Lessons in business from the golden age of advertising

I previously wrote a post on lessons in marketing from the golden age of advertising in early 20th century America, which I think went pretty well. Unfortunately (but fortunately), there are more great stories from the admen than can be fit in such a restrictive format.

So, here’s my attempt at relaying them. For this post, I relied entirely on The Man Who Sold America, a biography of Albert Lasker from Cruikshank and Shultz, available at fine retailers near you.

If you don’t know how to offer something, ask for something instead

Claude Hopkins was one of the great advertising geniuses of his day. Unfortunately, he was somewhat promiscuous with how he lent his advertising genius, and ended up making a tremendous success out of “Liquozone”, which purported to be a germicide made out of liquid oxygen.

When muckrakers revealed that Liquozone was not pure oxygen but instead just water, Claude Hopkins was disgraced. This left him unhappy and also literally a millionaire.

Albert Lasker wanted to offer Hopkins a job at Lord & Thomas, but didn’t know how to go about doing so (as obviously money wasn’t going to be enough). So he asked around, and found out from a mutual friend that Hopkins was quiet, sensitive, and stingy.

So Lasker came upon a solution. He found out that Hopkins had been reluctant to buy his wife a new electric automobile, as he thought they were too expensive. He arranged a lunch with Hopkins, and showed him a contract from Van Camp for $400,000 contingent on satisfactory copy.

He told Hopkins that he needed his help for the contract, as the copy that he had received from his employees was terrible. If Hopkins would agree to help him, Lasker would buy his wife an electric car as thanks. Hopkins agreed.

The rest was history. Lasker knew he couldn’t offer Hopkins anything he didn’t already have. The only thing he could do was ask.

Experts get clients

Any service business is perpetually concerned with how to get new clients. Advertising is no exception.

One of the best ways to get clients is to be seen as an expert in the field. In the age of the Internet, the best way to do so is to publish a blog, vlog, or Twitter.

Back in the golden age of advertising, it was not quite so easy. So, instead, Lasker put out an ad announcing the creation of an “advertising advisory board”. The ad read: Here we decide what is possible and what is impossible, so far as men can. This advice is free. We invite you to submit your problems. Get the combined judgment of these able men on your article and its possibilities. Tell them what you desire, and let them tell you if it can probably be accomplished.

Of course, the advisory board was entirely made up of Lord & Thomas employees. But this ad worked: they got hundreds of inquiries, rejected the 95% they didn’t want, and took the top 5% as clients.

How to end a partnership with everyone happy-ish

Lasker ended quite a few partnerships over his business career, and he always did so in the same way.

He’d tell his partner, “I’ll buy out your share for 2x, or you can buy out my share for x.”

While it’d still be clear that Lasker wanted to break up, at least people wouldn’t be quite so unhappy about it.

Using a partner to double-team a client

Lasker and Hopkins made a great team. They were excellent at putting the razzle-dazzle on a client.

This started during the introduction. When a Lord & Thomas solicitor would first introduce themselves to a client, they’d speak glowingly of the genius of Albert Lasker. If the client visited the office, Lasker would speak glowingly of the wizardry of Hopkins. By the time the client was pitched by Hopkins, they’d feel like they were getting pitched by the god of marketing himself.

This double-teaming would continue during the pitch. Hopkins would pitch the campaign, and Lasker would remain quiet. If the client disagreed with any part of the pitch, Lasker would automatically side with the client and ask Hopkins to argue his case.

Then, if Lasker actually agreed with the client, he’d say so, and Hopkins would back down. On the other hand, if Lasker actually agreed with Hopkins, Lasker would turn to the client and say, “Well, I guess we’re both wrong.”

This way, the client never felt like they were being sold. Instead, they felt like it was a collaborative process by really smart people who just wanted the best for their product.

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