Harry Yates wrote advertising copy for 60 years, turning in his last job shortly before he died. In a business that values youth, he always kept working.
“He was the oldest living copywriter; most people are washed up after 40,” said Steve Catlin, a friend who worked with Mr. Yates for many years, from his home in Gananoque, Ont.
Mr. Yates worked for big advertising agencies in New York, Toronto and Los Angeles, and in between worked on his own. He was always busy, if not writing ads and brochures – oddly, a rather difficult thing to do well – then turning out books on subjects such as branding.
After starting as a junior copywriter at a smaller New York agency, Mr. Yates moved to Doyle Dane Bernbach, one of Madison Avenue’s revolutionary firms in the mid-20th century. Among other things, founding partner Bill Bernbach was credited with popularizing Volkswagen in North America and Mr. Yates worked on that account and many others.
One of his memorable headlines for Volkswagen was “You’ve called it ugly. Now you can call it shiftless,” to publicize the introduction of the VW Beetle with an automatic transmission. He even appeared in one of his own ads for Avis, carrying a huge fishing net with the headline: “Avis is out to get your clients.”
In the late 1960s, Mr. Yates was sent to Toronto to be the creative director at Doyle Dane Bernbach’s new office. Aside from short periods working in the United States, he stayed in Canada for the rest of his life.
“Harry was the first international Mad Man who brought the whole New York thing to Canada,” said Lou DeLamarter, a transplanted American who knew Mr. Yates in New York and worked for him in Toronto.
Though many people associated him with the television series about the advertising business in the 1960s, Mr. Yates was not a fan.
“That brooding, dishonest jerk Don Draper wouldn’t have lasted two weeks in any agency I worked for,” he told his wife, Monique Éthier-Yates, after watching the show a few times. He said women were not treated as depicted in Mad Men and there was little bigotry in the Madison Avenue ad world he remembered.
“There was an episode [of the show] where they promote a Jewish mail-room worker to land a department store account. Totally unrealistic,” Mr. Yates said. “When I was working in New York in the 1960s, many of the copywriters were Jewish and the art directors Italian.”
Harrison McGilvray Yates was born in Glasgow in 1933. His father worked in the shipyards on the River Clyde as a tool and die maker and was a leader of the local union. Harry left school at 14, as working-class children were expected to do, and after failing at an industrial job – he was never good with his hands – he went to work as a tea boy, pushing a cart from office to office.
When he was 15, his father landed a job in the aerospace business in Northern California, and the family moved to a town south of San Francisco. Moving from the austerity of postwar Scotland, where there was still food rationing, to the open, prosperous life of California was heaven for young Harry. American law said he had to be in school and the tall, handsome boy with the quick wit and the funny accent was a big hit. Coming from a place where car ownership was rare, he was blown away to see the parking lot of his new high school in Redwood City filled with cars, many of them owned by his classmates.
At 18, he was drafted into the U.S. Army during the Korean War, but was stationed in Germany. When he returned to the U.S., he went to New York University with help from the GI Bill. He supplemented his income by working as an instructor at an Arthur Murray Dance Studio.
When his ad career brought him to Canada, Mr. Yates worked at several agencies, including McCann Erickson and Cockfield Brown, as creative director – ad speak for the person who oversees the writing and design of print ads and television commercials. Later in life, he opened Hilliard and Yates with long-time friend and creative partner Tony Hilliard.
Promoting Caribbean vacation resorts became Mr. Yates’s midlife specialty. Around 1974, he started working with Alan Murphy, a Toronto adman, and George Whitfield, an Englishman who had come to Canada to become vice-president of Unitours, a package-tour travel company. Their first client was Cuba.
“No one from North America went to Cuba. To open it up, we needed a brochure that explained it all. Harry wrote it and it was more like a guidebook and we printed it in hardcover, [which was] unheard of for a brochure,” Mr. Whitfield said. “It was a masterpiece.”
Mr. Yates went on to write copy about Varadero Beach, calling it the most beautiful beach in the world. Canadian tourists packed planes to Cuba. Still an American citizen, though living in Canada, Mr. Yates was officially prohibited from travelling to Cuba. He went anyway.
The trio moved on to Jamaica, where the government was trying to open resorts in parts of the island other than Montego Bay. It started building one in Negril, in the western part of the island. Mr. Murphy said Jamaica had a rather negative image at the time and the idea was to promote the new resort without using the name of the island.
“Harry, Murphy and I were lying in the water when I said ‘Isn’t this pure hedonism?’ Murphy said, ‘That’s it,’ and latched on to the word as the name of the resort. Harry ran with it and wrote advertising copy and brochures,” Mr. Whitfield remembers.
Ads that teased: “Be wicked for a week,” had Canadians running to the resort. American tour operators wouldn’t run them. But in its first six months, Hedonism was 98-per-cent full, and almost all the tourists were Canadians. The Americans relaxed their restrictions.
The whole idea was a knock-off of the Club Med resorts, using plastic shark’s teeth instead of Club Med beads as currency. The next iteration, Couples, for which Mr. Yates wrote ads and brochures, included free booze and cigarettes. A poster, designed by Heather Cooper, featured two amorous lions. Again American operators refused to carry it, but Canadian visitors flooded in.
Later, Mr. Yates moved on to another island, St. Lucia, coming up with what Mr. Whitfield said was his best advertising one-liner: “Give us your body for a week and we’ll give you back your mind.” Mr. Yates kept writing for his client in St. Lucia until this year.
Mr. Yates and his wife moved to Knowlton, in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, on Sept. 11, 2001. For a boulevardier from the big city, country life took some getting used to. In 2007 he published a light-hearted book on his move to a small town with the title: The Knowlton Chronicles: How My Wife Made Me Move To The Country Even Though I Hate Nature.
He was a fixture in the village, wearing his straw hat and lunching with friends, some of them retired admen. But life wasn’t totally bucolic. He and his wife kept an apartment in Montreal and Mr. Yates travelled on business to the United States and the Caribbean.
In the last decade, he began writing books on branding, working for and with a client in the United States.
“After he had finished his latest book on branding, Harry planned to return to the book he had been working on for a few years. The title was, in typical Harry fashion: Getting the Most Out of Death,” Ms. Éthier-Yates said. “In the latest version, he ends with these words: If at the very moment of your death you can feel the power of faith in life and love, then you will get the most out of death by going to it with these words: ‘I had a wonderful life. Thank you, thank you, thank you.’”
Harrison Yates was born in Glasgow, Scotland, and died on June 10 in Cowansville, Que. He was 81. He leaves his wife, Ms. Éthier-Yates, daughters Katherine Alice and Gwendolyn Anne; his son, John Harrison Yates of Toronto; his stepson, Philippe Couture of Candiac, Que.; grandchildren Phoebe and Emmett Raymond, Harrison and Madeleine Whittle, Astrid Yates, and Maxime and Simone Couture-Laguerre.
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