Curvin O’Reilly – Saab ad man

I met Curvin O’Reilly at the Swedish Car Day in Boston, back in August. We ended up having some very good conversations about Saab advertising and this was a subject that Curvin knew a fair bit about – he wrote some of Saab’s ads back in the 1980s.

I’ve been wanting to do a profile of Curvin for a while now. Thankfully, he’s sent me a bit of information so that we can all get to know him a little and understand a bit more about the ads that helped to drive Saab’s golden age.

Curvin did a presentation about Saab advertising at the 2010 Saab Owners Convention, in the US. He was joined there by a colleague, Willy Hopkins. It was well received and anyone who meets Curvin comes to know that he still maintains a strong interest in Saab and the way the company is publicised. This is a little of his story.


Attendees at the 2010 Saab Owners Convention would be familiar with the name Curvin O’Rielly, but almost everyone outside that circle wouldn’t be.

So… who is Curvin O’Rielly?

For your readers, Swade, the only piece of information about me that really matters is that, in 1979, I wrote “The most intelligent car ever built” tagline for Saab, along with the first six ads that got Saab headed in the right direction in the US.

Everything that follows is my backstory, so if your readers want to bail out now, that’s okay with me.

When Bob Sinclair arrived as head of Saab North America, his task was difficult. After 23 years in the US market, Saab’s sales in 1979 amounted to only 14,979 cars. The brand had zero momentum and low awareness. Moreover, its competitors (Mercedes, BMW, Volvo and Audi) were deeply entrenched. Perhaps understandably, there were Saab dealers who were ready to toss in the towel.

As anyone who knew Bob knows, he was a man who was guided by some common sense “rules.”

One of those rules, though I never heard him actually express it, was probably something along the lines that when you’re the underdog and know you’re going to be facing bigger dogs in a big scuffle, it’s always a good idea to surround yourself with smart people who aren’t afraid to jump into the fight and duke it out on your behalf.

Bob had witnessed this “rule” in action during his stint as ad manager at Volvo, when he worked with Carl Ally Inc., an advertising agency in New York. Volvo was the agency’s first account, and the work the agency did was fabulous. It’s featured in every book about advertising’s glory years. It was created by Carl, a legendary account man and conceptual thinker, and his two partners, Amil Gargano, a terrific art director, and Jim Durfee, a gifted copywriter, along with other big talents who worked at the agency.

In 1979, as Saab’s new leader in the US, Bob once again turned to Carl. The agency had changed its name to Ally & Gargano Inc., but its hard-nosed, message-first, grenade-throwing principles hadn’t been altered in the slightest. It was my good fortune to be assigned to work on the Saab account. It was a copywriter’s dream, all the more so since it put me alongside the likes of Bob, Carl, Amil and Peter Berla, Saab’s ad manager.

I left Ally & Gargano in late 1980 to start my own agency.

Others at Ally & Gargano, however, including Willy Hopkins, then an account management exec at the agency and my co-presenter at the 2010 SOC, took my Saab tagline and ran with it. Boy, did they ever run with it! During the nine years that the agency worked with Saab, sales tripled to 44,364 cars.

(According to the Saab case history in Amil Gargano’s new book, “Ally & Gargano: The life and death of the agency that created perhaps the most successful advertising of the last half of the 20th century,” a book recently published by Graphis, “… it took 16 years for Saab to finally surpass our record with 255 more cars sold in the first quarter of 2003.” FYI: Other case histories in Amil’s 584-page book include Volvo, IBM, Hertz, Fiat, Pan Am and FedEx. If you care about great advertising, it’s worth the $220 US it costs to acquire a copy. Fair warning. The book is heavy in content. Heavy in weight, too. About 13 pounds.)

Before working on the Saab account, I was the first copywriter hired by a small, highly creative agency named Ammirati Puris AvRutick immediately after it won the BMW account. Marty Puris, a great copywriter, wrote “The ultimate driving machine.” Working with Marty and two art directors, Marty’s partner, Ralph Ammirati, and a talented man by the name of Clem McCarthy, I helped make BMW’s tagline stick.

Years after working on the Saab account, I worked at an agency named Hal Riney & Partners in San Francisco where I was creative director on the launch of Saturn. Again, I didn’t write Saturn’s “A different kind of company, a different kind of car” tagline. I arrived at the agency when its efforts to create a successful launch campaign had stalled. As creative director, I unraveled the bifurcated meaning buried within the tagline (“different company/different car”), ultimately giving Saturn’s launch the human-touch organizing principle that made the company’s initial advertising so meaningful to so many people.

During my agency career – before and after working on the Saab account – I did successful work for small and large clients in numerous categories, including, to list only a few, two airlines (Eastern and Continental), two sweeteners (NutraSweet and Splenda), three soft drinks (Dr Pepper, Pepsi and Coke) and one mass retailer (Sears). Significantly, inasmuch as a brand accrues greater value the longer it sticks with a relevant and singularly recognizable core idea, two campaigns I started (one for Jell-O, the other for Hershey’s Kisses) each ran for over 30 years in the US. (“Most intelligent cars” ran for about 12 years at two different ad agencies.)

For the past two decades, I’ve been a “brand navigation/brand conversations” consultant. “Navigation” is strategic thinking; “conversations” is how a message is presented. I’ve worked with small and large clients in a wide range of categories. Once, as a one-man band, I went up against two large multinational agencies in a head-to-head creative shootout, which I won. Most of the time, I’ve been hired as a problem-solver in advertising, marketing and branding situations where a client has his/her back to the wall and where others just haven’t found an appropriate answer.

As a copywriter, I have a simple philosophy: “Every word weighed before use.”

As a copywriter, creative director and brand strategist, my philosophy is equally simple: “Be on-target strategically but off-center creatively.”

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