Why the "Man in the Chair" Still Resonates ... Maybe More Than Ever

Why the "Man in the Chair" Still Resonates ... Maybe More Than Ever

Gary Slack | September 28, 2017

Technologies change but marketing fundamentals do not, and never will. We still need to create market familiarity to precondition buyers to buy from us.

The Man in the Chair has a 60th birthday coming.

I'm not writing to celebrate his age, but to underscore his everlasting youth, timelessness and relevance.

In the 1970s, 1980s and even 1990s, everybody in b2b (and b2c) marketing knew him.

Perhaps less so today, but you 40-, 30- and 20-somethings should meet him. Let me make that introduction.

The Man in the Chair is a rosy-cheeked but still gruff-looking b2b "buyer" (maybe a purchasing agent) in a classic ad created by publisher McGraw-Hill in 1958 to persuade b2b "sellers" to run print ads in the pages of a multitude of McGraw-Hill vertical trade pubs.

Debuting in 1958, this classic b2b ad spent decades arguing for investing in advanced market familiarity.

His ad ran for at least three, maybe four, decades. So, his message must have worked. But look at his message, and you'll see why it's as relevant today, even if the suit he wears and the way, way pre-Aeron chair is not.

“I don’t know who you are.

I don’t know your company.

I don’t know your company’s product.

I don’t know what your company stands for.

I don’t know your company’s customers.

I don’t know your company’s record.

I don’t know your company’s reputation.

Now—what was it you wanted to sell me?

In the ad, he—I'm going to call him Gil and tell you why later—obviously has an un-pictured, hapless salesperson seated across from him making a failing sales pitch for an unnamed employer that Gil has never heard of and knows nothing about. Pity the poor seller, but not his employer.

To this day, many marketers consider this ad one of the best and most effective b2b advertisements of all time. It spoke the total truth to marketers.

Today, of course, we use many other kinds of media and platforms to build market familiarity, but we still do it for the purpose of enabling buyers to learn something—hopefully a lot—about us before they are ready to make or take a sales call.

Without knowing it, Gil was promoting content marketing

A few years ago, as a favor to IMC pioneers and Medill School marketing professors Don Schultz and Heidi Schultz, who speak and teach extensively across China, I had the ad translated into Chinese.

The message of the Man in the Chair gets a lot of attention in China, too.

Around that time, we got McGraw-Hill's permission to turn the ad into a mural in our agency's café area. Gil's stern appearance tends to scare the bejeebers out of our younger employees as he looks out over them at lunch.

McGraw-Hill kindly allowed our agency to create a mural of its classic ad that to this day watches over lunchroom activity in our café.

In 2009, while serving as national chairman of the Business Marketing Association and organizing my first of what became seven consecutive annual global BMA conferences, I commissioned for BMA09 a live staging of the ad. We hired Martin Chatinover, an actor with four Woody Allen movie credits who was a Gil look-alike, to read the ad in a very stentorian voice on stage in front of 300 b2b marketers at Chicago's Drake Hotel.

Click on the image to open the video in a new window.

We bought Martin the old-fashioned suit and tie and greased and combed his hair to look like Gil. Harder than that was finding the truly old-fashioned chair for him to sit in. Hard to fathom how businesspeople tolerated those chairs "back then.”

Gil’s video at the global BMA event has 49,000 views on YouTube

We, of course, videotaped the staging, and it now has nearly 49,000 views on YouTube, not bad for a b2b video even if it has been up there a few years. You can also view a longer video of the entire half-hour opening session of the 2009 conference centered on Gil and moderated by Ralph Oliva, the then-executive director of the Institute for the Study of Business Markets (ISBM).

In the staging, as you will see from either video, we imagined a modern-day Man in the Chair, hiring a much younger actor to play Gil's 21st century counterpart. He follows Gil's recitation of the original ad with his own scripted online search for information on a seller company, ending with the classic line, "Now, what did you want to sell me?"

Now for the story behind Gil. The Gil in the 1958 ad was an account supervisor named Gil Morris with Fuller & Smith & Ross, the agency that created the ad (Henry Slesar wrote it). As the story goes, on the day of the shoot the "talent" was running late, so the photographer asked Gil to sit in the chair for framing. When Gil sat in the chair and looked sternly and a bit grumpily through the camera, the ad team knew they'd hit pay dirt, called an audible and canceled the "talent."

Gil’s gruff stare, his chair and Slesar’s timeless copy went on to appear millions of times in McGraw-Hill publications across several decades—and to be named several times as the best b2b ad of all time.

In the 1990s, McGraw-Hill tried to update the campaign with two contemporized ads featuring the same copy but, in one, a milder, younger-looking man and, in the other, an Asian woman. Neither had the heft of the original, and they fairly quickly faded.

So, there's your introduction to the Man in the Chair, who speaks to us b2b marketers today as powerfully as he did when thrust onto the marketing stage nearly 60 years ago.

 

Here are some other interesting articles about the Man in the Chair:

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