William Montague (“Bill”) Backer, of The Plains, passed away on March 13 after a brief illness. Born on June 9, 1926, he was a few weeks shy of 90 at the time of his demise. He is survived by his wife of 33 years, Ann (née Mudge) Backer.
Sharp and intuitive, Mr. Backer had a MIdas touch when it came to writing snappy jingles and catch phrases. An accomplished pianist, he became known for his ad copy being set to music, which popular singers and groups would then record. No doubt, his perceptive observations of humans being themselves contributed greatly to his success in the advertising world.
Even if you don’t recognize Mr. Backer by name, it’s a sure bet that you know what’s considered to be his most famous commercial, a catchy tune immortalized by an international group of young singers: “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony… I’d like to buy the world a coke and keep it company. It’s the real thing. What the world wants today.”
Born in New York City, he grew up in Charleston, S.C., and graduated from Episcopal High School In Alexandria, VA. After serving two years in the Navy, he completed his Bachelor’s degree at Yale University in 1950. Three years later, he started in the mailroom at McCann Erickson, in New York City, where he ascended the corporate ladder to the creative directorship and, six years later in 1978, was named the agency’s vice chairman.
It was during those years that Mr. Backer became a legend among ad men, coining the phrase, “Things go better with Coke” and teaching the world to sing, as well as employing his magic on Miller, Lowenrau, Beechnut and Campbell’s Soup, to name a few.
Success was all well and good, but it wasn’t everything. He was inducted into the American Advertising Federation’s Hall of Fame in 1995 and “Ad Age” magazine honored Mr. Backer in 1999 as one of the top 100 players in advertising history. Yet, according to his Hall of Fame bio, Mr. Backer “became disenchanted with being the vice-chairman and creative director of a big agency. He felt his duties were taking him too far away from what he entered the business to do… i.e., create, help shape, and promote advertising.”
Mr. Backer exited McCann Erickson and, after crossing paths with another “escapee” from the same agency, they created Backer and Spielvogel in June 1979. Within two years, they rocketed from nowhere to 29th biggest of the nation’s ad agencies, thanks to billings of more than $200-million. Seven years later, their billings had more than doubled when Saatchi and Saatchi bought the agency.
Mr. Backer did more than come up with catchy jingles and slogans. While easing into retirement, he wrote “The Care and Feeding of Ideas,” which was published in 1994. In it, he takes readers behind the scenes and uses his real-life success stories and now-legendary advertising campaigns to expound on his theories of how to cultivate and pitch an idea. Among the “Backer’s Laws” is this gem: The best ideas are the most dangerous to your career. Unfortunately, the opus is out of print, but secondhand copies are available and worth the price as they’re now collector’s items, but also cost, because the information comes from the horse’s mouth of a very successful idea man.
In contrast to the highly competitive world of advertising, Mr. Backer enjoyed spending time with his wife Ann at their farm in Virginia. He raised cattle, hay and bred Thoroughbreds. An avid supporter of Orange County Hounds, his involvement with fox hunting dates back more than 45 years. He enjoyed many seasons riding to hounds and continued riding for pleasure into his late 70s.
Mr. Backer was actively involved in racing and steeplechasing, and his homebreds ran on the flat and over fences. To name a few: Applause (by Shecky Greene out of Swan Song, by Ribot), won seven stakes in the early 1980s. Blind Date, a great-great-granddaughter of Native Dancer, earned her keep as the winner of six stakes races, including the 2009 (Gr.3) Virginia Oaks and the 2010 Maryland Million Distaff Handicap. In April and May, Sweet Victory and Rose Brier, both bred by Mr. Backer, won stakes at a mile or longer for other owners.
Mr. Backer gave generously of his time and support to his many interests. In 2004, Mr. Backer was elected as a member of the Jockey Club. He served on the board of directors for the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation. Mr. Backer was an avid conservationist, who championed saving open space and led by example by placing land under conservation easement.
According to the obituary posted by the Moser Funeral Home in Warrenton, Mr. Backer advised Piedmont Environmental Council to “attack the location, but not the beloved Disney brand” in the early 1990s. The opposition to the theme park prevailed. Since 2004 and until the time of his demise, Mr. Backer served as president of the board of the Piedmont Foundation, the non-profit established to manage funds in support of the PEC.
Mr. Backer’s friends and acquaintances describe him as being very smart, extremely kind, strong-minded, and sharp. He maintained a low profile in the community and did good things for the people and the land without broadcasting his deeds. Bill Backer was a great guy.
A memorial service and celebration of Mr. Backer’s life is planned in the near future. Date and Location TBA. In lieu of flowers, donations in his memory can be made to the Piedmont Environmental Council in Warrenton.