April 15, 2014

Harold Burson's Blog

2014: Bill Marsteller’s Centennial Year

Posted By Harold Burson

Few at Burson-Marsteller nowadays have a physical recollection of Bill Marsteller as well as little knowledge about the person with whom I have been joined by a hyphen for sixty years. This being his centennial birth year, it’s a good time for you to know more about the individual who played so vital a role in the founding and evolution of our firm.

William A. Marsteller came into my life in February 1952 when a friend at The New York Times alerted me to a call from the CEO of a Chicago ad agency specializing in b-to-b clients, the same category I targeted for my one-man business. I then had a staff of five, a growing client list and a good reputation among business and trade press journalists.

Marsteller was seeking public relations help for his largest client, Rockwell Manufacturing Company, which had ordered the first helicopter that would be used for executive travel to its numerous plants scattered among the mountains in western Pennsylvania. Rockwell’s CEO had high expectations for wide media coverage. Instead of waiting for Bill to call me, I called him. Fortuitously, I had plans to be in Chicago the following week to do a client case history.

It was a snowy day of the variety that brands Chicago in February and we spent four hours together, including a ham and cheese sandwich/potato chip/chocolate chip cookie lunch. Our backgrounds paralleled one another to a remarkable degree. Like me, he was from a family of less than modest means; his father ran a grocery store, mine a hardware store. He went to the University of Illinois, I to the University of Mississippi. He paid his way as a stringer for the Chicago Tribune and the Champaign News- Gazette, I for the Memphis Commercial Appeal. We both considered ourselves capable writers (I later learned Bill was the superior writer).

I won the Rockwell assignment, delivered a three-page LIFE magazine story and was rewarded with the Rockwell account at $3000/month, my largest client. A month later Bill set up a meeting resulting in another client, Clark Equipment Company, world’s largest manufacturer of fork lift trucks, at $4000/month. Bill Marsteller accounted for about half of my 1953 business. We had worked so well together that I proposed forming a jointly held new company to supplement his ad agency in offering a complete array of communication services. That has been deemed to be the start of what’s now labeled “integrated communication.” Our arrangement for the next twenty-six years was that Bill was overall chief executive officer and advertising CEO. I was public relations CEO and, after going overseas in 1961, I also headed our international advertising business.

Physically and personality-wise, Bill and I could not have been more different. Bill was 6 foot/three; I was five foot/six. Bill was a mid-western isolationist; my outlook was more global. Bill was a strict follow-the-rules type; I was much more cuddly (and pliable). We followed parallel tracks in our respective businesses. In 1979, he was elected to the Advertising Hall of Fame; in 1980, the Public Relations Society of America honored me with its Gold Anvil Award. We never had a really serious argument nor was there ever a time we weren’t speaking or avoided one another.

Internal communications and cooperation between and among offices and our two lines of business were near religions for Bill. Every year the company held a regional all-day annual meeting attended by public relations and advertising professionals and support staff (after five years with the company). He was a major contributor to training sessions covering all manner of subjects. But most of all, the “memo” was his favorite way of communicating. They appeared from time to time, often two in a single week, sometimes a week or two apart. They covered every conceivable subject pertinent to the business. For example, a warning against men’s ankle socks (he abhorred the sight of hairy legs); how to spot losers – winners too (by seeking evaluations of new professionals from the support staff); nine truths that make people uncomfortable (example: if you don’t know the grammatical use of I, me, we and us, talk about someone else). Two intolerable and totally unacceptable sins were arriving late for work and messy offices.

On the other hand, he was the first to respond when a co-worker (or his/her family) was ill or suffered an accident. His compassion was reinforced by his own little-spoken of disability, a severe form of multiple dystrophy, a subject he never discussed with even his closest associates (including me). When we first met, I noticed he dragged a foot; a few years later, he had a difficult time walking up stairs — he depended on his arms to facilitate the climb; he then walked with a cane, later with two canes; for his last dozen years or so, he was wheel chair-bound.

Despite his handicap, he was an active participant in the advertising community. The Marsteller advertising agency was the world’s largest in the business-to-business category, the largest customer of both the Wall Street Journal and McGraw-Hill, the world’s largest publisher of business and trade publications. He also was an avid collector of contemporary art, and much of the art in our New York and Chicago offices were his selections. He was a long time board member of the Whitney Museum in New York and Barnard College, the alma mater of his younger daughter, Julie. His elder daughter graduated from the University of California, Berkeley.

He made it known early on he would retire at the end of his sixty-fifth year – 1979. He had moved his family from Chicago to New York in the early 60s. After leaving the company, he moved to Palm Beach and passed away in his sleep in August 1983. My wife, Bette, and I had spent several days with him and his wife, Gloria, the previous June. As we boarded the airplane returning us to New York, we agreed it was likely the last time we would see him alive.

One thing for sure: he made an impression on everyone in his presence. An impression of high intelligence, a capacity to articulate his thoughts both spoken and written, a strong core of belief in what is right and what is wrong, a commitment to excellence and service and an empathy to the underdog and the struggle that is their life.

He was intensely interested in the growth of Burson-Marsteller and fully supported my goal to go global firm even though it took four years for our overseas business to become profitable. He would be proud of the continued commitment by the people of Burson-Marsteller in serving clients around the world.

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Harold Burson
April 2014