“I try to find a way to get into the head of a child.”
– Stephen O. Frankfurt.
His quote sounds spooky, but I guess it’s just another way of saying keep it simple and interesting.
Virtually unknown today, he was a big deal in the fifties, sixties and seventies.
His Mum was the secretary to the head of the Twentieth Century Fox film studio.
(Sounds irrelevant, it isn’t.)
He spends three years at the Pratt Institute, being ‘molded’ by Alexey Brodovitch.
He leaves and visits every major studio and ad agency to try to land a job.
No-one is interested in him.
So he took a job as a junior in a tv company, painting animation background cells.
One of the clients offered him a job at their agency; Young & Rubicam New York.
He became assistant art director in a department recently opened for a new medium they were calling ‘Television’.
Unlike the rest of the department, former movie production types and radio writers imported from Hollywood, he had hands on experience in animation and camera techniques.
Before long he was writing and creating his own commercials.
They were exceptionally graphic.
What you need to bear in mind was this was the late fifties, most commercials used presenters or product demonstrations. The really creative ones would use both at the same time.
Ads like the one below really stood out.
He was widely credited as ‘helping Bernbach’s creative revolution extend into TV’.
He realised that TV wasn’t a branch of live performance, it could be more like his first love – cinema. (Remember his mum’s job?)
He started using film makers to tap into emotions.
His work was starting to get noticed more and more.
One of those taking notice was film director Alan J. Pakula.
He asked Frankfurt to design the opening titles for ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’.
He wins an oscar.
Here, he explains his thinking;
He shot a lot of commercials with Irving Penn, who said this about him; “He has always been a rarity in the advertising business. He believes that magic can happen in the film studio…and keeps his commitment to the client as loose as possible so as to make good use of a miracle should it happen.”
His press and poster work was equally simple and graphic.
He does groundbreaking work for Eastern Airlines.
In 1967 he becomes President of Young & Rubicam’s New York office.
Now at the time Young & Rubicam was the world’s second largest ad agency, so appointing a 36 year old to run your Head Office was brave, a 36-year-old art director was just plain nuts.
He visits his heroes; Bill Bernbach, George Lois and Arnold Varga, asking for advice on how to communicate his ideas to the department.
In the process, he collected proofs of their work.
He used them to create a gallery in Y&R’s art department, ttelling staff that within a year he wants to replace them with Y&R ads that were equal or better, than those on the wall.
It took two years.
He then got New York to ‘Give A Damn’.
Not long after he got a visit from a friend of his, film producer Robert Evans.
(Remember his mum’s job?)
Evans had a problem; Paramount didn’t know how to sell his new film ‘Rosemary’s Baby’. “I can’t release the movie because the whole of our advertising team doesn’t know how to sell it, and the picture’s brilliant!”
A viewing was set up for Frankfurt to see the film.
“Bob, I’m going to tell it you straight; it’s not an easy picture to sell and I’m not going to take one dime from.”
He then said “But if you buy what I give you I want one hundred thousand dollars”.
Rather than design a poster, he distilled the idea of the film into a single hook, as he’d learnt in advertising.
Robert Evans: ‘I walked in to the office of Chairman of the Board, Charles Bluhdorn, and said ‘‘Take a look at this and you tell me if you want to write a cheque for one hundred thousand dollars’’.
And I turned the art-board around and there it is; there’s a mountain and a carriage and it says ‘Pray for Rosemary’s Baby’, that’s all.
Bluhdorn looked at it, he becomes as pale as these white shoes that I’m wearing, he said ‘I have to pay him one hundred thousand dollars for four words?!’ I said that’s right, and he did!
‘Pray for Rosemary’s Baby’ became the ad of the year.
It made the picture, without that image people wouldn’t know what it was, they still didn’t know, but they were intrigued.
It opened to the biggest business Paramount had done in years.”
Here’s is a BBC documentary on Frankfurt, an amazing snapshot of his life at the time.
The ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ experience gave Frankfurt a taste of a different life.
Also, President was a very different job from the creative one he was used to.
“I never had a frustrating day in that company, until I became President,”
He works on the campaign to get Mayor Linsay re-elected. A tough job, as his first stint in office was considered a disaster.
Like a lot of truly great advertising, he uses the truth and gets Mayor Linsay to admit that ‘mistakes were made’, and ends with Linsay calling the job of being mayor of New York ‘the second toughest job in America’.
What a great end-line.
Mayor Linsay was re-elected.
In 1971, he leaves his swanky office at Y&R to set up Frankfurt Gips, with the designer Phillip Gips.
His mission was ‘to see the packaging of movies as a totality—designing the titles, posters, trailers and ads with one common look and theme.’
An integrated campaign, as we’d call it today.
(Remember his mum’s job?)
In 1974 he gets roasted, (not British footballer style), by the board of the New York Art Directors Club.
In the eighties, Frankfurt described his company’s approach:
‘Clients come to us expecting to see something different.
We tend to come at things in an unexpected way.
We offer a point of view on a film.
We try and create a strong copy line or image that everything else can be hung on…You have to reflect the film’s essence.
You have a generation of fast-forward kids out there zapping movies.
The challenge is to find a way to be different.
The people who come here to work are misfits. They don’t fit in anywhere else.
These people go out and have fun together at night.
Bill Murray dropped by and took them all out to dinner. You can’t fake that.’
Unfortunately, it’s hard to find the complete campaign for the films, but with ideas like ‘In space no-one can hear you scream’ or ‘You’ll believe a man can fly’ still famous today, you have to say he fulfilled his mission.
14 responses to Hands up who’s heard of STEPHEN O. FRANKFURT?
A true pop culture engineer. Thank you Dave.
It makes you want to weep when you look at this work and compare it to the absolute shit that now passes for advertising. The Eastern Airlines Acapulco diver ad is a classic. Then think of any airline ad in the last twenty years. Better yet, don’t bother. Have a drink instead.
Cheers/George “AdScam” Parker
Hey George, delighted to make you feel like weeping. Hope you’re well. Best, D.
I have to admit I’d never heard of him. But I do love those movie posters. Lovely stuff.
Dave… It takes a lot to make me weep… Takes next to bugger all to get me drinking though. Cheers/George
Brilliant and insightful as always Dave, thanks will re watch To Kill a Mockingbird just for the credits this time.
What a guy and what a Mel Brooks tale.
Wow, Dave. Never heard of him yet recognised a lot of the work. But that documentary was the real eye opener. Not just for the Mad Men creative department scenes (I need a pipe!) but the insights into mid sixties New York cocktail party dancing. Groovy.
Great post as usual, and fantastic work. FYI there’s a better British Dracula film poster that features two plasters on a girls neck…I wonder which one came first?
And, fascinating documentary too by the brilliant director, the one and only, Charles Denton.
Thanks for the enlightenment Dave. Excellent.
‘In space no one can hear you scream.’ Is the best movie line ever written. Discuss.
Outstanding stuff, really inspiring. So much great work.
That Y&R pencil ad hits the nail right on the head for me.
Love seeing my dad’s work.
Wow. It’s like you reproduced his entire career. Nice job. One of the classiest of the original Mad Men.