One of the first e-mails I received that morning included a link to an obituary for Bill Backer. I felt a growing sadness for his passing as I read the story. I felt as if I’d forever lost one of my final, personal links to a golden era of Coca-Cola advertising; however, I’m incredibly grateful for all that Mr. Backer (I never could get myself to call him “Bill”) was gracious enough to teach me over the years.
I first met Backer and Billy Davis, who was the music director for McCann, while I was working on a piece exploring the history of Coke’s iconic 1971 “Hilltop” ad for the Library of Congress, which we were in the process of donating all our advertising to. By the end of my conversation with the two legends, I felt as if I’d earned a Master’s degree in advertising. They not only shared how the finished ads were produced, but also the “why” and the strategy behind them. Along with all this wisdom and experience often came many fascinating and hilarious behind-the-scenes stories. My copy of Backer’s book The Care and Feeding of Ideas is completely worn out.
When Davis died in 2004, the first of my great advertising mentors was gone, but I still kept in touch with Backer. I was fortunate when he agreed to let me conduct an oral history a few years later. I traveled to his farm in The Plains, Virginia, and we did a six-hour interview about his time in the advertising field and his work for both Coca-Cola and other advertisers. As we talked about the “Hilltop” commercial, Mr. Backer moved over to the piano and began to play the song and tell his stories. It was an extraordinarily moving moment that I’ll never forget. I’m so happy that we were able to catch it on film.
One of my favourite Backer stories was when he discussed Deloney Sledge, Coke’s longtime advertising head. Backer relayed the tale of showing Sledge a description of the taste of Coca-Cola that he had written. Backer chuckled and said that Sledge told him that many writers had tried to describe the taste and all had failed and that Bill would fail, too. He then quoted Sledge as saying, “It was best to know that it was the greatest taste ever invented by man… or God.” Then he walked out of the room.
Though I already knew the punchline from Backer’s book, to hear him tell the story in the soft, Southern drawl he never lost was priceless.
The advertising industry lost one of its giants. The Coca-Cola Company lost one of its advertising leaders. And I feel like I’ve lost a friend and mentor.Ted Ryan is director of heritage communications at The Coca-Cola Company.