March 5, 2021

Leo-Arthur Kelmenson, Ad Man Who Helped to Save Chrysler, Dies at 84

In confirming the death, Mr. Kelmenson’s wife, Gayle, said he had been ill for several years.

Mr. Kelmenson and Mr. Iacocca became friends during Mr. Iacocca’s long career as an executive at Ford Motor Company, when Mr. Kelmenson’s firm, Kenyon Eckhardt, produced most of the advertising for Ford, the country’s second largest car maker.

And not long after Mr. Iacocca was fired as president of Ford in a dispute with the company chairman, Henry Ford II, Mr. Kelmenson stunned the advertising world by announcing in 1979 that Kenyon Eckhardt would abandon its longtime relationship with Ford — and the $75 million a year in business it represented — to become the exclusive advertising agency of the Chrysler Corporation. Mr. Iacocca was then serving as president of Chrysler for a salary of $1 a year because the company was nearly bankrupt.

“There was a certain amount of risk involved,” said Ronald DeLuca, then the executive vice president of Kenyon Eckhardt. “The risk was that our company would go down the drain.”

At the time, Chrysler was not always paying its bills. And government approval of the loan guarantees that later stabilized the company was then far from certain.

“But Leo and the rest of us believed in Iacocca,” Mr. DeLuca said, “and it turned out to be a good deal.”

Mr. Kelmenson’s first project was a TV ad campaign — “Would America be better off without Chrysler?” — urging approval of a $1.5 billion federal loan guarantee package. The package was authorized in 1980.

But the marketing insight that got people buying Chrysler’s cars again was Mr. Kelmenson’s idea to put Mr. Iacocca in front of the camera and let him talk. Mr. Kelmenson’s advertising firm produced a series of ads in the 1980s featuring the likeable Mr. Iacocca, his aviator glasses set firm on the bridge of an indomitable nose, walking the factory floor, finger-wagging and challenging Americans with plainspoken lines like, “If you can find a better car, buy it.”

By most accounts, the ads not only made Mr. Iacocca a household avatar of the American comeback, but they also helped pull Chrysler out of its tailspin.

When a group of expatriate Soviet artists and journalists visited the Park Avenue offices of Kenyon Eckhardt in 1976, accompanied by a New York Times reporter, Mr. Kelmenson told them: “Advertising is the lubricant of the free enterprise system.” Friends said the phrase was practically his mantra.

Leo-Arthur Kelmenson was born in Manhattan on Jan. 3, 1927, one of two sons of Ruth and Joseph Kelmenson. His father was a manufacturing executive in his family-owned business. Mr. Kelmenson served in the Marine Corps in the Pacific during World War II as a member of the First Parachute Division. He suffered bullet wounds in the leg that left him with a lifelong limp; he received a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts.

After graduating from Columbia University following the war, Mr. Kelmenson pursued graduate work in international affairs, then changed course in the 1950s. He began his advertising career in the mailroom of the firm Lennen Newell, where he rose to senior vice president before joining Kenyon Eckhardt in 1968. He remained chief executive at KE through a series of mergers, the last of which made him the chief executive of a marketing, advertising and public relations firm known as the Bozell Group. He retired in 1999.

He is survived by his wife, Gayle, and their daughter, Philippa Ruthe; and two sons from a previous marriage, Todd and Joel, and two grandchildren.

Mr. Kelmenson’s major advertising clients included Colgate-Palmolive, Air France, Seagram, Elizabeth Arden and, early on, Old Gold cigarettes. But in the advertising world, his name was inextricably linked with Mr. Iacocca, who with Mr. Kelmenson’s help consistently registered third on the Gallup Poll’s list of the men Americans respected most in the 1980s, behind President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II.

In a letter he wrote in 2010 to support Mr. Kelmenson’s nomination to the Advertising Hall of Fame, Mr. Iacocca described his debt to Mr. Kelmenson. “I doubt that many partnerships like ours existed. It was often impossible to tell where Chrysler ended and KE began,” he wrote, adding:

“When we didn’t have the money to pay, Leo got his other clients to be supportive. It was 24/7 high-wire stuff.”

Article source:

Speak Your Mind