PR lessons from a bygone age

If you're offended by sentimentality or hyperbole, you may want to stop reading now because what follows is moist with memories of the best PR agency in history.

If you're offended by sentimentality or hyperbole, you may want to stop reading now because what follows is moist with memories of the best PR agency in history.

On Tuesday, Sept. 27 about 50 alumni of Carl Byoir & Associates will commemorate the 25th anniversary of the agency's absorption into Hill & Knowlton.

This year also marks my own 30th anniversary of having joined Byoir, a blessing only the perspective of decades has allowed me to appreciate fully.

Yes, I know, most of us tend to romanticize our first agencies like we do our first loves. Having worked for Byoir, however, is akin to having dated Aphrodite.

What made Byoir so special?

Leadership – An “executive row” populated by men (and a few women) so wise, gracious, and statesmanlike one felt honored to be summoned to their offices. Rarely did I see these agency scions selling. Prospects usually approached them with deference and respect.

Standards – No one went to work for Byoir without acing the industry's most rigorous writing test. Few ever worked there without first having made their mark as a journalist. No copy left the premises without having been vetted by the agency's most elite writers.

Talent – Byoir alums ascended to the top communications jobs at American Airlines, J&J, KPMG, and Avon Products, while many others founded their own successful firms or filled leadership roles at large agencies owned by Omnicom, Interpublic and WPP.

Characters – Byoir could have populated the entire cast of The Front Page with salty old vets from bygone papers like the Daily Mirror and Herald-Tribune. Paunchy guys who knew when a box of cigars for a business editor would help push a story into print.

Civility – There was a genteel quality about Byoir. It was common for account directors to type individual thank-you memos to everyone who contributed to a successful campaign. Department heads always were copied, and they in turn wrote courteous responses.

Clients – Byoir's roster of blue-chip clients was bluer than anyone else's: Hallmark, RCA, Kodak, Woolworth, AlliedSignal, A&P, Hughes Aircraft, and ITT, which at the time owned Avis Rent-a-Car, Hartford Insurance, and Continental Baking.

Byoir orchestrated the 1972 news conference where reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes emerged briefly to expose author Clifford Irving's “authorized” biography as a hoax. Hughes didn't appear but spoke by phone to reporters who'd been selected because they'd known him before he became a hermit.

It's worth noting, too, having just commemorated the tenth anniversary of 9-11, that one Byoir alum (Tim Doke) manned the crisis room for American Airlines in Dallas that chaotic morning, while another (yours truly), did the same for United Airlines near Chicago.

With such charismatic leadership, quality work, talented people, enviable culture, and great brands, why did Byoir vanish from the PR landscape? Two reasons:

Back when “public relations” was more or less synonymous with “press agentry,” no agency could touch Byoir. Because of their news judgment and writing ability, Byoir publicists were the most trusted among editors. As our profession evolved, though, and PR came to embrace so much more than media relations, other agencies adapted more rapidly, grew faster and began to eclipse Byoir in breadth of service offerings and financial performance.

Byoir was among the first of the premier PR agencies bought by an ad agency (FCB) in 1978. A year later, Y&R bought Burson-Marsteller, and in 1980, JWT purchased H&K. Having worked for agencies owned by Interpublic, Omnicom, and WPP, I've never known such an acquisition to improve an agency's culture - profitability, yes, but not professional satisfaction or morale.

So it was with Byoir. FCB exerted ever-tighter financial control until subtle changes became fundamental ones under new leadership FCB installed in 1982, triggering an exodus - then came the sale of Byoir to H&K in 1986. The Byoir name lingered as a conflict brand, and even today a Google search unearths an obscure reference on the WPP site to a Byoir office in Milan.

Whatever's in Milan is not the old Byoir. Our hallowed agency is now a state of mind. With apologies to Margaret Mitchell, “Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered.”

Bob McEwen is president and CEO of PR and marketing communications firm Zing USA. His 30-year career in PR encompasses spells at Carl Byoir, Eastman Kodak, Hill & Knowlton, Shandwick International, Fleishman-Hillard, Burson-Marsteller, and Nicholson Kovac.

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