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May 16, 2016

Ad genius, conservationist Bill Backer dies at 89

Contributed Photo
Mr. Backer helped raise more than $15 million for the Piedmont Environmental Council.
Famed advertising executive and land conservationist William M. “Bill” Backer, 89, of The Plains, died Friday, May 13, 2016, at Fauquier Hospital in Warrenton.

An Advertising Hall of Fame member, Mr. Baker created the iconic “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” campaign for Coca Cola in 1971 and for more than five decades played a major role in Fauquier County land conservation.

> 2 videos at bottom of story

He was born June 9, 1926, and raised in Charleston, S.C.

Mr. Backer graduated from Episcopal High School in Alexandria and served two years in the U.S. Navy. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Yale University in 1950.

“After three years of writing jingles and selling real estate, he joined McCann Erickson as a trainee in the mailroom,” reads his Advertising Hall of Fame entry. “It was there and at Young and Rubicam that the Backer brand of advertising began. As he later explained in a book he wrote, ‘The Care and Feeding of Ideas,’ he looked for basic needs or wants in peoples’ lives that were bigger than the product, but which the product could help satisfy and in doing so, grow in importance.

“The early efforts included, ‘Little girls have pretty curls, but I like Oreo,’ and ‘I’m not talking while the flavor lasts,’ (Beech Nut Gum). But it was when Backer pointed out to the world that ‘Things go Better with Coke’ and put that promise to contemporary music, that his career took off.

“Backer then began to compose a series of original 60-second songs about situations that went better with Coca Cola. He called them ‘song form’ commercials, had them performed by the leading pop singers of the day, and used the tracks in both radio and television. One of them became, arguably, the most famous commercial of all time. In it, the first ever united-chorus-of-the-world sang, Coke in hand, ‘I’d Like to Build the World a Home ... I’d Like to buy the World a Coke, etc.’ Backer then went on to name American’s beer drinking time ‘Millertime.’ He reserved special occasions for Lowenbrau with ‘Here’s To Good Friends, Tonight is kind of special.’ And he had Campbell’s Soup join the good food category with Soup Is Good Food.’ All of which he put to music and lyrics for both TV and Radio.”

In 1979, Mr. Backer and Carl Spielvogel formed a new ad agency in New York.

“Backer and Spielvogel became the fastest growing agency in ad history,” New York Magazine reported. “In two years, a name that hadn’t even figured in the agency rankings before, was listed as the 29th largest among U.S. agencies worldwide and billed more than $200 million.” Its billings grew $500 million when the agency sold itself to Satchi and Satchi seven years later.

Mr. Backer often commuted by train or plane from The Plains to Manhattan.

A member of the Jockey Club, he rode with the Orange County Hunt and owned racehorses and cattle. In the 1960s, Mr. Backer joined local land conservation efforts and the Upper Fauquier Association. He helped that organization join the effort to prevent development of the North Wales estate west of Warrenton.

He became a pillar of the Piedmont Environmental Council and served as president of the Piedmont Foundation, which provides financial support for the Warrenton-based organization. Mr. Backer helped raise an estimated $15 million for the foundation, according to PEC President Chris Miller.

“Bill was one of the most intelligent, articulate and honest people I’ve worked with over the last 25 years,” Mr. Miller said.

Mr. Backer played a critical role in organizing opposition to the Disney’s America history theme park that the entertainment giant proposed near Haymarket in the early 1990s. He encouraged PEC to attack the location but not the beloved Disney brand, Mr. Miller said.

“ ‘You can’t be against an icon like Mickey Mouse’,” Mr. Miller recalled Mr. Backer advising. “The point was, there’s a better place.”

Disney abandoned its plan for Haymarket in 1994.

As late as last week, Mr. Backer talked with PEC leaders about creating a nationwide campaign to save open space, which he considered critical to the planet’s future.

“At age 90, he was still thinking about the big picture,” said Mr. Miller, who credited Mr. Backer with a great sense of humor.

The PEC, the Shenandoah National Park Trust and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute planned to honor Mr. Backer “for his lifelong commitment to environmental stewardship and conservation” on June 11, two days after what would have been his 90th birthday.

In 2003, Mr. Backer purchased the 450-acre Salem Farm, slated for residential development around the northeast side of Marshall, and placed the land under conservation easement.

Journalists last May came to The Plains to interview Mr. Backer after the final episode of “Mad Men,” which closed with his famous “hilltop” ad for Coke.

In recent years, Mr. Backer and his wife split time between Smitten Farm near The Plains and a home in Nakomis, Fla.

Survivors include his wife of 30 years, Ann Backer.

A memorial service will take place this summer.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Piedmont Environmental Council, P.O. Box 460, Warrenton, Va. 20188.

Click here to read the Ad Age story about Mr. Backer’s death.

Interview with Mr. Baker about the famous Coke ad:

The famous 1971 commercial:

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