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25 November 2013 - 2:24pm | posted by | 2 comments

Dear Julian Koenig, I'm glad you're not dead

Julian KoenigJulian Koenig
Dear Julian Koenig, I'm glad you're not dead

Last week I made a rookie journalistic mistake: I trusted Wikipedia.

While doing some research on Julian Koenig – one of my industry heroes – I noticed that there was an end date to his life. It was 29 August 2013. In fairness, I did some more digging to verify the fact and found death notices for a 92 year-old Julian Koenig. It just so happened it was the wrong 92 year-old Julian Koenig.

But I wasn't to know that.

In case you don't know who Julian Koenig is, let me give you a quick summary. He's the copywriter behind Volkswagen's 1959 'Think Small' ad. He also penned the line "takes a licking and keeps on ticking" for Timex. And is apparently the man who invented thumb wrestling. He was a central figure in the advertising creative revolution in the 1950s. And he was a big influence on me as an advertising word-wrestler.

I was saddened that I'd never had the opportunity to speak to the man who'd been such an influence on me as a copywriter. After all, my podcast has given me the excuse to talk to so many of my heroes, including Julian's arch-nemesis George Lois. This was a vital sticker that I'd never be able to collect for my Panini Album of Advertising Legends.

I searched the advertising press to see if any of them had reported on Julian's death. None of them had. And that made me want to do something to commemorate his life.

I fired off an email to my colleagues at The Drum and told them that I wanted to run a piece that celebrated Julian Koenig's great work and amazing career. I attached some ideas of how we should do that. And we started to make plans.

I thought it would be a good idea to get Julian's family involved, so I emailed Sarah Koenig, Julian's daughter and the producer of This American Life (my favourite podcast).

This was all coming together and I felt like I was doing something worthwhile.

But that feeling didn't last long.

The following day I got an email from Sarah that read:

"Hello Mr. Birss, 

"As far as I know, my father is alive and doing quite well. But I guess I'll call him right now to make sure.

"Sincerely, Sarah Koenig"

Oh. Ehm. Oops!

I felt like a complete twit. A very embarrassed complete twit. After all, I'd just written an obituary piece on my blog that had received a fair number of hits. Now lots of people were under the mistaken belief that we'd lost one of our greatest copywriters.

So I quickly updated my blog post and typed out a humble apology. Meanwhile Sarah went off to update the Wikipedia page. 

However, if Julian was still alive, I wanted to know if he'd be interested in talking to me. So I asked.

Sarah thought it would be unlikely but gave me his phone number and told me to give it a go.

I did just that last Thursday evening and I can confirm that Julian Koenig is very much alive. And a lovely gentleman he is too. 

I didn't get anything good enough to turn into a podcast. But there is enough for a little article in The Drum.

Just a little article.

Watch this space. And think small.

Subscribe to The Drum magazine now and make sure you don't miss Dave Birss's full interview with Julian Koenig.


26 Nov 2013 - 16:51
mfupe16731's picture

Well yes! I am his previous wife and mother of Sarah and see Julian on a regular basis. I am happy to report that his brain is intact, although he denies it and he can be as funny as he ever was. It is always a great pleasure to be in his company. I look forward to your piece - Sarah will send it to me, I hope. Best wishes, Maria Matthiessen

10 Dec 2013 - 18:39
davebirss's picture

@mfupe16731 Wow! Maria, thank you so much for commenting! I was listening to your piece with Sarah on This American Life a couple of weeks ago. I'm now very aware about mentioning my journeys, my dietary issues or my sleeping pattern. I'm hoping that you've turned me into a better conversationalist!


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