John Strandberg, my dad, was an advertising man like no other. He had this typeset quote from Marshall Ferninand Foch, a French General during World War I, on his wall above his desk. It read “De quoi s’agit-il” and the translation is “what is the essence of the problem?” During my many years in advertising, I often asked myself this question when working thru problems for my clients.
Johnnie was the kind of person people wanted to follow; it’s just who he was as a human being. Before getting into advertising, John was a Marine, a teacher, an editor, a client and ultimately, an account person at McCann Erickson in New York. He then went on to launch and build his own agency in Toledo, Ohio which was where he met my mom.
If you are a student of advertising and its history, you may enjoy the article below. It was a memoir written about John Strandberg by John Adams, one of the many people my dad mentored along the way. It’s worth the read…
De quoi s’agit-il
By John Adams
Darren Stevens inspired me, but John Strandberg taught me.
I originally enrolled at The University of Toledo in nineteen seventy-one in the College of Arts and Sciences majoring in biology with a pre-med designation and great aspirations of becoming a physician. When I finally came to the realization that becoming a doctor wasn’t in my future, I turned my attention, almost one hundred and eighty degrees to another area where I had a great interest – advertising. I loved creative ads and was always intrigued by the catchy slogans and phrases those advertising guys wrote for the headlines of the products they were selling. Clairol’s hair coloring products boasted: “Does she, or doesn’t she?” and “Blondes have more fun!” Volkswagen took a small product and made it a big brand with slogans like: “Think Small” and “Live below your means.” Even the more recent campaign slogan: “Das Auto” is a small amount of copy that says a lot.
Bewitched was one of my favorite shows growing up. It was about a friendly witch Samantha, her mortal husband Darren, and Samantha’s meddling mother-in-law. Samantha was a stay at home mom and Darren Stevens was an advertising executive at the agency of McMann and Tate. Darren’s job was very attractive to me because he got to do it all. He wined and dined the client, created the concepts, wrote the copy, drew the art and presented the final product. What a fun business.
Okay, let’s summarize. I’m creative. Darren’s got very cool job that I think I would enjoy. I like to write catchy phrases. I transferred to the College of Business Administration, declared marketing as my major and to begin my journey to advertising Mecca – Madison Avenue, or an agency in Toledo, whichever came first.
My senior year I landed an internship in the marketing and communications department at Merit Mufflers and Exhaust Systems, a division of Questor Corporation that was one of six local Fortune five hundred companies in Toledo at the time. This wasn’t a guarantee for a job after graduation so I hooked up with Career Services and came across a job posting for an advertising agency in Findlay, Ohio just forty-five minutes from Toledo.
The agency was Howard Mitchell, Jr. Advertising and the job opening was for an account executive position that was being vacated by Howard’s son, Mark. Mark Mitchell was an aggressive and bright young adman who needed a bigger challenge and was moving to Toledo to take a position with an advertising agency located there.
I got an opportunity to interview for the position and drove up there on the evening for which the interview was scheduled. The firm’s building didn’t look anything like what I expected an advertising agency to look like. Nothing like the ones I had seen in books and magazines, or sound stages on television. It was a converted house with a large sign with Howard Mitchell, Jr. Advertising in script lettering. I walked up the steps to the porch and knocked on the door.
Howard Mitchell greeted me and invited me inside. Once inside you were met with worn carpeting, and cramped and cluttered workspaces. It just wasn’t as sexy as I had hoped and neither was Howard. He was about five foot ten inches, balding, with glasses and was conservatively dressed in a sport jacket and contrasting slacks with a white button down shirt and a nondescript tie. Howard blended well with the surroundings.
Mark on the other hand wore a Navy blue suit, an oxford button-down shirt and colorful tie that added some interest and contrast to the ensemble. He was about five feet ten inches and had receding wavy blond hair and a neatly trimmed mustache.
I was taken to the conference room, or dining room, I’m not sure which and set up my homemade pre-PowerPoint flipchart that had some examples of coursework and some things I created during my internship. Howard and Mark seemed impressed and we had some great discussion.
After my presentation they took me to the Pine Club, a local restaurant which strangely enough was a house that was converted into a restaurant with knotty pine paneled walls, green tablecloths with matching napkins and genuine silver-plated flatware. There were relish trays on the table and a menu that featured that evening’s special: surf and turf (a cut of beef impersonating a filet with fried shrimp) and a house salad with homemade blue cheese dressing. After dinner I thanked the father and son ad duo and drove back to Toledo.
A week later I was notified in a very nice letter from Howard that while I gave a pretty impressive and creative presentation I didn’t possess the experience needed to fill Mark’s spot. He needed someone who could wine and dine the client, create the concepts, write the copy, direct the artists and pitch the final product and at a wage of ten thousand dollars per year. At that time I only knew of one other person who was qualified for the position…and he was an actor in California probably making more than that.
Mark Mitchell was going to join Widerschein/Strandberg, a privately-owned firm that boasted a pretty impressive client list including Owens Corning Fiberglas and Champion Spark Plug (the world’s largest producer of spark plugs at the time) just to namedrop a couple. He had been selected by John W. Strandberg to become his assistant account executive. It was quite an honor. John was a successful and well-respected adman with plenty of experience, a great team and loyal clients. He became the sole owner of the agency after his partner, Mark Widerschein, died of a heart attack at the age of forty-two. Mark’s death continued to support the theory that the agency business is a young person’s business. But John’s theory was if he surrounded himself with the most creative, fun-loving and hardworking people he would have happy employees, happy clients and a long and happy life for himself. He created a team who understood the communications business, who liked to play as hard as they worked, and most of all, who could get things done.
I was hired by AP Parts Company, another muffler manufacturing division of Questor, right after I graduated in May of nineteen seventy-one. While I didn’t land my dream job, I was guaranteed a weekly paycheck and could now get married to my high school sweetheart, with minimal financial concerns.
I was still sucked in by the glamorous allure that an agency possessed, except in Findlay, Ohio. The expense accounts, photo shoots, traveling to great locations, staying in fabulous hotels, entertaining the client, the two-hour lunches, cocktails after work and parties after that. That’s what I was thinking about and that’s what I wanted – the Madison Avenue lifestyle.
A little over a year passed when I received a phone call from Mark Mitchell. After the getting reacquainted portion of our conversation consisting of “How have you been?” “Are you enjoying your job?” “Congratulations, I heard you got married,” he got to the point of his call. Mark informed me he was being promoted to an account executive position where he would be responsible for his own accounts. This would leave John Strandberg in need of a new assistant. He told me he remembered the presentation I had made to his dad and him and my passion to join an agency. Mark also told John the story and after some discussion they agreed that I might be the right person to succeed Mark as John’s assistant account executive. He asked me if I would be interested in meeting with John and him after work sometime to chat about it. A week later I was putting on my best face and one of the three JC Penney suits that I owned.
I was nervous as hell and had a difficult time concentrating at work that day. I just kept reminding myself that later that evening I was going to meet and hopefully be offered the chance to work for an adman’s adman.
I arrived at the firm’s offices on North Republic Drive in west Toledo. The building was contemporary and painted in neutral brown and beige tones. It was actually built as a commercial structure with the sole purpose of housing a business and its employees. That was a good sign. I entered the building and was greeted by Mark Mitchell who welcomed me with a firm handshake, a “Hello. Good to see you. How have you been?” and a small sampling of what I would become to know as his signature laugh which was a combination of low-pitched Ha-ha’s and high-pitched Hee-hee’s with a word or two mixed in every once in awhile and after which he would attempt to catch his breath. Mark was dressed very professionally in a blue pinstripe suit and matching vest with a tailored white cotton shirt and a tasteful silk tie underneath. He looked the same as I remembered him except his hairline had moved further back on his head. Mark then told me, “John will be here shortly. He’s finishing up a game of golf with one of our OC (Owens Corning) clients at Inverness Country Club.” Wow just like on television, I thought.
He led me into John’s office. The office was also very contemporary with custom-built laminate storage and drawer units that surrounded a long desk with recessed lighting in the cabinets above it. The four chairs surrounding the coffee table and the couch were upholstered in a bright yellow wool fabric and custom made with the same white laminate. His desk chair was from the Herman Miller Office Collection.
A cork panel on the wall above the desk had photos of family and friends, and reminder notes with messages and phone numbers. But there was one rectangular piece of paper approximately four inches by ten inches taped dead center on the panel behind his desk that caught my attention. It was a typeset quote from Marshall Ferdinand Foch, a French General during World War I. It read De quoi s’agit-il and underneath it the translation, what is the essence of the problem? It was the first thing John saw when he sat at his desk to work and the last thing he saw when he left at night. It was the credo of the man I was about to meet.
Mark and I chatted for another fifteen to twenty minutes when John came in and joined us in his office. He was in his mid to late fifties. He had an athletic build and was just shy of six feet tall. John was dressed in country club regalia; tailored white slacks, a red and white striped polo shirt, black casual Gucci loafers and a matching belt. He was carrying his Spalding Pro leather golf bag and put it against the wall in the corner near the door. His neatly trimmed beard and thinning hair had been professionally dyed a chestnut brown. Rectangular wire-rimmed glasses with slightly tinted lenses assisted his gentle eyes. His smile was genuine and just being in his presence made me feel good. A Swisher Sweet cigar was perched on his lips as a swirl of white smoke added a distinct aroma to the room and ascended to the ceiling. I stood up to greet him. He removed the cigar from his mouth with his left hand and extended his right hand to shake mine and in a deep kind and raspy voice said, “Hello John, I’m John Stranberg. Mark has told me a lot of good things about you. Have a seat and tell me about yourself and why you want to work at Widerschein/Strandberg.”
After about half of an hour of talking John stopped and said, “Johnny, I think you’re exactly who I’m looking for.” He then asked me, “What are you making now?” I had received a raise since I started at AP Parts and was now making around eleven thousand five hundred dollars annually. After I told him he continued, “Would you consider an offer of thirteen thousand dollars?” I was just about to say yes when he added, “…and a company car?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. An increase in salary, a company car and working in an honest to God advertising agency that looked and felt like what I had imagined. I said yes without hesitation and we shook hands to seal the deal. John then said, “Let’s get something to eat and celebrate.” We went to Victoria Station, a steakhouse chain, and a few steps above the Pine Club and sans the relish trays.
Before John Strandberg became president of Widerschein/Strandberg he was a Marine, a high school teacher, a technical editor for Owens Corning, a marketing director at Eljer Plumbingware and an account executive at McCann Erickson, one of the nation’s largest advertising agencies at that time. JWS as we called him, looked at every experience as an opportunity for self-improvement that would be integral to his success.
He was a great leader who held his employees in high regard and treated us more as a family member than someone that worked for him. We were all equals in his eyes in terms of the value we brought to the agency. When I received my first box of business cards this became even more evident. There was no title under my name. I dug a little more and learned there was no title under Mark’s name. There was no title under any of the employees’ names and there was no title under John’s name. We all knew our jobs but John felt it necessary to create this reminder that our personal success and the success of the agency was dependent on the performance of the whole, not just one individual.
One of our clients was First National Bank located in downtown Toledo. We provided various marketing services to them in addition to the creation of newspaper ads, brochures or pamphlets for the lobbies in their branches. A mailing had been scheduled to go out on a certain Friday to a number of commercial customers. The printer delivered the materials late so we had to pull every person into the back area of the building who could fold, stuff, lick and seal, to assemble the mailing and get it to the post office before it closed. We had to ensure that it would be in the mail over the weekend. We had art directors, copywriters, photographers, accountants, secretaries and account executives on their hands and knees working together to meet the deadline looming over us. John was leaving to go home when he saw what we were doing. He took off his coat, got down on his hands and knees with the rest of us and started folding, stuffing, licking and sealing. He didn’t have to help, but he wanted to show us what it means to be a leader. I still reflect on that image of us all working together as a unit and the lesson instilled in us that day.
As I mentioned before, John liked to smoke, a lot. He was known to light one up off of the one he was just finishing. His tobacco product of choice was Swisher Sweets, little cigars individually wrapped in a five-pack. Their slogan: “It just doesn’t get any sweeter than this.” You could always tell when John was in the area because the sweet smoke of the Swisher was like an early alert system.
One afternoon I was working on client issues and having one of my daily cans of Pepsi when John came into my office puffing on a stub of a cigar. I updated him on a couple of projects and he left my office. A few minutes later I picked up the pop can and took a healthy swig. The liquid flow was interrupted by something. Please don’t tell me that my pop can had just been used as an ashtray and that thing in the can bouncing against my lips is the remains of the cigar he was smoking when he came into my office. I asked you not to tell me.
I also had the opportunity to get out on many photo shoots with a local shooter who used an eight by ten view camera. It was the kind of camera that made it necessary for the photographer to put the black cloth over his head so he could focus and compose the shot on the ground glass back. A piece of film would be placed in the holder between the glass and the bellows of the camera and then exposed. This particular photographer would take one shot and sometimes an insurance shot followed it in case the first one got damaged during processing. Large format film was very expensive in the seventies. One day, after returning with the finished product from a shoot in northern Wisconsin I proudly took the transparencies to John’s office to show him the results of the work. With Swisher Sweet in hand, or I should say mouth, he tilted his head back and pulled the transparency closer to his face attempting to study every detail through the bifocal at the bottom of his glasses. He was studying the photo so intently he didn’t realize that he was pulling it closer to his cigar. The moment they made contact a hole was immediately burned through the celluloid material. I watched in disbelief as I thought, “Oh shit what am I going to do now.?” John turned to me and very matter of fact said, “You can fix that, can’t you Johnny?” I glanced at the slogan from Marshall Foch above his head. John always made you feel in control and that you were one of the best in your field. Even though it was his error, I felt really good when he said this to me, having the faith that I could fix it…and I did.
After figuring out the essence of the problem, John’s attitude was to do whatever it takes to get the job done for our clients. Toledo experienced the worst blizzard it’s citizens had seen in decades on January twenty-fifth through the twenty-seventh in nineteen seventy eight. It also happened to be the time period that John and I were scheduled to be in Wausau WI to conduct a sales meeting for one of our newly acquired clients that manufactured pre-fabricated homes, Wausau Homes. The sales meeting was an annual event and it was crucial that their distributors from all over the Midwest were in attendance. The purpose of the meeting was to hear Wausau’s president Marv Schuette talk about all of the great things the company was doing to promote their products and the distributor’s business. Marv used it as an opportunity to fire up his sales force, by publicly praising those who performed and chastising those who didn’t. It was also the event for new products, and promotional materials and advertising to be introduced.
More than twenty-eight inches of snow had fallen and the city and the region were literally shut down. There was no way we were going to be able to get to Wausau for the sales meeting and I assumed many of the distributors weren’t going to be there, either. But the show would go on if Marv had any say in the matter and since he was the client, he did. This man was as determined as any person I had ever met and he showed it. His face would turn strawberry red whenever he was trying to make a point, or to help you understand why you needn’t disagree with him. It was always interesting to see John and Marv go toe to toe. But at the end of even the most heated conversations they would usually laugh and shake hands. John was a master at disarming hostility through calm discussions and humor.
John Strandberg knew we had a mission to accomplish in Wausau WI and he was not about to give in to Mother Nature and then I found out, neither was I. John called me and asked me to contact the bus station, driving services and the train station. He was going to try to arrange a charter plane and also check with the airports to see when they thought the commercial airlines would fly. “Really, in this weather?” I thought. I followed the orders given to me by my captain and as expected, no one was going anywhere. But, the moment the weather and runways were clear we were on a Republic Airlines seven thirty seven to the snow-covered town of Wausau in the heart of the dairy state. The meeting went as planned and without a hitch and we had a happy client, which meant John was happy and therefore, I was too.
The advertising business is never short on stories that inspired new traditions. At W/S when things were looking difficult or a project got really screwed up you may hear people shout, “Release the condor” from one of the offices. When John worked for McCann Erickson in New York in the sixties one of the accounts the agency had was Buick and they were going to introduce a new model called the Condor. The agency had brought a number of concepts to the client all of which had been turned down. Then during a creative brainstorming session someone suggested having the Buick Condor travelling the winding roads of a mountain setting and simultaneously a real condor would be seen flying high above the Buick Condor and roads. The clients loved it. The big problem was there was only one condor in captivity and it was in Lima, Peru. It would be no problem to get the car down there, or to find a suitable location of the type of terrain for which they were looking. But to borrow the only living condor in captivity, guarantee its safety and return it unharmed to the Peruvian government may be an insurmountable obstacle. After some political maneuvering between the Peruvian officials and the U.S. the permission to use the bird was finally secured. The day of the shoot the car was ready to begin its journey up the hillside. An armored vehicle with the caged condor and two handlers arrived. They removed the bird from the cage and took it to the edge of a cliff where the bird would be released when the director gave the word. The cameras were rolling, the car was climbing and the director bellowed over the walkie-talkie, “Release the condor.” And that’s just what the handlers did. They nudged the bird off the cliff but instead of flying it spiraled to its death three hundred feet below. No one took into consideration that this bird had been in captivity so long that it had also not flown for a very, very long time. It was a bit of a mess, but things finally got cleared up and after that anytime there was a major screw up at McCann the words: “Release the condor” resounded through the halls. John brought that tradition to our agency acknowledging that things will get screwed up, but no one is going to die over it, unless though you are a condor.
John was the kind of guy who recognized the amount of time you spent away from your family when duty called. Whenever we were out of town on business he demanded we stay in a good hotel, order good meals and call our families every night. It also wasn’t uncommon for him to stop by your office, or be called to his, where he would present you with a one hundred dollar bill to take your spouse out on the town after you had spent the last three evenings at the agency working through the nights. After John and I returned from one of our sales meeting tours he gave me an envelope with a beautiful thank you note. He also informed me that he was giving Mary and I his Hilton Head Villa for a week to show his appreciation for all of the hard work I had put in during the course of the past few weeks. When Mary and I got to Hilton Head John had made reservations at the restaurant of a chef who emigrated from Chicago and who created fabulous seven course meals with limited seating’s. John was grateful for his team and he let us know it.
And the extended team included our spouses, and boyfriends or girlfriends. All of the women were called Darlin’ and at dinners when they were with us he was always the first to stand up when they left the table and when they returned. He was a real gentleman whom all of the ladies loved in a very fatherly way.
John also worked with a select group of high-paying and high maintenance clients. He was known for his ability to build relationships and keep them strong. He had extreme patience and didn’t get riled very easily. But he wasn’t a saint by any definition of the word. He could get pissed and you’d know it because his deep voice would get deeper and but that’s all it usually took for him to get the message across. But that strategy didn’t always work with his wife, Karen who also worked at the agency. He just usually ended up having to go that extra mile for her. One evening they were driving home from dinner and the sun visor on her side kept flipping down. She would complain and then put it back in place where it would stay for a couple of minutes and then flip down again. This continued for fifteen or twenty minutes with Karen reminding John each time that he needed to get it fixed. John had enough so he reached over and grabbed the visor off the rod to which it was attached and threw it in the back seat. “There, now the goddamn thing’s fixed so you can stop bitching about it” he shouted in an uncharacteristic tone. It was pretty quiet for the rest of the ride home. But the next day at work it was business as usual. John and Karen respected and loved each other, but they were never afraid to speak their mind with each one knowing they did it because they cared. They cared about each other, and they cared about us.
John reached a point where he began to think more and more about retiring. The agency was for all intents and purposes a large part of the funding that would allow him to do that. In order to create a succession plan John formed a management team of which I was honored to have been chosen to be a part. Unfortunately it was resisted by three of the senior members of the company who had other plans for ownership that didn’t include all of the additional members currently on the management team. Each of these guys had a specific area of responsibility that would ensure that all areas of the agency would be managed.
Ken Laurer was responsible for the account team and client relationships, but he was also very proficient at cursing and yelling loudly when provoked or upset. Bill Markin had operations in his control and he was on a mission to save more pennies than the UNICEF organization during the annual campaign when they distributed their black and orange milk cartons for our spare pennies to be given to the needy. Ed Gibbs was in charge of the creative group that included graphic designers, writers, audiovisual specialists and finished artists. Ed was known to spin a tale or two, grossly exaggerate a point if it would make him look good. And he did it quite often. Eventually this triumvirate bought the agency from John and the name was changed to Lauerer, Markin and Gibbs, or LMG for short. However it was also known on the inside and on the streets as Louder, Markup and Fibbs. I remained there for quite a few years. We had a lot of fun, the new owners were generous and knew the business, but it was never quite the same once John’s name was removed from the letterhead.
John died of a stroke in 2006 after Karen and he had retired to Oklahoma to be near their daughter and their grandchildren. His spirit lives on and he is still a legend in the advertising business in Toledo and the area. He had such an impact on so many of us by giving us a chance, taking us under his wing and teaching us what he knew so well. I truly believe one of his greatest joys was to see us succeed. John was a true gentleman in every sense of the word. He was also a scholar and a businessman and most of all, a great friend.
I still think of him and that laugh and all of the good and bad times we shared. I’m forever grateful that he gave me my first chance in the business. I was just a twenty-four year old kid who had a passion for advertising and he could see that. I have a copy of the De quoi s’agit-il quote at home and I can still hear John say, “Johnny, what do you think?”
I think the essence of the problem is that John W. Strandberg is no longer with us.