Durfee was the first grown-up I met in advertising, and I had been at two agencies before I worked for him at Carl Ally Incorporated.
Durfee’s office overlooked the rectory of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the old Villard House, and all of Madison Avenue from 23rd Street to where it narrow and climbs up Carnegie Hill. But it might as well have been in Upper Michigan or Texarkana or Kennebunkport for all that the heart of the media capital affected him.
No ad-land fad, no zeitgeist motif, no au courant expression ever penetrated Durfee’s persona or his work. He was the “words” of the triumvate that created its own revolution within the Creative Revolution of the sixties. Carl (Ally), Jim (Durfee), and Amil (Gargano) did take-no-prisoners comparative advertising before anyone else. In 1962, Volvo would take on Detroit’s planned obsolescence, Detroit’s quality control, Detroit’s way of talking to consumers. The three were all dropouts from Detroit’s automotive ad agencies; with each tick of growth in Volvo’s market share, they exacted revenge.
In one sense, Durfee was the anti-Bernbach. There was no self-deprecation in the work that came from his office. Somebody at Hertz had the inspiration to avoid the top 50 U.S. agencies and, instead, pit the subversives of Durfee’s copy department against Helmut Krone’s Avis. Avis’s lovable diffidence was hurting Hertz’s business along with the entire company’s morale, without which no service company can prosper.
“For years, Avis has been telling you that they’re only number two. Now we’re going to tell you why.” That was strike one. Strike two and strike three were facts piled upon facts that Durfee unleashed. “They went for the jugular and found it,” Krone said. It would be 25 years before another print campaign (Absolut) became part of the national consciousness the way those two, Hertz and Avis, did.
Durfee looks for a fact that is also an idea. “9 out of 10 Volvos registered in the last 11 years are still on the road,” being his personal paradigm.
Carl Ally says, “There are no false notes in Durfee.”
He’s right. One idea of a perfect adman is Zelig who can be anything a client, an employee, a boss wants at the moment. A true crowd pleaser because he can successfully suck up to all possible multitudes.
Durfee is the opposite of Zelig. He speaks in the same voice, in the same way to everyone: client, mailboy, copywriter, account executive. What he says and his conviction behind it is meant to persuade you more than how he says it.
It’s hard to find influences in his work. Maybe the direct response writers, but they lack edge. Certainly, Durfee doesn’t fear the long headlines favored by the coupon-counters.
“A trip to Europe is either more expensive than last year. Or less expensive than next year. Depending on how much you want to go.” This, a headline during on of Pan Am’s periodic dalliances with solvency that Durfee intermittently oversaw.
Durfee’s biggest influence is reality. “Live for today. Tomorrow will cost more” was his advice to the traveling public living in the age of 12 percent inflation, devaluation of the dollar, and seventies fuel crisis. Or the grim reality of corporate growth and the loss of feeling and humanity: “After you build the world’s most efficient airline, how do you live it down?”
More interesting than his influences were the people he influenced. Ed McCabe, one of them, looked for Durfee to be the Dean of Copy at his planned master’s degree program in advertising.
Just people who went on to have viable agencies make a fair list of those seriously influenced by Durfee. Altschiller Ammirati Berger Gargano McCabe Messner Puris Raboy Vetere. Sonorous name for an agency, too, if merger-mania ever came back during an opportune time such as a full moon.
Durfee’s frugality is, well, legendary. “How much are you making now?” he asked the receptionist from another agency who had a spec portfolio of note and was looking for a junior copywriting position in 1976 at Ally. “$175 a week,” she answered.
“We’ll match that,” said Durfee. “Generous today, Jim?” I commented after she left. “I’m not giving her a job, I’m giving her a career,” Durfee said. Which was then true of Helayne Spivak and was true of so many of us here tonight.
Jim Durfee’s legendary frugality extends not a bit to his spirit, as he continues to find people of talent to mentor.
Nor does it extend to his energy, which still lobs bombs on a daily basis. Against the New York Stock Exchange. Against AT&T. Against any corporate miscreant looking for a fight on land, on sea, in print or on the air.