Albert Lasker (1880-1952) was a prominent advertising executive during the first half of the 20th century. During his 40-year tenure with the Chicago-based Lord and Thomas, Lasker built the company into the largest advertising agency in the United States. Through his innovation and leadership, he helped to usher in the new age of modern advertising.
Albert Davis Lasker was born on May 1, 1880, in Freiburg, Germany, the third of eight children born to American parents Morris and Nettie Heidenheimer Davis Lasker, who were both of Jewish and German descent. When Lasker was old enough to travel, the family returned to its home in Galveston, Texas, where Lasker spent his youth.
His father was a successful businessman and served as president of several banks. Morris Lasker loved his family, but his demanding personality and high expectations of his children, especially Albert, were tempered by few displays of affection. As a result, Lasker's childhood was a mixture of privilege and disappointment. Though he could never completely satisfy his father, Lasker felt a deep bond with him that lasted throughout his life.
During his days in elementary school Lasker was only an average student. Although not academically inclined, Lasker was a high achiever. When he was just 12 years old, he started his own newspaper, the Galveston Free Press. The four-page weekly was written, edited, and published by Lasker. With the motto "advertise and make good," Lasker sold advertising space to local merchants. Over its yearlong run, the paper turned a profit of $15 a week. At the age of 13 he closed down the Galveston Free Press and took a job as a reporter for the Galveston Morning News, impressing his superiors by obtaining an exclusive interview with socialist leader Eugene Debs by posing as a telegraph messenger. In high school Lasker served as editor of the school magazine and helped his father with bookkeeping duties.
After graduating from high school, Lasker worked briefly for the New Orleans Times-Democrat and the Dallas News. He returned to Galveston with his mind set on pursuing a newspaper job in New York City, a decision his father firmly opposed. Finally, Lasker agreed to a compromise with his father: Lasker would spend three months in Chicago, working at Lord and Thomas, an advertising firm with whom his father had done business. If Lasker was not content after three month, his father would allow his son to travel to New York. At 18, Lasker went to work at Lord and Thomas sweeping floors and cleaning up for ten dollars a week.
Lasker had every intention of appeasing his father, enjoying Chicago, and then heading for New York when his three-month stint was complete. However, during his first month in Chicago, he lost $500 in a craps game. Afraid to face his father and without money to pay the debt, Lasker convinced one of his bosses, Ambrose Thomas, to advance him $500 in salary. Thomas agreed, but Lasker had to stay at Lord and Thomas to pay off his advance. By this twist of fate, Lasker became tied to Lord and Thomas—a relationship that would last over 40 years. Rather than becoming a newspaperman, Lasker instead became one of the leading names in advertising.
For a time Lasker continued to work as an office boy. When a salesman resigned, Lasker implored Thomas to let him take over the man's territory until a replacement was found. Working on the road in Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan, Lasker excelled in his new position. Within three months, he brought in more than $50,000 in new business.
Traditionally, businesses wrote their own advertisements and then paid advertising agencies a ten percent commission for placing the ad. Convinced he could improve advertisements, Lasker approached the Wilson Ear Drum Company with a new offer. He proposed that the company allow Lasker to supply ad copy for an increased commission of 15 percent. He also guaranteed an increase in sales or a refund of the additional five percent. The client agreed. Lasker employed a friend in the newspaper business to write the ad. The new slogan "You Hear! When you use Wilson's Common Sense Ear Drums" was such a success that the company increased its spending at Lord and Thomas from $36,000 a year to more than $240,000.
By 1901 Lasker was making a name for himself within Lord and Thomas, doubling his original salary to $5,000 a year. In the same year he met and fell in love with Flora Warner. The two married and had three children. The following year Lasker doubled his salary once more, to $10,000. Along with turning the firm's attention to writing copy for the first time, Lasker also contributed to the growth of the company and the industry by pushing for a new emphasis on recording advertising results. In 1900 a "record of results" department was created and the agency began to keep a tally of sales provided by its 600 clients. For the first time the agency could track which ads worked and which ads failed to produce. Lasker had often pondered why some ads succeeded and others did not. Now, if an ad did poorly in a variety of newspapers and magazines, the firm changed the copy. If an ad performed well in some publications but not in others, the client could cut its placements accordingly.
From early on, Lasker had his eye on becoming a partner in Lord and Thomas. In 1904, after Lord retired, Lasker, who was by then making $50,000 a year at age 24, bought a quarter share of the company. As a partner, Lasker could turn his attention to his primary interest, copy writing. Although he never wrote advertising copy himself, he had a keen sense of what he wanted. Believing that the advertising business depended on the quality of the copy, Lasker created the first in-house copy writing department. He hired talented writers and paid them at four times the rate of other agencies. In return, he expected results. Those who did not produce seldom remained long at the firm.
Lasker's ideas about advertising copy were influenced by a writer named John E. Kennedy. According to a classic story told in the advertising world, one day in 1904 Lasker received a note from Kennedy, who was waiting in the lobby. The note said that Lasker did not know what advertising was and if he wanted to know, he should let Kennedy tell him. Intrigued, Lasker sent for Kennedy, who sold Lasker on a definition of advertising as "salesmanship on paper." Kennedy believed that an advertisement should say what a salesperson would say in a face-to-face conversation. Instead of flowery language and pretty pictures, the ad should offer reasons why the customer should buy the product. Kennedy's "Reason Why" approach instantly appealed to Lasker, who hired Kennedy as his top writer.
With Lasker in charge of editing all copy and offering ideas for campaigns, Lord and Thomas grew to be the largest advertising firm in the United States. When Lasker acquired another part of the agency after Thomas's death in 1906, Lord and Thomas was billing $3 million annually. By 1912, when Lasker became sole owner of the firm, that amount had doubled to $6 million, and the firm had offices in New York, Toronto, Paris, London, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
Lasker was charming and persuasive and loved having power. According to Stephen Fox in The Mirror Makers: A History of American Advertising and Its Creators, "Whether speaking or in a brief moment of listening, he radiated a vibrating aura of vitality, of childlike curiosity and bubbling humor, and an unarguable certainty that he was the dominant figure in the most important business in the world." At the same time, he was emotionally unstable at times, suffering at least three nervous breakdowns, the first in 1912. Like his father, he was demanding and ruthless toward those who failed to meet his high expectations. Every few years he would fire a portion of his staff, leaving those who remained in constant fear of the next firing spree.
Under Lasker's leadership, Thomas and Lord acquired many large accounts. After securing Sunkist Growers, Inc., as a client, Lasker popularized the idea of drinking orange juice. In 1911, Lasker, along with one of his writers, created a Palmolive dish soap campaign that soon made it the leading brand. Lasker was also responsible for the advertising accounts of Van Camp's, including its canned pork and beans; Goodyear Tires, the "1900" Washer Company, and the Quaker Oats Company.
Lasker had several interests outside of advertising. He purchased a major share of the Chicago Cubs, built a golf course on his property, and played a regular game of poker with friends. Beginning in 1918 he was involved with politics for several years, first coordinating the publicity for several Republican candidates and then becoming an advisor to Warren G. Harding's campaign for president. He also directed the U.S. Shipping Board for a time, but he did not particularly enjoy the work. When he learned that Lord and Thomas was no longer the largest ad agency in the country, he returned to advertising full time and resumed direct control of daily operations.
Lasker rebuilt the company into the nation's top agency by developing the advertising campaign that made Kimberly-Clark products Kotex and Kleenex leading sellers. He landed his largest account in 1923 when he took over the American Tobacco Company's Lucky Strike campaign. Lasker had noticed that women were discouraged from smoking in public. Seeing an almost completely untapped group of buyers, Lasker set about to change public opinion. Using advertisements featuring famous women smoking, Lasker was able to break the social taboo. Women began to smoke in unprecedented numbers, and Lucky Strike was the brand they most often chose, making it a top seller and earning Lord and Thomas millions of dollars.
In 1926 Lasker acquired the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), which operated the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). As a result, Lasker pioneered the use of radio as an advertising medium, and within two years Lord and Thomas held over 50 percent of all advertising accounts aired on NBC radio.
After surviving the Great Depression of the 1930s, Lasker's world was shaken in 1936 by the death of his wife, Flora. She had been a semi-invalid most of their married life due to earlier bouts of typhoid fever and phlebitis. He retired for a time from Lord and Thomas in 1938, then met and married actress Doris Kenyon. The marriage ended in divorce within a year. Lasker then married businesswoman Mary Woodard Reinhardt and returned to the helm of Lord and Thomas once more. However, just two years later, the 62-year-old Lasker decided to retire for good. He placed the company in the hands of his three senior executives, and on December 30, 1942, Lord and Thomas became Foote, Cone, and Belding. Lasker, having made a tremendous impact on the development of the modern advertising age, died of cancer on May 30, 1952.
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Applegate, Edd, Personalities and Products: A Historical Perspective on Advertising in America, Greenwood Press, 1998.
Fox, Stephen, The Mirror Makers: A History of American Advertising and Its Creators, William Morrow and Co., 1984.
"Albert Davis Lasker," Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 5: 1951-1955. http://www.galenet.com (January 18, 2001).
"Albert Lasker," Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History, http://www.galenet.com (January 18, 2001).
"Lasker, Albert Davis," Merriam-Webster's Biographical Dictionary, http://www.galenet.com (January 18, 2001).