Graham the Ad Huckster
by Rich Thomas
Katharine Graham, the publishing force behind Newsweek and the Washington Post for most of its golden age, was known for her intense interest in editorial quality. Few of her writers, editors and reporters knew that, in the words of a Newsweek president of the 1980s, “she is one hell of an ad salesperson.” A lot of magazine ad sales in the 20th century depended on a good relationship between Newsweek’s top executives and the CEO of the company doing the advertising. Graham’s renown as the nation’s most important female CEO—and as the woman whose newspaper brought down Richard Nixon-- made most CEOs eager to meet her.
“And she was canny as hell in exploiting that advantage,” said former Newsweek president Chris Little.
Newsweek had a strict separation of advertising sales staffs from editorial personnel. This was famously known as the separation of church and state. The business side never dared suggest stories to writers or editors. As an economics and business writer and reporter, I felt advertiser pressures rarely and then only indirectly. I’d get a call or note from a top editor, or Mrs. Graham herself on occasion, asking me if I was sure of my facts. If the story had involved a business or industry, I guessed that somebody had put in a beef. My superiors very reasonably wanted to be certain Newsweek was right before responding. Beyond that, I never heard anything from the business side in more than 45 years on the job.
I did make speeches to advertising and public interest groups on behalf of Newsweek. I was driving back from one such foray to someplace in Connecticut with Little when we got to laughing about Mrs. Graham’s personal crochets. One was her phobia against baby’s breath. Sprigs of this flower were a standard inclusion in many
floral centerpieces at business luncheons or dinners. Ad staffs were told to ban them when ordering flowers if Mrs. Graham would be in attendance. I recall pitching in with every Newsweek business person in sight to yank baby’s breath out of the bouquets on 15 or 20 round tables at the Detroit Golf Club just moments before Mrs. Graham arrived. Somebody had slipped up ordering the flowers. Another of Mrs. Graham’s crochets was an allergy to limousines. She insisted on plain black four door sedans when being picked up and driven around. One young ad salesman—this was again in Detroit—hadn’t been clued in. He arrived at the airport in a 25 foot long stretch white limo—and he was gone from the ad sales staff within a few weeks.
“Say what you will,” said Little, “Mrs Graham is one hell of an ad salesman, Rich. Look, we on the business side aren’t supposed to talk about advertising with you edit types. But you’ve been around a long time and won’t take this wrong. Do you know that you and Bob Samuelson (Newsweek’s long time economics and business columnist) have taken turns over the last decade writing stories condemning Roger Smith? (Smith was the long time CEO of General Motors). “
“No, no—well wait,” I said. “I guess that’s true. We haven’t planned anything. But I guess you’re right. GM’s the greatest corporation in the world and Smith and his friends are in fact running it into the ground. I’ve written a couple of pieces for sure about what’s happening and Bob has certainly written several himself.”
“Well, last year one of you—I think it was Samuelson--really took an axe to him,” said Little. “And Smith yanked all of GM’s ads from Newsweek. That’s eight per cent of all our ad pages. Me and everybody else concerned with the GM account went into giant suck up mode. But Smith wouldn’t even talk to us. For six weeks! He finally agreed to meet us for a lunch—at Bloomfield Hills, on his own home turf.
“Let me back up,” said Little. “Have you ever noticed that once every couple of months the Style section of the Washington Post writes a sarcastic account about an arts or charity luncheon or dinner at Mrs. Grahams? Makes her look silly, foolish?“
“Come to think if it, “ I replied. “I have. I’ve always wondered about those stories and why they run them.”
“Well,” said Little, “Me, Mrs. Graham, our ad sales director, the Detroit ad director, the GM account salesman had just sat down at Roger Smith’s big round table for lunch when he pulls out this clip from his pocket and word for word reads Samuelson’s latest entire column. It takes 10 minutes. Then Smith looks Mrs. Graham directly in the eye across the table and says, ‘You know, Kay, that hurts!”
“Kay Graham doesn’t miss a bit,” said Little. “She leans down at her feet and starts rummaging through her purse. She comes up with a clip of her own, from the Post Style section. The story had carved her a new one for some ladies lunch she had given just the week before. She reads that clip out loud, verbatim. Then she looks Smith directly in the eye and says, “I know it hurts, Roger. Look what my own paper says about me! That hurts! But I don’t know what you can do about these editors, they just write stuff like that.”
“Smith was stunned. He didn’t say anything. He looked like a guy hit in the head with a hammer. We all held our breath. Then he burst out laughing. I tell you Rich, Kay Graham is a great ad salesperson.”
Copyright: Rich Thomas, 2012
Rich Thomas served as business writer in New York and chief economics correspondent in Washington from 1962 until 2002.