Marketing giant Hal Riney dead at 75

'Paul Bunyan' of advertising created legendary Saturn campaign

Hal Riney
SAN FRANCISCO -- Hal Riney, the legendary adman whose work influenced presidential campaigns and whose vision helped shape auto marketing and many other aspects of the business, died Monday of cancer. He was 75.

During his career of almost 50 years, Riney developed advertising around the notion that understatement sold better than overstatement, and any conclusions about a product were better left to the audience. He also pushed against advertising that was intrusive or insulting, and he wasn't ashamed of ads that made people laugh or cry.

His first major campaigns helped legitimize wines from the E.&J. Gallo Winery with elegant spots featuring high production values. He also revolutionized the car-selling business by personifying General Motors' Saturn brand.

Part of pop culture

Riney even contributed to pop culture: One of his early clients, a local bank called Crocker Bank, wanted to attract a younger clientele. Riney developed a wedding spot and commissioned a song that later became the Carpenters' hit "We've Only Just Begun." Other classics on his reel included work for Henry Weinhard beer.

Once called "the Paul Bunyan of advertising," Riney also worked for Republican political candidates and in the 1980s was part of the so-called Tuesday Team, a group of admen working on Ronald Reagan's campaign. His "Bear in the Woods" spot, which subtly compared the Russian communists to a bear in the woods that some declined to see, and his "Morning in America" campaign for Reagan are political classics.

Riney, moreover, was a recognized voice-over talent. His sonorous, gravelly yet homespun tones were featured in hundreds of commercials, not just those produced by his own shop.

Hal Riney was born in Washington state and began working in advertising in 1956 as a marketing trainee at BBDO, San Francisco. Ten years later, he was promoted to exec VP-creative director. He switched in 1972 to San Francisco shop Botsford Ketchum but four years later took a job opening Ogilvy & Mather's San Francisco office. He set up shop as Hal Riney & Partners in 1985 and the following year bought the remaining 40% of the agency from Ogilvy to become an independent.

Stunned Detroit

Although his work was becoming famous, the big coup came when Riney stunned the Detroit ad world by snagging the Saturn account. Riney won the pitch with a beautifully produced spot about spring in Spring Hill, a reference to the Tennessee town where the new Saturn plant would be built, and developed the brand's tagline: "Different kind of company. Different kind of car."

Beyond the ad's creativity, the campaign developed the standard for integrated campaigns. His work for Saturn included letters sent to car buyers, all written in the same folksy tone that permeated the TV spots. That campaign won him Advertising Age's Agency of the Year award in 1993.

Riney worked exclusively in San Francisco, and his work and agency brought the city to the national stage. More than two dozen agencies trace their roots to Riney, including Goodby, Silverstein & Partners and digital shop AKQA. David Verklin, now Carat America CEO, worked as a media director for Riney.

"Although admitting his own difficulty in managing people, he recognized that he could create an environment that would foster the best possible work by being constantly vigilant about the work and not the process," Jim Magill, a former Riney executive now with Sapient, said in documents backing Riney's nomination to the American Advertising Federation Advertising Hall of Fame.

"Many account people in the '80s would say he was the first American account planner because he intuitively sought out not only the answers to all the dynamics of each advertising issue from both the consumer's point of view and the company's perspective, but distilled complex issues down to simplistic statements," Magill said.

Over the years, Riney's ad style, what became known as a Rineyesque spot, proved to be both a blessing and a curse for the agency. After going through several general managers, Riney partnered with Scott Marshall, who succeeded in selling the shop to Publicis Groupe. In May 2002, Riney stepped down from his active role at Publicis & Hal Riney Advertising and became chairman emeritus.

Regretted losing name

Although he talked about opening another shop, he always regretted losing his name to another agency. In fact, last year, when his legacy agency talked about renaming the shop simply "Riney," Riney wrote to Advertising Age: "Frankly, I think these sorts of things work much better when the person whose name they're using is dead. I mean, it's a whole lot to easier to attribute all kinds of proprietary, handed-down wisdom to dead people, i.e., Burnett, Bernbach, Ogilvy, et al.

"But I'm not sure it works as well when the real legendary advertising savant is simply no longer with organization but still sitting on his butt 10 or 15 blocks away. I mean, if anyone wants to know what I think about building brands, they don't have to call a company just because it's got my name on it. Hell, they can still just pick up the phone and ask me."

One of Riney's more publicized adventures began in the spring of 1982 when he was held hostage for three days aboard a hijacked airline in Honduras. "I just opened the goddam emergency hatch, jumped out and ran like hell," he told the San Francisco Chronicle at the time. "I zig-zagged while I ran, expecting shots that never came."

Riney is survived by his wife, Elizabeth Sutherland Riney, and two children from a previous marriage, Benjamin, 21, and Samantha, 19. His ashes will be spread at Mount St. Helens, Wash., where he grew up and loved to fish and hike, Elizabeth Riney said. A wake celebrating his life is being planned to take place in about a month.

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