One Show: Advice from the Father of Joe Isuzu, Advertising's Most Beloved Liar


Jerry Della Femina, founder of Della Femina Travisano & Partners (now DFJP), reminds me a lot of the ads he's sprinkled in TV Land's past. Remember Meowmix's singing cat? And Joe Isuzu? Like the spots, he's impossible to get out of your head.

Because Jerry's voice could cut through Valium. You will listen to every last thing he has to say, uncertain whether it's the ideas seducing you or the man's own confidence.

In the hour Della Femina spoke during One Show's Tuesday afternoon speaker session, I could have filled notebooks with what he continuously called "secrets of life" and "career advice."

Here's a taste.

You won't sow whatever you have to sow until you can convince people that whatever you have is widely enjoyed.


An old friend of Jerry's started a restaurant that, upon launch, was fully booked for months. When Della Femina walked through the doors, he found the entire place empty. His buddy sat alone at a table, rejecting callers with gusto.

"What are you doing?" Jerry asked.

"In a few months," his friend boasted proudly, "they'll be breaking the doors down to get in!"

That restaurant, Jerry claims, is still around today.

Take advantage of happy accidents.

Meowmix's singing cat ads were an accident. The agency had a cat on the set that started choking on some catnip. They watched it struggle for awhile, and Jerry thought, It looks like it's singing! "Put a melody behind it!" he cried out.

A singer was booked for the "Meow meow meow" song in short order. She didn't show up, so a woman who just happened to be around took the mic instead.

"Those ads paid both her kids' college tuition," Della Femina said smugly. As for Meowmix, it became the most successful pet food in the history of Purina. A happy accident indeed.

Also, the Joe Isuzu "liar" spots were intended for one local market. Mere human foibles made them national. Joe Isuzu became Isuzu's single biggest-selling campaign.

Nobody knows anything about anything.

You could have an up-to-the-minute market research ticker coming out of your ass, and users will still surprise you. Don't assume data about people's past will give you concrete insight on tomorrow's infatuation.

Make every ad work -- don't lean on your campaign.

Most people won't see your whole spread. They'll see parts of it, or maybe just one component, in passing. Each piece should be able to persuade by itself.

Talk straight.

Being authentic doesn't just mean "telling the truth." It also means that sometimes you let the edges show.

Real people aren't diplomats. They don't make pristine statements or go out of their way to be meaningful. Sometimes they even play dirty. Della Femina seems to have accepted all these traits in himself. It shows in career: he wasn't perfect, but he trusted his judgment and genuinely appears happy with the end result. Dude is smug.

Get into it advertising to start your own agency.

Don't get into it just to be an art director or copywriter!

If you don't take risks, it's not gonna happen. Take chances and don't worry.

Apropos to the above, once you've put your neck on the line, push hard for an outcome. And if you don't get what you want, keep pushing.

For LifeStyles condoms, Jerry penned a headline that read, "I love sex, but I'm not ready to die for it." It referred to the risk of contracting AIDS and was slapped above the image of a young woman.

LifeStyles didn't feel totally comfortable with it, so the final copy was changed to "I enjoy sex, but I'm not ready to die for it." Della Femina accepted that and solicited the ad to The New York Times. It turned him down flat.

Never say no to Jerry. He was clearly one of those schoolyard kids that would go, "I'm telling!" -- and actually tell.

After the NYT's rejection, he contacted The New York Post and divulged the rejection story. Scandale! The Post outed the NYT on Page 6 for its refusal to run an ad about such an important public issue.

The NYT eventually came around. It would take the ad, it said, if the headline were changed to, "I'll do a lot for love, but I'm not ready to die for it."


Della Femina OK'd it.

Somebody in the audience was miffed about the headline's evolution -- or devolution, depending on how you look at it. "I won," Jerry said simply.

When I heard this story, I thought to myself that Jerry Della Femina's resilience lies not just in taking chances and being persistent; it lies in being flexible. The man is like a steamroller, but he isn't fickle. He adapts when opportunity demands it.

And Jerry sees opportunity everywhere.

by Angela Natividad    May- 8-08   Click to Comment   
Topic: Creative Commentary, Industry Events   

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