Bill Backer, who brought us Miller Time, “Soup Is Good Food” and “I’d Like To Teach the World To Sing,” among other indelible memes from the golden age of TV advertising, died last Friday at Fauquier Hospital in Warrenton, Va. He was 89.
A Yale graduate and Navy veteran, Backer turned his facility with words and the piano keyboard into a career not only as one of advertising’s leading creatives but also as an inspirational executive and assertive force to be reckoned not only in adland but also in land conservation circles.
“Both an Advertising Hall of Famer (inducted in 1995) and named one of Ad Age's 100 Most Important People in Advertising in 1999, Mr. Backer made his name at McCann [Erickson], where he worked for 25 years, leaving as vice chairman and creative director before forming his own agency with Carl Spielvogel, Interpublic vice chairman, in 1979. It opened with one client and was sold within seven years to Saatchi & Saatchi after it had rocketed to nearly $500 million in billings,” Judann Pollack recaps for Advertising Age.
“Bill was a unique individual. A very creative, opinionated person who did brilliant work. Coca-Cola will testify that [he did] some of the most outstanding work for them over the years,” former Interpublic chairman-CEO Phil Geier tells Pollack. “He always ran a tidy ship. He not only hired well, but was able to keep the good ones on board. Every so often, he would let an account guy have an opinion. He was a delight to work with and I enjoyed our years together.”
“Backer was hardly a one-hit wonder,” writes Steve Mollman for Quartz.
He also “reserved special occasions for Lowenbrau with ‘Here’s To Good Friends, Tonight Is Kind of Special,’” according to the citation for his Advertising Hall of Fame induction. And “unable to come up with music and lyrics for a new beer, Miller Lite, he cobbled together a tough guy script to be used as a short-term introduction in a few test markets. The results were successful and as a result, the Miller Lite All Stars, with their famous argument of ‘tastes great’ versus ‘less filling’ became one of the longest-lived and best-liked campaigns in the history of advertising.”
That would be accomplishment enough, but “Backer had no illusions about what collaboration he would be remembered for, as he told the New York Times in 1993 when he was about to retire as vice chairman and worldwide creative director of Backer Spielvogel Bates after a four-decade career in advertising,” Sam Roberts recounts in the NYT’s obit.
“Nobody out there has heard of J. Walter Thompson or Backer Spielvogel Bates,” he said. “Those are temporal, self-aggrandizing entities. But if you come up with what’s basically a little hymn to getting the world together, it’s a contribution.”
Backer, who was born in Manhattan on June 9, 1926, and raised in Charleston, S.C., after his father died, lived on Smitten Farm near The Plains, Va., and also had a home in Nokomis, Fla. He “often commuted by train or plane from The Plains to Manhattan,” according to the obituary in FauquierNow.com, which is based in nearby Warrenton.
“A member of the Jockey Club, he rode with the Orange County Hunt and owned racehorses and cattle. In the 1960s, Mr. Backer joined local land conservation efforts and the Upper Fauquier Association. He helped that organization join the effort to prevent development of the North Wales estate west of Warrenton,” according to the obit.
He also was active in the Piedmont Environmental Council’s effort to stop Walt Disney Co. from creating an American history theme park in the region in the early ’90s.
“Bill was one of the most intelligent, articulate and honest people I’ve worked with over the last 25 years,” PEC president Chris Miller tells FauquierNow.com. He urged PEC members to attack the location of the proposed project but not the Disney brand, Miller recalls, saying, “You can’t be against an icon like Mickey Mouse.”
Backer is survived by his wife of 30 years, Ann.