Cliff Freeman, one of the first creative directors at RCA Corp., a lifetime who helped turn the CAA talent agency into one of the most important and successful agencies in the world, died Thursday night at his home in Los Angeles after a five-year battle with bladder cancer. He was 80.
Freeman’s work for the CAA included creating groundbreaking advertising for Paramount Pictures, Ford Motor Co., McDonald’s, Marriott Hotels, and Blue Cross and Blue Shield, among other well-known brands. But he’ll always be remembered for “Where’s the Beef?,” which he wrote and executed for Burger King.
In a letter to the Publicis ad agency staff and industry leaders, Freeman’s son Tim wrote, “I want to make a statement to the industry right now, on behalf of my dad: while he is perhaps best known for Burger King’s iconic ‘Where’s the Beef?’ marketing campaign, he would have been equally proud of his many other accomplishments. He was a great client-side creative director who supported artists on both sides of the camera. He was a talented designer, a fine copywriter and a talented photographer.”
As Frank Doroff, a former executive vice president and chief creative officer at BBDO, wrote on Twitter, “Cliff Freeman was arguably the most important and talented creative force on the CAA team, and one of the most creative in advertising. His work served the most creative directors worldwide over the past 30 years in our business, and they’ll never forget him.”
The first major exposure of “Where’s the Beef?” was in The New York Times on Sept. 16, 1984. The newspaper wrote that it was “one of the most successful ads of recent years, with $450 million in sales in the first year after its debut.” Two decades later, he got to continue generating buzz by being inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame.
Adweek described “Where’s the Beef?” in a review of the 1976 Super Bowl “Voices of the Season” commercial. In a fictional interview, the Burger King spokesman proclaims, “In America, we don’t talk down to our customers. They expect more from us, and we deliver. We really are the Burger King of America. Our food is fresh, and our crews are … erm, energetic. Where’s the beef?”
Responding to the ad, Kenneth Baehr, a veterinarian who had created the mail-order business “Underdogs” in the 1950s, was aghast. “If you go to your mailbox and pick up that catalog, you should be jolted out of your reverie and said to hang on a minute or two while you chew,” he said at the time. “Come on! Of all those inventors of things that we now take for granted, you’re talking about a bone, a sausage, a burger, a sandwich, a telephone call?” He sent out angry letters to Burger King, United Parcel Service, Armour Meats and McDonald’s. “The bone-eating is totally insensitive and insulting,” he said.
But it was what the British Daily Mirror said about it in a four-page spread titled “Fight Club” that really got Freeman going. “Why are we making all these shrill, hysterical complaints?” said Freeman at the time. “I’m just going to guess that all the wet noses down here aren’t getting the message.”
He moved on from Burger King after a year and went to work at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, an agency he had admired since being schooled on the beat at his hometown agency, RCA, where he was creative director. He also helped build Chicago’s Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners. In 2001, Freeman helped found WHiN Communications with many of his colleagues from those two agencies.
At WHiN, his clients included the likes of Barnes & Noble, Subway, American Family Insurance, online parenting and education company Back to School, Federated Department Stores and People. WHiN closed in 2007.
He worked sporadically until he felt well enough to continue.
In a statement, American Family Insurance said, “Cliff’s unique vision and prodigious talent fueled countless innovative marketing initiatives for our organization, and he was a brilliant creative, a gentle man and a charming jokester. We will sorely miss his humor and his sage advice.”