The McCann Time Capsule: SF’s Food Expertise and the Road to Rice-A-Roni
While lawyers, accountants and consultants can generally handle competitive companies and become category experts, this has not tended to be an opportunity for ad agencies because of client conflict concerns. McCann has been somewhat of an outlier in this regard both because of the nature of our founding and the pathway that some of our earliest agencies used to grow, especially the San Francisco office that was opened in 1913.
The H. K. McCann Co. came into existence in 1912 as a category expert on petroleum-based product marketing. Harrison McCann was the ad manager of the Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey in 1911 when the Supreme Court ruled on the monopoly’s breakup into separate companies. Because the common advertising department had to be disbanded, Mr. McCann was given the opportunity to form a separate ad agency with many of the people who had been in the 100-person department. The agency then began opening up branches throughout North America and soliciting the newly independent oil units as separate clients. In the early days, this client list came to include the former Standard Oil conglomerate’s units in New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Nebraska, Colorado, Louisiana, California and Canada. Chesebrough Manufacturing had also been associated with the monopoly and its Vaseline brand became an early and long-enduring McCann client.
While Standard Oil of California (Chevron) was the initial client in San Francisco, the agency’s location in the agriculture rich state led to it handling the state’s many cooperative food growers and their brands. By 1917, agricultural-based accounts, whether canners or growers, were especially dominant on McCann San Francisco’s client roster. Most notably, this included the California Packing Corp., a merger of four of the largest fruit canners, which then worked with McCann to launch the Del Monte brand name. But there were also the Ripe Olive Association, the Walnut Growers Association (Diamond Brand Walnuts), the Hood River Apple Co., and the California Redwood Association. Years later would bring the California Lima Bean Growers Association and the National Dairy Board.
McCann was creating advertising across many different media for these clients, including direct mail for California Redwood, trolley car ads for the Walnut Growers, and outdoor posters for the olive growers. It was also setting the stage for McCann becoming a major package goods food marketing agency across the U.S. and international network, eventually adding brands such as Beech-Nut, Borden, Swift, Nabisco, Nestlé, Bosco, Junket and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter and Promise margarines.
The San Francisco agency itself also created a famous TV campaign built around a catchy jingle for Rice-a-Roni that played up the city’s famous cable cars. As told in SFGate, a San Francisco Chronicle website, McCann SF VP Charles Foll wrote the words ("Rice-A-Roni, the San Francisco treat; Rice-A-Roni, the flavor can't be beat") in 1961 using the tune of a 1923 song called "Barney Google (with his Goo-Goo-Googa-ly Eyes)."
The commercial’s iconic status was described in the news article in a quote from Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University professor who was also director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television:
"If you had a jingle hall of fame, the Rice-A-Roni song would surely be in it. If you don't live in the Bay Area, more than the images of Tony Bennett's 'I Left My Heart in San Francisco,' the Loma Prieta earthquake and the MTV show 'Real World San Francisco,' Rice-A-Roni is the iconic image of San Francisco."