Albert Lasker: The Original Mad Man

As the advertising industry prepares to a weeklong celebration in New York, its sobering and weirdly appropriate that the masters of brands ignore their past. Few of us want to admit that the fundamental concepts, approaches, techniques and strategies we use day-in and day-out were invented and perfected before we were born by long-forgotten pioneers like Albert Lasker.

Lasker, the subject of a new biography titled “The Man Who Sold America” by Jeffrey L. Cruikshank and Arthur W, Schwartz published by the Harvard Business Review Press, grew up in Galveston, Texas. The son of an over-achieving German immigrant, he started in journalism, transitioned to newspaper ad sales and eventually joined, ran, grew and prospered as the leader of Lord & Thomas, he first modern full service ad agency based in Chicago.

Credited with innovations in branding, reasons-to-buy copywriting, consumer research, direct marketing, visual merchandising and package design, retail pricing and merchandising, radio advertising, public relations and political advertising, Lasker, who became both a mogul and the confidante of Presidents and captains of industry, competed with J. Walter himself, Ray Rubicon and other ad pioneers. He virtually created brands like Sunkist, Sunmaid, Palmolive, Van Camps, Kleenex, Wrigley, Lucky Strike, Campbell Soup, Quaker Oats and he re-branded the American Cancer Society. Along the way he hired Emerson Foote, Fairfax Cone and Don Belding, who eventually inherited his accounts.  His approach to behind-the-scenes self-promotion, client schmoozing and business development is still widely used.

Bi-polar, Lasker was insightful, energetic and frenzied and periodically clinically depressed, so much so that he spent long periods out of sight in treatment.  In contrast he spent long periods developing integrated communications tactics that led to the election of Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge and to the defeat of Upton Sinclair for governor of California. A patron of the arts, a serial entrepreneur, a philanthropist in education and healthcare and a Zionist, Albert Lasker’s life story is a wild ride of ups and downs populated by the emerging brands and the personalities of the early years of advertising, mass media and political propaganda.

And while we like to think that each day we are creating countless original ideas, its grounding and humbling to understand who came before us, how they invented modern marketing to respond to the economic and social changes of the times and how enduring brands came to be.  “The Man who Sold America” is insightful and inspiring even for jaded Mad Men.

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