‘Everyone admired Mom’s laundry” goes the television ad. A woman, presumably Mom, pours baking soda into a washing machine while talking to a smiling girl. The scene is in black and white. The baking soda box is Arm-&-Hammer yellow. “Her secret was baking soda.”
Next we see a stream of white baking soda, mixing with a bright blue liquid covered in bubbles. “Today that secret combines with Oxy-Clean stain fighters, and people are getting gel-ous!” The word “GEL-OUS” appears in a gelatinous typeface. “Introducing Arm & Hammer plus Oxy-Clean Power Gel, America’s first gel detergent, with more power in every drop!”
At “Power,” the arm logo from the detergent bottle comes to life, swinging its hammer around. There is a picture of a clean shirt, washed with power gel, and a dirty one, laundered in some lesser detergent. “Gel-ous yet?” Children run through a field in slow motion. “Switch to new Arm & Hammer Power Gel. You’ll never go back.”
That 30-second commercial, which ran on TV a few years ago (power gel is no longer made), was produced by Ferrara and Company, a College Road East advertising agency that has been producing ads for Church & Dwight’s products for 27 years.
Ferrara worked with the client to create the idea for the ad, and its theme is one that has continued for numerous other baking soda product spots. The key, says company president Art Ferrara, is in the first shot of the mother and her box of baking soda.
“That is the core insight of the ad right there,” he says. “It’s what we describe as generational transfer. The reality is, my mom or your mom or your mom’s mom had used baking soda because it was a household staple. It was a whitener, a freshener, and a cleaner. The insight with the laundry was that mom would put baking soda into her wash to boost cleaning performance, and that was a generational behavior. But today, fast forward, we’ve taken the power of baking soda and put it into a formulated product, so you get this formulated product that transfers the power of baking soda. That was the theme, and it really plays out throughout the entire line of Arm & Hammer products. We keep refreshing it with each product.”
Ferrara has advertised Church & Dwight products since its foundation 27 years ago, when the agency’s only account was marketing baking soda toothpaste to dentists. Today the firm’s 70 employees create campaigns for television, print, social media, and cell phones. If you don’t have a product Ferrara advertises in your medicine cabinet, you probably have something in your kitchen. In addition to Church & Dwight, Ferrara counts Heinz and Allegra among its more notable accounts. Few ad agencies are entrusted to manage brands like those, and fewer still are outside of New York City.
Ferrara’s offices are anything but Madison Avenue. While some ad agencies show off their creative talent with flashy headquarters, Ferrara is located in an anonymous office building. Ferrara prefers to let its staff advertise its talent and its building advertise its frugality. The offices may not have pinball machines, beer on tap, or eye-catching architecture, but it does have among its ranks top talent from lots of New York City agencies.
“Our first dollars go towards people more than anything else,” Ferrara says. “We’ve always been about fiscally sustainable growth. We want to manage our overhead costs so we can provide value to the client, which is another distinction from a New York agency.”
Last year the company moved from its old Research Park headquarters, opposite the Princeton Airport, to its College Road East location. The new building the firm has leased is much bigger and allows room to expand. It also allows the entire staff to be in the same building. Before, Ferrara said, they were in several nearby locations, but going to another building felt like going to another state. By 2012 it was time to move to a consolidated office.
Ferrara manages the firm’s departments, and his partner, Linda Rosenthal, is in charge of operations. The agency is still independent and owned by the principals. Rosenthal said the new office has allowed the team to share ideas better. “It creates an environment where we are more together collaborating on ideas,” Ferrara says. “I think it makes for a better product.”
The company today is a long way from its origins at Ferrara’s kitchen table. Ferrara grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, where his father was in retail and his mother was a homemaker. His grandparents had both also worked retail, and Ferrara studied advertising in college with the dream of starting his own business, earning his bachelor’s at Holy Cross and his master’s at Northwestern. “I was a product of the American dream of the ’50s,” Ferrara said.
After college, Ferrara went on to work at Johnson & Johnson, where he led brand management. One day he saw an opportunity in the marketplace that no one was taking advantage of: some healthcare products were being sold to the public over the counter, but most of the marketing was not consumer-focused.
Ferrara saw there was a whole category of products that were sold in stores, but which healthcare professionals had a role in recommending, such as toothpaste. Ferrara decided to strike out on his own, and his first client was Arm & Hammer baking soda toothpaste, owned by Church & Dwight and based in the Princeton business community. He targeted his marketing at dentists and hygenists who would tell consumers what to buy.
Church & Dwight must have liked the results of the campaign, because the relationship with Ferrara has lasted ever since. Ferrara said that typically clients stick with an agency for three or four years, then switch.
While Ferrara was making ads, Rosenthal was working at Church & Dwight. She is the daughter of a moving company executive and a homemaker and grew up in the Bronx. Ten years after she first met Ferrara, Rosenthal had her own business, AM Technology. It was the mid-’90s, and Rosenthal was building websites for corporations. Around 1995, she was helping Church & Dwight make its own website when she encountered Ferrara once more and the two decided to merge their companies. Digital marketing has been integral to Ferrara’s business ever since.
Today you could stock a home with the products that Ferrara advertises; everything from Allegra allergy cream to Lea & Perrins steak sauce. Generating ideas to sell all these products isn’t easy, nor is it always easy convincing the clients to go along with what the agency has come up with. Anyone who has seen the TV series “Mad Men” is familiar with the scene of the creative department persuading a reluctant client to go with a certain approach.
Ferrara jokes that while the reality of his company is “more glamorous” than Mad Men, there is some truth to the fictional portrayal of the business. He remembers it took a long time to persuade Heinz that its approach to selling the Smart Ones line of microwave dinners was the way to go. Ferrara’s idea was to show a dieter saying, “The last time I had macaroni and cheese was six months ago,” and then crossing that out and changing it to six minutes — the point being that a fattening food was replaced by the healthier Smart Ones version.
“They had to be sold on a campaign that was about crossing out an indulgence and replacing it with their own,” Ferrara said. Ultimately, it was data that persuaded Heinz to go with Ferrara’s idea. Focus groups showed people responded to it well.
Companies are now collecting vast amounts of information about people’s habits — everything from surveys to coupon redemption habits to social media behavior — and selling them to agencies like Ferrara.
But Ferrara says that in the end, it’s not the data but the creativity that matters, the flash of insight that allows them to come up with ads like the baking soda one. Is it an art? Ferrara hesitates to say so. Art can be pure expression, serving no material purpose. Not so with an ad: creative though it may be, it is all aimed at persuading the viewer to buy a product.
“It isn’t really creative unless it sells,” Ferrara said.
— Diccon Hyatt
Ferrara & Company, 301-C College Road East, Princeton 08540; 609-945-8700; fax, 609-924-0702. Art Ferrara, owner. www.ferraracompany.com.