Advertising's Watchdog

This story appeared in the fall 2013 edition of Medill Magazine.

In 1960, Rance Crain joined Crain Communications, the company created by his parents in 1916. More than 50 years later, he again follows in their footsteps with an induction into the American Advertising Federation's Hall of Fame.

RANCE CRAIN is silently staring at his notes, analyzing a list of questions as he sits across from an empty chair on the 18th floor of New York’s historic Waldorf Astoria hotel.

His cobalt blue turtleneck stands out against the beige walls and his slicked-back silver hair brushes the collar of his loose-fitting herringbone sport coat as his eyes follow the words back and forth down the narrow notebook page. Tonight, Crain will be inducted into the American Advertising Federation’s Hall of Fame, following in the footsteps of his parents, G.D. and Gertrude. He will be joined by fellow inductees Shelly Lazarus, chairman emeritus of Ogilvy & Mather; Phil Knight, co-founder and chairman of Nike; Bob Giraldi, film director and president of Giraldi Media; Byron Lewis, founder and chairman emeritus of UniWorld Group; Gerry Rubin, co-founder of RPA; and Bob Scarpelli, former chairman and chief creative officer of DDB Worldwide. 

But this afternoon, Crain takes his admittedly more comfortable seat as Advertising Age’s veteran news reporter.

“It’s what I like to do most. I enjoy it,” Crain admits. “But I report on what other people do, so I’m uneasy about getting attention. That’s not the job of a reporter, to get attention, so it’s a bit overwhelming.”

Knight is Crain’s next interview, his third of the day. Despite the overwhelming honor Crain feels, the reporter in him still has column inches to fill and webpages to populate. What better way to do that than chatting with the other new Hall of Famers?

Crain seems almost giddy when he speaks with Knight, beaming with curiosity as he asks about the former University of Oregon track star’s strategy of selling shoes out of his trunk, whether he really “hates” advertising and if the famous “Just Do it” slogan was inspired by a death row inmate’s final words.

Knight says he’s never heard that last one, but the brush-off doesn’t satisfy Crain’s curiosity, which his closest friends suggest is never truly satiated; every answer brings a new line of questioning and a new rabbit hole to dive down. That’s why someone born into a prominent publishing family can still seem as excited as a newly minted cub reporter at age 74, still chasing scoops as far away as Brazil and Russia in recent years.

“That’s fun for me,” Crain says. “I think there’s nothing more important than bringing people information they didn’t know. And the second biggest thing is explaining what it means. We explain the nuances and tie disparate things together to show a common direction; a common chord.”

Crain is, of course, more than just a reporter. After serving as sports editor of the Daily Northwestern in the late-1950s, he joined Crain Communications in 1960 and has spent more than 50 years working various desks inside the walls of the company his parents founded in 1916.

His first job was as a reporter at Ad Age, where he chased his curiosity for the “Mad Men” advertising era through D.C., New York and Chicago, during a time he insists wasn’t nearly as dramatic as the show depicts. Oh, and he’s also pretty passionate about how much of a “smart ass” and superficial the character of an Ad Age reporter comes off on the program. In the first episode of the fourth season of “Mad Men,” the reporter seems to ask all the wrong questions as he interviews main character Don Draper during a lunch meeting.

“What is Don Draper really like? What do we care? We just want to know about the business,” Crain argues, building a head of steam. “We just cared about getting scoops, and we would go all out to do that. And an Ad Age guy would never have a salad. We’re tough.”

But the show reminds Crain of what he believes was a much more brilliant and creative time in advertising, when companies put in an effort to find meaningful differences in their products, rather than creating campaigns around something that has little to do with what the consumer is buying.

“Can the product be the hero in this day and age?” Crain  asks as he reads over his acceptance speech. “I cling to the belief that it can … Advertising was a lot more fun in those days. It’s too bad agencies can’t concentrate just on creativity, but they’ve got other things to worry about right now, like quarterly earnings.”

While starting out at Ad Age, Crain met his business and life partner in a young woman named Merrilee on a blind date set up by his brother, Keith, in 1965. The two married eight months later, and eventually moved to Darien, Conn., to raise their daughters, Heather and Cindi. They were together 47 years before Merilee died of cancer in November 2012. Crain was in the hospital with her when he got the call from the Hall of Fame, and said he was glad she got to hear the news.

“Merrilee was an extraordinary woman,” Crain wrote in her obituary in Ad Age. “It’s very rare that a person combines creativity and intuition with a practical side, but Merrilee did. She came up with elegant solutions to problems that eluded the rest of us, and people gravitated to her for advice and counsel. We will miss her love, her pixie-ish sense of humor, her generosity and her invincible can-do spirit.”

With Merilee’s support and some hard work, Crain eventually made his way up the ranks at Ad Age to editor-in-chief in 1971, and also became president of Crain Communications after his father passed away in 1973. He likes to joke that it was his last promotion, but that’s only kind of true. More accurately, he’s created positions to fill.

Five years after taking over the company, while in Texas to give a speech, Crain picked up the Houston Business Journal and figured, “If it worked in Houston, it would work even better in Chicago.” So he founded Crain’s Chicago Business in 1978, becoming editor-in-chief, and then followed with similar city publications in New York, Detroit, Cleveland and Manchester, United Kingdom, while helping grow Crain Communications into one of the largest privately owned media conglomerates in the world.

Crain is the first to admit he didn’t do any of it on his own, and that it’s the “good people” he and Keith, now chairman of  rain Communications, have surrounded themselves with that make the company what it is. But close friend and senior vice president/group publisher Gloria Scoby, who Crain selected to introduce him at the induction, thinks he often deserves more credit than he’s willing to take.

“He’s the conscience of the industry,” Scoby explains. “Lots of people were born on third base, but Rance didn’t accept that. He did it himself. And it’s extraordinary because he didn’t have to. He could have ridden out what he had, but he has an amazing curiosity and love of life and enthusiasm that led him from one startup to the next with never a thought of failure.”

And there were failures, like the Manchester business weekly, which Crain calls an “exercise in learning.” But none are mentioned at the ceremony as he shakes hands, hugs and grips the arms of the family, friends, and people there to support him.

“I’m not a part of the ad business,” Crain again points out. “I’m a reporter, so it’s nice to have their approval. One of the reasons we’ve been so successful for so long is because our readers know they can count on us. 

“We’ve been an honest spokesman for the strengths and weaknesses of the advertising business, and we’ve also done a pretty good job of reporting the news that people in the business need to make their decisions. That’s the most important thing: our credibility and the faith our readers have in us. We wouldn’t bargain that away for anything in the world.”