Phillip Ward Burton was an advertising genius.
Burton’s career started at Proctor & Gamble where he responded to letters from consumers and rose to be the senior creative officer consulting on all Proctor & Gamble brands. He went on to be a professor at Syracuse University, the feeder school for New York agencies. His textbook for advertising concepting and copywriting became the most widely used in the US. His weekly column in Advertising Age, “Which Ad Pulled Best?” popularized his research on advertising perception and explained what factors contributed to advertising effectiveness.
In 1987 the American Advertising Federation wanted to present him with their inaugural Distinguished Educator award and name it the Burton award. He accepted the award but declined to have it named after himself saying, “You never know what scoundrels may follow me.” In reality, he was too humble to have the award named after him.
When Burton reached the mandatory retirement age at Syracuse, Indiana University picked him up. He continued to teach for another 20 years. One day he came to me and said, “I think I’m going to have to quit teaching.” Knowing he was a bit hard of hearing I shouted back to him, “Mr. Burton, why would you do that?” With a smile, he replied, “I really can’t hear the students.” I leaned in and reminded him that what he had to say was so important I didn’t think the students would care. But, he had made his mind up. He asked me to pick up his classes. And, for another 20 years I carried on his tradition.
Phil Burton came from the golden age of advertising. His contemporaries were Burnet, Burnbach, Ogilvie, Reeves and other giants of our industry. His ideas and principles were ground breaking and as relevant today as when he started. Simplicity. Relevance. Humanity. Truth.
So much has changed in our field. Advertising is both a reflection and driver of culture. Digital media has revolutionized how we communicate. Technology has impacted our craft. Public relations and advertising have converged.
Culture has changed. And, Phil Burton would be right at home.