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Robert Trigaux

St. Pete's own: Ad legend, 'Where's the beef?' creator Cliff Freeman closes up shop



CliffFreemancourtesyshoney'smedia Wake up and good morning. Cliff Freeman & Partners, the once hot-in-the-spotlight New York advertising agency founded in 1987 by St. Petersburg's Cliff Freeman, is no more. It is closing after losing most of its remaining clients.

Freeman, credited with such classic one-liners as "Where’s the beef?" for Wendy’s and "Pizza! Pizza!" for Little Caesar's, wrote his first idea for an ad when he was an 18-year-old senior at Northeast High School in St. Petersburg. He later went on to St. Petersburg Junior College and graduated from Florida State Universitywith a degree in advertising. At its peak, Cliff Freeman & Partners was considered one of the more successful New York advertising agencies of the 1980s and 1990s.

New York Times advertising columnist Stuart Elliott recently reported that calls to telephone numbers listed for the agency were answered by recordings that say the numbers are no longer in service or disconnected. And and reported scenes of empty offices and boxes being packed. A Fast Company piece on Freeman early this year indicated trouble was coming.

Clifffreeman2009 Freeman was reported to be down to a handful of clients, including Baskin-Robbins, the Michelin Guide and Saudi Arabian Airlines. The agency had lost several large accounts, among them Bonefish Grill-- started in his hometown of St. Petersburg and now owned by  Outback Steakhouse parent OSI Restaurant Partners -- and Quiznos.

Here's NYT Elliott's take on the passing of an advertising era:

"The end of Freeman is another example of the toll being taken by the recession on the advertising industry. In past hard times, agencies that lost clients and senior managers could pull over to the side of the road, re-engineer themselves and get back in the race. But the severity of this downturn has made such overhauls terribly hard to pull off."

ClarapellerclifffreemanwheresthebeefThe Freemans moved to St. Petersburg when Cliff was 6. His parents opened up the Flag Ship motel and Sea Rocket motel on Redington Beach. Freeman spent his summers on the beach and his high school years at Northeast High, where he admits he was more interested in chasing skirts than pursuing studies.

After graduating from Florida State University with a degree in advertising, Freeman still wasn't sure he wanted to go into that field. In 1968, the ad agency McCann-Erickson in Atlanta offered him $10,500 a year to work on a Coca-Cola account where he coined the Coke slogan "The Crowd Pleaser." That won him notice from New York and the rest is, more or less, advertising history.

Here's Advertising Age's last recent glimpse of Freeman:

"Few doubt that Mr. Freeman, 67, himself will resurface. The question is where -- and that's one he's not answering. Asked Friday (Oct. 30) in the elevator on the way into what was left of his office, Mr. Freeman had no comment as he walked back to the cardboard boxes that contained the remnants of his agency."

Freeman's biggest claim to fame? His 1980's one-liner -- "Where's the beef?" -- delivered by actress Clara Peller in a Wendy's ad (shown above). Those three words catapulted into an all-purpose phrase questioning the substance of an idea, event, or product. The phrase was even used to great effect in the 1984 U.S. presidential election when the Wendy's commercial-- at its height of popularity -- was used by Democratic candidate and former Vice President Walter Mondale to ridicule the candidacy of his rival, Senator Gary Hart.

Hart had taken the lead over Mondale based on his repeated use of the phrase "new ideas." When Hart once again used the slogan in the debate, Mondale leaned forward and said, "When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad, 'Where's the beef?'"

Might be a great time to revive that one-liner.

-- Robert Trigaux, Times Business Columnist

[Last modified: Tuesday, June 1, 2010 11:26am]


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