Bozell at 100: Lessons From a Century in the Ad Business

The long view from the 'milk mustache' agency

When you think of cities with long-lived ad agencies, Chicago, Boston, New York and a dozen other places probably come to mind before you picture Omaha (and that's OK, we put that chip on our shoulder to good use). But the land of steak is where Leo Bozell and Morris Jacobs started the firm that would eventually become Bozell Worldwide, once the eighth largest agency network on the planet. We had Jeep, American Airlines and did the original "milk mustache" campaign for "Got Milk?"

Our greatest achievement, without a doubt, is reaching our 100th year in advertising (which is probably surpassed onlyby reaching 100 years in bull riding). To celebrate, we dusted off the memoirs of Mr. Jacobs to take a look back, view our industry from a longer lens, and muse a little about our very atypical journey.

Abandon all restraint and embrace change.

Bozell is the child of change. We rose to rarified air in the era of mergers and it seemed like nothing could alter our trajectory. Except for another merger that would roll all Bozell offices into FCB. Folks in the Omaha office had other ideas and we opted out, bought back our independence and started a new chapter as a tenacious small agency. That's not how it's supposed to work, but it's worked very well for us. We maintained our culture, values, history and still serve regional and national clients (the College World Series, FNBO, Sue Bee Honey, the College Savings Plans Network, Cue Broadway and Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium). In our view, change is essential. It's the oxygen of our industry, and we wouldn't be here without it.

Give back like it's an essential part of life.

Mr. Jacobs was the child of poor, illiterate Lithuanian immigrants. He was gifted with an unrelenting work ethic but also had help along the way. One act of kindness changed him profoundly, and he was fond of saying, "We must pay rent for the space we occupy on this earth." He practiced what he preached, to the point of wondering how he found the time.

So, where should you begin? Just say yes. To anything that needs your help. Toss aside any thought of how it will look on your résumé or if it will win an award (sorry, Clio). Just begin the work of helping the greater good. It may be the only way we're collectively going to make it.

"Hustle" still needs to be a dominant gene. 

Leo and Morris couldn't afford a phone their first year. They also worked full-time at other employers until they could officially form a business. Fast-forward to the end of Mr. Jacob's career and he's looking at scrapbooks with thank-you notes from celebrities of his day and presidents Truman and Eisenhower. All because of hustle. The degree that you wield it is up to you, but you'll need to have it at the ready every single day.

The most important trend is the human condition.

Worried about the next disruptive technology? Don't be. Just ask how to make your implementation exceptionally human. Concerned that a new competitor is draining your market share? Ask if their approach is more emotion-centric. Wondering why a trend is so popular? Look at how it makes people feel and ask if that feeling was absent in the culture. Brands and agencies have and will always ask these questions. And the answer was, is, and will always be human because our wonderful need for feeling is forever in our DNA.  

The more things change... 

Need a campaign that's more than just ad placement? Something that involves influencers and is followed by the press? It might be a good idea to hire George Burns and Gracie Allen to do a whistle-stop tour to celebrate Union Pacific's 70th anniversary. What if you want to tell a client's story with something non-traditional? You could pitch the plot to MGM, have Spencer Tracy play Father Flanagan and call the movie Boys Town. Maybe we should all look at past tactics for a bit of inspiration now and then.

100 Years of Bozell Ads
Find a new term for "future-proofing."

As Exhibit A, we give you the entire 20th century. I'm glad I could get that pet peeve out of the way. Thank you. 

Creativity is your best asset for all new communication tools. 

Bozell is old enough to count TV as a disruptive technology. Other formats have peaked and declined and there's no doubt this process will continue. In our long view, brands usually respond to new media in three different ways. The first is to have a presence. It feels safe, but a lot of companies will do the same. The second is to embrace doing something different only when risk becomes a must-have. Catching up is always a good thing, but it's a lot of work. The third is to embrace everything a new channel can be and establish yourself as a leader. This requires a little boldness, but the hindsight needed for your next big challenge has already been created. 

Care madly. 

"Care madly" is the introspective answer to the question "How does an ad agency stay in business for 100 years?" Those two words shouldn't even be next to each other, but they've been behind everything we do. In practice, they hone skills, open doors, provide insight, bring people together and improve outcomes. With one century as proof, we'll continue to practice our brand of dedication in everything we do. It's been quite the ride arriving at this point (most recently this exact sentence) and we're excited to see how our next chapter is written. It will all depend on whether or not we care madly enough.

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