WHO BUT! (The Birth of an Iconic New England Brand)

 A Dream Or A TV Commercial?

 fenwayI dreamt last night I was at Fenway Park. The Red Sox were on one of their customary losing streaks but, with the bases loaded in the bottom half of the ninth inning, they were poised to rally back from a one-run deficit against the Yankees. There were two outs on the scoreboard, so the next batter would either be the game’s hero or its final out. Then, as if the dream were one of my cornball W.B. Mason TV commercials, the man of the moment stepped up to the plate and it was none other than W.B. Mason.

Yes, here was the personification of the W.B. Mason Company—‘W.B. Himself’ as I used to call him on the nameplate beneath his official portrait—the man I had fashioned from my imagination into dozens of heroic roles in print and TV advertisements: W.B. Mason as Prizefighter, as Hercules, Atlas, Genie of the Lamp, Broadway Star, G.I. Joe, Doo Wop Singer, Low Price Assurance Detective. And now, walking to the plate with a murderous gleam in his eye, W.B. Mason, Red Sox Slugger.

mason logoStanding at home plate, W.B. tugged at his famous mustache, surveying the scene on the field before him. Red Sox runners were waiting anxiously at every base. The Yankee infield was playing him close to prevent a bunt. And there, most conspicuously splashed across Fenway Park’s left field wall, a sign proclaimed, as if in silent encouragement, “Who But W.B. Mason!”

 Since 1898 Or 1986?

“Since 1898,” the sign declared, and that much was historically true. The W.B. Mason Company has been in existence since 1898, starting out as a print shop. But the company whose distinctive “Who But!” brand is blazoned across the Green Monster in Fenway Park has only truly existed in its present persona since 1986. I know because I am godfather to their now ubiquitous brand, the man whose fertile imagination originally spawned “Who But W.B.Mason!” If we can leave my dream baseball game briefly, even at such a melodramatic moment, I’d like to share with you the true story of the birth of W.B. Mason’s iconic brand.

A Brand Born Out Of Torture And Pain

It’s axiomatic in this ever-changing world that chaos and destruction usually precede rebirth and creative inspiration. So it was with the creation of my most famous, recognizable and singular brand identity.

Surely, these days, “Who But W.B. Mason!” is highly familiar and understandable to most people in W.B Mason’s sales territory—today when its’ wavy-type logo can be found on outfield walls in baseball parks throughout the northeast, and on trucks that crisscross city streets from San Francisco to Miami Beach, but there was a time when we would get stares and looks of disbelief as our ads first appeared in newspapers around Boston’s South Shore.Mason truck

“What the hell is that all about?” sums up the gist of most of the remarks I would hear in response to the half-page newspaper ads we created for the introductory phase of our branding campaign.

The ads, curiously resembling circus posters, were half page illustrations depicting W.B. Mason in heroic metaphorical guise. W.B. Mason as a prizefighter boxing a Boston furniture dealer; as a balloonist flying a hot air balloon across Brockton skies, as a Mason truck driver flouting speed limits to deliver a much-needed conference table. All with headlines grandly declaring, “Who But W.B. Mason Would Battle Heavyweights To Furnish Your Office!” or “Who But W.B. Mason Would Leap A City Block To Furnish Your Office!” or “Who But W.B. Mason Would Break The Law…” Well, you get the idea.

Mason prizefighter

And that’s our brand in a nutshell: W.B. Mason as hero, as daredevil adventurer and, yes, as earnest and upright businessman. W.B. Mason, the quintessential purveyor of old-time American values. A man, a company and a brand one can believe in.

Who But, indeed!

You’ll notice from these headline constructions that back in 1986, a mere 28 years ago, office furniture was W.B. Mason’s principal line of business. Office supplies were merely a sideline, while all their other product lines—coffee, school, snack room and janitorial supplies—were years away from earning a place in the Mason catalog.

A Phoenix Rising From The Ashes At Arnold & Co.

But let’s return to the chaos and destruction I mentioned earlier. Back in 1986, before anyone outside of Brockton ever heard of W.B. Mason, I was working at Arnold & Company, one of Boston’s largest advertising agencies. Arnold was going through its own form of chaos and destruction, reeling from the loss of two of its largest accounts, Fayva Shoes and John Hancock Insurance. In those days, Arnold was one of the area’s largest agencies, but it was not highly regarded for its creative punch or ingenuity. In award show competition after competition, Arnold would lose out to Hill-Holiday or Mullen or to smaller-sized, but mammothly-creative Leonard Monahan from Providence. So, by the time Arnold went through the pain of losing both Fayva Shoes and John Hancock in the same year, the agency was already suffering from a massive and deeply cutting creative inferiority complex.Mason Hercules

For a painful period, six months at least, the creative department at Arnold was in a shambles. Our creative director, a likable fellow who came from J. Walter Thompson in New York, was allowed to retain his title but almost none of his authority. Outside advertising pros were brought in to supervise the agency’s creative underlings, to show us what “real creative advertising” looked like. Those interventionist supervisors, none of whom had any actual management experience or interpersonal skills, would block all our ads and commercials from leaving the agency until they themselves had a chance to come up with ideas that were better or more creative. If an ad wasn’t ‘hot’ according to their inner creative thermostats, it would never get served to a client.

You can imagine how demoralizing it was to walk by the office of one of these creative “supervisors” and see, through the glass door, one of your ads being dissected, belittled and used as a jumping off point as they struggled to create something they deemed sufficiently more creative.

For six torturous months, I could not get a single advertisement or commercial out of the agency and presented to a client. By the time my work was sufficiently massaged and tweaked by our supervisors it was hardly recognizable and usually not measurably more creative than my original concept.

My Escape From Arnold

So, you can easily understand why I decided to leave Arnold for an advertising agency that was just starting up down in Hingham, on Boston’s South Shore. A highly risky career move, to say the least, leaving a big Boston agency to work for an unknown and unformed entity out in the burbs. But aside from escaping the craziness of an ad agency disintegrating under the crushing weight of its own identity crisis, I was also reaching for a chance to create something new, something special for myself, working with nothing but raw ingredients and simmering ambition. As creative director I would not only have the opportunity to help create a new advertising agency, but to re-launch a seemingly stagnant advertising career.Mason's Cat100years

Or so I assured myself.

Out Of The Frying Pan Into The Fire

My new agency, TJ Clark, was located in a recently constructed office condo. A condo so new, in fact, I had never seen it before, having interviewed for the job in an office the agency owner borrowed for the interview. Which is why I was totally surprised—shocked, actually—when I came in that first morning to discover the agency didn’t have a single stick of real office furniture to its name. Long rectangular tables from Taylor Rental were set up everywhere, reminding me more of a runaway Bar Mitzvah than a professional advertising agency.

My first thought as I stood there surveying this fledgling, wannabe advertising agency was, “Could this be the end of my advertising career?” Then, after a day filled with mounting evidence to support the reality and threat of that question—an art director who didn’t know how to spec type (a function later made obsolete by the advent of desktop publishing), a paucity of clients, an agency owner whose only real advertising experience was as ad manager at a supermarket chain—I went home to confront my demons in a sleepless night that saw me write down a list of Ten Commandments: 10 actions my new employer needed to undertake for me to stay at his agency.

Number One on the list: buy real office furniture!

Mason soldier First thing next morning, the second day on my new job, I presented my list. I can’t recall if I issued an ultimatum with the list, but I’m certain my new employer understood he and I were at a crossroads. To his credit, he accepted my list of action steps with grave silence, afterwards spending most of the morning phoning Boston office furniture dealers, attempting to get just one to come out to Hingham and meet with him.

Around noon, my new boss left the office without a word as to where he was headed. Two hours later—and this is one of those indelible mental images one holds onto for the length of one’s days—he returned with an entire crew from W.B. Mason in Brockton hauling loaner office furniture—desks, chairs, tables—into our office.

Mason AtlasThat of course was my first glimpse of W.B. Mason and their aggressive, climb-any-mountain, swim-any-sea commitment to winning a client’s business. A business attitude that stood in bold contrast to the arrogance of Boston’s big-shot furniture dealers who thought TJ Clark too small and insignificant to merit a sales call. That hungry sales stance of Mason’s was made indelible in our first Mason newspaper ad depicting W.B. Mason as a prizefighter punching out the lights of one of those Boston dealers: “Who But W.B. Mason Would Battle Heavyweights To Furnish Your Office!”

A Relationship Grows In Hingham

I realize I’m getting a little ahead of myself, and my story. Before we arrive at the period where I would conceptualize a branding personality and advertising campaign for W.B. Mason, there were weeks, perhaps months, where two consecutive lines of communication were being developed and nurtured between TJ Clark and W.B. Mason. On one side, Mason was providing both office supplies and furniture to our small but growing agency, at one point even supplying the trucks and manpower to move us to larger digs. On the other side, I was developing a friendship with Mason’s VP of sales (today, CEO and President), Leo Meehan, whose strong interest in marketing and advertising led him to drop by for an early morning visit almost daily on his way to Mason’s in Brockton. During those visits we would smoke a lot of cigarettes, drink a lot of coffee and talk about Leo’s growing vision for Mason juxtaposed with my understanding, crude at the time, about advertising and marketing.

My understanding about marketing and advertising may have been crude at the time, but it was definitely informed and enlivened by the six months I had just spent in creative Siberia at Arnold & Company. Having to defend one’s creative ideas everyday, having to watch others slap down your work on a consistent basis, having to live under a constant state of creative storm warnings and alarms, had fashioned me into a ferocious creative animal and a surprisingly adept branding philosopher. Once I was able to hire Bill Dahlgren, a talented art director I had known at Arnold, TJ Clark unleashed a reign of creative advertising upon the South Shore’s business community unlike anything ever seen before.

We Don’t Do Ads!

“We don’t do ads!” I would proclaim to prospective clients at TJ Clark, my way of saying I didn’t believe in creating individual ads for a client if there wasn’t an underlying brand personality to give them direction and a unique voice. And so we refused to create ads on a one-shot, brand-less basis. Somewhat arrogant for a young man of 40, but I was empowered and inspired by the crucible of fire I had survived at Arnold. And so, rather than creating an advertisement for a W.B. Mason sale or to help sell their Lite Price line of furniture, Bill and I created an entire branding and advertising campaign that displayed the “Who But!” brand in all its circus finery and “fun-ery” emblazoned on everything from business stationery to newspaper ads to trucks.

Mason balloonist

And maybe because the folks at Mason didn’t know enough to realize how weird and different this campaign was— or perhaps because it was obviously a branding concept with great potential—or maybe they were just desperate for any advertising that might set them apart from the pack…for whatever reason, they bought into “Who But W.B. Mason!” and bought into it big. So big, in fact, that within months at the most they, the company, “became the brand.” By that I mean Mason took on the personality of the campaign at all levels within the company, rising to a level of service, value and friendliness promised by their brand’s unique expression of old-fashioned American values and cornball entertainment.

Two Men Playing With Toys!

So, how the hell did I ever come up with something as distinctive and bold as the “Who But! W.B. Mason!”campaign? Looking back withMason matador the hindsight of history there were three principle ingredients I can credit:           1. My burning drive to prove myself as a creative powerhouse after my humiliating experience at Arnold; I would try anything in those days to stand out or create excitement, break down any doors to prove my worth;    2. Leo Meehan’s burning desire to create a company that was different, better and more memorable than everyone else’s and 3. The remarkable, enjoyable and wholly fortuitous chemistry Leo and I experienced working together. We were kids with keys to the toy store and, at some level, we knew it. For the first few years after the Mason brand was launched, we would occasionally spend a few laugh-filled moments (usually with drinks in hand) reliving the high spots of this most enjoyable collaboration. Together, as the saying goes, we were unstoppable.

The Circus Coming To Town

One other element should not go unmentioned: old-fashioned American circus artwork. Before Bill Dahlgren and I started developing the Mason brand, I went to the Hingham library and borrowed a book of circus posters, most of them from the late 19th century. As mentioned earlier, I had had the idea that Mason because of its aggressive posture and its commitment to providing superior service and value was the embodiment of old-time American values, which—no surprise—was essentially our branding strategy.Mason rainbow

What better way to convey old-time American values than by using materials that reminded everyone of 1890’s America? 19th Century America was a much simpler time in people’s minds, a time when advertising language sounded corny and stilted, and the public expected a dollar’s value for a dollar spent. ‘Who But’ must have come directly off one of those old posters, describing some feat of dare-devil artistry or unexplainable legerdemain.

Who But The Amazing Houdini could escape alive from the Sealed Box of Doom! 

Match that against Who But W.B. Mason would leap a city block to furnish your office!

A Headline, Logo and Call To Arms

As for how I came to actually create the line “Who But W.B. Mason,” there’s no way for me to accurately reconstruct it. The creative process is more often a chain of linked impulses, one leading to another, than a singular Eureka moment. As I mentioned earlier, I had the impulse—quickly acted upon—to borrow a book of circus posters from the library. Did I know I’d be creating a campaign fashioned in that distinct look? I doubt it. More likely I was looking for inspiration. Even once the campaign was fully formed, it was always subject to the litmus tests of “Does it Work?” and “Is it great?” As happens so often with the creative process in developing ads or campaigns, you go down many avenues before you decide which road will go the distance.

Most likely, Bill Dahlgren and I designed the look of the introductory ads first. I just usually work that way; probably because one can say more (and learn more) in an ad than in a logo or a billboard. After the ads we would have tackled everything else. As for the line, “Who But W.B. Mason!” it was never intended to be a logo. We wanted headlines in our ads whose look mimicked circus poster headlines. But once we had created Mason’s distinctive wavy type headline, we realized we had a great looking logo on our hands as well as a circus poster-like headline.

Mason Gotta-HaftaThe only aspect of the process I can testify to with certainty goes back to how I usually work. At the very beginning of a creative process, I usually play all sorts of games to get the juices flowing. Sometimes I’ll just free associate, typing up words that come to mind in response to the client’s business or their stated mission. Other times I’ll take the initial letters of a client’s name and see whatever word constructions they would lead me to. For instance, Monroe Community College (MCC) ultimately became “My College of Choice” in a branding campaign. After almost 40 years as a copywriter and creative director, I know myself well enough to be certain I would have started off the W.B. Mason creative process playing with the W.B. “W.B.” would have quickly taken me to “Who But,” given the way my quicksilver mind generally works. And the rest, after many hours of additional sweat and inspiration, is history.

Our old-time circus artwork is why—according to my theory— everyone notices our Mason trucks. When you see one of our trucks with its “Who But W.B. Mason!” logo and with W.B.’s giant portrait framed by American flags, you almost naturally feel the way children feel when they see the circus coming to town. It’s an almost primal childhood experience. Back in the beginning, when Mason had only four trucks, people would tell us “I see your trucks everywhere.” Now that Mason has over 400 trucks, people actually do see them everywhere. Another case of the company catching up to the brand.

mason logoAs godfather and keeper of the Mason brand, I periodically have to remind people what the W.B. Mason brand stands for—what its soul is all about. Whenever someone in the company or on the creative team starts to take W.B. Mason too seriously, I remind them W.B. Mason is the circus coming to town. Repeat: the circus coming to town, and nothing more. Doesn’t matter that Mason is now $1.4 billion in sales, or that they now employ a few thousand people, rather than the 30-40 who worked there when we first created the brand. W.B. Mason was, is and always will be (I hope) the circus coming to town. Our ads, our TV commercials, our catalog covers were all meant to be as corny as the circus and as American as apple pie.

Start up the calliope, pop the popcorn, put on the clown makeup, W.B. Mason is coming to your office or your town. And don’t mind if he dresses up as a cinema noir detective, Hercules or Jack Dempsey.

And by the way, going back to that dream ballgame we interrupted with bases loaded in the 9th inning, turns out W.B. Mason walloped the ball out of the ballpark to score four runs and win the game against the Yankees. No surprise there. Just another magical feat in the heroic life of W.B. Mason Brand Personality.

A grand slam home run against the Yankees! Now, who could do that?

Who else?

Who But W.B. Mason!


I realize that one person’s history may not exactly jibe with other people’s memories. To see how the folks at W.B. Mason recalled the beginning of our relationship and my creation of their brand, check out “Who But Paul Steven Stone, A Tribute.” And, for additional insights into my work as a creative writer, brand developer and advertising consultant, check out my web site at PaulStevenStone.com.

You can also view the almost 80 TV commercials I wrote and produced for Mason since they first began advertising on TV in 1997. You’ll find them on the W.B. Mason web site. All the commercials produced up through 2012 are mine.

Lastly, if your business could use a little creative boost, whether through brand development, freelance creative direction or copyrighting, you can contact me via my web site. I would only hasten to add…these days I do indeed do ads.