- Interview with Paula Alex, CEO of the Advertising Educational Foundation, 1985–2016
Paula, you have accomplished an extraordinary amount in your leadership of the Advertising Educational Foundation. Now that you are retiring, I would love to hear your story about the origins and development of AEF and I am sure readers of Advertising & Society Review would be interested as well.
Be happy to give you some AEF history. Back in the mid-1980s, a group of ad agency leaders got together to start a foundation that would represent the industry. This group was led by Alfred Seaman, who had just retired as CEO of SSC&B Lintas. Initially, to address the negativity and misperceptions about advertising among the general public and on campus, AEF’s founders thought a major public relations effort on behalf of the industry would be in order. For example, the Gallup Poll in the mid-1980’s listed advertising professionals just above used car salesmen as one of the least reputable professions.
Industry leaders were especially concerned about the attitudes among faculty and students on university campuses, particularly in the liberal arts schools. Many within the academy believed that advertising increased the cost of goods and that advertising manipulated consumers into buying things they didn’t need. The industry—ad agencies, marketers, and media companies—acknowledged that advertising is the spark plug that drives the American economy and its capitalist system. Advertising provides news of the marketplace to the public—the consumers—who in turn decide what they need/don’t need, what they want to try, or not, and finally, make a purchase.
Advertising has been around since man has had something to sell or barter or offer. There are examples of advertising in the U.S. as early as the 1600s when the colonists advertised whatever produce or articles they had to sell and when trading ships came to the shores of the U.S. and used posters or the local newspaper to get out the news of their wares and merchandise for sale.
AEF was formally established in September of 1983. AEF founders knew that, to be effective, the public relations effort would be very expensive. From the outset in 1983, AEF fundraising began in earnest. Within three months, AEF had raised more than $4 million in pledges from the largest ad agencies and top media companies in addition to advertiser companies. Fundraising began in earnest to the ad agencies. Abandoning the PR campaign to the general public, the AEF Board switched gears, deciding to focus on education. The focus would be on educating the future leaders of industry—especially but not exclusively the future leaders of the ad industry—but also of government and other organisations. As a result and with that in mind, the audience was narrowed to college students and professors with a focus on liberal arts, where the biggest misunderstanding about advertising was thought to exist.
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This decision was made in December 1984, about the time that Alfred J. Seaman and I had our annual Christmas lunch. He was my mentor, you see. My advertising career began in the mid ‘70’s at SSC&B Lintas. In fact, I was not interested in advertising. I guess I interviewed at SSC&B to satisfy my own curiosity and to make a final decision as to whether I wanted to go into advertising. I put off the interview with Mr. Seaman, President/CEO, for weeks. In the end, I thought, well, OK, I guess I’ll just go and see what happens. I arrived at 5 or 5:30. Al Seaman and I talked until 7:30 that evening, and by that time I was fascinated and excited about the possibility of working in advertising. Mr. Seaman had convinced me. He’d gotten me hook, line, and sinker. I had done market research and translations for the international group at Olin Corporation. I was conversant in French (my major) and Spanish, plus I had already worked in Paris and London—albeit part time. Coming out of that...