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OPINION | TOM DILLARD: The evolution of Arkansas advertising

by Tom Dillard | May 2, 2021 at 8:41 a.m.

The death last year of J. Wayne Cranford marked the end of an era in the history of advertising agencies in Arkansas. Founded in 1961, the Cranford Johnson Agency was the largest in the state, offering advertising, marketing, and public relations services throughout the state and much of the southwest.

Cranford inspired others to go into advertising, just as he must have drawn inspiration from the pioneering ad men before him. Though Little Rock and Arkansas were small markets, the state has produced a number of highly successful advertising agencies.

Though several agencies claim to be the oldest in America, professional advertising is often dated to 1841 when Volney B. Palmer opened an agency in Philadelphia. The J. Walter Thompson Company of New York, created in 1878, is the oldest agency in continuous service in the U.S.

Advertising took off following the Civil War, with advertisements beginning to appear in the growing number of magazines as well as newspapers.

The arrival of the automobile age in the 1920s, along with novelty advertising such as those painted on barn roofs, helped birth the billboard industry. The coming of the radio after World War I opened a whole new realm of advertising. Likewise, the growing availability of television after World War II resulted in advertising permeating life in America as never before. The most recent revolution in advertising has been the advent of the Internet in the 1990s.

The first advertising agency in Arkansas was established in 1911 by Sidney M. Brooks. A native of Memphis and a Harvard graduate, he had a job with a large Chicago agency when he got to know Little Rock during a trip to Texarkana. When both the Arkansas Democrat and Arkansas Gazette newspapers urged him to relocate to Little Rock, Brooks shocked his Chicago associates by announcing a move to Arkansas.

Setting up shop with borrowed furniture in the Boyle Building, Brooks was fortunate to find a good client in the Arkadelphia Milling Co. While visiting with Milling Co. officials in Arkadelphia, he met Harvey Couch, a young man who had just established the Arkadelphia Power Co.. That began a long association between what became Arkansas Power & Light Co. (now Entergy) and the S.M. Brooks Agency.

A big part of Brooks' high public regard was his genuine interest in people and optimism for the future. That can be seen in an advertisement he ran in the Arkansas Gazette not long after setting up his agency: "Prejudice Hinders Progress! Advertising Destroys Prejudice."

Brooks explained that "prejudice is a great hindrance to progress, and, further, that prejudice is born of ignorance." Happily, Brooks proclaimed "advertising, properly written, displayed and scientifically applied, educates, dispels and therefore destroys ignorance and prejudice."

Brooks retired in 1964 and lived until 1985, when he died at the age of 98. He made another mark in history by his incredibly long association with Rotary International and his service as founder and first president of the Rotary Club of Little Rock. But that is a story for another time.

Another pioneering advertising man in Little Rock was Leo P. Bott, who founded Bott Advertising Agency in 1917. He was the grandson of early Little Rock settler Isaac Bott. Bott, like Brooks, was Jewish--testimony to the important role Jews played in Arkansas advertising history.

Bott specialized in promoting Arkansas-made products such as Niloak pottery in Benton, various Hot Springs bathhouses, and Mountain Valley Water. He left Arkansas during the 1920s, going to Alaska where he developed the first advertising campaigns on behalf of that territory. He spent most of his advertising career in Chicago, where he was a pioneer in direct-mail advertising. One of his employees was Hugh Hefner, founder of the Playboy empire.

Bott aside, advertising in Arkansas (especially in Little Rock) has evolved from the S.M. Brooks Agency. One journalist began an article on the phenomenon with: "In the beginning there was S.M. Brooks."

Bob Wimberley, who would go on to a long career in Arkansas public relations, served for a time as president of the Brooks Agency. Al Pollard, whom some regard as the first professional public relations man in Arkansas, was president of Brooks-Pollard after S.M. Brooks retired.

The late Ted Lamb of Little Rock was in the advertising business before he became one of the state's best known lawyers. In 1952, right out of Yale University, Lamb established Ted Lamb and Associates, which specialized in financial advertising and eventually added offices in Texas, Connecticut and New Jersey.

The late Wayne Cranford and Jim Johnson founded what is now known as the Cranford Johnson Robinson & Woods Agency in 1961. The tall, dignified Cranford was the perfect partner for the intense and creative Jim Johnson; their company quickly gained clients, with the Arkansas Gazette remarking in 1964 that the three-year-old firm had joined the "big league" in capital city advertising.

Jim Brandon of Little Rock was serving as a state representative in 1962 when he formed the Brandon Agency, which specialized in campaign advertising and political consulting. Brandon later served a term in the state Senate as well as a delegate to two state constitutional conventions. He died in May 2006.

Shelby and Wayne Woods meantime, working as Woods Brothers Advertising, carved out a specialty in tourism marketing. The late Ron Robinson got his start as a college intern at Cranford Johnson in the summer of 1962, and later set up and ran their public relations department, becoming a vice president and partner.

While this column is a mere introduction, it hints at the vibrant and competitive history of advertising agencies in central Arkansas.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected] An earlier version of this column was published Jan. 1, 2012.

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