Ad agency observes 40th year


Advertising is a famously fickle business. When the economy soars, advertising agencies are often first to lap up the discretionary income of companies willing to spend freely to get their message out. When the economy sours, as it did after the dot-com bust of 2000, the ad-buying climate often turns sour.

So one day, when legendary Old Town ad man Rob Whittle dropped by Suburban Dry Cleaners on S. Washington Street with a bag of laundry during a dry spell in advertising spending, he spied Williams Whittle co-founder Andy Williams motoring up to the drive-thru window. Whittle leaped to the window and played a dry cleaning clerk. “Do you want extra starch with that, sir?” Whittle asked. “Are things so bad you’re moonlighting on me?” Williams asked. Both had a good chuckle.

This week, Williams Whittle celebrates its 40th year of survival in the rough-and-tumble advertising business. That’s almost four decades headquartered in Old Town and 250 miles from the nation’s advertising capital, Madison Avenue. Since its founding in 1967, Williams Whittle has become a regional powerhouse, this year ranking seventh among all advertising agencies in the Washington area, with $43 million in billings.

“It takes an awful lot of strength and integrity to get to that level,” said Howard Bomstein, owner of D.C.’s top Bomstein Agency. “Rob’s a man of integrity, and integrity has carried him for four decades. Hundreds of other agencies have come and gone, but,Rob, I bet if he could live another 40 years he could probably do it again.”

Williams Whittle was launched by Hamilton Morrison in cramped offices at Georgetown’s Car Barn in October 1967. Andy Williams joined in 1968, and William Demaine, founder of Old Town’s Demaine’s Funeral Home, joined in 1971. Two years later, Whittle had graduated from UVA and joined the fledgling firm as a copywriter, by then headquartered on N. St. Asaphs Street. 

In 1984, the firm moved to 717 Princess Street, once owned by the third rector of Christ Church, Rev. David Griffith, known as George Washington’s minister. By happenstance, Whittle later learned that Griffith was also Whittle’s sixth grandfather. 

“Back then people thought we were nuts locating an advertising agency here,” Whittle recalled last week. “We were known as a few pioneers in Old Town.”

But the location on a quiet side street in Old Town helped attract both media buyers and creative talent, helping to fuel the firm’s growth. “Clients like coming here because it’s a little more relaxed,” he said. “It’s not the concrete jungle of Tysons Corner or K Street. The Madison Avenue types tell us they love the ambience.” 

Morrison and Demaine have long since retired, and Williams is due to retire in December, leaving the firm solely in Whittle’s hands. “We were like an old married couple for 30 years,” Whittle said. “He gave me the only job I’ve ever had when I was 22 and made me president when I was 27 when I didn’t know what I was doing. We’ve both been passionate about it and ridden the ups and downs.”

Williams agrees. “What we’ve done is survived,” he said. “We literally shelled out millions of dollars when businesses went under during the downturns.”

NASA has invited Alexandria’s Browne Academy to send a delegation to the launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery from Florida’s Cape Canaveral on October 23.  “We are thrilled and are sending the entire eighth grade and four teachers,” said Head of School Margot Durkin. The payload on Discovery will be the Space Station node Harmony which was named by Brownes students last year.

A single rare bottle of George Washington’s Distillery Straight Rye Whiskey signed by former president George H.W. Bush, fetched $35,000 for Historic Mount Vernon’s educational programs at a gala auction on the mansion grounds recently sponsored by the Distilled Spirits Council. The winning bidder was John R. Frank, Vice Chairman of Sidney Frank Importing Co., Inc. of New Rochelle, NY, whose company imports JAGERMEISTER and Tommy Bahama Rum, and developed the luxury vodka Grey Goose.

The Council’s annual heritage dinner on the lawn at Mount Vernon raised $300,000 to support Mount Vernon’s education programs and was attended by 700 Washington notables, including Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and 30 members of Congress.

Old Town jeweler David Martin, owner of Goldworks on King Street, presented Mayor Bill Euille at a September City Council meeting with a gold  medallion called  the “Golden Fleece.” Martin crafted the medallion after he received a request from Euille to have  something  to  pass  down to future Alexandria mayors, and to wear to events of the office. “It was a challenge  to come up with a design but as I  did  research I found that the Alexandria seal was by far the most  beautiful,” Martin said. The solid gold medallion, about the size of a silver dollar, was paid for by Euille.