CALIFORNIA CARRIES ON DREAMING: Understanding the Californian ad business requires a knowledge of Hollywood, a course in surfing and a touch of lunacy

Caroline Marshall writes: This feature by Brian Davis is reprinted

from Campaign of 7 February 1975. Many readers will remember Davis as

one of the most gifted writers on advertising and film-making the

business has seen; they may also remember his brief stint - of one week

- as editor of Campaign in 1984. We reprint this feature as a tribute to

Davis, following a recent Cutting Edge documentary on Channel 4 which

charted the final tragic months of his life.

As I walked into the lobby of the Ambassador Hotel on Los Angeles'

Wilshire Boulevard, a man wearing heavy make-up and carrying a handbag

turned to me and said: 'Soda water bottle, have a banana. I know what to

do, and you do too.' I don't know why but this struck me as odd.

Scattered round the other parts of the lobby, which resembled one of the

more extravagant sets from Grand Hotel, were a troupe of Russian

dancers, several scantily dressed cheerleaders, a brass band, a large

black bellhop with an Afro hairdo, and a man wearing a gorilla suit. It

wasn't the kind of crowd you get at the Savoy.

'They're making a movie,' said the desk clerk, who knew his way around.

'If you ask me, it's terrible. I wish they'd go away.'

It turned out that the raison d'etre of the enterprise was none other

than Miss Linda Lovelace. The movie, roguishly entitled Linda Lovelace

for President, was a million dollar attempt to transform her from the

queen of hard porn into a legitimate actress - rumour has it she's been

taking acting lessons - and 'Soda water bottle ...' was a line from the


'Don't bother to see it,' one of the crew said. 'This is the company

that brought you Gutter Girl.'

Meanwhile in the Cocoanut Grove, a once fashionable nightclub adjoining

the Ambassador lobby, Peter Bogdanovich was coaxing Bert Reynolds,

Cybill Shepherd and half the members of Central Casting through a

sequence from his Cole Porter musical, At Long Last Love. It was way

behind schedule.

The extras, sweating profusely in their crumpled tuxedoes, kept coming

up for air, calling their agents, and mingling with the Linda Lovelace

crowd. 'Why don't you go in and watch?' one of them said to the bemused

passers-by. 'Nobody knows what's going on anyway.'

The whole scene, Nobody Ordered Wolves revisited, offered conclusive

proof that what they've been saying all along is true: Los Angeles and

its inhabitants are congenitally crazy. 'Do you think they need a

professional drunk?' the first hotel guest I spoke to said.

'I'm very good at doing professional drunks.' I had no reason to doubt


It also provided further evidence of the buoyancy of the US film

business, which is enjoying its biggest revival for years. Box-office

takings have climbed 30 per cent in the past 12 months, and if the film

business is flourishing, then Los Angeles, spiritually at least, is

alive and well.

The entire Southern Californian lifestyle - sun, surf, swimming pools

and tennis courts - is straight out of Hollywood, circa That Touch of

Mink, everybody knows somebody in the movies, and every building is a

film set. 5900 Wilshire Boulevard, home of Ogilvy & Mather, Doyle Dane

Bernbach, Dentsu and Della Femina Travisano, has been used in so many

films and TV series that you expect to see Ironside being wheeled out of

the elevator.

'One problem we don't have is recruiting staff,' the head of one Los

Angeles agency said. 'The lifestyle is the best recruiter in the world.'

And it's true that almost everyone you meet originally came out on a

visit or business trip, got seduced by the sun, and never found the way

back. Richard Burton was right, for once, when he called L.A. 'a

perennial Wimbledon'.

Most of the art directors and many of the writers working in Los Angeles

were born and trained in New York, but they view their native city with

a mixture of indifference and resentment. 'I go back there maybe twice a

year,' Stan Jones, an art director with Doyle Dane Burnbach, said, 'and

then only if I have to.'

Michael Agate, who moved to L.A. a year ago to take over the ailing

McCann-Erickson office, swears he'll never return. 'How can people spend

half their lives commuting on lousy trains? Here I can get to the office

in half an hour, play tennis at lunchtime and be back home in the

evening in time to go to the beach. I must have been mad to stay in New

York for so long.'

The Southern Californian ambience is hardly conducive to high-powered

business, of course - 'When I do return to New York, the whole place

seems hyperactive,' Jones said. 'Los Angeles by contrast seems almost

lethargic' - and, in advertising terms, Los Angeles has always been

strictly Mickey Mouse.

But it is beginning to change, and there's a widespread belief that it

will eventually replace San Francisco as the centre of the West Coast

advertising business. Certainly, it would be a more logical choice: it's

the centre of the commercials production business, bigger, brasher and

warmer than San Francisco, and has more of everything except early

morning fog and vertiginous hills.

'I have little doubt that the emphasis will soon switch to Los Angeles,'

Dennis Foley of Cunningham & Walsh's San Francisco office said. 'We

opened a Los Angeles branch several years ago, but closed it soon after

because it seemed impractical. Now we realise that we've got to have one

again. All our commercials are shot here, and when clients think of the

West Coast they automatically think of L.A.'

Until recently, many of the agencies had no more than token

representation in Los Angeles, but now they nearly all have full-service

offices. Benton & Bowles is a typical example - when they won the

Continental Airlines account a few months ago they had to open up a

full-scale Los Angeles office to service it.

'The growth of the advertising business in California has been a fairly

arbitrary affair,' Bruce Nicolayson, the creative director of Ogilvy &

Mather in Los Angeles, said. 'It used to be an entrepreneurial business,

and people were willing to take chances - what happened in New York or

Chicago was irrelevant. But as the big boys have moved in from New York

with their more conservative management, the industry has become far

more businesslike, if less exciting.

'More and more national accounts are being handled from the West Coast -

the big banks, Del Monte and particularly Carnation, which since the 40s

has expanded from a minor company into a dollars 55 million giant. The

Carnation account used to be peanuts - now it's worth dollars 20 million

to Waseys.'

Most of the more successful independent agencies have already been taken

over by the giants. Carson Roberts, for instance, which used to bill

itself as the largest agency west of the Mississippi, is now part of

Ogilvy & Mather. (Its co-founder, Ralph Carson, a director of Ogilvy and

a lecturer in marketing at UCLA, was the man responsible for moving the

Dodgers baseball team from New York to Los Angeles. He kept putting up

posters outside their New York stadium, saying: 'It's much warmer in


One of California's largest independent shops, the dollars 36

million-billing Honig-Cooper & Harrington, was taken over six months ago

by Foote Cone & Belding, making FCB the biggest agency on the West


Another reason for the more businesslike attitude of the agencies - and

this applies to both San Francisco and Los Angeles - is the influx of

the Japanese who, having completed the takeover of Hawaii, are now

staking their claim in California. There's a story going round West

Coast agencies about a leading Japanese businessman who, after his sixth

Tequila sunrise, candidly admitted: 'We really blew it with Pearl

Harbour. If it wasn't for that, we could have taken over this place 20

years earlier.'

It's not only obvious targets such as the automotive and electronics

industries which are falling to the Japanese: hotels, real estate and

department stores are all being snapped up by the entrepreneurs from


'I have this constant fear,' a Los Angeles taxi driver told me. 'I

imagine waking up and finding the Japanese have taken over my


But in agency circles, if not on the taxi-driver circuit, the latest

invasion is being enthusiastically welcomed. The Japanese are the

biggest advertisers in the West, and by far the fastest growing.

Companies such as Datsun, Toyota, Honda and Mazda, which are

industriously cashing in on the new American obsession with economical

cars, started out as small-time spenders in an unpromising market.

Nobody wanted to know. Now an agency without a Japanese account is

regarded as a non-contender.

'California is rapidly falling within the East Asian sphere of

influence,' Agate said. 'There's so much traffic between the Far East

and California that the most sensible tie-up for a San Francisco or Los

Angeles shop is with a Tokyo agency. In a few years, I expect to see the

development of a new agency network, with bases in Tokyo, Honolulu,

Mexico City and Los Angeles.'

As clients, the Californian Japanese are both generous and unusually

loyal, showing little enthusiasm for the agency-swapping routine. Datsun

has been with Parker Advertising for more than 12 years, and of the

major car advertisers only Mazda at Foote Cone & Belding is thought to

be unsettled.

The recent arrival of Dentsu in Los Angeles has failed to dislodge any

of their compatriots' accounts, despite a high-density, low-key campaign

('Gamo, Miyakawa, Feitz, Sollish, Toth and Parsekian have a nice little

advertising agency on the the top floor of 5900 Wilshire


'There's only one problem with the Japanese,' a Los Angeles creative

director said. 'You have them in for a meeting and you spend two hours

talking to them about marketing problems and creative approaches. They

sit there smiling and nodding and scribbling on bits of paper, and when

you've finished, you realise they haven't understood a goddammed word

you've said. They're too fucking polite to admit it.'

California's third advertising base, San Diego, has little direct

contact with the Japanese contingent, but it's in an ideal position to

benefit from the new industrial development in nearby Orange County,

where the oranges came from before the developers arrived.

Orange County is the traditional home of the extreme Right Wing, and the

attitude of its businessmen is neatly encapsulated in the bumper

sticker: 'We don't give a damn how they do things in L.A.' San Diego -

'Los Angeles without the crap,' according to one agency executive - is

just to the south of Orange County and can easily take advantage of the

area's acute xenophobia.

'It's true that Orange County hates to be associated with Los Angeles,

and that's great for us,' said Robert Page Jones, the managing director

of Phillips Ramsey, which with billings of dollars 9 million is by far

the biggest agency in the city.

'Of course, San Diego has other advantages - we're not part of L.A., but

we're only two hours drive from it. What we have here, I suppose, is the

biggest back-lot in the world. We'd rather be a dollars 9 million agency

in San Diego than a dollars 30 million agency in L.A.'

Where the whole of the Californian ad business outscores the rest of the

American industry is in the poster medium.

Doyle Dane Bernbach has co-ordinated all its outdoor advertising from

Los Angeles for several years, and other agencies are following


It's an eminently reasonable policy, because in California, as Ogden

Nash and others have noted, you can't see the wood for the billboards.

(Many of Los Angeles' palms are rumoured to be plastic, but let that


'If an Eastern agency is given a big budget, the automatic reaction is

to put it all into TV,' Agate said. 'What you have to understand out

here is that people spend half their lives on the road - the average

distance to and from work is 50 miles - and the billboards are hard to


Predictably, an anti-billboard lobby is beginning to make its presence

felt: environmentalist pressure groups are demanding a total ban on

billboards, claiming that the 'visual pollution' is driving away

tourists. The advertisers' response is equally predictable: it's going

to put thousands of people out of work, they argue, and it's illogical,

because if billboards are banned, what about all the neon signs

promoting hotels, theatres, supermarkets? The argument seems unlikely to

be resolved until the billboards fall of their own accord.

Radio is another important medium: at the last count, Los Angeles had a

total of 87 radio stations and San Francisco a comparatively paltry 17.

Excellent radio production facilities are easily available.

'But it's a myth that radio is a cheap medium,' Nicolayson said. 'There

are so many stations that you've got to buy into 30 or 40 of them to get

a reasonable spread. In the end, it's often as expensive as running a

full-scale TV campaign.'

A cheaper, if decidedly tacky, medium is the 'massage parlour Press', a

curious phenomenon which seems to be endemic to the Los Angeles


Hollywood Press, a 25 cent weekly billing itself as 'a sexual freedom

publication', is a leading example of the genre: its pages are full of

breathless ads promising 'wet and wild showers', 'sexual intercourse

massage', 'wrestling partners', 'attractive Goddesses' and 'foxy ladies

- the kind your mom warned you about!'.

There appears to be no law preventing a place called The House of

Pleasure on Santa Monica Boulevard from promoting its leading artistes

as Fran Sinatra and Peeler Lawford, and the Californian equivalent of

the IPR has failed to stop the Richmond Public Relations Company from

being converted into the Institute of Oral Love. (Curiously, though, the

Los Angelinos are often naive about the sexual goods on offer. A

wide-eyed taxi driver spent half an hour telling me about a marvellous

act he'd seen the previous night involving 'a gorgeous broad, a

dentist's chair and a 12-inch vibrator'. Unfortunately he couldn't

remember the address.)

The whole massage parlour scene, of course, is yet another example of

the West Coast's inherent insanity.

It's not difficult to find others. The Los Angeles Chief of Police

recently banned nude bathing on Venice Beach on the grounds that it had

led to a 25 per cent increase in the use of marijuana, and the same man

is in favour of publicly executing hi-jackers at Los Angeles

International Airport.

'I know the place is crazy,' an English copywriter who now works in Los

Angeles said, 'but it's such a beautiful place to work. It took me two

years to get out of the habit of saying: 'Isn't it a nice day?' It's

always a nice day. The sun really does make a difference, you know,

everyone's so much more relaxed. It's changing certainly, but it's never

going to get like New York or London. By the way, do they still have

buses in London?'

Footnote: Linda Lovelace is curiously reluctant to be interviewed by

British investigative journalists, but Burt Reynolds is a really nice

guy. I chanced upon him in the hotel elevator, and he treated me like an

old friend. 'Which floor,' he said casually, 'do you want?'


Before commenting please read our rules for commenting on articles.

If you see a comment you find offensive, you can flag it as inappropriate. In the top right-hand corner of an individual comment, you will see 'flag as inappropriate'. Clicking this prompts us to review the comment. For further information see our rules for commenting on articles.

comments powered by Disqus