The McCann Time Capsule: A Novelist, Musician, and NY Creative Leader

The McCann Time Capsule: A Novelist, Musician, and NY Creative Leader

Close readers of obits might have noticed that the one last week about the novelist Clancy Sigal in The New York Times quoted from a 1992 review of one his books by “the novelist Daniel Stern.” McCannologists would be aware that Stern also had a distinguished advertising career at our New York agency.

While some cultural figures have had only fleeting associations with McCann, Stern’s was a pivotal and ongoing one. In October 1966, already a Deputy Creative Director, he was promoted to become one of the two creative leaders in charge of all work for McCann New York (then called the Home Office). As noted in a newsletter at the time, the restructuring of the creative department followed a year of growth marked by new assignments from existing clients such as Nabisco, Westinghouse and American Home Products, and “the influx of such new accounts as Warner Lambert, Johnson & Johnson and Ronson. And McCann’s regional offices, whose workloads are also growing, have been showing an increasing desire for help and counsel from the Home Office.” 

Early in 1968, Stern would be promoted to Senior VP and was named a Managing Director of one of the account groups at the New York agency. The accounts Stern had worked on included Westinghouse, Buick, Humble Oil (Esso), and National Cash Register.

As the 1968 announcement noted, Sterns was already also “a successful novelist and literary critic.” In fact, he might be considered a Renaissance man, given that he wrote nine novels, literary criticism, and many short stories for which he won literary awards as well as Harold Bloom’s praise; and was also an accomplished classical and jazz musician who had played the cello with Charlie Parker and the Indianapolis Symphony. Before entering advertising, he had already successful auditioned for the Houston Symphony, though he moved to New York instead where his friendships included John Cage, Jackson Pollock and Lionel Trilling.  

He left McCann in 1970 to become VP-Advertising and Publicity Worldwide at Warner Brothers, where his first project was coming up with the line, “Nobody who was there will ever be the same. Be there,” to advertise the movie “Woodstock.”  Stern, who died in 2007, would end his working career as the Cullen Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Houston. Interestingly, he had never attended college, becoming a professional cellist instead.

Stern’s novels included “Who Shall Live, Who Shall Die,” a 1963 work that was one of the first about the Holocaust by an American (Elie Wiesel wrote the foreword in the 1994 edition). But his most famous book was “The Suicide Academy,” which was published in 1968, the same year when he took on his creative leadership position at McCann NY.

The introduction to the book was written by Anaïs Nin, who described it as being about a “place where would-be suicides are invited for a day of self-examination and meditation, after which they must decide whether to return to the world or to put an end to their lives.”

Nin, in writing about the novel, said:  

“We have had too many pedestrian novels in an age of space travel. Daniel Stern is able to toss all the facts into space, to reverse their chronological monotony, to upset established curricula. To consider the off-balance of the absurd as human, black humor as a daily contingency, terror and death from new position, may reveal new techniques for defeating destruction.

Daniel Stern’s wit is not cold, or inhuman. He belongs to the new generation which is emotional, writing to be enjoyed, to surprise, to jolt, to charge and recharge. He uses mockery only to leap over the traps, not to separate us from experience.”

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