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Needham, Harper & Steers. My first full-time job.

imagesMy first full time job was at an ad agency called Needham, Harper & Steers, a name which has long since faded from the ad industry, but whose work remains legendary. Among the many accounts the agency handled was McDonald’s.

I was reminded of the shop as I’ve recently reconnected via LinkedIn with a smart fellow by the name of John Most. John lives on the West Coast and runs a firm, MOST Brand Development + Advertising. I first met John in the 70s when “young John” was an account guy at Needham Harper & Steers roughly the same time I was in the mid ‘70s. I may have been a year or two older than John, so I know young John is no longer in his 20s. I love LinkedIn because it allows you to reconnect with people from your past. There’s virtually no chance John & I would have reconnected without the help of that digital wonder (see Lessons from LinkedIn). Reconnecting with John has made me think more about my first full time job in 1976 as Account Executive on the Amtrak Account at the New York office of Needham, Harper & Steers. They say you never forget your first (job that is), and I have only the most wonderful feelings about the agency, people I met, and personal growth during my tenure of alas only one and a half years. More on that later

Ad agency historians know that Needham, Harper & Steers was part of the “Big Bang”, i.e. the formation of Omnicom in April 1986 and became part of DDB Needham, later renamed merely DDB. The agency’s Chairman, the legendary Paul Harper, was based in New York, and sat in a mega office down the hall from my mine in our offices at 909 Third Avenue, in the Post Office Building on 54th & Third. However the strength of the agency was its Chicago office where we handled the McDonald’s account. I remember being very proud of “my” agency and the brilliant “You Deserve a Break Today” campaign which was launched at that time (still their best campaign ever).

The New York office did however have two monster accounts in those days: Xerox and Amtrak. Xerox advertising was great and well known. Amtrak, the quasi-governmental national passenger rail system, was in its infancy and our challenge was to market Amtrak through a quagmire of political issues (which remain today). Railroads are costly and the economics of passenger rail travel were such that if passengers had to bear the full cost of the travel the tickets would have cost 2, 3, even 4 times more and the trains would have been empty. So supporting all the locations (there were 480 stations!) particularly those in West Virginia, where the late, powerful Senator Robert Byrd resided, was paramount.

Advertising supporting each of the 480 rail stations might have been advertising lunacy, but for a young account guy with a freshly printed NYU MBA in hand, it was a fabulous learning experience. While hardly a strategic account, it sure taught me tons about the mechanics of advertising. My first boss was a terrific guy named Neil Tergesen, and his boss, was a smart man named Phil Wallace. I’m sure I made some bone headed mistakes and they must have chewed me out on occasion, but I can only smile thinking about two genuinely good men who, through the eyes of a 23-year old AE and also in reality, knew a ton about advertising.

I recall two key things about Neil and Phil. In my interview with Phil, I arrived at 2pm on a Friday and sat in the waiting room of the agency literally for hours. Phil got stuck at a client and didn’t return to the agency and had to blow off my interview. Instead of having a hissy fit (which isn’t my style anyhow) I was cool, expressed thanks to the receptionist and Phil’s assistant, with the hope that we could reschedule. To this day I suspect being graceful may have been big help in landing the job.

But later Neil Tergesen, the Amtrak Account Supervisor, told me the main reason he wanted to hire me. I thought I was hot stuff. A smart MBA from NYU. Damn. Who wouldn’t want me? In reality, my educational background had little to do with why they hired me. There were plenty of other MBAs to hire. Actually Neil later told me that he was interested in me because he noticed on my resume that I sold Fuller Brushes door-to-door for several years. (See 5 Things I Learned as a Fuller Brush Man). Neil figured if I could knock on strangers’ doors and peddle Fuller Brushes that I’d have the moxie to succeed in the ad business. Neil was right. A door-to-door sales position as a teen taught me salesmanship, tenacity, reliability, and integrity. It taught me to fight through fear, and to be goal oriented. It was experience that was far more valuable than I realized at the time.

I also warmly remember two women account executives I worked with—Peggy Lynch and Wanla Chang, and later that young fellow, John Most, who I “mentored”, being experienced and all—hah!

As I said, Amtrak was a great learning account. I was forced to learn the local newspapers supporting those 480 rail stations as well as the all local radio, local TV options. There was also trade advertising in travel publications. But there was also national advertising too. Amtrak used virtually every media type available in the 70s. I learned about the latest office technology too. I was amazed that we had something that was called a “dex” machine (known later as a fax) in the agency. That allowed me to send copy via the machine to the Amtrak headquarters in Washington—and it only took 3 minutes PER PAGE! To me, it was magic. Technology rocked I thought. What would they think of next? The Amtrak account also taught me the importance of attention to detail and proofreading. Many of the print ads showed schedules of train arrivals and departures and local fares. It was my job to be sure the info was correct. No once over skimming of the ads. Heavy proof reading was needed.

So why would I leave the agency I loved?

I began to chat with other industry people and when I told them about working on the Amtrak account, the fun I was having, 480 stations, newspapers etc. they said:

Lonny, you need to get “package goods” experience.

Ugh. We had few package goods accounts at the New York office of Needham, Harper & Steers (actually the Chicago office was a big General Mills shop). So how would I succeed in the ad business if I didn’t have experience selling something in a box or bottle for $2?

And then I got a call from a recruiter. “Hey Lonny, there’s a position at BBDO as the AE on the Pine-Sol account.” Mmm…Package goods. Nielsen reports, SAMI, LNA/BAR reports. All the important package goods tools of yesteryear. I jumped.

So I left Needham Harper & Steers, and joined BBDO as the AE on the Pine-Sol account. Pine-Sol Cleans, disinfects and deodorizes. I learned it well. I spent the next 12 years at BBDO. Career wise,  it was absolutely the right move. I also enjoyed BBDO, though as I rose into more senior roles, the brutality of the business became more evident. The ad business was always exciting but could be ugly too. No more Neil Tergesen and Phil Wallace to coddle me. But I wasn’t a 23-year old any longer either. I obviously did OK in the ad business, rising through the ranks at BBDO in my 12 years there, and then becoming President of Earle Palmer Brown/Philadelphia and CEO of the Star Group. But in retrospect, I was happiest as an AE at Needham, Harper & Steers.

We are all wise with the wisdom of hindsight, but even when I was at Needham, Harper & Steers I knew it was a special place for me, and as I was leaving, knew I would never have the same experience again.

Thanks for reminding me about Needham, Harper & Steers, “young John Most”. You deserve a break today. Thanks to LinkedIn for reconnected us digitally and hopefully, in person soon as well.




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