THE WOMEN WHO BUILT DDB, 3: Judy Protas

Unusual names are more likely to be remembered.
So I knew that the writer of the Levy’s campaign was called Judy Protas.
I didn’t know she’d written one of my favourite ads – Ohrbach’s ‘Back to school’.
I knew the Crackerjack ads but didn’t know she’d written them.
I didn’t know she’d written the Ohrbach’s cat ad (probably the most famous DDB before VW came along).
I’d seen the funny Crackerjack commercials on a 100 Greatest ads reel back in the day, I didn’t know she’d written them.
I also didn’t know she was the first writer Phyliss Robinson hired, making her the agency’s second copywriter.
And who new she worked there for 45 years? Starting in ’52, leaving ’97.


JUDY PROTAS
INTERVIEW WITH JAPAN’S IDEA MAGAZINE, 1969.

You’re famous for being the copywriter for Ohrbach’s.
Do you still write for Ohrbach’s?
I took myself off the Ohrbach’s account in December 1968.

How long had you been writing for Ohrbach’s?

Since…let’s see, 1951? That’s longer than I’ve let myself remember! For a good many years Bill Bernbach and Bob Gage did all the concepts.
As a matter of fact, the Cat ad, which is very famous as you know, was their concept; my contribution was the body copy:

“The way she talks, you’d think she was in Who’s Who. Well! I found out what’s what with her. Her husband own a bank? Sweetie? Not even a bank account. Why that place of theirs that has wall-to-wall mortgages! And that car? Darling, that’s horsepower, not earning power. They won it in a fifty-cent raffle!
Can you imagine? And those clothes! Of course she does dress divinely – a mink stole, all those dresses, and a Paris suite – on his income? Well darling, I found out about that too. I just happened to be going her way and I saw Joan come out of Ohrbach’s!”

Gradually as the account grew and as Bill Bernbach’s time became more crowded, he gave me more and more responsibility and I began to do the ads from scratch.

Did you feel stagnant on the account? Was that the problem?
It wasn’t so much a matter of getting tired of Ohrbach’s. It became an increasingly complex job, a really enormous account. The store began pushing a great many departments for which it never had done ads before. It became more than one person could handle.
Now; I had a choice of directions; I could either set up a group, ask for more copywriters, give some of the smaller jobs to them and keep the good things, the delightful things, the subway posters and institutional ads for myself, which would have been unfair to the juniors.
Or I could do what it was time for me to do in the long run anyway, which was to ask to be relieved of the account.
It wasn’t the easiest decision. I was associated with Ohrbach’s, my name meant something, but it was time for a fresh team.
The institutional stuff that’s coming out today is very exciting and has, in fact, been mopping up prizes.
The store I’m sure is enormously pleased and I know the agency is too.

When you first joined DDB, what was the size of the agency?
How many copywriters were there?

I first joined DDB in year one, literally. DDB was a year old. I came in 1950 and there was only one copywriter before me. My bones creak when I think of it.


At that time, who directly taught you to write?
I was the first copywriter Phyllis Robinson hired. She was my Copy Chief.

What was her teaching method?
She was absolutely marvellous. She tried to bring me out, to remind me that copy is not a question of writing cute stuff but of selling hard and being fresh while you sell, she kept me to the point, refused to let me go off into detours; she taught by correcting goofs rather than by setting rigid principles.
She was an excellent teacher, and I’m delighted to see her around as often as I do, now that we’re as big as we are.

While you kept writing for Ohrbach’s, how many different art directors did you have?
Well, not too many different ones. I’d say there were probably four altogether. Charlie Piccirillo, who is back on the account now, worked with me for a while.
So did Gary Geyer.


When you have a new art director to work with, do you somewhat change your way of doing things to suit him?
I work with an art director as a friend. And as a laughing companion in fact. I’ve found it’s important to laugh as much as you worry in doing ads.
Charlie and I had a marvellous time together. Gary and I had perhaps less laughter and more work as the account grew more complex, but we still had a lot of fun.
I’ve never had a problem with this change of art directors.
A lot of the credit I give to them, of course; but in general, if you’re mature enough, and if you understand people enough, you can adapt.
It really doesn’t matter what the personalities are as long as there is some kind of mental rapport.
There’s a kind of happy challenge, in fact, in adjusting to a new combination of talent and temperament.

Please describe in detail how you proceed in your teamwork with the art director?
The teamwork with the art director, I think, is paramount. That’s probably true for most of the people around here.
The first thing you and the art director do when you get a requisition is to look at each other and say “My God, we’ll never get it.”
After that you sit and you come up with some ideas that you think are perhaps OK.

You look at them the next morning and you think “How could I have liked that? It’s awful!”.
And you keep going until something happens.
There really isn’t much difference, I shouldn’t think, in the way most of us work.
What the best teams have is the good sense to do what has to be done first: get the story.
Digging for background. And I’ll never do that alone.
A friend of mine at another agency recently said “I took my art director to a client meeting today.” It was obvious he had condescended to do something different.
I will never, as a copywriter, go off to the client to get the story and bring it back and feed it to the art director. The art director is 50% of the muscle; a good art director is as apt to come up with a smash headline as a good writer is to come up with a visual.
As a team we go off together to dig out the facts.
And we want everything.
You’ve got to get a headful of information: the background, the client’s thinking, the feeling he has for his product, every last little thing he can tell you.
A client will sometimes answer a question with “You don’t have to know that. You’re not going to put it in the ad.” Not true. We have to know everything, whether it goes in the ad or not. It’s all part of the texture of the problem we’re working on.
Anything and everything may feed into the final idea.
As a matter of fact, the client may trigger an ad without even realizing it.
Clients, I’ve found, must be encouraged not to censor the material they give us.
Most of the time, of course, they understand this; in fact, you sometimes have a problem turning the faucet off once you’ve turned it on.

 

In case the opinions of you two split, how would you solve the problem?
One of us waits out the other. If there’s a real split in opinion, we let it sit for a couple of days. Either the art director will begin to understand what I see in it or I’ll begin to understand what he doesn’t.
Occasionally when you come up against an inseparable, difference and you really are at a stand-off, you ask somebody else’s opinion, but there I think you have to be careful whom you ask. I’m not about to take a census of the secretaries, but a Bob Levenson or a Leon Meadow would be another matter.
But I’ve never reached a breaking point with an art director.
I just find that the challenge of the job and the problem you have to solve in the ad are a lot more important than the challenge of the personality. There really wasn’t a personality problem, never while I was on Ohrbach’s.

What is the reason you’ve stayed so long at DDB?
Well, obviously it’s because I like working here; I’ve been very happy. You’ve heard it from other copywriters: the freedom to think, to be fresh, to be original, to be yourself as long as you never forget that the main purpose of an ad is to sell.
Second of all, over and over again as writers have left and gone off to other agencies, you hear sad stories of the difference in working conditions.

During your long association with DDB, you must have seen a lot of copywriters come and go. Among those writers, is there anyone that left you with a strong impression?
One of the writers whom I remember best and have the greatest respect for is Ron Rosenfeld. I miss him as a friend, follow him as a writer, I’m proud and fond of him.
Bob Levenson and Leon Meadow fill out my favourite triumvirate.

Tell us about your background up to the time you joined DDB.
I remember one Christmas I had finished Graduate School; I had a Master’s Degree in English and I thought I would like to write.
I came back to New York and went around to magazines with my Master’s Degree in my hand and found that with luck I could get a job at $25 a week doing research on a magazine. It was during the holidays, and being female, I decided to do what females do when they feel blue. I’d buy something to cheer myself up.
I happened to be near Macy’s, I went in, and bumped into a booth they’d set up to recruit temporary help for Christmas.
Well, I wouldn’t mind working for Macy’s just for Christmas, but could I do something where I could write?
They sent me up to the advertising department and I was hired to file proofs.
From time to time I wrote little bits on housewares and turned them in and they decided to give me a chance as a copywriter. And that’s where I learned about research.
It was close to Passover, a Jewish holiday, and the Jews, of course, do not eat bacon or ham—not where the Lord can see them, at any rate. Well, we were going to advertise a carving knife on a page which sold Passover items, and I did my research and figured out how you sell a carving knife and got all enthusiastic over the things you could carve with this wonderful knife for Passover and in the middle of the list was the word “ham”. And the next thing I knew, the Copy Chief was roaring “Protas, come in here!”.
It was an early lesson in over-enthusiasm and sloppy thinking.
Anyway, after five years at Macy’s, in which I specialized in furniture and some fashion, I decided it was time to move on.
I remember when I first got to Doyle Dane Bernbach, we were on the top floor of a building on Madison Avenue, squeezed, as a matter of fact, into the penthouse, and Ned Doyle looked at me and said “Kid, can you work hanging from the chandeliers?”

Out of the work you’ve done so far, name two ads you like best and tell us why you like them. Any episodes concerning the creative work of the two ads?
Now that I’m off Ohrbach’s, I look back over the years with a new perspective and I realize there are other things I’m happy with.
One is the campaign for Levy’s real Jewish rye bread, which I did with art director Bill Taubin. “You don’t have to be Jewish” took a regional product, a bread known only within a few hundred miles, and made it an international by-word.
One of the things I’m proud of is the fact that when we first did it, the overt approach to an ethnic or religious group was quite a shock. That it is accepted nowadays, I think is in large part because of this campaign.


No matter where I go, if I’m asked “What do you do?” and I say “I’ve worked on Ohrbach’s and I work on Levy’s”, the reaction is a delight to my ego.
These days as I look back at Ohrbach’s, my favourite ad is the one with the little boy sitting in the corner, very grumpy; the headline reads, “We regret to inform you your school stuff is ready at Ohrbach’s”. I love that one.

And I love the Crackerjack commercials, on which I worked with Bob Gage.

You worked on Crackerjack TV commercials, did you say?
Yes. For the first five years the agency had the account, I was the copywriter with Bob Gage.
The first thing that we decided to do was to write a jingle, and it caught on. I haven’t seen the jingle spots for a while, but I can tell you my very small friends still come up to me and say “You’re the Crackerjack lady!”

Did Mr Bernbach give you any advice that particularly impressed you? And how do you apply his advice to your work?
Advice from Bill Bernbach? Well, the one bit I remember most was his advice on believability. Find a sound selling point, do a fresh and provocative ad, but always remember one guide-line; believability.
One illustration he’s often used is the man upside down on the page. Do it just for the sake of catching attention and you’ve got nothing more than a gimmick.
If, on the other hand, you’re selling men’s clothes with pockets from which nothing can fall out, then you’re being provocative and you’re selling at the same time.


More Judy.

Thanks to Vikki Ross for her help with this post.

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