The McCann Time Capsule: Pete Peterson’s Stellar Career, Including at McCann

The McCann Time Capsule: Pete Peterson’s Stellar Career, Including at McCann

As Peter G. Peterson’s obituary this week in The New York Times indicated, he had few peers as a business, government, philanthropic and overall American leader. Describing him as a “Power from Wall St. to Washington,” the Times noted that he was “one of the few captains of business whose reach extended into the public sphere” and it quoted Forbes magazine’s description of him as having “one of the most distinguished resumes in America.”

Peterson also had one of the most spectacular careers at McCann, and probably within the advertising agency business overall, especially for someone who was in his late 20s.  Having joined McCann Chicago in 1953 as Director of Marketing Services, he was offered just five years later the position of worldwide President, which he turned down and, at 31 years old in early 1958, left the agency. 

Peterson does discuss his McCann years in some detail in his 2009 autobiography, “The Education of an American Dreamer: How a Son of Greek Immigrants Learned His Way from a Nebraska Diner to Washington, Wall Street, and Beyond.”

In 1953, he was an Executive VP at the Marketing Facts research firm when he received a call from the head of McCann Chicago offering him the Director of Marketing Services job, which would put him in charge of research, media, and sales promotion. He recalled about that offer, “He would double my pay, to a mind-numbing $25,000, and put me in line to become a vice president within a year, which he said would make me the youngest VP at a major advertising agency. I had been itching to move beyond the research field closer to the action.”

While enjoying the glamorous 1950s world of advertising --the “swirl that took me to the best clubs and restaurants” -- he soon discovered why he had been recruited. Standard Oil of Indiana, a client that represented 80 percent of the Chicago agency’s income, was “in peril owing to an antitrust ruling that was forcing the national family of regional Standard Oil companies to break up into competing companies.” He was not able to save the account, as it turned out for client reasons, but he was then assigned to win new clients through new business.

After reviewing how the agency “sold itself to clients in the past,” he concluded that there had been too much focus on the agency’s own credentials and not enough on addressing the potential client’s needs, “their consumers and what we could do for them.” Then in 1954, he was named head of the Chicago office and he enlisted as his creative director Chet Posey from McCann New York (Posey in the 1960s would return to New York as creative chief).  

They embarked on a new business streak founded on research and creativity that repositioned, and sometimes even reformulated the package design or contents of, client brands.

  • For Rival dog food, their research told them that “many urban dog owners were uneasy about being overweight and not getting enough exercise,” and shared the same concerns about their pets. So, Rival was pitched as “a modern dog food for city dogs that don’t get enough exercise.” They also recommended the client put more protein and less fat into the product, which then allowed for the advertising claim that it was “meatier.”
  • For Peter Pan peanut butter, which was “sold in a jar with a vacuum lid to prove nobody else had opened it,” the agency’s psychographic research found that so-called “anal compulsives” liked that quality. However, those it defined as “oral compulsives” preferred Skippy’s wider mouthed jars which they could just dig into. To win over both segments, the agency persuaded the client to introduce a wide-mouthed jar but keep the paper “purity” seal; sales increased.
  • For Swiss Meats for Babies, “We even engaged in a little child psychology,” writes Peterson. “We watched mothers feeding their babies and noticed that often, without thinking, they’d pull a face as they tasted the food themselves first. We didn’t have to interview the babies to conclude that their fussy reaction to the food was because they’d subliminally copied the mothers. We suggested making the baby food tastier for adults,” whch was adopted and increased sales.
  • For the Tums antacid account, it presented “ideas for introducing flavored Tums and creating special packages for frequent users, “ which led to its being assigned the account just at the conclusion of its new business pitch.

Marion Harper, Jr., the dynamic President of McCann, then promoted Peterson in 1956  to become Assistant to the President in charge of the U.S.Midwestern, Southwestern and Western offices and also to serve on the five-member board of directors. The other Assistant to the President was responsible for the U.S. Eastern offices.

“I marveled yet gain that I had hit the big time for certain,” said Peterson. But he was not comfortable with Harper’s financial decisions, which included buying a private company plane when the business was being hit by layoffs and investing the employee profit-sharing retirement trust fund in acquisitions. The final straw in losing trust in Harper was when Peterson wrote a paper on the future of advertising which he presented to Harper, but never heard back about it all and then saw it published under Harper’s name in Ad Age “without the candor or couresy of discussing it with me beforehand.”  [Harper, while an advertising and marketing visionary, would ultimately be undone by his poor financial leadership and be famously ousted in 1967 as CEO of Interpublic, the company he founded, by the board he had  put in place.]

As for Peterson, he left to join Bell & Howell, a McCann client that made cameras and audiovisual equipment, where he would become CEO, and then move on to his many other distinguished positions: as U.S. Secretary of Commerce, as the head of Lehman Brothers who rescued it years before the 2008 global financial crisis, and as co-founder of the Blackstone Group.

But after his string of new business successes at McCann Chicago in the mid-1950s, Peterson concluded that he had especially excelled in the ad agency business. “The ascending fortunes of the Chicago office matched my own,” he wrote. “Looking back, I have to say (immodestly) that I was probably better at this advertising business than anything else I had done in my career, before or since. The combination of relentless analysis and creativity seemed to fit me, and it was paying off. I was making a salary of $50,000.”

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