The McCann Time Capsule: WWI
As the news and a current PBS documentary remind us, it was 100 years ago this month when America entered the First World War. For the five-year-old H.K. McCann Company, the impact was huge on its staffing, but only a slight bump in the road on its long-term strategic plan.
In an April 1917 letter to the staff, Harrison K. McCann reported on a trip he had recently taken to visit the 4-year-old San Francisco office. He was very pleased, he said, because it had “the best reputation of any agency on the Coast, and incidentally developed the largest volume of business handled by any Pacific Coast advertising agency . . . composed of the same type of intelligent, loyal people that one finds wherever he touches the McCann organization anywhere.”
Mr. McCann ended the same missive by noting that “while the Great War is on, little can be done in the way of developing our business in foreign fields.” Although “the McCann Company ranks would undoubtedly be considerably depleted, since so many members of our organization are young men of military age,” he nonetheless encouraged the staff to volunteer because “duty to our country should come first.”
By August 1918, McCann’s military tally was that 48 of its 127 employees across all of its offices (or 38% of the total) had enlisted, including one woman, Katharine Whitlock, who has “sailed for France, to engage in Red Cross relief work with the French, who have been made homeless by the advance of the enemy.” By October of that year, four more had volunteered, so that by the end of the war in 1919, the agency said that “The McCann Company’s total of 53 stars in the service flag is unparalleled in the advertising agency business in proportion to our total personnel.” The agency was also creating war bond ads.
While McCann was a young agency with just three U.S. and one Canadian office, it was already formulating ambitious international expansion plans. Mr. McCann addressed “the effect of the war on the advertising business” in an extended August 1917 speech to the staff. He predicted great post-war economic opportunities and described the agency’s organizational strengths that he thought would put McCann “in almost a better position than any other agency to take advantageof . . a big boom” in the advertising business that would follow the war.
As he said: “Our policy, as I see it, for the future should be broader than our present policy. Our present slogan is we are ‘the only national agency.’ I feel we ought to have more vision that that and aim to be the biggest international agency. . . I believe that there is a big opportunity for some agency to perfect an organization to have vision enough to see into the future, and courage enough to go ahead and build for the future in a big way, and it is our purpose to do that.”
It would not be until 1927—a full decade later— before McCann would actually open its first overseas offices in France, England and Germany. But as a sign of the strength of its vision, it may have delayed but did not waver in its long-term commitment to global expansion.