‘Love and respect people’: Beyond the Brief featuring Howie Cohen, Phelps

Howie Cohen, Phelps CCO

There is no casual way to talk about outgoing Phelps CCO Howie Cohen’s legacy in the advertising industry.

We can start with the most recent news, that the two-time Clio hall-of-famer stepped down from his post as chief creative a few days ago, handing over the reins to Tony Stern. Or we can start with his most iconic, and admittedly proudest, career moment: creating one of the most enduring slogans in history (“I can't believe I ate the whole thing” for Alka Seltzer).

Never forget where he started: as an NYU grad working as a copy trainee for a little-known shop called Doyle Dane Bernbach. It was during a time of experimentation for the industry: art directors teaming up with copywriters for the first time. Italians, Jews and Catholics working together was 60s-level diversity.

From that short stint at DDB, he moved out to Wells Rich Greene, partnering up with Bob Pasqualina. Soon came a perfect storm — winning Alka Seltzer and the iconic lines and fame that followed — that set the tone for the rest of his illustrious time in the industry.

For the past five decades, he was the West Coast’s Don Draper: first to open Wells Rich Greene’s LA shop, then to start his own shop with Mark Johnson, and eventually leading creative work for Phelps Advertising. This is a man that told us to “Try it, you’ll like it”, who convinced Jack in the Box to blow up its iconic clown, who remade his iconic ad into a modern campaign for Google’s Project Re: Brief documentary. Cohen’s been a relentless thinker, someone who’s found longevity in knowing optimism, respect and honesty are the keys to great work and long-lasting relationships.

No matter where you start his story, or slice it down to its parts and episodes, it’ll end in the same undisputable way: Cohen’s one of advertising's most iconic figures, his legacy will be as one who’s lived and worked beyond the brief.

If you were a client for a day, what would you tell your agency?

Don't bull____ me. Always tell me the truth, even when you think I won't like to hear it. Give me honest opinions and honest feedback. Experience my product and love my product so you can tell a great story about my product. And don't give me cheap, but always give me value for my money. If you do that, we can be in this together for a long time.

What was your proudest career moment?

When my partner and I created "I can't believe I ate the whole thing" for Alka Seltzer. We knew it was a simple line that would resonate with anyone who ever ate too much and suffered for it. But we had no idea how it would catch on and become a catchphrase that has lasted for five decades. I'm proud of making it into the Clio Hall of Fame. And that we've actually had an impact on the language and the culture in a way that transcends advertising.

Your favorite campaign (that isn’t yours) and why?

"Love. It's what makes a Subaru a Subaru." They've taken a nondescript car with a weird name and inserted it into the hearts of American families. Instead of talking about technical features, they show emotional benefits. Fathers caring about their daughters. Families staying alive. They understand that successful branding is not about what the car has, but how it emotionally connects with people.

What’s a virtue that you live by?

Love and respect people - even strangers. Treat them as equals. Reach out to them with warmth and your trust will usually be rewarded. I know cynical people who think I'm naive or a Pollyanna. But I've found that my faith in the goodness of human beings is usually rewarded in the form of rich and positive relationships with people of all kinds.

What is an art that you cannot live without?

Music. Sensitive music, throbbing music, trending music and old-time music. It enriches my soul and heals all wounds. It gets me through every day, whether I'm listening to it on the radio or on my playlist or just playing my faves in my head. Music makes the everyday stresses go away. Makes my heart get up and dance. It's the one thing I can't imagine living life without.

How would you define “A life well-lived”?

A life well lived is giving more than you take. It's helping others even if they never ask. It's teaching and inspiring a child, either by explanation or example. It's leaving the business, your neighborhood and the world a little bit better than you found it.

To celebrate its 100th Anniversary, the 4A’s has partnered with us at The Drum to pull back the curtain and look at an industry full of problem solvers, creative types and analytical minds. But what keeps them going once the briefs are written, the campaigns executed, and the pitches won (or lost)? We’re interviewing 100 people at 4A’s member agencies — across all disciplines, levels, regions, and agency types — to get a glimpse into what drives them at work and what fuels them in life.

See the industry pros we're featuring here.

To pitch someone from a 4A's member agency for Beyond the Brief, please complete this linked form.

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