Roy Grace may well be the best ad guy you’ve never heard of.
But you’ll recognise some of his Volkswagen ads below, created at DDB between 1965 and 1986.
Whereas most creatives will lean towards a particular medium – Roy was as good in print as he was in tv.
Many creatives make their names on one, great account, like a Nike or Volkswagen, Roy did great work across everything; from J&B Rare whisky to Alka-Seltzer, from Chanel to SOS soap scrubbing pads, from Land Rover to IBM computers.
Most creatives create their best work with one partner – Roy did great work with dozens of different partners (leading to the phrase ‘everybody did their best work with Roy, Roy did his best work with everybody’).
Scroll through the work below and some of it may strike you as a little basic, especially compared to todays CGI extravaganzas.
Take Mobil oil; tin cans on an empty table tops.
It doesn’t appear very ‘creative’.
But next time you need a motor oil, my money says you’ll buy Mobil.
Even if you didn’t like the ads, you’ll just think it’s the best oil.
Forty years after they were made.
He left DDB with his writer Diane Rothschild, to set up Grace & Rothschild.
Shortly after, they hired a young writer called Allen Richardson.
Allen went on to create a lot of great work of his own, a large chunk of it at Crispin Porter + Bogusky in their golden years.
But Allen has just created different – a website about Roy.
Not a post, A SITE!
I caught up with Allen recently to ask what the hell was he thinking?
BENTON & BOWLES.
ROY GRACE & JOHN NOBLE ON CHEMISTRY, HONESTY AND CONTROVERSY.
(February 1970 from DDB News.)
(Ed. note – Roy Grace and John Noble have a rare record as a creative team. Every ad and commercial they’ve done together for Volkswagen has won at least one award – a number have been multi-award winners.
Roy started doing VW in 1964, became head art director on the account in 1965.
John began copywriting on VW in 1965 and became head copywriter in 1966.
While both have worked and do work with others, it was their record together that led the DDB News to interview them as a team.)
What would a creative team prefer – to be assigned to a campaign that’s already a classic, or to take on a product badly advertised in the past?
NOBLE: I don’t know about preference, but it’s easier to make something bad look good than to take a VW campaign and make it better.And I think we made it better.
Then why, when Alka-Seltzer came in, was there a stampede by creative people to get onto the account?
GRACE: There’s an opportunity that exists in an atmosphere of good advertising.
We knew the quality of work the client was used to.Everybody wants that kind of opportunity.
Also, there’s a lot of TV – and everybody loves to do TV.
GRACE: Definitely. Same thing.
Both clients are predisposed to a certain level of work.
The size of an account is important too.
When it’s big, you get a chance to do a great quantity of work, and it gets lots of exposure.
NOBLE: But anybody in this agency can do one good VW ad or commercial.
The same with Alka-Seltzer.
To sustain it is when it gets tough.
GRACE: It’s easy to do a mediocre ad on VW and get away with it, too, because people seeing it will say, “Hey, here’s a VW ad”, it must be good.
The important part is not the occasional flash of brightness, but consistency.
To get back to your earlier question, though, I think it’s probably more rewarding to take something badly advertised in the past and do something great than to sustain a classic campaign.
Do you get tired of doing VW?
GRACE: Well, I’m primarily on Alka-Seltzer now.
I’m still doing commercials with John for VW, but only on the wagon now.
We finished up as a team on the Bug last month.
NOBLE: I get tired of it, but I don’t see anything else I’d rather work on.
And it’s a hard account for someone to take over.
There’s so much work that people don’t see.
We have six A/Ds, and six writers, and we do at least 400 or 500 pieces of work every year – small space, tourist delivery – things people don’t see.
Everybody sees Life Magazine or ‘Jones and Krempler’ on TV, but there’s an awful lot of other work.
What makes you two work well as a team?
GRACE: I don’t know – it’s a climate.
You mean that two people create together?
GRACE: Yeah. It’s an atmosphere that’s conducive to something growing.
How do you know when you’re not going to make it with someone you’re teamed with?
GRACE: When you don’t like what they say and they don’t like what you say.
When you look at, and communicate, an idea differently.
NOBLE: Sometimes you find out in five minutes and sometimes it takes months, and the months are usually agony.
The best thing to do when you find out is to split.
GRACE: One thing that helps the climate is utmost honesty.
When your partner says something that stinks, you say, ‘That stinks.’ You clear the boards.
You don’t stand there for half an hour beating around the bush saying, ‘Well, uh, uh, I don’t know, uh, uh.’
It stinks, period.
Each person has a veto.
You both have to agree, but it takes only one to disagree.
When you two started working together, did you think, ‘Wow, this is terrific’?
NOBLE: It’s not like a love affair.
But it’s a nice feeling, because after working with people you really DON’T get along with – and they may be very good but there’s just no chemistry there – it’s good to work with somebody when the chemistry IS there.
And when you can be completely honest.
GRACE: An art director and a copywriter in a good relationship can anticipate what the other is thinking – kind of the way a husband and wife speak in almost a shorthand after years of living together.
‘Hey’, ‘ee’, ‘ooh’ or ‘ah’… and you know exactly what the other is talking about, which is good.
When teams ‘work’, does it matter what kind of product they’re on? Whether it’s an analgesic or a car or a paper diaper or what?
NOBLE: I think it does, because there are some accounts where there’s so much agony that even if you got along well and did great work, after a while the account would wear you down.
And then you start doubting yourselves.
You’re talking about accounts. I’m talking about products.
GRACE: I would say some products are easier to advertise than others.
I think cars are easier than soaps.
But then again … a few years ago somebody would have said suitcases are easier than effervescent tablets.
Until they did the great Alka-Seltzer campaign.
So I take it back.
Until somebody makes the great breakthrough, one product SEEMS harder than another.
But there ARE harder client relationships.
Then you wouldn’t care what product you were assigned if you thought the client and account men were good?
GRACE: It helps to believe in a product.
There are whole areas of products I think are a lot of crap, so I wouldn’t want to do them.
I couldn’t get involved in them.
I could do on-the-surface advertising for them, but nothing deeper.
What happens to you at cocktail parties when people find out you do the VW ads?
GRACE: I get drunk.
NOBLE: It used to be embarrassing because you always start out doing small space on VW, and people would say, ‘‘Did you do ‘Think Small or ‘Lemon’?’ ” I’d hide my head and say, “No, but I KNOW the guy who did.’’
But now, I kind of enjoy it.
They say, “Did you do the commercial with the two houses, Mr. Jones and Mr. Krempler?”
I really eat that up,“Yeah, I did.”
I finally can say yes.
Because for a couple of years I always had to say no.
GRACE: I try to hide it.
I don’t want anybody to know.
I find it boring to talk about.
You live with the damned thing so much, you’d rather talk about something else at cocktail parties.
Especially when you get the kind of question like “How do you do a commercial?”
It really bores the hell out of me.
Do you always have problems churning inside to which solutions pop out at odd times of the day and night?
NOBLE: You really don’t ever stop thinking about it.
The train is a good thing.
You have nothing else to do on a train.
And when I go to bed it’s the last thing I think about.
And when I wake up in the morning, it’s the first thing.
And that’s what’s great about working with someone.
You go to bed at night loving a concept you’ve thought of that evening.
You get up in the morning, you’re less sure of it.
By the time you get into the office, you really think it’s terrible.
But at least you have somebody you respect to try it out on.
It’s very hard to kill your own things.
GRACE: I hate to say this, but when I’m shaving … everything comes together from the last few days and the night before.
It’s like integrating all the little pieces … I guess that’s how an idea is created.
And as you’re shaving you suddenly say, “Oh, my God, that’s terrific!”
and you can’t wait to shave, and you can’t wait to get to the office you can’t wait to do it.
That, to me, is the most exciting part of the work − the idea.
When it first comes it’s like a brilliant ray of light.
After that, it’s downhill.
NOBLE: That may explain the talents of some A/Ds I know with beards.
About the flash of light?
GRACE: I’ll tell you what it’s like … let’s say John said “One” last week.
A day later I said “Three”.
And then he said “Four”.
You’ve got to reach the number ten.
Then all of a sudden the missing piece that binds it all together, that makes it add up to ten, comes, and it’s like hitting a magic spark.
You know it’s going to work.
You know it’s right.
Then the problems come … in trying to execute the idea so that it comes off right.
You CAN lose it in the execution.
Let’s talk for a few minutes about something I know you two feel strongly about – fighting for your ads.
GRACE: Yes, I think 50 percent is doing the work, and 50 percent is fighting for it.
Fighting for what you believe in.
Too many people are willing to do the work, but at the first ‘No’ they surrender.
You can be the greatest talent in the world, the greatest team doing the greatest work, but if you’re not willing to
defend it, it’ll never see the light of day.
NOBLE: There are account men who can talk young creative people out of a concept very easily.
But if it’s been approved by the Creative Department, that means it ain’t a bad ad when it goes up there.
There may be certain problems, but for creative people to come back immediately after seeing an account man and say, “We can’t do this because so-and-so says we can’t do this,” is wrong.
There should be a battle.
Why do you think there isn’t a battle?
GRACE: Insecurity, probably.
But when an A/D and writer think a concept is right enough to spend 20 hours on, they should be articulate enough and have the tools to be able to convince the account man it’s right.
Or at any rate he should prove they’re wrong rather than saying he won’t buy it.
It’s not his prerogative to ‘buy’ an ad.
His job is to sell an ad.
But it’s really the fault of the A/D and writer because of their passivity – and their lack of equipment.
NOBLE: And this is where your team thing comes in too, because there’s nothing worse than going to an account man’s office – it’s two against one in your favour – and after five minutes one of you says “Yeah, he’s right.”
Because then you’re destroyed.
GRACE: If the account man can convince them they’re wrong in five minutes, they should never have been up there with that ad.
Either that ad is all wrong, or they’re all wrong.
They failed in one area or the other.
NOBLE: If the account man has done his job beforehand, he’s told you everything that has to do with that ad.
That means, you being the professional creative man, when you go back to him with your ad, that ad should be right.
GRACE: You should bat about 80 percent.
There are times when you make mistakes, and times when there’s something you don’t know.
But 8 out of 10 times you should be right on the button.
Or there’s something wrong with the team.
Either they’re not good enough – they don’t have the talent – or they don’t understand what they’re doing.
Or they’re just afraid.
An account man said no because, while the ad may be very good it may be too controversial, and he doesn’t want to give himself a headache.
This is where the creative team should say, “That’s your problem, not mine; that ad is right.”
But they should know why it’s right just as the account man should be expected to say what makes it wrong.
It’s a matter of life and death – the life or death of the ad – and the team should be willing to put everything they’ve got behind it.
There’s some great work in that feed.
But not his best.
Not by a long way.
I didn’t include his best 60 ads.
They’re over on Allen’s site:
A LITTLE MORE ROY…
His induction into The New York Art Director’s Club Hall of Fame (1986).
“Twenty years ago humorous commercials were considered inappropriate by most agency and client standards yet Roy Grace brought us Spicy Meatballs for Alka-Seltzer and Mr. Jones and Mr. Krempler for Volkswagen. Grace, who was just at the start of his distinguished career at Doyle Dane Bernbach, demonstrated that intelligence and originality can make humor work to enhance the quality of a product, make a TV spot memorable, and entertain without boring or insulting the audience. In fact, Spicy Meatballs won the International Broadcasting Award for the Best Commercial done between 1960 and 1980.
The willingness to take risks and ignore the rules characterizes Grace’s highly acclaimed work in television. The IBA award is just one of the many honors bestowed upon him, more honors than anyone else in advertising—25 Clios, 9 Gold and 8 Silver Awards from the Art Directors Club, 8 Andy’s, 7 One Show Gold Awards and 8 Silver Awards, and 5 Gold Lions and 3 Silver Lions from the Cannes Film Festival. Of the 17 Classic Commercials in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, four were art directed by Roy Grace. Six of his spots have been elected to the Clios U.S. Television Classic Hall of Fame.
Grace joined DDB as an art director in 1964 and through the years worked on virtually every major account including American Tourister, Bristol-Myers, Avis, Chanel, IBM, Miles Laboratories, S.O.S., Alka-Seltzer, Mobil Oil and Volkswagen. Some of his most memorable spots are Funeral for Volkswagen in which a thrifty and practical Beetle-driving nephew inherits his uncle’s millions, and Gorilla for American Tourister, in which a gorilla batters a suitcase while the voiceover lists the many ways that luggage can be abused. Also of note are Puddle for American Tourister, Cold Weather for Mobil Oil, and the S.O.S. campaign featuring taciturn Moe and his wife. His cinematic style involves very little camera work; the distinctive characters, both human and non-human, provide the commercials with their action and energy.
For Grace, good advertising is achieved by cooperative effort between agency talent and clients with courage and intelligence. Since advertising has to deliver a selling message to a disinterested audience, the industry has come to acknowledge the value of entertainment in communicating that message. In much of advertising, the entertainment merely surrounds the message; in Grace’s work, the two are inseparable. The gorilla battering an American Tourister suitcase, for example, isn’t bait to lure the viewer to the point of the commercial; it is the point of the commercial. The comedy and the drama is never extraneous to the sales proposition, it is inextricable from it.
Grace’s style does not allow him the luxury of drawing from an unlimited universe of references and illusions. That he has managed to produce so varied and inventive a body of work within a limited context is evidence of the extraordinary imagination he brings to each product.
Grace’s secret to success is the determination to excel, not an easy task considering that we are bombarded with four to six thousand messages and product images daily. Advertising uses up more ideas more rapidly than any other profession. To stand out among the pick-and-choose clutter of impressions, the successful creative director must be willing to take risks. Breakthroughs are achieved by commitment and by accident, and by ignoring the rules. In fact, Grace likes to point out that there should be only one rule in advertising and that is not to pay attention to the rules.
Grace has his own interpretation of the distinction between “hard sell” and “soft sell.” For him all good advertising should be hard sell; not boring and dull sell, but able to grab attention while delivering a believable proposition in a memorable way. Hard sell is to stand out in the jungle of advertisers by reaching an audience who is, at best, apathetic.
Grace grew up in the Bronx and graduated from Cooper Union in 1962. He is currently a member of the Board of Trustees. He speaks highly of his alma mater, especially for providing him with an awareness of the limitless possibilities of analyzing and solving design problems. His education gave him a philosophical framework, which has guided his aesthetic sense, and that is how to improve upon a blank sheet of paper. In 1981, Cooper Union honored him with the Augustus St. Gaudens Medal, the highest alumni award for professional achievement.
In the years following his graduation, Grace held twenty-five different jobs. He explored almost every aspect of design, from books to packaging, including an assignment as an animator for Paramount Pictures. Though he was not finding the satisfaction he sought, he had reservations about going into advertising—it was against his principles. At age 25, he did join an advertising agency, Benton & Bowles. Within a year he was promoted to an art director and had his own clientele. He then went to Grey Advertising for a year, followed by a year with DDB in Germany, and finally his long-lasting association with DDB in New York.
Grace’s diverse experience and creative ingenuity came together at DDB, an agency known in the 60s for its experimentation and adventurousness. His stint as a cartoon animator doing Little Lulu, Casper the Ghost and Popeye provided a good understanding of the film medium. Animation lent itself, technically, to the production style which marked Grace’s spots, that of favoring a dead-pan camera over a moving one, and a remarkable knack for evoking a full personality or complete environment with just one artfully directed scene.
His yearlong stay with DDB in Germany sensitized him to the nuances and peculiarities of language. As a neophyte German speaker and writer, he struggled to find precise words to convey a message. On his return to New York, he retained an astute appreciation of the power of language to suggest ideas and images beyond literal translation.
Once Grace found his niche in advertising, DDB was the only agency that really interested him. The firm was leading a creative revolution, which Grace wanted to be a part of. He found a significant source of support and encouragement in Bill Bernbach, a creative genius who guided the firm through decades of tremendous growth. Grace became the first creative staffer to be promoted to a vice chairman and at the time he left the agency in 1986, he was Chairman and Executive Creative Director of DDB-U.S. and DDB-NY, and Vice Chairman of the Board of The Doyle Dane Bernbach Group. He led DDB through particularly difficult years when, following Bernbach’s death and the loss of some major accounts, the agency strove to attract big, established clients yet still produce fresh, creative and risky work.
Finding himself farther away from the creative end than he wished to be, Grace and partner Diane Rothschild formed their own agency, Grace and Rothschild. He is glad to be back to the drawing board, involving himself in a variety of projects. He sees a different set of challenges in advertising today, stricter rules that control what can be said and done, as well as a more sophisticated audience of readers and viewers. In many ways Grace regards the climate of the 60s as easier because the work done had never been tried before. As a young man his enthusiasm lay in producing ads. Now an experienced veteran, he finds himself more interested in whether his ads work to sell a product.
As for the future, Grace sees the world-as-global-village becoming a major influence on advertising styles and messages. As nations become more closely linked through electronic communications, advertising will be more visual and less verbal. Simpler, more graphic design will be the key to universal comprehension. As for American advertising, New York may not retain its lead, not because it produces bad work, but because every place else is getting better. And as for television, particularly the proliferation of 15-second spots, Grace sees television as the place for the simplest messages while print will be the medium for real information. Whatever the course advertising will take, it is more than likely that Roy Grace will be in the forefront.
If it is true, as Grace proposes, that creative people are slightly crazy and that their drawn images mirror their minds, then it is no wonder that he finds a blank sheet of paper to be a terrifying but exciting challenge. He likes to quote psychologist R. D. Laing, who wrote that madness is the highest form of sanity in an insane world. In the advertising world, Grace may be the sanest of all.”
5 responses to ROY GRACE SITE. With Allen Richardson
Great post! One of the best creative directors in the history of advertising
Missing numerous VW ads, Land Rover, and Range Rover but great collection and many I have not seen
There’s a reason – at the end of the post is says go to Allen’s site to see 60 better ads.
(Although if you have any that aren’t on Allen’s or mine, send them over – I’ll add them.).
Thanks Dave makes sense! A great collection immaculately presented as always! I was fortunate to have worked for Roy twice, it was a fantastic experience
The funeral spot is in my top 5 of all time. It’s the one that blew me away before I even started working in advertising.