of staff was reportedly sacked for misremembering Lincoln's birthdate. Much of the running of the business to his deputy, the calm and reliable William "Papa" Johns, who took over control of the agency after Batten's death in 1918.

The agency which contributed the last three initials in BBDO was founded a year later in 1919 by Bruce Barton, Roy Durstine and Alex Osborn. Despite the prominence of the D and O in the company's name, there is no question that the driving force behind the agency was always Bruce Barton, arguably the advertising industry's first real celebrity, and certainly the first whose name would be recognised by ordinary members of the public. Ironically, although he spent virtually his whole career in advertising, it was Barton's wide range of other interests which made him famous, even for a while infamous.

The son of a liberal Protestant minister, Bruce Barton was born in Tennessee in 1886. His early childhood was comparatively humble – his father William Barton was an itinerant preacher for several years before settling down as pastor of a Congregationalist church in Oak Park, Illinois. There seems little doubt of Barton Sr's influence on the young Bruce. Among other accomplishments, William Barton was a stirring raconteur, given to great flourishes of often self-promotional oratory, and was also a prolific though largely self-published author.

After a college education at Amherst - he paid for his tuition by selling pots and pans door to door - Bruce Barton settled at the university of Wisconsin, intending to become a teacher in American history. Soon afterwards, however, he appears to have suffered some form of mild nervous breakdown, and instead drifted to Chicago with the new goal of becoming a journalist. He took jobs as editor of a number of small and undistinguished periodicals in and around the Chicago area, before eventually moving to New York to become an assistant sales manager at Collier's Weekly. Among other assignments, he produced sales copy to advertise the company's range of classic novels and histories, and also worked with the celebrated illustrator Norman Rockwell on ads for Edison Mazda light bulbs. He became the editor of Every Week magazine in 1914, and gradually developed a reputation for crusading editorials for that publication, and for The American magazine.

During the First World War, Barton continued to dabble in advertising copy, especially for causes which satisfied his strongly held spiritual and moral principles. (For the Salvation Army, for example, he penned the slogan "A man may be down but he is never out"). Eventually he was drawn into war fund-raising where he made the acquaintance Alex Osborn, who ran a small advertising agency in Buffalo which mainly worked for charitable causes. According to the popular story, Barton complained to his new friend one evening that he enjoyed writing but didn't get paid enough for his efforts. Osborn advised Barton to go into advertising instead, and put him in touch with a friend, Roy Durstine, who owned a small New York agency which handled publicity for Teddy Roosevelt's Progressive "Bull Moose" political party. Barton and Durstine met and agreed to go into partnership. But Barton laid down one important condition. According to subsequent company president Charles Brower, "Barton only came there with the understanding that he would never have to be president, never have to hire or fire anybody, or have anything to do with management. He was just the creative man, and that was all he was going to do... He didn't care about anything as long as they'd leave him alone and let him write."

The Barton & Durstine Co opened for business in January 1919; Alex Osborn joined the partnership later the same year to create Barton Durstine & Osborn. The three men made for an unusual triumvirate in appearance. According to another later BBDO chairman, Tom Dillon, Barton was tall and "strikingly handsome", with red hair and blue eyes. The New York Times, remarked upon his "direct, earnest gaze ...firm mouth and square jaw". He made quite a contrast with Durstine - "short, wiry" according to Time - and with Alex Osborn, also small and short and described by Dillon as having "a head that looked like a well-barbered cannonball". Yet Barton's eloquent and impassioned advertising copy quickly won the agency a string of important clients. His style often resembled the sort of sermon he had heard his father preach as a child, full of grand and crusading calls to action and a strong moralistic tone. For a correspondence school for businessmen, for example, he wrote a long-running series of ads which celebrated the idea of hard work and self-improvement, a strong underlying concept throughout his life and career. "About one man in ten will be appealed to by this page. The one man in ten has imagination. And imagination rules the world." In his advertising copy and his speeches he often used biblical texts as his starting-point, and he sprinkled religious allusions into his everyday speech. Typical of his work was the heroic epitaph he penned in the 1930s for US Steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie: "He came to a land of wooden towns and left a nation of steel", while one of his most widely admired ads of the 1920s featured the description of Forest Lawn cemetery as "A first step up toward Heaven". A steady stream of important clients were charmed by this approach, including divisions of General Electric (from 1920), Lever Brothers (1924), General Motors (1922) and Dunlop Tire.

At the same time, Barton began work on a series of philosophical and spiritual books. By far the most important of these was The Man Nobody Knows, published in 1924. First serialised in the best-selling Women's Home Companion magazine, it portrayed Jesus not as the "sissified Mary's little lamb" popularised by Sunday School teachers but as a charismatic and convivial raconteur, "the most popular dinner guest in Jerusalem" and "the friendliest man who ever lived". In Barton's version, Jesus is "the great advertiser of his own day", who 'sold' ideas of moral living and kindliness to those around him. "The parable of the Good Samaritan," wrote Barton, "is the greatest advertisement of all time." Above all, suggested Barton, Jesus was the perfect corporate being: "He picked twelve men from the bottom ranks of business and forged them into an organization that conquered the world". The book was denounced by higher-minded critics ("Rapid in style as a circus poster, with about the same literary value," wrote Time), but proved a huge hit with the public, selling 250,000 copies in 18 months. It topped the non-fiction best-seller lists for two years. Its various follow-ups were also popular. The Book Nobody Knows was a similarly free-thinking reinterpretation of the bible, while He Upset the World set out to demonstrate that St Paul would have run a large multinational corporation had he lived in the 20th century.

Yet even while Barton celebrated the power of advertising to bring worthy material benefits to consumers, he was also racked with doubts about the ultimate good of the career in which he had ended up, and often considered giving it all up for a less taxing life of thought and philosophy. A New Yorker profile from 1930 commented "One senses that underneath his apparently perfectly self-controlled exterior there is much nervous energy. He always seems to be at odds with himself – a hail-fellow-well-met who enjoys a burlesque show and a drink but who writes piously about churches and morals and believes in what he writes." He satisfied some of these driving moral obsessions by continuing to churn out impassioned editorials for Collier's and other publications. Some these contained direct attacks on the advertising produced by rival practitioners for their low morality. "Under the lash of bad business, ideals have been abandoned, standards have sunk… silly advertisements, dishonest advertisements, disgusting advertisements have cast discredit upon the business and put us on the defensive."

By the late 1920s, Barton Durstine & Osborn was the fourth largest agency in the US, boasting billings of $23m and occupying the entire 7th floor of a building at 383 Madison Avenue in New York. On the 10th floor of the same building was the George Batten Company, almost a third of its size. According to popular legend, the idea of merger was first raised by Batten's Papa Johns when he found himself riding in an elevator with Roy Durstine at an advertising convention in Washington. "Did it ever occur to you that we have no competing accounts?" asked Johns. "Think it over." A subsequent chairman of BBDO, Charlie Brower, later suggested - not entirely truthfully - that the merger was conceived because Barton's agency knew what to do with clients but not how to get them; while Batten's knew how to get them but not what to do with them. "It was a case of two one-legged men getting together to walk," he joked. Making the most of the new opportunities of the era, the two companies merged as Batten Barton Durstine & Osborn in 1928, with Barton as chairman and Johns as president.

That mouthful of a name was intended at first to be only temporary. "We were always going to do what we tell our clients – get a name that is short and easy to remember," Barton told the New York Times in 1957. "But Batten Barton Durstine & Osborn became a vaudeville joke and we were famous." His comment referred to a popular joke of the 1930s attributed to numerous authors including radio stars Fred Allen and Jack Benny: "Have you heard about the new advertising agency Batten Barton Durstine and Osborn? It sounds like a steamer trunk falling down a flight of stairs". As a result the agency became one of the few to be known to members of the ordinary public. It was name-checked in the 1930s by James Cagney in the film Hard to Handle, and a character in the 1960s Broadway musical How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying was actually named Benjamin Burton Daniel Ovington, and referred to by his initials 'BBDO'.

The merger also allowed Barton the freedom to loosen his daily ties to the advertising industry. Instead, he threw himself into politics on behalf of the Republican Party. In 1929, Barton conducted a "human interest" interview with recently retired Republican president Calvin Coolidge which was designed to bolster support for the party in that year's upcoming Congressional elections. Although it was widely published by several newspapers it was derided (mostly by Democrats) as an over-manipulated puff-piece. Even Coolidge later noted that "it was put out in such as way as to be mostly Barton and little of myself".

Barton had political ambitions of his own, but these were interrupted for several years by a very public blackmail scandal. Despite a settled and apparently happy domestic life, Barton had apparently conducted a brief affair during the 1920s with a file clerk at the agency. In 1932, the woman in question sent a manuscript of a thinly disguised novel about an advertising executive (named "Roos Martin") who conducts a string of sexual adventures. She demanded $50,000 to keep from publishing the book, and when he refused issued a lawsuit for $250,000 for defamation of character, claiming he had warned other advertising agencies against hiring her. Barton counter-sued her for blackmail, and this story of the pious author of The Man Nobody Knows caught with his pants down made front page news in two of New York's most respectable papers, the Times and the Sun. Despite the public embarrassment, Barton won his case, and his former lover was sent to jail.

The termination of this scandal allowed Barton to renew his political career. The Republicans had been ousted from government in the wake of the Great Depression, but in 1937 Barton succeeded in becoming New York's only Republican member of Congress, representing the "silk-stocking" Seventeenth District, centred around Park Avenue. As a member of the House of Representatives he gained a reputation over the next four years as an outspoken opponent of Franklin Roosevelt's economic policies. In a sly reference to Barton's "day job", Roosevelt mocked him and two other vociferous opponents several times in speeches by characterising them as the mythical firm of "Martin Barton & Fish". Barton was nominated for the Senate in the 1940 Presidential Election, but was defeated by Democrat James Mead.

Disheartened by this turnaround, Barton made the decision to give up his political career and return to advertising. The previous ten years had been hard on BBD&O. Already an elderly man at the time of the merger, Papa Johns ceded daily control to Roy Durstine, who had allowed a number of rival factions to develop within the agency. These divisions became steadily worse after Durstine officially became executive vice president in 1936, and were further exaggerated by his personal problems outside work, including a bitter divorce and various reckless investments. A string of important clients and senior managers defected to other agencies in the late 1930s and Durstine himself was eventually forced out of the business in 1939. This left a considerable void within the company. Although his name had remained above the door after the merger with Batten, Alex Osborn had always refused to move from his home in Buffalo, where he continued to run a small branch office. Now, however, with the agency on the verge of collapse, he agreed to take over from Durstine as general manager, and began a weekly 400-mile commute to New York to become the agency's de facto head. That decision almost certainly saved BBD&O from collapse. The agency's reputation with its clients was further strengthened a year later by Bruce Barton's decision to return to the fold in the nominal role of president. According to Brower, "he allowed us to make him president [but] he insisted on sticking to making ads." Barton maintained his role at the agency, latterly as chairman, until his death in 1967.

The agency was by now a major force in radio. Whatever his subsequent faults, Roy Durstine had seen the potential of radio sponsorship early on and set up the first ever commercial endorsement deal in 1924 on behalf of Atwater Kent radios, for whom he negotiated exclusive rights to broadcast performances by stars of New York's Metropolitan Opera. In 1927, Barton Durstine & Osborn was the first agency to establish a fulltime radio department to generate programme ideas and sponsorship deals, and within five years the enlarged BBD&O was producing around 120 programmes every week for 29 clients.

The company also prided itself on its creativity. During the 1940s Alex Osborn was responsible for establishing a new form of creative process for which he later coined the term "brainstorming". He defined it as a discussion group in which people "use their brains to storm a creative problem and do so in 'Commando' fashion, with each stormer audaciously attacking the same objective." Employees from all departments within the agency would be brought together to spend hours simply talking over random ideas, no matter how outlandish. Time magazine later described a typical meeting as follows: "A central problem (how to cut down absenteeism, how to improve highway signs) is presented, and everyone storms ahead. No idea is too fantastic; a cardinal rule is that no one laughs at an idea. If anyone is thoughtless enough to say 'It won't work,' he is sternly reminded that such remarks are taboo by the chief brainstormer, who clangs a schoolmarm's bell at him." The agency subsequently appointed a vice president in charge of Brainstorming whose job it was to organise three sessions a week. Osborn himself went on to write a series of highly influential books about creative development and related problem-solving processes.

By 1946, Barton had passed over the role of president of BBD&O to Bernard "Ben" Duffy, an equally charismatic figure but of a very different sort. "He oozed Irish charisma," recounted Time, "and everybody oozed right back at him. He hadn't just kissed the blarney stone, he carried it with him." Duffy had grown up in a Hell's Kitchen tenement, the son of Irish immigrants, and climbed the corporate ladder at BBD&O from messenger boy to president. Duffy had "a genial gregariousness that enables him to first-name thousands of people," continued Time. "He rarely forgets a face. His memory is so photographic that he sometimes startles his secretary by recalling verbatim a letter dictated years before." In 1948, it was Duffy who snapped up the Lucky Strike account, one of the industry's most valuable, after its shock resignation by Foote Cone & Belding.

It was Duffy also who led BBD&O's charge into television after the Second World War. In 1948, the agency produced the first regular commercial TV show, Carnival, sponsored by General Electric. In the following two years, the TV department grew in size from 12 people to 150, producing shows for every night and day of the week. In 1950, its prowess in this fast-exploding new medium enabled BBD&O to overtake Y&R as America's #2 agency behind JWT. In 1952, Duffy's friendship with Dwight Eisenhower also secured BBD&O a role supervising the former military hero's successful Presidential campaign in 1952, as well as his re-election four years later. However, Duffy's career was repeatedly overshadowed by ill-health, and he was obliged to step down in 1957 in favour of a new president, Charlie Brower.

During the 1960s and 1970s the agency - by now commonly referred to without an ampersand as BBDO - expanded around the world to service the international development of one of its biggest clients, Pepsi, captured in 1960. A few years later Allen Rosenshine joined the company as a copywriter, rising to become chairman of BBDO by the mid-1980s. As BBDO's prominence came under threat from the expansion of British upstarts Saatchi & Saatchi, Rosenshine engineered the unprecedented three-way merger of BBDO with DDB and Needham Harper in 1986 to form umbrella group Omnicom. He handed chairmanship to his former BBDO partner Bruce Crawford in 1989, stepping down to become BBDO chairman again. Meanwhile the agency developed its position in major markets through canny acquisitions. In 1998, BBDO absorbed Japanese agency I&S to become that country's #8 agency. In 2000 the agency merged Omnicom-owned South African agency Net#work - originally launched as an offshoot of TBWA SA to handle the Nissan account - with Berry Bush BBDO (in which it held a minority stake) to form BBDO Net#work.

Another transformational moment came with the capture of the $1.8bn DaimlerChrysler account in 2000. This had previously been split between BBDO and FCB. In September 2000 Chrysler announced a shock review of the business. Both networks were taken aback when Chrysler announced it would not be considering creative excellence as part of the review - the account would be awarded purely on the basis of worldwide logistics and costs. In a splendid victory, BBDO took the prize two months later. Since then, BBDO has continued to expand its portfolio. It has a good record for winning major pitches, and has also successfully persuaded existing clients to increase the amount of work they place with the agency.

In 2006, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg proclaimed January 10th to be BBDO Day in New York City, the only time such an honour has been awarded to an advertising agency.


Abbott Mead Vickers/BBDO BBDO Paris
Clemenger BBDO Australia I&S/BBDO Japan
BBDO Group Germany D'Adda Lorenzini Vigorelli BBDO Italy
Grupo BBDO Spain BBDO Portugal
BBDO Asia FHV/BBDO Netherlands
BBDO Denmark BBDO Korea
RKSwamy BBDO India BBDO Austria
BBDO Malaysia Mark-BBDO Czech Republic
BBDO Dunyasina Turkey BBDO Belgium
Almap/BBDO Brazil Impact-BBDO Egypt
BBDO Poland BBDO Canada
BBDO Argentina BBDO Sweden
BBDO Mexico BBDO Guerrero Philippines
BBDO South Africa BBDO Russia
Irish International BBDO (Ireland)

Last full revision 19th April 2017

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