Samuel B. Ruggles: Madison Avenue's Patron
By Wendy McHale
How many of you know the name, Samuel B. Ruggles? Should you?
Well, yes. And if you review his record here, you may then agree that he is the most unsung advertising hero of Madison Avenue. Why is that? He founded, built and named it. That's why!
According to The New York Times, they predicted that his legacy would make him one of the towering figures in the history of the 19th century. On March 9, 1867, they reported, "It is probable, in fact certain, that Mr. Ruggles will have a foremost place among American representatives..."
Question: Did he create the tributes we know today as Madison Square Park, Madison Square Garden and Madison Avenue for James Madison, or for Madison's party-loving and social butterfly wife, Mrs. Dolley Madison?
A well-connect Yale-educated attorney with interests in education, commerce, politics, real estate development and international trade, Ruggles was a true renaissance man. Having a touch of the poetic artistic spirit in him, the only touchable remnant that he left of himself was a lock of his hair, safely stored away well protected at The New York Public Library archives. Upon careful study, he also left a wealth of speeches, papers and books that back up The Times' estimate of his impact on this country.
So why is he virtually unknown today in our fair city and the industry we call Madison Avenue? From all appearances, it looks like this was by design. He wanted it that way. Imagine that, the founder of Madison Avenue specifically shied away from the limelight!
The irony is that he operated as "the guy behind the guy, behind the guy." His desire to avoid press was only interrupted by a well-covered voyage to Paris the paper of record (even then) wrote about as he represented the US on currency valuation agreements.
History also credits him for naming Lexington Avenue, "Lexington Avenue." If he were around today, imagine the buzz "on the street" and gossip that would follow Mr. Ruggles every where he would go. His name would no doubt clutter Page Six endlessly.
Ruggles was the Donald Trump of his time. He founded, developed and both built both Grammercy Park AND Union Square, yet as compared to our esteemed Mr. Trump his name is nowhere on any of his or our most precious public or private landmarks. So did Ruggles named Madison Avenue to honor (some say promote) Mr. (or Mrs.) Madison, and if so, why do you suppose he did it?
Today his vast knowledge of the financial markets as well as his penchant for philanthropy would rival Mr. George Soros. One thing we do know, judging from his published works and listing of speeches and papers on matters of great importance in the city and country, he was outspoken.
Like Madison Avenue, he was controversial. His efforts creating and naming Madison Square Park and Mad Ave in honor of a sitting president went contrary to American sensibilities at the time. With only 10 years passing from America's last and final war with Britain (War of 1812), Ruggles' actions were seen as distinctly English, which at the time was akin to being called a terrorist. In essence, Madison Avenue's founding began as counter-cultural controversy.
The Madison name drapes the park and our precious business. Though Ruggles may have had an ulterior motive; to impress another, Dolley, a brand then and perhaps by destiny 200 years later, a brand now. Dolley Madison was uniquely American and clearly worthy of being honored. No other first lady was demonstrably as brave as she; running back into a burning White House set fire by the British to save the only remaining portrait of George Washington.
Like her brilliant husband, she literally and figuratively had her hands all over the US Constitution! Could Ruggles have that much insight to see that Dolley's legacy would live on as much as Mr. Jame? He certainly saw Dolley's love of networking up close!
Given her love for parties and socializing (which MadAve culture was once known to enjoy), is it any wonder that Dolly Madison lives on today as a brand of cupcakes, yummy, festive fixtures among the Happy Meal set.
No other First Lady has had quite as much mass appeal-like selling power as she. Other than JackieO or Betty Ford, it begs the question whether other first ladies have been inadvertently overlooked as possible brand icons!
Where was Ralph Lauren during the Nixon administration? Why was the world deprived of the potential hit success of the Pat Nixon line lounge pajamas? Will it soon be time for Famous Amos to add a Hillary Clinton Cookies line extension? How about a Rosalyn Carter Mrs. Peanut? Hmmm...
No doubt Ruggles must surely have known that James Madison would go down in history as the most famous copywriter of all time. If historians could have missed Ruggles' prominence, we wonder if other advertising-based connections were also overlooked.
For example, is it possible that there was a "Madison, (Al) Hamilton and (John) Jay Ad Agency"? After all, these three gents produced one of the most effective brand positioning and media planning/buying campaigns of all time. We're talking about "The Federalist Papers" which everyone on this list is well aware of (yeah, right.) But seriously, The Fed Papers was the newspaper ad campaign that sold-in the creation of the US Federal Government! We kid you not.
Clearly these three ad guys brainstormed in the packaging. Like the creation of Ronald McDonald they also created a fictional spokesperson named "Publius" who was credited for their work.
Publius was essentially the 18th century Mr. Whipple, though Mr. Whipple was ultimately known for another kind of paper. How much is "Publius" so much different from the Pillsbury Dough Boy (a near competitor to Dolly Madison Today?)
Are we mis-interpreting history as much as consumers misunderstood Ford's Edsel?
Did you know that Madison and company were up against stiff competition, similar to virtually all brands today? In fact, the Federalist Papers were challenged by anti-federalists.
However, they did not do their homework research-wise. Beginning by calling their own campaign "the Anti-Federalist Papers," they also created a fictional writer named, "Brutus," a name immortalized by Shakespeare, who today is a less than desirable fictional character. "The Anti-Federalist Papers"
Maybe Ruggles was simply acknowledging the aura of Dolley and Jim. Maybe in his own mind, he saw himself as a judge of the first Media All Stars competition. With a little research, one will find that "Publius" ran a total of 80 articles or insertions.
Here's some info about that historical media effort. Our analysis indicates that Madison and company took a "compression strategy" focusing 100% of the activity in just 3 New York City papers (similar to the WSJ, NYT and NYPost) of its day.
The Anti-Federalists, using the "Brutus" brand ran just as many articles/insertions, yet ran 100% of them outside of New York, in the 15 B-level markets of the era. For real...
Is there some truth then that the destiny of the USA had as much to do with media plan strategy as well as for the creative content? We'll never know for sure... though it does make one wonder.
What we do know is that Ruggles, the founder of Madison Avenue also co-founded America's first "e-commerce channel." Back then they referred to it as the Erie Canal, the 18th century version of today's broadband. He also was instrumental in the growth of the Railroad industry, America's first "hardware" industry and helped create the US's first media metrics system when he produced at report as a Delegate to the International statistical congress at Berlin, on the resources of the United States, and on a uniform system of weights, measures and coins!
He was also the inventor of Corn Flakes based on his Report on cereals: The quantities of cereals produced in different countries
Not long before he retired, he acted as the first "Capitalist Tool" when he decided to take his vision out to the world; on a scale similar to the late great Malcolm Forbes himself. He was truly remarkable and a most energetic evangelist when he sailed to "The Old World" as described by The New York Times illuminate the robust nature of America at that time.
In light of the fact that Sammy Ruggles and The Madisons had such an amazing impact in the world's communications and commerce businesses, it's actually quite odd that he has remained almost virtually unknown today.
Think about all the chest beating that agencies, brands and celebrities do today. Have all the "roll-ups" had a positive effect among MadAve players? Has consolidation made our business much more fun and added to more creativity? We would suggest it has made our MadAve more cynical.
The greed of the last cycle creating these agency monoliths seems less like Madison's Publius and more like Brutus. We wonder what Ruggles and the Madison's would say about their fair lane if they were here today. Dolley surely would be disappointed that our thirst for partying has diminished. Gone are the 3 martini lunches. Now 95% of people eat at their desks. How boring!
On Ruggles' last sail to Paris on the French Steamer, "Periere" the The New York Times published this about our fair MadAve founder, Mr. Ruggles has labored with untiring zeal to secure a proper representation of the Western World in this grand fair of all nations; he has devoted his time to the task of arousing public interest and enlisting public action in the enterprise and now goes out with renewed determination to give the Old World something like an accurate idea of the vast wealth, energy, physical and social power of the Western Continent."
David, Leo and Bill could not have expressed it better.
Maybe Ruggles knew even back then that when you live by the media, you die by the media. Then as now, attention and celebrity-hood is fleeting, which is perhaps why he named Madison Avenue after one of greatest man of letters, who ironically was as shy and wallflowerish as his wife was gregarious.
After almost 150 years after he set sail, this might be the time to dust off his thoughts, actions and papers. Timing is everything. Who can think of a better time than now? Will our glorious "Advertising Week" take a look back beyond :30 to investigate what made this business great?
At the end of his day, in spite of the controversy that created Madison Avenue - by aiming all the attention at Mr. and Mrs. Madison - Ruggles was really a romantic as well as the ultimate MadAve tactician. James Madison could easily be compared to today's Charlie Brown. There's no question that Dolley would easily relate to Lucy.
Well, there's no one left but Snoopy - and like Ruggles, he was the quietest one - with the greatest imagination of all!