Ron Rosenfeld & His Agency Party Tradition
By Tim McHale
He was a natural. He said he learned the art of turning a phrase from growing up in a big Jewish family.
Every Friday night, his family celebrated the traditional Shabbat Friday evening dinner. More than a sumptuous meal, it features rituals that reflect joy and harmony of family and life.
Every week, his parents and relatives would gather around the dining room table and over dinner, would discuss the current events of the day. As a kid, listening to their discussion, Ron easily picked up on the humor and the wit, but also the sarcasm, which sometimes had a unique Brooklyn bite to it! That was all he needed.
After graduating from high school, Ron Rosenfeld had little desire to go to college, so he went straight into advertising. However, he never got around to developing his "book", full of work examples.
Years later, Phyllis Robinson, the first copy chief at Doyle Dane Bernbach reminisced about it. She said, "The head of the sales promotion department came to me with a puzzled look on her face and said "There's somebody I'd like to hire but I'm not 100% sure. All he has are these letters." He'd been writing letters for the Broadway Maintenance Company. "I looked at the letters, and they were brilliant! He ended up in our creative department!"
She said later, "It seems so odd: How can you hire on the basis of a bunch of letters? In many ways, in the hiring, in the way we worked, we were making it up as we went along."
In less than a decade, Rosenfeld was entered into the Copywriters Hall of Fame at the same time as Robinson herself, as well as Mary Wells Lawrence and the one and only Bill Bernbach.
In person, Ron was funny, sweet and unassuming. Whether it was a Rosenfeld client or a new junior account executive, Ron was always approachable and always made himself available to anyone if they had something to say. In fact, his humor was often self-deprecating. He never let it get to his head, even though he was first copywriter to be paid $100,000 a year, a monumental figure at the time, which today would be well over $5 million.
The streets of Brooklyn were as rough back then as they are today, yet Phylis Robinson said that Ron's work was "charming and very persuasive". Rosenfeld's voice on paper and in person was soft. He never lost his sense of humor or his temper. He was the kind of person who seemed to know how lucky he was to be in a business which thirsted for something that came incredibly natural to him.
While Rosenfeld was one of the leaders of the creative revolution, it was not difficult to see that advertising was just entering into the era of using brand management reviews and conducting research to scientifically develop the brand position just right for the $million brand. It was standard--then as it is now--to take 60-90 days to do research, copy testing and focus groups before presenting the recommended campaign.
However, Rosenfeld would often confound his clients and supervisors by insisting on a meeting just 2 days after being given the assignment. There, he would blow everyone away with incredibly simple yet brilliant ideas, that would often be approved on the spot.
After an amazing career at DDB, Ron then teamed up with Len Sirowitz, another star at DDB and a naturally gifted art director. Like Mary Wells and others, Ron and Len left DDB to start their own agency. Ron and Len partnered up with Marion Harper, the famed founder of IPG, the first agency network in the business. They named the agency, "Harper, Rosenfeld & Sirowitz".
Long before Ralph Lauren was putting his brand name on pillow cases, (Sirowitz actually grew up with Lauren in the Bronx and had quite a few funny stories as well) Ron was working with Porsche, brainstorming on line extension ideas when they were considering coming out with a line of watches. One of our personal favorites was, "The only Porsche that doesn't run fast".
Shortly after Marion Harper helped Ron and Len found the agency, he moved on to other projects. With a space for a killer management person to fill Harper's shoes, Ron and Len found one of the greatest talents to come out of Ogilvy & Mather, Tom Lawson.
Tom complemented Ron and Len's New York street sensibilities with his Harvard education. Together they created an agency that repeatedly won Adweek's agency of the year, entering awards and breaking records in talent competitions and in sales records for their clients. The work on McDonald's alone led McDonald's to rethink their national agency roster. Though Rosenfeld, Sirowitz and Lawson were certainly too small to absorb the global agency account in 1983, their confidential work in Oakbrook led McDonald's to conduct a secret account review and ultimately moved the account from DDB/Needham--where it had been for 20 years--over to Leo Burnett.
DDB ultimately won it back within 10 years though it was the confidential consulting work RS&L did with McDonald's that led to several campaigns being produced nationally. These campaigns in reality originated on the 7th floor of 111 Fifth Avenue--when lower Fifth was just being rejuvenated--when it looked more like the Bowery than Madison and 72nd Street.
Everyone in town referred to the agency as "Rosenfeld." During the '70's and early '80's, it attracted a number of "diamond's in the rough"--who under Ron and Len's tutalege--learned their trade and then went on to virtually all the large agencies. It was a breeding ground for talent. It's first media director was the legendary Gene DeWitt. Once Gene went off to create the DeWitt Media Agency, Ron, Len and Tom recruited another hot media property; Bob Hinson, who ultimately inspired a media team, known later all over town as "Hinson's Stars" for their "out of the box" thinking.
However, for all his talent, one of the dearest sweetest memories of Ron was his holiday agency party.
Every year, Rosenfeld easily had the best agency holiday party on Madison Avenue. It was held at the Copacabana when the Copa was on 60th Street across the street from the more blue-blooded "Metropolitan club". That was during the "Copa's" much legendary era. Most people think of it from the film "Good Fellas" when Martin Scorsese filmed the most memorable Mafioso camera shot of all time; when Henry Hill parked his car right out side and with his date, went into the Copa through the back entrance, tipping all the bouncers along the way, walking through the kitchen, saying hello to all the chefs and then getting a table right in front of the orchestra and stage.
Of course, this was not how the 100+ RS&L team entered the Copa, though everyone felt just as cool. Even before the party, what made everyone prepared for an outstandingly good time was the 2-hour meeting Ron scheduled earlier in the day.
Then and there, management would go over how the agency did over the course of the year. Speeches were made, work was shown, announcements were made. People were promoted. Jokes filled the crowd throughout the entire time. It was great to be in advertising back then; long before the most creative agency work produced was measured in quarterly dividends.
Rosenfeld and his partners were incredibly generous people. They ran a successful business and knew a good part of it had to do with the team they called their family. Everyone... and we mean everyone received a bonus! Ron was great with words though he backed it up with action.
What made this annual ritual more heart-warming than anything else was that at the close of each annual meeting, the last bit of creative work shown was a :30 spot; a pro bono spot Ron and Len did years before with WABC-TV. Here it is scripted/laid out as close to a story board as possible:
1. Visual: Tommy, a 10-year old orphan boy in an orphanage, is sitting down at a desk writing a letter to Santa. Then, the shot goes to a close-up of the "Dear Santa" letter addressed on the paper and his signature "Sincerely, Tommy" at the end of the letter.
1. Voiceover: Each year, there are too many kids who wake up on Christmas only to find nothing under the tree. ABC tries to do its part to fix this as often as we can.
2. Visual: 50-year woman in her home at her own desk, opening a letter than looks very much like Tommy's letter to Santa.
2. Voiceover: That's why we work with the US postal service to put these type of Santa letter's into the hands of people who want to be Santa's little helpers.
3. Visual: Tommy in his pajamas walking slowly up to the tree timid and afraid of disappointment. Then the shot goes to the one box still under the tree. The kid approaches the box and sees his name, "Tommy" on it.
3. Voiceover: We know we can't make every kid's dream come true each holiday season, but that doesn't stop us from trying for those we can.
4. Visual: Tommy opens the box and out jumps a puppy, who's just as excited to see him as Tommy is to see the pup. The pup jumps up and licks Tommy's face. They roll on the floor playing.
5. Visual: Blue background with the words "Happy Holidays from ABC-TV.
Then, there would be silence in the room and not a dry eye in the house--even the agency veterans who had seen the spot dozens of time.
This was classic Rosenfeld. He made us feel as welcome in his agency as his relatives did when he was growing up on Friday night Shabbat.
We love you Ron. You live in our hearts.
We were his larger agency family, welcomed to his table for the traditional agency evening dinner. More than a sumptuous meal, it featured rituals that reflected joy and harmony of family and life.