The Stuart Novy Story | Our Town | Chicago Reader

The Stuart Novy Story 

A Life in Advertising--Followed by Several Years in the Service Department of a Honda Dealership

It was the classic Hollywood success story: from mail room to boardroom. Robert Morse oiling his way up the corporate ladder in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Michael J. Fox transforming himself from a naive country boy to a crafty executive who nudges his uncle out of power by means of a hostile takeover in The Secret of My Success.

Here's the Stuart Novy Story: A kid from the south side of Chicago gets a job in the mail room of an ad agency and works his way up in the early days of television, from mechanical production to TV producer to assistant creative director to associate creative director and finally to executive creative director, handling million-dollar accounts, flying across country to work on commercials, driving around the city in a company-owned Porsche.

Then, abruptly, after 35 years, the kid is terminated, tossed out onto the streets.

Life is always more complicated than movies.

"When our agency was sold, everybody said, 'Well, Stuart, you better start looking around for work.' I said, 'Nah. I've been here 35 years. Nothing's gonna happen to me. I may lose my job as creative director, but there'll always be something for me in the agency.' Wrong."

So now Stuart Novy works behind the service desk at Carr's Honda on North Western. He's the one with the mussed-up plop of gray hair, the Gene Wilder-esque facial expressions, a proeuthanasia organization patch on his black beret, and a collection of hand puppets underneath the counter to entertain children waiting with their parents for their cars to be serviced.

Novy's advertising work is instantly recognizable to anyone who spent any time in front of a TV set in the 50s, 60s, or 70s. Working for the Arthur Meyerhoff Agency on the blue-ribbon Wrigley's account, Novy came up with the idea, he says, for the Wrigley's Spearmint "Carry the big fresh flavor" campaign, the one where people walked up and down the street with humongous packs of gum. Then there was the "Pick a pack" campaign, where people would pick packs of Juicy Fruit off the Juicy Fruit tree.

The Stuart Novy story begins back in the 40s, when Novy graduated from high school in Hyde Park and began to study at DePaul. He took a part-time job in the mail room at Meyerhoff and was promoted six or seven months later into the mechanical-production department. He spent some of 1946 and all of 1947 in the U.S. Armed Services, then came back to Chicago and continued to work at the agency while he finished up his BA in commerce at DePaul. At that time, Meyerhoff was just beginning to do some work in TV. Nobody knew much about the medium, so the young Novy was called upon to learn.

"I said I didn't want to do it. Really, I said that," says Novy. "I said, 'I really don't care for the guy who runs the department,' and I liked working in mechanical production. A friend of mine in art direction said, 'Hey, you're an idiot! Television is going to be the coming thing. Why don't you get in on it? It's going to be the opportunity of a lifetime.' So reluctantly I went to work in TV production, and after that my career just skyrocketed."

Novy started out as a gofer. The first client he recalls working with was Evans, the fur retailer. Evans sponsored the late evening movie and had 18 minutes of commercial time per night.

"It took about six months for me to move from gofer to producer," says Novy. "I started out just getting props and stuff, but little by little I'd make more contributions. You'd have a production meeting for what you were going to do on the next week's show. People liked my ideas for stuff, and eventually I turned out to be the producer. You had to make the commercials slick and interesting, yet on a very low budget."

Soon Meyerhoff was working on direct-response commercials--eight-and-a-half-minute pitches that often featured carnival and Maxwell Street hawkers. Watching these commercials today, you giggle at the serious dude stiltedly trying to sell you his Rotary Chef or Robot Gardener. But the commercials were quite successful, and Novy worked on quite a few. Some clients were legitimate; others were out-and-out frauds.

Novy's commercials come from the era of big, clunky American cars and Jell-O molds. In one, a guy appears with the product, a one-year car polish, applies it, and proceeds to abuse the car in countless ridiculous ways. He starts pouring oil, tar, gasoline all over it, lights the gasoline, and then pours water over the car. "Finger marks? Why they wipe right off!" Novy admits that the finish wouldn't have been affected even without the fabulous polish. But it was not his responsibility to question his clients' scruples.

"One time I told my boss that one of the products we were selling was a fraud," says Novy. "He said, 'All I want to know is one thing. Did they pay their bill?'"

All the direct-response products had prices like $2.98. They'd always come with a money-back guarantee and a few extras. Ron Popiel's Chop-O-Matic ("You men will love it just for chopping ice") came with a special secret recipe book from the "World's Finest Chefs." M-O-Lene could get any kind of stain out of your shirt: "It's worth its weight in gold." Then there was the makeup designed to remove wrinkles: "Doctor, it seems to me you have discovered the fountain of youth."

"My job was to go down to Bloomington, Indiana, and test market these commercials live on a Saturday afternoon," says Novy. "If you got 200 calls, you knew it was successful. A lot of guys had their own items, like a glass knife that was great for slicing. Then there was something you could put in your car to make a better spark. Direct-response TV was a whole different thing from regular consumer advertising. You had to get a response. There was no image building. You couldn't say, 'Oh, we didn't get phone calls this week, but boy, we will next week.' You had to determine the function of the commercial. In most cases, the function was to sell product.

"I tried to lean toward commercials that people could understand, and they weren't necessarily fancy but they were effective in selling. The direct-response commercials were done on a budget of $500. It didn't necessarily look like anything, but it sold. And we got the cash in the mail to prove it."

Walter Zivi of Zivi, Kopelman, and Associates worked with Novy in the 50s on some of the direct-response accounts. "We'd sit around and try to figure out some novel way of getting people's attention. One time we were advertising a paint sprayer and we opened up by showing someone painting an elephant. We said, 'You probably will never have to spray an elephant, but if you do, you could use this.'" One of the ideas Novy came up with was for a product called Myzon Poultry Builder: "We started out by showing a platypus," Zivi says. The gimmick was that platypuses lay only a couple of eggs a year, so you could really use the product if your chickens were acting more like them than poultry.

Looking through Novy's sample reel of commercials is like taking a brisk stroll through the history of television. You see the hits, like "Pick a pack of Juicy Fruit gum." You also see the flops. There's one for Wrigley's gum that shamelessly rips off the "I'd like to teach the world to sing" Coke commercials: a woman walks singing down a hill toward a group of people from different countries holding hands. How they're able to sing so clearly and chew gum is one of those great TV mysteries. Novy didn't like the commercial anyway. "It was a commercial for Coke," he says, dismissing it.

"When the Wrigley company first went on the air with Doublemint commercials, they put some restrictions on us," says Novy. "We couldn't show people chewing gum. They were concerned about showing people chewing. Second, we weren't allowed to show Doublemint, the product, because the commercials were in black and white, and there was some feeling that you might confuse the Doublemint package with the Spearmint package. OK, we had to come up with a commercial to sell Doublemint gum--but you couldn't show people chewing and you couldn't show the package. The solution was twins." It wasn't the first time Wrigley had used twins. In fact, Novy says, Wrigley had been using twins ever since Doublemint was on the market. Still, the Meyerhoff agency's work on the Doublemint account was good enough for them to secure the Spearmint and Juicy Fruit accounts in addition.

"We were working on a campaign where we wanted to get people to go in the store and pick up Juicy Fruit," says Novy. "Someone came up with a song called 'Pick a pack of Juicy Fruit gum.'

"The thought process went something like this: OK, Juicy Fruit is fruit. Picking fruit. You pick fruit from a tree. I wonder if you could pick Juicy Fruit off a tree? Maybe we could put all the fruits on the tree and blend them together. Why not pick packages off the tree? Well, there isn't a Juicy Fruit tree. OK, let's make one. So I had a tree made and put it in the Equitable Plaza down on Michigan Avenue, and we filmed people off the street picking packages off the tree."

The "Carry the big fresh flavor" idea was one Novy had been playing with for a while. It was designed to get people to carry gum around with them--if you carried gum with you, the reasoning went, you'd chew more and buy more.

"I had the giant pack made with Doublemint, and then I sent twins out on the street carrying the Doublemint package," says Novy. "I wanted to see if we could get some fun reactions, some Candid Camera kinds of things. It didn't turn out that way. By that time people were so sophisticated that you could walk twins down Michigan Avenue carrying a giant package of gum and people wouldn't do anything except kind of get out of the way. It didn't really go anywhere, but about a year later when we were working on the Spearmint campaign, one of the account guys said, 'Hey, why don't you use the Doublemint idea of yours?'"

About ten years ago, Meyerhoff was sold to BBDO. Six months later, Novy was out of a job. He attributes it to philosophical differences with the ownership, and doesn't like to talk about it.

"It was hard. It was my life," says Novy, but he won't knock anybody in the business. He still wants to get another ad job. After being booted by BBDO, Novy bounced around with a couple other agencies doing free-lance work, but most of his time has been spent in the service department of Carr's Honda.

"Somewhere in the late 70s I bought a motorcycle," says Novy. "It was the macho thing to do. I always felt guilty that I didn't know anything about mechanics, so I went to motorcycle-repair school." He didn't do very well, but he met up with a service worker for Carr's who hired him to write up service orders.

"I'd love to get back in the agency business, but this is kind of an exciting thing," he says. "It's a challenge. You deal with different people, different problems. The car business is not exciting though. There's something about starting with nothing and then having it end up on television, and you can say, 'I had a part in making that happen.' When you're in the car business, someone brings in a car and it's not running, and at the end of the day it goes out running. You can say, 'I had a part in that,' but it's not the same. It's not something millions of people are seeing. Here, you have a happy family. There are parallels, but the magnitude is not there."

"He was a great creative director," says Connie Butler, who worked under Novy at Meyerhoff, first in the art-supplies department and later as an art director. She says she was responsible for "making all those stupid big Spearmint packages."

"He let people do their job. He'd try to steer you, but he wouldn't try to lay claim to what you'd done," Butler says. "But when you're in the capacity he was, you hire and fire a lot of people. And whether or not it was your idea, when you come back to them looking for a job, people are very resentful. They tend to carry that baggage around with them. He was an honest man. Sometimes brutally honest."

"Stuart is really, really good, but there are a lot of people like him on the street these days," says Barbara Burrell. Burrell Advertising has used Novy for some free-lance work. "He was a ball of fire in terms of getting things done. He was all high-energy, bright, articulate. He's a great creative director, a great traffic manager, and he did a little bit of all of that for us. But if you look around, you'll find a lot of Stuart Novys out there."

"The guy is somebody who comes up with things that are brand-new and different and good, and those are great qualities in the advertising business," says Walter Zivi. It shocks him, he says, that Novy can't find work in the ad business these days.

Talk to people who used to work with Novy and you hear the same things: bright, creative, honest, a real gentleman.

"He always told it like it is," says one exec who worked with Novy in the 60s and 70s. "But in this business there are lots of power plays made. And Stuart was dedicated, but he was not political."

The longer Novy stays out of the business, the more outdated his sample reel becomes. Novy is well aware of this disadvantage.

"Tell you the truth, most people in the business didn't like Wrigley ads. In the real world of the agency business, you're kind of laughed at," Novy says. "They were old-fashioned. There was this one ad we were doing with a character called 'Stick-Man' with still pictures while everyone was doing live-action commercials. It was successful, but if you went out and tried to get a job on the basis of that, people would think that you were kidding. So you did 21 still pictures? When was this? 1802? Forget it.

"When you're selling yourself as a creative director, people say, 'What was your big exciting idea?' In Wrigley commercials, nothing really ever happened. I mean, having two twins singing while standing still was not the kind of thing you'd put on your sample reel and people would say, 'Wow! You did that?' Even when they'd see things like the giant packs or the Juicy Fruit tree, they'd say, 'What else did you do?'"

So, until somebody calls and asks him to come back to the business, Novy is content to write service reports and entertain children with puppets.

"I'd take any job really," he says. "Anything I thought would lead somewhere, I'd do it. If you get in, then an opportunity will present itself. I started out in the mail room. I'd go back to the mail room if I thought it would lead somewhere."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Reader Revolutionary $35/month →  
  Rabble Rouser $25/month →  
  Reader Radical $15/month →  
  Reader Rebel  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  → 

Popular Stories