Ralph Emerson McGill Jr. didn’t pen the famous Blackgama campaign at left, but it’s the kind of smart word play he loved. He could write a line like that in about five seconds, although he wouldn’t get around to doing it until several hours or days past his deadline and only after continued hounding by account executives and traffic people. When Ralph died on June 1, he left the Atlanta advertising community bereft of one of its most legendary figures.
Ralph was a legend for many reasons, but what I admired most was his ability to thrive professionally without working very hard. His old friend Dianna Edwards was quoted in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution saying, “There are people who work hard at their talent and there are people who are born gifted. Ralph was one of (the latter).”
Ralph was a fantastic role model for not making things more difficult than they needed to be. When I worked for him back in the early ’90s, his office would usually be filled with a handful of people sprawled on the couch and armchairs while he held court from his round table. There would be a lot of laughing and telling of stories. By the end of the day, the concepts would be ready, the headlines good to go, the copy complete. But it never seemed much of a struggle.
If you wanted someone to sweat over his work, it wasn’t Ralph. I remember him telling me once about a hotel client who wanted the agency to consider alternative copy for their paper toilet strip that ordinarily read “Sanitized for your protection.” The AE came to brief Ralph on the job and asked, “Can you come up with something better?” Ralph thought about it for a couple of minutes, said, “Nope,” and crossed that job off his list.
Ralph was famous for his habit of disappearing. If he said, “I’m gonna go get a Coke,” you could assume he wouldn’t be back for hours. Years ago, the story goes, he actually worked full-time for two agencies at once. He was offered a job at McDonald & Little and started work there before he got around to quitting his job at Burton-Campbell. (Some versions of the story have him employed at Cole Henderson Drake and accepting a job at Burton-Campbell.) Either way, both agencies were conveniently located in the same building, so he’d go into one agency in the morning, hang his jacket on the back of his chair, and then run for the elevator to make an appearance at the other agency. He’d do a little work, leave a half-empty coffee cup on his desk and head back up to the first agency to take care of business there. Knowing Ralph’s ability to whip out a headline at a moment’s notice, it’s not hard to believe that this ruse succeeded for several weeks.
When I worked for him, he’d sneak home for naps. He’d return a few hours later, rested and refreshed, while the rest of us were still toiling away through the afternoon slump. He’d stroll down the hallway of the creative department, hollering about how it was so quiet, it was “about as much fun as a Christian Science Reading Room in here.” One afternoon I noticed that he came back to work wearing a loafer on one foot and a Bass Weejun on the other. Apparently he’d just stepped out of bed into the first two shoes available and hadn’t realized they were from different pairs.
In the beginning, I had Ralph confused with his Pulitzer-Prize-winning father. I tiptoed into his office my first or second day working at Austin Kelley to ask his opinion on some finer point of grammar or phrasing. He looked up from his Playboy, scratched his head and said, “Elizabeth, it don’t matter none.” When people used to ask him if Atlanta’s Ralph McGill Boulevard was named for him, he’d say, “Nope, my father is the boulevard. I’m the alley out back.”
When you brush up against a legend, you can’t help but take away a few lessons. This is what I learned from Ralph:
• A good idea comes in a nanosecond
• Getting it done is sometimes more important than getting it perfect
• Sometimes it doesn’t need doing at all
• Working can look a lot like sitting around talking
• Being good at what you do doesn’t have to be hard