The Man Behind “the Big Apple”
Ad exec Bill Phillips made New York City’s nickname immortal
Bill Phillips was walking to work from his Manhattan apartment, eating an apple, one spring morning in 1975. As the chairman of ad agency Ogilvy & Mather stepped over piles of refuse, he thought: “I must be crazy to live here.” A garbage strike was only one of many problems facing New York: Crime was up, bankruptcy was looming, and there was no prospect of a bailout.
Phillips, who died in December, had volunteered his agency to boost the city’s reputation, but hadn’t found the right angle. When he got to the agency that morning, he told creative director Jay Schulberg his insight from that walk: that New Yorkers have a love-hate relationship with their city. He suggested they devise a campaign that would represent that complex attitude.
A few days later Schulberg had the line, a variant on a quotation from the city’s outspoken Rep. Bella Abzug: “You have to be a little crazy to live in New York, but you’d be nuts to live anywhere else.”
They had the words. What about the image? Jazz musicians had long used “the Big Apple” to refer to the city — “You can play all over the country, but New York is the Big Apple” — and the nickname was already part of the visitor bureau’s promotional material. Recognizing the potential, Ogilvy’s creative group superimposed the New York skyline on a bright-red apple and added in the new tagline, turning out several variations for ads in subways and buses: “You have to be a little crazy to live in New York …” “Crazy about museums. We have 95.” “Crazy about restaurants. There are hundred.” “Crazy about beaches. There are over 10 miles of them.”
Then they had to sell the idea. A meeting was held at Gracie Mansion with Mayor Abe Beame, who was reluctant to spend scarce funds on morale-building advertising. Phillips similarly felt he couldn’t ask for money when the city was firing police and firefighters. So he offered to do the campaign pro bono and obtain free media — no public funds required.
Then he showed the mayor the ad. A Beame staffer whispered, “We can’t tell New Yorkers they’re crazy.” The mayor paused and, with a glint in his eye, replied, “Well, I think we are, at least part of the time.” The campaign was approved.
Newspapers contributed space for the ads. International Paper, an Ogilvy client, donated premium paper for the subways cards. Production costs were covered by selling posters, some signed by notables like Robert Redford, artist Peter Max and former Mayor John Lindsay. Phillips persuaded WNEW-TV to tape a commercial about New York: “A crazy town where you could learn and grow and be whatever you want to make of yourself.” That ad spurred other TV stations to compete with their own pro-New York commercials. The campaign was a hit in and outside the city. The Paris-based International Herald Tribune noted that New Yorkers had finally confirmed they were a little crazy.
Ogilvy didn’t create “the Big Apple,” but the agency established it as the universal symbol for New York — and helped boost morale at a tough time for the city.
— — — — — —
Ken Roman succeeded Bill Phillips as chairman of Ogilvy & Mather.
Published in The Wall Street Journal Jan. 27, 2019