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The worst agency receptionist job: A short history of agency names

Opinion, 31 August 2017
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The agency name has had an illustrious history, from the full surnames names of every single partner on the letterhead to the advent of the rock band agency. The 4A’s Marsha Appel takes a look at the greetings agency receptionists have had to navigate over the years.

One might be forgiven for wondering if the receptionist at Seattle-based WONGDOODY had Tourette syndrome, back when phone calls were answered, “Wong Doody Crandall Wiener.” It was perhaps inevitable that Tracy Wong and Pat Doody would bring on a partner named Ben Wiener, but there is pride in working with an award-winning group of advertising professionals that happens to have a distinctive and memorable name. However, this is far from the most challenging receptionist job in the agency world. We’ll come back to that later.

First, a little background on the evolution of agency names. Early agencies proudly bore the names of their founders, such as:

  • N.W. Ayer & Son
  • J. Walter Thompson
  • George Batten Cos.
  • Erickson Co.
  • William C. D’Arcy
  • H.K. McCann Co.

There were a few partnerships whose names continue to this day, like Young & Rubicam, Cramer-Krasselt, and Campbell-Ewald. Grey was an exception to the founder name tradition, as it was named for the color of its office walls.

Starting in the 1920s, many of those eponymous agencies merged and combined the founders’ and their successors’ names to create such familiar agencies as McCann-Erickson and Foote, Cone & Belding. And then there was the merger resulting in the agency name that pundit Fred Allen once famously declared sounded like a steamer trunk falling down the stairs: Batten Barton Durstine & Osborn (BBDO today).

During the creative revolution of the 1960s and into the following decades, as accurately depicted in Mad Men, most agencies were strings of names of people at the top of the letterhead, changing as partners came and went. Does anyone remember Levine Huntley Schmidt Plapler & Beaver? Others included:

  • Doyle Dane Bernbach
  • Scali, McCabe & Sloves
  • Needham, Harper & Steers
  • Norman Craig & Kummel
  • Sullivan, Stouffer, Colwell, & Bayles
  • LaRoche, McCaffrey & McCall
  • Wells Rich Greene
  • Tatham, Laird & Kudner.

That trend was exacerbated during the rise of holding companies and the era of big mergers in the 1980s and into the 90s. The predictable next step was condensing the names down to initials. 4A’s was often asked for advice about retaining names of prominent personalities and founders vs. adopting a set of meaningless initials. Given the importance of client relationships, we usually came down on the side of real people’s names, but that didn’t stop the alphabet soup parade of BJK&E, DFS, SSC&B, DMB&B, HBM/Creamer, DDB, FCB, and so on.

After that, as the digital era dawned, where could agencies go but to emulate rock bands with wacky and unusual names to demonstrate their creativity and eliminate the no-longer-entirely-accurate-term “advertising agency”? The 1990s and early 2000s brought us Wexley School for Girls, Red7E, Anomaly, Strawberry Frog, 86 the Onions, Mother, Trailer Park, 72andSunny, Eleven, Taxi, and hundreds of others. Most recently, the collaboration and teamwork trend begat Co:Collective, Partners & Partners, & Barr, and The Company.

But for the worst receptionist job in advertising history, we need to return to the end of the megamerger era. Our runner-up is the person who had to answer the phone with “Saatchi & Saatchi, DFS/Compton,” but the undisputed winner is the receptionist at an agency created by five prominent agency personalities whose egos shunned abbreviations, and which was acquired by a holding company that demanded equal time, thus requiring the lengthy phone greeting of “Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG.” Try saying that three times in a row, never mind hundreds of times each day! It was a good thing that the French acquirer was OK with RSCG and didn’t demand that “Roux Séguéla Cayzac Goudard” be added to the greeting. In 2002, it evolved into the slightly easier Euro RSCG MVBMS Partners. You might recognize the agency under its current, somewhat simpler name: Havas.

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