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N. O'Connor, 76; Revived Ad Agency

January 27, 2002|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Neal W. O'Connor, who reinvigorated Ayer, America's oldest advertising agency, during his tenure as chairman and chief executive in the late 1960s and '70s, has died. He was 76.

O'Connor died Jan. 18 in Princeton, N.J., of complications from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

O'Connor joined the 132-year-old New York City-based agency, then headquartered in Philadelphia and known as N.W. Ayer & Son, as a junior account executive in 1949. He advanced rapidly in account management positions and became president in 1964 at age 39. He was promoted to chairman and chief executive in 1966.

Among the familiar ad campaigns during O'Connor's tenure were for AT&T ("Long distance is the next best thing to being there"), John Deere ("Nothing runs like a Deere") and United Airlines ("The extra care airlines").

Ayer was founded in Philadelphia in 1869 by Francis Wayland Ayer, a 21-year-old college graduate who abandoned the idea of being a teacher to become an entrepreneur selling newspaper ads. He named the agency after his father and first partner, Nathan Wheeler Ayer.

As Advertising Age noted in 1994, the agency has practically been defined by its firsts: The first color ad (in 1893 for Mellin's Food), the first two-color inserts in magazines (in 1895 for Fairbank soap), the first million-dollar advertising campaign (in 1899 for "Uneeda Biscuit" for the National Biscuit Co.), and the first advertiser-sponsored radio broadcast (in 1922 for Shur-on Optical Co., over KDKA in Pittsburgh).

The National Biscuit Co. (now Nabisco) was Ayer's breakthrough account. The agency coordinated the packaging, trademarks, media and selling for Uneeda biscuits, thus turning a commodity into a distinctive brand.

Over the next few decades, Ayer attracted a host of blue-chip clients, ranging from AT&T to Ford Motor Co., and generated memorable advertising slogans such as "I'd walk a mile for a Camel" (Camel cigarettes), "When it rains, it pours" (Morton Salt), "Head for the hills" (Hills Bros. coffee) and "A diamond is forever" (DeBeers).

But in the mid-1960s, the agency suffered the crushing loss of several major accounts, including Hills Bros. coffee, United Airlines and--most significantly--its $30-million Plymouth account, the biggest loss of an advertising client in history at the time and representing nearly a quarter of Ayer's billings.

O'Connor rose to the top of the company during those troubled years--president in 1964 and chief executive in 1966.

He said in a 1980 interview that former Chairman Harry A. Batten "had been a president, too, at 39, and he wanted a young man in his own image, someone who wouldn't make trouble and wouldn't rock the boat. But I did institute change, and I'm sure I disappointed him greatly before he died."

O'Connor downplayed his role, however, saying he was only the catalyst.

"There was a whole group of concerned guys all screaming for change," he said. "One thing good about a crisis is that everybody is pulling together."

As chief executive, O'Connor moved the agency's headquarters from Philadelphia to New York City and, according to Advertising Age, paved the way for Ayer's overseas expansion.

"Several important clients wanted us in New York," O'Connor wrote in Advertising Age in 1994. "Prospective clients were sometimes turned off by our not being there. And the TV age demanded closer touch with the networks, which all were Manhattan based."

Howard Davis, a former corporate Ayer communications director, recalled of O'Connor: "He just energized [the agency]. He was young and aggressive and eager and intelligent and got a lot done. The agency started doing better almost immediately in his decade as CEO and more than overcame the losses of the previous decade."

O'Connor also brought Ayer into the American Assn. of Advertising Agencies, the trade group known as the Four A's, which he served as chairman in 1975-76.

In the past, Davis said, "Mr. Ayer and the successors all the way to O'Connor had said, 'We don't need anybody telling us what to do.'"

Joining the Four A's, he said, "brought the agency into the main body of American advertising."

O'Connor stepped down as Ayer's chairman and chief executive in 1976 and became chairman of the agency's executive committee. He retired in 1981 .

Born in Milwaukee, O'Connor served with the 350th Infantry Regiment, antitank unit, 88th "Blue Devil" Division, of the 5th Army in Italy during World War II.

He graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in business administration in 1949, the year he joined Ayer.

A military buff, O'Connor established the nonprofit Foundation for Aviation World War I after retiring and wrote seven books devoted to aviation during that war.

He is survived by his wife, Nancy, of Princeton; sons, Robert of Santa Fe, N.M., Thomas of Boston and David of Los Angeles; and three grandchildren.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Neal W. O'Connor Memorial Fund, c/o Project ALS, 511 Avenue of the Americas, PMB No. 341, New York, NY 10011.

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