Y&R History: A Look at the Early Years...and Beyond
It was the Roaring Twenties; an age characterized by its music and media. The first commercial radio stations in the U.S. went on-air, the first talkies were seen and heard. But the biggest game changer in the media industry of the decade – and, arguably, the century? The opening of Young & Rubicam Advertising.
Y&R was founded in Philadelphia in 1923 by John Orr Young and Raymond Rubicam – a dynamic duo who had been working together for four years at NW Ayer, one of the largest advertising agencies at the time. (But no longer around today.)
Young was a 37-year old account executive. Rubicam was 30-year old copywriter who'd already made quite a name for himself as the writer of such lines as "The instrument of the immortals" for Steinway pianos, "The Priceless Ingredient" for Squibb, and "No Rolls Royce has ever worn out" for Rolls.
It was the beginning of firsts. It was the first time in advertising history that a creative person had founded an agency.
The fledgling agency's first job was to do a brochure for the "Quick Tipper", a device for making shoelaces at home. In later years, Rubicam delighted in telling people that Y&R, literally, started on a shoestring.
But before the year was out, Young & Rubicam was awarded a much more challenging assignment, Postum, bringing in what for those days was an immense budget - $800,000. Postum, a coffee substitute made from wheat, was free of caffeine, but many people found that it was also free of taste, so sales were in a steep decline. Rubicam rose to the challenge with a series of gut-wrenching ads with headlines such as "Why men crack" that dramatized the dangers of drinking coffee. Postum sales turned around and took off.
In 1926, Postum bought the Jell-O Company and offered Jell-O to Y&R on the condition that the agency moved to New York, which it did. For the first few months, Y&R was quartered in the Postum building, but the company soon moved into its own offices at 285 Madison Avenue – the agency’s home for the next 87 years – and “Madison Avenue” was born.
As the first "creative" agency, Y&R became a mecca for talented creative people. Throughout the 1920s, Y&R's ads were notable for the excellence of their copy. And it was a war of words, as in most advertising of the period, illustrations were non-existent or unimportant.
In 1932, Rubicam again led the industry in hiring Dr. George Gallup, a professor at Northwestern University, to start the first agency Research department. Gallup developed ways to reliably measure the size of radio audiences in addition to the techniques for measuring advertising readership that are still in use today.
In his book The Mirrormakers, Stephen Fox wrote: "The addition of Gallup made Y&R unique in the business, an agency with a reputation for sharp, original copy plus professional, usable research: advertising as both art and science."
Young & Rubicam began to resemble everything that #advertisingis, especially with the agency’s media innovations beginning in the ‘30s. Ads placed by Y&R during this decade helped give birth to FORTUNE and LIFE magazines. Y&R rose to the occasion again as a pioneer in the production of radio and later, television shows.
Fred Allen, Jack Benny, and Arthur Godfrey are just three of the performers whose shows were sponsored by Y&R clients and produced by Y&R – making Y&R’s decision to head to Hollywood in 1936 as its first West Coast office an industry game-changer.
The ‘30s were a period of major growth, and even the tense international affairs of the next decade could not slow Y&R down. In fact, despite the war, Y&R opened an office in London as the first office outside of North America in 1943.
In 1942, Col. Tom Lewis and a group of other Y&R people in uniform created the Army Forces Radio Network. Just a year later, Chet LaRoche, who had become president of the agency, helped to found and administer the War advertising Council, which rallied the public during World War II.
In 1945, with the help of another Y&R employee, the War Advertising Council evolved into the Advertising Council, to organize the creative and placement of pro bono advertising for a variety of worthy causes. Y&R Global CEO David Sable sits on their Board today.
Starting in the '50s, Y&R embraced the new medium of television, and another series of firsts followed. In 1957, Y&R was behind a Gibbs S.R. Toothpaste advert that was the first ever TV commercial to run in Britain. Just a year later, as the first agency to organize sponsorship of daytime serial drama on TV, Y&R gave birth to what are now referred to as “Soap Operas” because of their originating sponsors.
Many Y&R commercials from the early years of TVCs are now considered classics: from Mike Nichols and Elaine May for General Electric refrigerators, "When there's no man around," marking Y&R as one of the first agencies to use actors rather than announcers in TVCs; to many iconic firsts for the JELL-O brand, including Jack Benny and Bill Cosby’s endorsements and “Maine” – the first JELL-O ad to ever run in color.
In the '70s, Y&R set itself a new goal: “To be the best in every field of commercial communication.” And “The Whole Egg” was hatched – Y&R’s pioneering approach to integrated marketing.
Also during the decade, Y&R planted its feet on five continents — launching operations in key markets such as Frankfurt, San Juan, Caracas, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Dominican Republic and Johannesburg. By the 1980s, Y&R was again leading the pack; this time merging the best of the East and West. It all started when Y&R formed a joint venture with Dentsu of Japan, giving clients the unique capabilities of to both Eastern and Western cultures.
In 1986, we were the first Western agency in China, breaking ground in Beijing, and since adding two other offices in China - Shanghai and Guangzhou.
And yet another first just three years later, we opened an office in Moscow, marking the first joint venture between an American and a Soviet advertising agency. Since then, we've added offices all across Central and Eastern Europe.
Y&R greeted the ‘90s with continued global growth. Embracing the incoming digital era just as we had with advances in broadcast and globalization, Y&R took another leap ahead with the launch of the first website for a client (USPS – 1990) and also the first cybercast (Molson Ice – 1995) and won a Gold Award for the our participation in the first interactive TV with TimeWarner.
In 1994, Y&R launched BrandAsset Valuator (BAV) — the world’s largest global database of consumer perceptions of brands, a brand management tool that is both diagnostic and prescriptive. Today, BAV contains over 75 metrics on 40,000 brands in 50 countries.
In this early part of the 21st century, Y&R continues being one of the largest and most iconic agencies. In 2000, we presaged the industry’s new agency model with Y&R 2.0, designed to be a nimble, cross-channel, creative boutique. We were the first agency to use wireless text messaging integrated into a TV show, American Idol.
We became part of WPP in 2001 and since then, have brought VML, the fastest growing digital agency and iconmobile, one of the world’s premier mobile marketing companies into the Y&R family.
Y&R remains committed to innovation, most recently with the advent of our Spark Plug program. The Spark Plug program, an innovation incubator, began in New York, when the agency offered office space to a handful of startups whose technology and thinking would be relevant to clients’ brands. In exchange for the space, Y&R receives complete access to the startups’ thinking, innovation and projects.
In just a year after its ignition, Spark Plug hubs have already expanded to our offices in California, Chicago, Mexico City, Paris, Singapore, Tel Aviv, Kansas City, Sao Paulo and London.
We have also just left our Madison Avenue offices for state-of-the art space at 3 Columbus Circle, establishing what David Sable has dubbed, “Madison Avenue West,” believing that Madison Avenue is a state of mind, not state of place.
In addition to being ranked the #3 agency in the US by Advertising Agethis year, Y&R swept the digital and mobile category award at Cannes 2012 with our Mobile Medic campaign and received the honor of two Y&R ads named as TED’s “Top Ten Ads Worth Spreading” in 2013. The Gunn Report ranked Y&R as the #5 Global Creative Network this year.
Y&R continues to expand, to build on its robust offering and, of course, to Resist the Usual.
Raymond Rubicam often said: “Every generation of Y&R will have to reinvent itself for its own time.” And we are.
We continue to take that to heart as we celebrate our 90th Birthday engaging the world in a conversation about advertising, using #Advertisingis. Tweets were posted to a mosaic created by Y&R Spark Plug company, Hyperactivate.
We’re gearing up for the next 90 years.