FRANCIS WAYLAND AYER'S ancestors hailed from Norwich, England. His great-grandfather arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637 where he founded Newbury and Haverhill, Massachusetts.
Ayer was born on February 4, 1848, in Lee, Massachusetts, to Nathan Wheeler and Joanna B. Ayer. He was named after Dr. Francis Wayland, the president of Brown University, where his father had attended school.
When he was three-years-old, Ayer's mother died. His father remarried three years later to Harriet Post. Ayer's father practiced law, but later quit to teach school. In 1867, he opened a private school for girls in Philadelphia.
Ayer grew up in New York. When he was 14, he was offered a schoolmaster position at a county school near Dundee, New York. He was paid $200 a month and was provided room and board by the families of his students. Normally, the job would have been offered to someone older. However, the Civil War was in its second year, and the older men were fighting in the war. Because of his youth, Ayer found himself teaching children who were his own age and even older. A year later, Ayer began teaching at the Dundee village school. While he was there, enrollment grew from 11 to 70.
With the money he earned from his teaching jobs, Ayer enrolled in the University of Rochester in the Fall of 1867. Unfortunately, Ayer had to quit after one year when his savings were depleted. He returned to Philadelphia in June 1868 and began teaching part time. After only a few weeks of teaching, he accepted a job in advertising sales at the National Baptist.
Ayer entered the world of advertising in 1868 after giving up an offer of $700 a year to teach. He went to work for Dr. Boyd, a friend of his father's, who was the director of a weekly religious newspaper called the National Baptist. He offered Ayer a 25% commission to sell advertising space for the publication.
Because he did not make any sales, Ayer's first week as an ad man was grim. However, the following week, Ayer finally made his first $50 off a sale of $200, and his success was only the beginning. By the end of the year, Ayer had earned $1,200, and Boyd made him an offer of an annual salary of $2,000.
Again, the ambitious, young Ayer refused the offer of a steady job to take the chance with opening his own advertising agency. On April 1, 1869, with only $250 in capital, N.W. Ayer & Son was born. The agency was so named for a couple of reasons. First of all, Ayer gave his father a 50% share of the business as a tribute. Secondly, being only 21, Ayer felt his age would hinder his credibility. Therefore, the name gave the impression that the agency was bigger and more established than it really was. Because of Ayer's focus on honest business and hard work, the agency prospered quickly.
N.W. Ayer & Son opened for business on 530 Arch Street in Philadelphia. A third-story room adjacent to the offices of the National Baptist was rented to house the agency. The business comprised of selling advertising space in the numerous religious publications popular during the period. In its first year, N.W. Ayer & Son made $15,000.
In 1870, the business moved to larger headquarters on 719 Samson Street. The growing agency also led to the hiring of the first employee, George O. Wallace as the agency's first bookkeeper.
By 1873, the agency was making $79,000 annually. The same year Ayer's father died. The death of his father troubled Ayer and threatened the future of the business. Ayer feared that his stepmother would sell his father's share of the business to outsiders who would not have the agency's best interest at heart and who would not be willing to run the agency in the same ethical and moral manner in which Ayer believed. Luckily, Ayer's stepmother sold him his father's shares, and the agency was able to continue as he had planned.
Starting in 1874, Ayer became involved in issuing his own publications. The first was the Ayer & Son's Manual for Advertisers. The annual publication listed papers from which the agency sought its business, the papers' rates, and their circulation.
The agency established a printing department the following year. However, printing purposes were limited only to typesetting. Other creative services were not offered because of Ayer's belief that the client knew its product best.
Also in 1875, N.W. Ayer & Son introduced the open contract, a practice which would alter the history of advertising forever. The open contract guaranteed clients the lowest possible rates the agency could negotiate with publications. Commission was later added and ranged from 8.5% to 15%. By 1909, the open contract became known as "O.C. + 15" by the agency, and the 15% commission later became an industry standard.
In 1876, N.W. Ayer put out The Advertiser's Guide which comprised of business articles, essays on advertising, humorous anecdotes, and other information. The quarterly magazine was available at no cost to the agency's clients. Others could subscribe to the magazine for 50¢.
In October 1877, N.W. Ayer & Son made another historical step. The agency took over Coe, Wetherhill, & Co., formerly Joy, Coe, & Co., which had bought Volney B. Palmer's business. The significance of this acquisition was that it linked N.W. Ayer & Son with what is to believed the first advertising agency. This merger added another item to the list of "firsts" associated with N.W. Ayer & Son.
In 1884, N.W. Ayer & Son finally began to offer its clients advertising production services. The first ad written by the agency was for Police Plug Tobacco. However, the first full-time copywriter was not hired for another nine years, and the first artist was not hired until 1892. The agency began creating ads for several large clients such as RJ Reynolds, Ford, De Beers, Canada Dry, H.J. Heinz, Cadillac, Western Union, American Telephone and Telegraph, and Steinway.
By the early 1900s, Ayer was able to devote more time to activities outside of the agency.
In addition to owning his own agency, Ayer was director of Merchants National Bank of Philadelphia and became president of the bank in 1895. He became chairman of the board when the bank merged with the First National Bank of Philadelphia. He had already served, from 1887 thorough 1891, as vice-president of the New Jersey Trust and Safe Deposit Company, with its building at 301 Market Street.
Ayer and business partner Henry Nelson McKinney joined together outside the agency to raise thoroughbred Jersey cattle. What began as a hobby turned into a million dollar business with the herds being the second largest in the nation.
Although Ayer cam from a Puritan background he was an active Baptist and was extremely religious. When he returned to Philadelphia after dropping out of the University of Rochester, he became a member of the North Baptist Church in Camden NJ, where his parents resided. F. Wayland Ayer made his home at 406 Penn Street in Camden NJ as early as 1887 through his death in 1923. This building is one of the few remaining in the neighborhood from that era, and has been used for many years for offices by Rutgers University.
Upon joining North Baptist Church until his death, Ayer was the church's Sunday school superintendent. In addition to his local position, Ayer served as president of the New Jersey State Baptist Convention and Northern Baptist Convention.
Along with running an agency, serving on various boards, and holding several important community positions, including that of president of Camden's YMCA, Ayer was both a husband and a father. He married Rhandena Gilman on May 5, 1875. Together, they had two daughters, Alice and Anna. Rhandena died in 1914. Five years after her death, Ayer married Martha K. Lawson on April 21, 1919.
In 1919, N.W. Ayer & Son celebrated its 50th anniversary. Ex-president Taft was in attendance and paid a glowing compliment to Ayer: "We are honoring a man who has made advertising a science, and who has robbed it of many evil tendencies, and who has the right to be proud of the record he has made".
F. Wayland Ayer brought respect and broader influence to the advertising business. His business was the world's first full-service ad agency, with offices in major cities, a new-business department, and full-time copywriters and artists, all before 1910. He rejected, on both religious and business grounds, alcoholic beverage and patent medicine accounts in order to bring public understanding of advertising. His planning department centralized print media research for clients, and prepared America's first institutional ad campaigns.
Wilfred W. Fry, who married Ayer's oldest daughter, Anna, in 1904 became employed at N.W. Ayer & Son five years later. In 1911, he became a junior partner. He later became the agency's manager in 1916 and took complete control over the agency when F. Wayland Ayer died on March 5, 1923 in Philadelphia.
F. Wayland Ayer was elected to the Advertising Hall of Fame in 1950, its second year of existence. His mansion at 406 Penn Street has been utilized as part of Rutgers University's Camden campus for many years, and is one of the few buildings of the era left standing as Rutgers has expanded in the neighborhood between Pearl and Cooper Streets.
East, the 400 Block of Penn Street, circa 1905
F. Wayland Ayer's home at 406 Penn Street is at right
- William "Billy" Thompson
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Inquirer - November 23, 1899
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Wayland Ayer - H.B.
Hanford - Benjamin C.
T.I. Gifford - Schuyler C. Woodhull - James E. Taylor
Edward H. Seymour - Elmer E. Morton - G. Walter Preston
March 23, 1918
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