OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

It has become common for familiar, formerly successful American brands to be abruptly and irrevocably consigned to the corporate scrapheap, overwhelmed by competitors or marketplace changes: Plymouth automobiles, Mademoiselle magazine, Woolworth's variety stores. Now a well-known purveyor of brands is gone, too, with the vanishing of N W Ayer.

Ayer, once one of the biggest, most-sought-after agencies, is no more, merged into a corporate sibling, the Kaplan Thaler Group, by their mutual parent, the Bcom3 Group, which itself is to disappear into the maw of the Publicis Groupe by the end of June. The surprise decision for Kaplan Thaler to absorb Ayer, effective 8 April, ended Ayer's life after exactly 133 years and one week in business.

In a fast-moving, youth-oriented industry in which a generation seems like a geological era, more than a century of brand-building service is as remarkable as the ability to come up with catchy slogans that help advertisers as disparate as Morton's salt ("When it rains it pours"), AT&T long-distance telephone service ("Reach out and touch someone"), Steinway pianos ("The instrument of the immortals"), De Beers ("A diamond is forever"), Maxwell House coffee ("Good to the last drop") and the US Army ("Be all you can be").

Ayer developed all those, and many more, along with being first with operational innovations that included, according to histories by the trade publication Advertising Age, setting the 15 percent commission, helping brand products, consolidating print-media research within a planning department and producing the first colour print advertisement - in short, almost everything but inventing the three-martini lunch. Even Ayer's name was breakthrough advertising, in that its original moniker, N W Ayer & Son, was a sales ploy. The shop was started by the "son", Francis Wayland Ayer, who was just 19 years old; he named it after his father, Nathan Wheeler Ayer, to give it gravitas.

But as modern as Ayer's methods could be, it clung to some old-fashioned ways of doing business. The agency kept its headquarters in Philadelphia, where it was founded, until 1973, long after that city had ceased to be a centre for advertising and magazine publishing. In retrospect, that may have been an omen the agency would have difficulties as the industry transformed itself through globalisation and consolidation.

Indeed, by the 80s, Ayer began suffering a series of setbacks, primarily related to the loss of major accounts such as the Army (after an embarrassing kickback scheme). There was an ill-timed move into a posh new skyscraper in midtown-Manhattan in the early 90s, as an important client, the J C Penney department store chain, left, and the industry fell into recession.

Without the higher real-estate costs, industry analysts believed, Ayer would have weathered the storm financially. Instead, Ayer had to sell itself to AdCom, which was then bought by the MacManus Group. By 2000, Ayer was buried inside Bcom3, which did what it could to benefit Ayer.

By the end, only four accounts remained, all taken on by Kaplan Thaler, founded 128 years after Ayer and known for campaigns that get under your skin for brands such as Clairol Herbal Essences ("a totally organic experience").

As for not naming the merged agency Ayer, the Kaplan Thaler in Kaplan Thaler, Linda, is alive and well, while both Ayers, N W and F W, are long gone. Sic transit gloria mundi, which is Latin for: "How fleeting is fame on Madison Avenue".


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