History of advertising: No 159: Ray Rubicam's Steinway ads

"Our job is to resist the usual," Ray Rubicam once said.

History of advertising: No 159: Ray Rubicam's Steinway ads

And there was much that was unusual about the way he went about his work in advertising.

He was the first creative to found a major agency when he and John Orr Young set up Young & Rubicam in 1923 – a time when agencies were sales-led operations.

Y&R was very much Rubicam’s creation. It embodied his belief that the combination of copywriting and art direction to create outstanding advertising is what drove business. From the start, Y&R treated creative and account people as equals. 

Having worked briefly as a newspaper reporter and, later, as a car salesman, Rubicam thought advertising could best accommodate his talents for writing and selling.

Interestingly, it was one of the most unpromising of advertisers, Steinway & Sons, that made his name. His work for the upmarket piano-maker defined his philosophy that the way to sell through advertising was to "mirror the reader to himself and then show him afterwards how your product fits his needs".

Rubicam had been given the Steinway account when he arrived at NW Ayer & Son. Although a prestigious client, Steinway was distasteful of advertising and did little of it.

Rubicam took a consumer-oriented approach. His research found that its pianos had been used by almost all of the greatest pianists and composers since Wagner.

This provided the inspiration for an ad featuring a Franz Liszt-type figure playing a Steinway – the first of a long-running campaign under the theme "The instrument of the immortals". 

The execution helped boost Steinway sales by 70 per cent and is regarded as one of the most effective ever written.

Things you need to know

  • Steinway initially baulked at Rubicam’s "The instrument of the immortals" slogan but was persuaded to run his ad once. It led to an immediate rise in sales.
  • The company’s success was further boosted by Rubicam ads pointing out that its pianos could be bought on hire purchase and promoting free recitals at Steinway’s New York offices.
  • Rubicam retired in 1944 and spent the next 30 years as a property developer.