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Ad man Howie Cohen built a reputation one line at a time

August 26, 2012|By Meg James, Los Angeles Times
  • Howie Cohen is partner and chief creative officer at the Phelps Group, a Santa Monica advertising agency. His commercials are among the most memorable in the industry.
Howie Cohen is partner and chief creative officer at the Phelps Group, a… (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles…)

The gig: Partner and chief creative officer at Phelps Group, a Santa Monica advertising agency that represents such clients as City of Hope, Panasonic and Public Storage. Cohen, 69, came up with some of the most memorable lines in advertising. His commercials are in the Clio Hall of Fame.

Pre-roll: Cohen grew up in a one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx with the elevated train rattling past his window. His father was in the steel fabrication business, but Cohen was intrigued by advertising. He practiced by rewriting magazine ads at the kitchen table. "My dad would come home and say, 'Whaddya do all day, stare at the ceiling?' My mother would say: 'Sam! Do you think it's easy?' A big part of who I became grew out of the dialogue, jokes, humor and the characters that surrounded me as a child."

First break: In March 1965, Cohen joined Doyle Dane Bernbach, then Madison Avenue's most creative shop, for $6,200 a year. In 1967, he moved to Wells Rich Greene for $25,000 a year. "Clever campaigns were winning big accounts. A price war had started." The idea was to team "Jewish copywriters from the Bronx with Italian art directors from Brooklyn." Cohen was paired with Bob Pasqualina to create Diet Rite commercials. Then the agency landed the Alka-Seltzer account, and Cohen and Pasqualina were told to get ready. "We were going to get our shot." It was 1971.

Try it: "Bob would sit at his desk smoking his pipe and I would pace. I would throw out a line, and he would throw out a line. We thought this guy [in their proposed Alka-Seltzer commercial] should be in a restaurant and the waiter recommends the wrong food. And I said, "Try it, you'll like it." I couldn't think of the next line, so I said, "Try it, you'll like it!" again, and Bob laughed. We repeated the line four times throughout the commercial. Where did it come from? It was probably what my mother said to me as a child: 'Eat your liver. Try it, you'll like it.'"

The whole thing. The crew was celebrating the wrap of a commercial shoot in London. "There were 20 of us around the table and [director] Milos Forman ordered for everyone — chicken, steaks, lobster. I'm a nice Jewish kid from the Bronx, so I ate everything, until I couldn't fit one more thing in my body. I leaned back in my chair and said, 'I can't believe I ate the whole thing.' And my wife said, 'There's your next Alka-Seltzer commercial.'"

Blowing up the clown. In 1978, Pasqualina and Cohen came to Los Angeles to run Wells Rich Greene's West Coast office, which counted among its clients Columbia Pictures, Max Factor and Jack in the Box. Sales were down and the burger chain needed a jolt. "So we blew up the Jack in the Box clown in 1980." Later, Cohen partnered with Mark Johnson. They built Cohen/Johnson into one of the most profitable independent shops on the West Coast, and eventually sold the firm to Phelps Group in 1997.

Googled. About a year ago, Google found Cohen through his MadMensch blog, which he bills as "memoirs of an ad guy who was there" and whose title plays off that of AMC's popular "Mad Men" show, about ad men in the '60s. The search giant invited the veteran to participate in Project Re: Brief, an initiative that asked executives behind four iconic ads from the '60s and '70s to redo their ads using today's technology. Cohen was reunited with Pasqualina, now 75, and Milt Moss, the 91-year-old actor who played the guy with indigestion in the "I can't believe I ate the whole thing" commercial. "I look at the Internet tools and technologies that we have and see exciting new ways to express an idea. But emotions will always trump algorithms. Advertising is about connecting in a human way."

Connections. Cohen and his wife of 40 years, Carol, live in Marina del Rey. They have four adult children and one granddaughter. "My life has been a series of big breaks. And one of my biggest breaks was marrying my wife. All good things have come through her."

meg.james@latimes.com

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