Della Femina, Jerry
DELLA FEMINA, Jerry
(b. 22 July 1936 in New York City), irreverent copywriter, unconventional ad man, leading figure of advertising's creative revolution during the 1960s, and author of a brash, tell-all book on advertising.
Della Femina is the older of two sons born to Michael Louis Della Femina, a pressman for the New York Times, and Concetta (Corsaro) Della Femina, a homemaker. He grew up in a working-class neighborhood in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn. Della Femina went to a local school, graduated from Lafayette High School in 1954, and attended night school at Brooklyn College for one year. In 1957 he married his neighborhood sweetheart, Barbara Grizzi; they had three children and divorced in 1980. In February 1983 Della Femina married Judy Licht, a television reporter; they had two children.
Between 1954 and 1961 Della Femina held a succession of low-level jobs as a messenger boy, shipping-room clerk, and retail sales clerk. He later recalled that when he was a messenger for the New York Times, delivering ad proofs to Fifth Avenue department stores, he was impressed by seeing the ad writers "sitting around with their feet propped up on their desks," and he made up his mind to become one. He began freelancing for the Advertising Exchange, a retail agency, writing truss ads. His first ad-agency position was as a mailroom clerk with Ruthrauff and Ryan. When the company folded, he began writing spec ads and submitted them to a young, creative agency, Daniel and Charles. Daniel Karsch hired Della Femina in 1961 as a copywriter at $100 a week, writing ads for Kayser Roth apparel.
In 1963 Della Femina took a job at triple this earlier salary with a larger agency, Fuller and Smith and Ross, which specialized in industrial accounts. Within six months he quit to go to work for Ashe and Englemore as a writer and a copy chief, supervising other copywriters at the agency. In 1964 Della Femina's career received a major boost when he was hired as the creative director at Delehanty, Kurnit and Geller, an agency highly respected for its innovative work. In this job Della Femina supervised teams of writers and art directors and worked on many of the agency's high-profile accounts. His ads frequently won coveted copywriting awards. In 1966 Della Femina determined that he needed "big account" experience and accepted a position as creative director at Ted Bates, one of the largest old-line ad agencies populated with well-bred WASPs. Della Femina demanded and received an employment contract that paid him what was then an eye-popping $50,000 annual salary.
In 1967 Della Femina and Ron Travisano, an art director, along with two other partners, founded Jerry Della Femina, Travisano, and Partners with $80,000 that Travisano had raised. After three months and no business, two of the partners left, and Della Femina calculated that the agency had enough money left to operate for three more months. Facing the precipice of bankruptcy, Della Femina decided to gamble with their diminishing funds and invited more than a thousand people to a Christmas party. He spent $3,000 on food and liquor and knew that if the party did not generate immediate business, they were sunk. The event, however, gave them the aura of a highly successful young agency, and the very next day, an insurance company ad manager placed their advertising business with Della Femina and partners. Within a year the agency was billing $8 million. Over time the agency garnered the advertising accounts of Blue Nun wines, Emory Air Freight, Teacher's Scotch, American Home Assurance Company, Geigy Chemical, Isuzu, Corum Watch, and a host of other high-profile accounts. In 1985 Travisano left to start a film production company.
As Della Femina's career developed, his reputation as an eccentric rebel grew. His feisty antics, like playing hand-ball in the hallways at Fuller and Smith and Ross, frequently made the rounds of the ad industry rumor mills. Once he led a successful two-day strike against Delehanty, Kurnity and Geller over the placement of an ad. He told Ted Bates that he demanded a contract because he knew that "in four months you're going to hate me." At Bates, when he was called before the agency's creative review board, he felt that a group of "over-60 guys second guessing creative work was repugnant," so he insisted on recording the proceedings, which intimidated the board. One agency executive complained that Della Femina's "whole lifestyle is to be a provocateur."
Della Femina's most celebrated moment in advertising occurred shortly after he arrived at Ted Bates, when he was invited to a brainstorming session for the Panasonic account. Della Femina sat in a room full of people who were waiting to hear something brilliant from their trophy copywriter. Della Femina broke the silence with a joke: "I've got it! I see a whole campaign built around the headline 'From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor.' "
Della Femina had a wide impact on the ad industry through the 1960s. He transformed himself from a nameless writer behind a magazine or television advertisement into an ad industry guru, thanks to his unabashed self-promotion. He submitted a regular column in Marketing/Communications, the leading advertising-agency publication, and he frequently contributed irreverent pieces to other advertising trade magazines. Journalists contacted him for a colorful quote on breaking news, his remarks on new ad campaigns, or saucy quips on the latest round of ad business rumors. Della Femina was constantly in the spotlight at the various ad-industry awards ceremonies, and he often spoke before ad-industry groups, especially those from outside the New York area. Comments he made during one speech, criticizing federal intervention in advertising, caused the chief executive officer of Bates, where Della Femina was employed at the time, to disavow his remarks publicly in a letter to the New York Times. His hilarious book, From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor (1970), became a nationwide best-seller.
Della Femina, a creative genius in advertising, is perhaps best known for the Talon Zipper ad campaign. Six panel illustrations show a youngster pitching in a sandlot baseball game, consumed with worry as the catcher slowly approaches the mound only to tell him, "Your fly is open." Other campaigns include a hard-hitting ad for McGraw-Hill publishers that ran under the headline "Before Hitler could kill 6 million Jews, he had to burn 6 million books." Della Femina wrote a headline for Ozone hair spray attempting to woo male users with a photo of Yogi Berra and the headline "Yogi Berra is one of those sissies who uses his wife's hair spray." For Feminique, a vaginal hygiene spray he wrote, "Five years ago most women would have been too embarrassed to read this page."
In 1986 Della Femina sold his agency, then billing $200 million a year, for $29 million to the London firm of Wight Collins Rutherford and Scott PLC, which renamed the firm Della Femina McNamee. He stayed on as a consultant until 1992. During a sabbatical from the ad business, Della Femina opened a trendy restaurant, Della Femina Restaurant, in Long Island's fashionable Hamptons and a second one in Manhattan in 1999. In 1998 Michael Jeary, an executive with Saachi and Saachi, accepted Della Femina's invitations to join him, and "Jeary" Della Femina appeared again on Madison Avenue. In 2000 the firm merged again and became Della Femina Rothschild Jeary and Partners.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Della Femina served on the boards of the Children's Aid Society and City Meals-on-Wheels, and he participated in an industry-wide initiative named Ads Against AIDS. He was also philanthropically involved with the Make-a-Wish Foundation and Body Positive, an HIV/AIDS service organization.
Biographical information is in Della Femina's book, From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor: Front Line Dispatches from the Advertising War (1970), which has such catchy chapter titles as "Nazis Don't Take Away Accounts." Della Femina's second book, An Italian Grows Up in Brooklyn (1978), written with Charles Sopkin, is a description of his upbringing. Profiles of Della Femina are in New York Times Magazine (26 Jan. 1969) and Fortune (13 Apr. 1987). Articles about Della Femina are in Time (22 June 1970), Advertising Age (24 Apr. 1978), and New York (23 Oct. 1978).
William J. Maloney