(b. 13 December 1906 in Sheffield, Alabama; d. 5 July 1992 in Carmel, New York), advertising executive, cofounder of one of the nation’s largest advertising agencies and later chairman of a second top-ranking agency who, after handling the American Tobacco account for several years, retired from advertising rather than continue to promote cigarettes.
Foote was the youngest of seven children born to James Adonijah Foote, a wholesale cotton and grain dealer, and Ruth Penn. By the time of Foote’s birth, two of his six siblings had already died. In 1912 Foote’s father moved the entire family to California, where Foote grew up in a section of Los Angeles called Mount Washington. He attended Washington Grammar School, a two-room schoolhouse, before entering Los Angeles High School at the age of eleven. After graduating from high school at the age of fifteen in 1922, Foote worked “for a year or so” at a fine stationery store in downtown Los Angeles. He then studied for a semester in 1923 at the University of California at Los Angeles.
With his only college experience behind him, Foote spent the next ten years working at various jobs, including one with a building and loan association and a mutual life insurance company. In 1928 he moved to San Francisco, where he took a position with the McAllister Company, the northern California Chrysler-Plymouth distributor. While with McAllister he was first introduced to the field of advertising.
That first contact with the advertising business was with MacManus, Inc., an agency run by the accomplished advertising executive Theodore MacManus. That agency, which eventually became Darcy-MacManus and Masius, then numbered Chrysler among its clients. George Haig, a representative of the firm, planted the seed that developed into Foote’s interest in advertising as a career.
Foote was also encouraged to enter the advertising profession in 1929 by Sabina Fromhold, who later became his wife. Foote had met Fromhold, a copywriter at the H. and S. Pogue Company in Cincinnati, in May of that year. While dining and dancing with Foote at the Palace Hotel Palm Court, Fromhold encouraged him to try the advertising profession, telling him, “I think you would be a good account executive.” Three days after their meeting Foote proposed marriage. Because of the Great Depression, however, their wedding waited almost nine years, until 18 April 1938. They subsequently had four children.
Meanwhile Foote had begun his advertising career. In 1931 he became a copywriter at the Leon Livingston Advertising Agency in San Francisco. Within four years his entrepreneurial nature surfaced and he briefly became a principal in his own agency, Yeomans and Foote, in the same city. A year later he moved to New York City to take a position with an agency that had been attracting much attention, J. Stirling Getchell, Inc.
By 1938 Foote had found the position that led to his greatest success and his most profound professional and personal crisis. He became an assistant account executive in the New York City office of Lord and Thomas, a legend in the advertising world. Established in 1881, the most respected people in the field had passed through its offices. When Foote joined, the firm was being run by Albert Lasker, whom many considered the “father of modern advertising.” Foote was assigned to the American Tobacco Company’s Lucky Strike cigarette account.
Through his work on Lucky Strike, Foote became a confidant of George Washington Hill, the president of the American Tobacco Company. Hill became the model for the character of the tyrannical advertising client in Frederick Wakeman’s 1946 novel The Hucksters, which was made into a motion picture in 1947. Foote was probably the original of the character Kimberly in the book and film.
Foote quickly rose to be a vice president of the agency and was responsible for the entire American Tobacco account. In 1941 Foote took over the New York City office as executive vice president and general manager. When Lasker retired in 1942, he sold the agency to his three top executives, Foote in New York City, Fairfax Cone in Chicago, and Don Belding in Los Angeles. Lord and Thomas became Foote, Cone and Belding (FCB). The trio opened their newly named agency in January 1943 with buillings of $22.5 million.
Although at thirty-six years of age he was the youngest of the three, Foote was made president of the new firm, at Lasker’s suggestion, to appease Hill, who would not deal with anyone but the agency president. Hill, as head of the agency’s largest client, exerted a powerful influence. Foote, however, seemed destined for the role of president. According to a later partner, he was “well read, well spoken . . . tall and very distinguished-looking.” His relationship with Hill simply ratified a choice that, to them, appeared ordained by nature.
Foote remained president until 1950, during which time the agency created the first radio commercials, jingles, music variety shows, and soap operas. FCB’s work established stars, such as Jack Benny, Bob Hope, and Frank Sinatra, along with the fictional character Smokey Bear, who encouraged folks not to start forest fires. The agency also promoted films like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947).
By 1948 Hill had retired from American Tobacco Company, and FCB’s relationship with that company had deteriorated. FCB voluntarily resigned the $11.5 million account, then its largest, and Foote commented, “If an agency can’t do the kind of advertising it believes in, it ought to stop taking commissions.” Foote, however, began to doubt whether he had done the right thing in leaving the account. The stress wore on him, and he began treatments for manic-depressive illness and hypertension. In 1950, under pressure from his partners, he resigned from the agency and sold his shares back at a price far below their fair market value.
For the next two years Foote struggled. His former colleagues shunned him. He was treated, he said, “like a dirty shirt” because of his illness. However, Marion Harper, chairman of McCann-Erickson, another top ten agency, did not ignore him. Aware of his treatment for mental illness, Harper offered Foote a position with McCann-Erickson. Joining the company as vice president and general executive in 1952, Foote became president in 1960 and chairman in 1962, a position he held until his resignation in 1964. Foote suffered brief manic relapses while at McCann-Erikson but rose to the presidency and chairmanship despite them. Within a short time of leaving that agency, he openly expressed his opposition to cigarette advertising. Cone described Foote in his memoir With All Its Faults (1969): “Foote and [Don] Belding would loom large in the story of [the agency’s] early years and its continuing character and personality, for he is an individual with extraordinary talent for advertising and firm convictions about its use.”
Foote served on President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer, and Stroke from 1964 to 1965. He was the first chairman of the National Inter-agency Council on Smoking and Health from 1964 to 1976; chairman of the Campaign to Check Population Explosion from 1967 to 1969; director of the National Liberty Corporation in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, from 1969 to 1973; chairman of the board of DeMoss Associates, Inc., from 1969 to 1973; and adviser to the government of India on family planning. He was a trustee or director for numerous nonprofit organizations, including the Menninger Foundation, the American Cancer Society, the Environmental Fund, and the Population Institute. He chaired the advisory board of the Rutgers Center for Alcohol Studies and was vice chairman and executive committee chairman of the Afro-American Purchasing Center. Awarded the Clement Cleveland medal for his cancer work in 1953, he received a National Volunteer Leadership Award from the American Cancer Society in 1974.
Foote’s wife died in 1985. Foote died of complications following an operation for appendicitis. He is buried in Lake Carmel, New York. At the time of his death Foote, Cone and Belding was ranked as the largest advertising agency in the United States and the eighth largest in the world with billings of $5 billion.
Foote’s papers and unpublished autobiography are held by his son James A. Foote, a resident of Old Greenwich, Connecticut. Bart Cummings, The Benevolent Dictators: Interviews with Advertising Greats (1984), contains a lengthy interview with Foote. Fairfax M. Cone, With All Its Faults (1969), is his partner’s memoir. Obituaries are in the Chicago Tribune (8 July 1992), New Yor^ Times (9 July 1992), and Advertising Age (13 July 1992).
Richard L. Tino
"Foote, Emerson." The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/foote-emerson
"Foote, Emerson." The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives. . Retrieved January 17, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/foote-emerson