|Los Angeles Review of Books|
Chris Mitton on Buddy, Can You Spare a Line? by Guy Barnett
One Eyed Jack
July 19th, 2012
“I believe in telling the truth as creatively as possible.” — Buddy Mackerson.
David Ogilvy, Bill Bernbach, Roger Sterling, Bert Cooper, and Don Draper are names that instantly evoke the golden age of American advertising, a time in the late fifties and early sixties when a group of Madison Avenue titans dictated the needs and desires of the American consumer, seemingly at will. There were a handful of important characters from the era, however, that managed to escape the public’s attention. Men who, though they possessed the power to transform household products into indelible icons, remained obscure themselves. Buddy Mackerson was among their number, and he finally gets his due as the subject of the fascinating new biography, Buddy, Can You Spare a Line? by Guy Barnett, founder of the modern day New York-based advertising agency The Brooklyn Brothers. Barnett’s exposé is a wonderfully rich portrait of a Zelig of the advertising world, a man who never claimed the spotlight himself, but greatly influenced the contributions of others.
Mackerson’s childhood set the stage for an unconventional life. Mackerson was abandoned as an infant in Flatbush in 1935, left on a stoop, wrapped in the classified ad section of the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper. Mary and Everett Mackerson took him in. They were, by all accounts, a spirited couple, prone to disagreements, and could not settle on a name for their new addition. Eventually, Everett took matters into his own hands and began referring to the child simply as “Buddy,” despite the subsequent decision to christen him Wilberforce. Only the nickname stuck.
Barnett paints a happy picture of Buddy’s early life. His parents loved him dearly, and encouraged him to follow his dreams. He didn’t need much prodding, as he was an imaginative child whose curiosity knew no bounds. He told his mother that he was gainfully employed down at the docks as a loader, but actually spent his days encouraging sailors on shore leave to regale him with their exploits. Mackerson was an avid listener and the boys in blue were more than happy to oblige, as well as teach the young man a dizzying array of unsavory skills. Though these lessons were diverting, and despite his increased proficiency for knot-tying, tobacco chewing, and skirt-chasing, Buddy had a calling that was far more powerful than the lure of ocean voyage.
Eventually, Buddy craved his own stage. He found it, becoming one of the youngest Carnival barkers in the history of Coney Island. Of his childhood in Brooklyn he once remarked, “I didn’t run away and join the Circus. It joined me.” Barnett shares this anecdote:
As was clear to all who saw Mackerson work, taking the Coney Island punters for every nickel they had, a great salesman had been born. In Barnett’s words “Buddy could sell ice cubes to Eskimos, followed by an ice tray, and a refrigerator to keep them in.” He had a prodigious aptitude for persuasion and quickly developed into a highly successful door-to-door salesman. On one occasion, he sold a full set of chimney brushes to the unsuspecting Edith Mallory, a secretary who didn’t possess a fireplace. So shocked was she at being duped, she decided that the young lad warranted an introduction to her boss. That very same week Mackerson found himself on Madison Avenue with an appointment to meet David Ogilvy. Ogilvy was a legend when it came to selling, a self-made man who was known on the street as the “Father of Advertising.” Barnett evokes this encounter with particular relish, and one can practically smell the magic marker fumes and pipe smoke wafting through the air as the master encounters his budding apprentice for the first time:
Advertising history was made that day, but not in the way Mackerson had envisaged: he didn’t get the job. But Ogilvy saw plenty to like in the young man with the eccentric eyewear – Mackerson provided the inspiration for one of Ogilvy’s most indelible advertising campaigns, “The Man in the Hathaway shirt.” Each ad would feature a distinguished gentleman sporting one of the client’s shirts and, more famously, an eye-patch.
On seeing the Hathaway campaign, Mackerson was outraged. He threw his eye-patch into the fire and purchased a pair of dark glasses. For two weeks he wore them, day and night, rain or shine, despite determined strangers who helped him cross the road and, memorably, a kind, elderly woman who forced him into her seat on the subway. One night he walked into a lamppost on Park Avenue South and relented. He reverted to the eye-patch that became his trademark and mailed the dark glasses to Ogilvy with a note that read, "In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king."
In 1953, Mackerson was hired by Doyle Dane Bernbach, where he worked directly for Bill Bernbach himself. It was, by Mackerson’s account, the best training he received. Again he was fated to shape advertising history in indirect ways. Barnett shares this brief encounter between the young upstart and the man who would become his mentor:
Buddy wasn’t short on original ideas. His ability to create taglines and headlines, seemingly off-the-cuff, was legendary, although it’s hard to imagine the legal departments of today’s agencies agreeing to unleash gems like these on an unsuspecting public:
And perhaps most famous of all:
Mackerson also profoundly altered the creative process when he invented the “Buddy System” — two creatives working together in one room on every project. “Anyone with half a brain thinks they can work in advertising. This way I can get a whole brain out of them. It’s not rocket science, it’s just simple arithmetic.” A famously frugal individual, the savings on office space were not lost on Mackerson either.
He believed strongly in the power of originality. “Don’t over think. The first thought is usually the best, ” he would say. In fact, this philosophy was the most valuable product to come out of his tempestuous marriage to Edith Mackerson. (He had originally been attracted to her older sister.) Mackerson also believed in consuming the products he advertised, particularly if they involved alcohol. When he was inducted into the American Advertising Federation Hall of Fame in 1979, he famously corrected Jay Chiat, who introduced him as “The one and only Buddy Mackerson.” “Actually there are two Buddy Mackersons,” he countered, “one before lunch, one after lunch.” Naturally the creative teams were keen to present him their work in the mornings.
Mackerson’s influence inevitably waned in the eighties and nineties but, true to form, he still managed to have a hand in the creation of arguably the most famous ad of all time. In 1983, Mackerson was working at Chiat Day when he spotted a script for the fledgling computer company Apple tacked on a meeting room wall. Unrelentingly tough on quality control, he angrily scribbled “You can do better…Oh well.” across the page. Mackerson’s handwriting was notoriously difficult to decipher, and when Steve Hayden, the copywriter who had created the ad, went to retrieve his script he saw a note that seemed to read: “ You can do better. …Orwell.”
The 1984 Apple Superbowl commercial was born. Mackerson never took a credit.
Barnett appointed Buddy Mackerson Chairman Emeritus of the Brooklyn Brothers in 2009 and it was there that he began to share with the author the marvelous stories that make up this absorbing book.
Buddy dedicated his life to the art of selling. He often said that he would be an adman until he died, and probably for a little while after that. He was true to his word. His gravestone carries a simple inscription. It reads “Your ad here.” Buddy’s phone number is etched underneath it.