Features
   

Key to Success Is Taking
‘Creative Leaps’

One morning, back in the summer of 1971, a youthful advertising man named Bob Schmetterer, BS’67 (T), MBA’70 (T), stepped from a high-rise elevator in Manhattan and nervously straightened his tie.

The 27-year-old could feel his heart pounding with adrenalin — and for good reason: The brand-new account executive for a small, highly creative agency was about to unveil a revolutionary campaign for (of all things) a chicken company.

The campaign called for an unusual strategy in which the no-nonsense founder of an ambitious Maryland-based poultry operation would take center stage during a series of dramatic commercials. After explaining how he pampered his chickens, Frank Perdue would cap the innovative ads by triumphantly declaring: “It Takes A Tough Man To Make A Tender Chicken!”

While working closely with two veteran partners — Sam Scali and Ed McCabe — at Scali McCabe Sloves in New York City, Schmetterer had been assigned to present the consumer insights and strategy for the campaign, while the partners presented its logistics. But would Perdue buy it? How would he react to the highly unusual suggestion (in 1971) that he should deliver the Perdue Farms message?

Schmetterer, today a legendary figure in advertising and the author of a book on creative thinking (LEAP: A Revolution In Creative Business Strategy, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.), was about to face the ad man’s “moment of truth.”

The stakes couldn’t have been higher. Perdue Farms was the first major account in Schmetterer’s new career — his future would ride on this meeting.

Showtime! Schmetterer says he’ll never forget the moment when Frank Perdue’s face fell. “I led off the opening strategy presentation by pointing out that there had never been an advertising campaign for chicken before, so the campaign needed to talk to the customer in new ways.”

McCabe and Scali then presented the subway posters and television spots that would feature Perdue, while the chicken mogul sat expressionless in his chair. But when the presenters hammered home the tag line about the “tough man” who would stop at nothing to produce a “tender chicken,” disaster struck.

“Perdue’s face fell, and
he shook his head.
It was obvious that he hated
the entire concept.”

“Perdue’s face fell, and he shook his head. It was obvious that he hated the entire concept,” Schmetterer recalls. “He told us bluntly that the last thing he’d ever expected was to be appearing in his own ads. He said something like, ‘Maybe we should start thinking about finding another advertising agency,’ and then he headed out the door.”

The ad men sat down and rigorously analyzed the meeting. Surprisingly, their discussion turned out to be a key moment in Schmetterer’s 30-year advertising career. “As we talked, we realized that our message was absolutely right,” says the former FDU psychology major. “We’d spent several days with Frank, and we knew he was absolutely sincere about the quality of his product.

“His sincerity and personal commitment were the best sales tools we had. So we decided to trust our instincts — and instead of changing the campaign, we decided to try and change Frank’s mind.”

What followed was legendary in the history of advertising. After several months, the agency finally convinced Perdue to launch the campaign, which soon began winning awards. Meanwhile, Perdue’s operation morphed into a $2.7 billion-a-year enterprise, and he became a U.S. poultry giant.

For Schmetterer, the Perdue campaign would mark the beginning of a storied career in which he helped conceive equally revolutionary campaigns for a series of recognizable blue-chip brands.

 
“What I learned was the importance of having a very personal belief in the quality and integrity of the products and services you represent …”

“That 1971 presentation was actually a pivotal moment for me,” says Schmetterer, who would later launch his own successful agency — Messner, Vetere, Berger, McNamee, Schmetterer — and then serve as CEO of one of the five largest advertising agencies in the world, Euro RSCG, for nearly a decade.

“What I learned was the importance of having a very personal belief in the quality and integrity of the products and services you represent, along with the vital importance of trusting your own instincts and having the courage to take risks in advertising — and in life!”

Volvo became his signature client and their focus on safety his passion for more than 30 years. Other clients included Maxell Tape, Pioneer, MCI, Dannon Yogurt and Intel.

Ask Schmetterer to explain how Fairleigh Dickinson University prepared him for success in advertising, and he’ll blurt a single word: “psychology!”

“I majored in psych,” he says with a nostalgic chuckle, after describing his early years as the son of a high-fidelity speaker pioneer in Hillsdale, N.J., “and I think I was very fortunate, because marketing and advertising are all about psychology. By the time I graduated, I was already working as a marketer — for British Motor Corporation — and it was easy to see how selling sports cars depended on the mind-set of our buyers.

“My time at FDU had a profound effect on my life. When I joined my first New York ad agency, I knew I’d be able to rely on my FDU experiences.”

“My time at FDU had a profound effect on my life. I spent the better part of nine years attending classes at night. One spring day, I stood in line to meet and shake hands with Robert Kennedy, who was to speak on the Teaneck campus. It was only a few weeks before his assassination, and the intensity of purpose in his blue eyes is something that still motivates me. When I joined my first New York ad agency, I knew I’d be able to rely on my FDU experiences.”

After enjoying a knockout career as an account executive for three different advertising firms, Schmetterer sold his agency to Euro RSCG, an international giant with more than 10,000 employees in 75 countries, and signed on as their CEO and chairman. It was there, he says, that he began putting together the business and life strategies outlined in LEAP.

The father of two grown sons, Schmetterer retired from Euro two years ago and now splits his time between homes in Martha’s Vineyard and New York City and cruising from Maine to the Caribbean on his 72-foot motor-yacht Blue Moon, with his wife, Stacy, and their dog, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Rosa. He serves as chairman of the board of J. Mandle Performance (a performance art company) and HNW - High Net Worth, which he refers to as “a hot, small marketing company.”

“I made a conscious decision to retire [from work life] at 59, even though I still loved what I was doing. I’ve seen too many people wait too long,” he says. “It helped to write the book during my last year of work … for me, it served as a kind of bookend to my work life.”

—T.N.

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For a print copy of FDU Magazine, featuring this and other stories, contact Rebecca Maxon, editor,
201-692-7024 or maxon@fdu.edu.

   
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