LONG AGO, A BOOK called The 100 Greatest Advertisements: Who Wrote Them and What They Did introduced students of the ad game to “Brown’s Job,” a legendary piece of writing that wasn’t exactly an ad — and wasn’t by a copywriter. Ninety years later, it still intrigues bloggers and digerati. To see why, read the text here courtesy of Artie Isaac’s site.
Lacking a product, selling proposition or even an obvious point, “Brown’s Job” still intrigues with its vaguely chiding tale of a brilliant company man whose worth was never fully appreciated until his departure. It first appeared in the house newsletter of Batten, Barton, Durstine and Osborn (today’s BBDO).
The writer? Not BBDO legend Bruce Barton, the first copywriter to cross over into mainstream celebrity in America. No, it was the company treasurer… a man named Robley Feland.
Since the first time I read “Brown’s Job,” I have wondered about Robley Feland. Maybe you have too, if you’ve found your way to this entry. So instead of adding my own take on what “Brown’s Job” really means, I’ll just share the scraps I’ve found about the man behind it.
(If you want interpretation too, here’s one from my old boss, Rob O’Keefe. I introduced “Brown’s Job” to him some years ago, and as a recruitment expert he examined it through his own prism. Which is what everybody does with “Brown’s Job.” Some say it’s about corporate stupidity, while others say it’s about job marketing or branding.)
WHO WAS ROBLEY FELAND?
For all its virtues, the Internet is unkind to those who must be digitized without profit. Robley Feland died without fanfare on Nov. 14, 1952, and my online searches revealed very little about him. But after several years of occasional curiosity, I found my answers offline at a used bookstore: The Huckster’s Revenge, a 1959 memoir by Fred Manchee, who succeeded Feland as BBDO treasurer.
A dreadful book, The Huckster’s Revenge is Fred Manchee’s public rebuttal to the scathing Madison Avenue critiques that were popular fare at the time. It’s also a vanity memoir by a man of middling abilities who wanted to commemorate his agency career upon retiring. And some of the most vivid parts are about one Robley Feland.
What we learn is that Robley Feland (no surprise) was a lot like Brown himself — “a brilliant creative man, philosopher and financial man all rolled up in one.” Feland, like David Ogilvy, was famous for his memos and his axioms, and they are widely quoted in Manchee’s book. (Many are so Ogilvy-like in their flashy erudition and persnickety tone, it’s stunning. Perhaps there is a certain overqualified personality type that naturally gravitates toward advertising.)
He seems to have been a man of conspicuous civility. In one anecdote, Feland recounts his discovery that a colleague of many years went home every evening to feed and wash a severely handicapped child who was “a mindless lump.” He recalled that discovery every time he felt tempted to snap at co-workers, mindful that his harsh words might be the last straw for someone carrying unseen burdens.
Feland had a wicked sense of humor, too. As treasurer at the George Batton Company, he had to fire two young employees when a prank backfired. As a gesture he gave them a piece of paper with an agency address and suggested they apply there. Quickly they interviewed and were hired. Upon reporting to work, they saw Robley Feland — a colleague once more, because their “new employer” was merging with Batton to form BBDO.
For the sake of brevity, I’ll just get out of the way at this point and provide some direct quotes.
From Bruce Barton:
“Robley Feland had one of the most interesting and stimulating minds of any man I have ever known. He was a college man – two years in the University of Kentucky … the rest of his vast fund of information was self-acquired. He read French and Latin and some Greek…
The imprint of his mind and fingers will continue to influence the operations of this business and guide its progress for a long time to come. Ten years from now somebody will speak up in a conference and say: “I remember what Robley used to think about this.” Or “that reminds me of something Robley wrote years ago.”
From a Feland memo:
“I do not mind being cursed for trying to hold down payroll and other controllable expenses. That could be a source of pride. I do greatly dread being cursed for not trying hard enough, for yielding when I should have been firm, for being agreeable when expenses could have been held down by being disagreeable. For that I would feel shame forever.”
To a new office manager who wasn’t doing enough cost-cutting:
“When James the Sixth of Scotland became James the First of England, he moved from Edinburgh Castle to London. Immediately after crossing the line from Scotland into England he encountered two vagrants by the wayside. He knighted one and had the other hanged, just to show that he was really King of England.
“This is a much more thorough job than you have been doing to date. You have knighted a lot of people, but you as yet have hung no vagrants!”
From a memo on signs:
“That sign on the second floor conference room reading “Keep Out!” is just a little too blunt and rude for an office in which some of the people are ladies and gentlemen. I would suggest any words that can be devised that will be a little less like a farmer’s sign to wandering hunters, or something on the private entrance to a little dinky factory.
“The words “In Use” could be used, or even the words “Directors’ Room” or “Board Meeting.” But “Keep Out” is not exactly redolent of old world courtesy, unless you want to go the whole way and put “This Means U.”
Another memo, about agency organizations:
“They want the dues. That is all they want. And all we get is the privilege of paying them. They are like lobster pots. The lobster is safe enough until he crawls in. Then let him try to get out. You keep on paying dues, year after year, for precisely the whole of nothing.”
“Another request to join another association and pay dues … for many years I have kept two thumbs, eight fingers and ten toes in this dyke, but here comes another hole. For goodness sake, put one of your thumbs in it!”
Fred Manchee, on Feland’s last agency visit after retirement:
Robley Feland had cancer. He knew it. Everybody in the office knew it. Robley was given permission by his doctors to go to his home in New Jersey to vote in the 1952 Presidential election. On the way home from the hospital he stopped at the office.
I must digress long enough to tell you that, as treasurer of the company, he had approved installation of time clocks to conform to the Wages and Hours Act during World War II. Acccurate time records were not required for employees earning over a certain salary, but to forestall any feeling of discrimination, everybody punched the clock including Robley Feland. Picture him on this, his last departure from BBDO. Too weak to walk alone, he was leaning on an attendant for support. To look at him was to know he was in pain. All eyes were glued on him as he approached the time clock. Out of habit, he reached for his card, dropped it into the slot. Somehow he summoned up enough strength to give the clock a whack that could be heard from one end of the office to the other.
Robley Feland did not turn around. If he had, he would not have seen a dry eye.
And that’s a perfect exit for the man who wrote “Brown’s Job.” It dovetails eerily with the last lines in Robley Feland’s little masterpiece … an ad that wasn’t exactly an ad, about a man who left behind a job that many coveted but none could do so well.
Don’t they know that Brown’s chair and his desk, with the map under the glass top, and his pay envelope, are not Brown’s job? Don’t they know that they might as well apply to the Methodist Church for John Wesley’s job?
Brown’s former employers know it. Brown’s job is where Brown is.