Among those lost in the latest swell of the coronavirus pandemic is one of the creatives behind what many consider to be the most iconic and influential ad in the history of advertising.
Harvey Gabor, the art director behind McCann’s 1971 “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” ad for Coca-Cola, also known as “Hilltop,” died recently after being hospitalized last month due to the coronavirus, pneumonia and internal bleeding, according to a Facebook post from his wife Barbara. He was 86-years-old.
Deutsch LA creative chairman Pete Favat called the iconic ad “the most important piece of advertising ever.” He also noted its cultural significance in the wake of the assassinations, violence and turbulence of the late sixties.
“During those times it was awful and then along comes this commercial ‘I’d like to buy the world a Coke and teach the world to sing,’ it had such a profound effect on culture and reminded us ‘Can’t we just be human beings?’” Favat told Adweek.
In 2015, “Hilltop”achieved even further cultural significance when it featured into the finale of Mad Men.
Down from the Hilltop
Following his years at McCann, Gabor joined Wells, Rich and Greene as an art director before heading to Ogilvy as a creative director. After around 20 years in New York, he moved to Boston to join Ingalls Quinn & Johnson as a creative director. It was at IQJ that Favat worked under Gabor beginning in 1987.
“He didn’t have rules about how you think, but I learned from him the difference between an ad and an idea. He was really looking for an idea, and no one before him really made that clear,” Favat said. “When you cracked it with him you know you did something.”
Favat recalled Gabor’s nervous energy. Gabor had a penchant for biting his nails and cuticles, which sometimes resulted in bleeding on the page. Ultimately, Gabor’s enduring trait was his ability to deliver harsh criticism gently.
“He had this [habit] of placing his hand on the side of his head, but with his hand bent backwards. It would twist around and it would be on the side of his brain,” Favat said. “While you were presenting to him, he would do that. And he would just mutter to himself. He said to me one time, ‘Well I don’t know if you could think any smaller.’”
While Favat would leave the office frustrated in such situations, he always realized Gabor’s feedback improved the creative.
“I would leave his office and be mad at myself. And then, a week or two later, I would be back at his office and he’d say, ‘You’re a champion, you’re a goddamn champion,” he said, adding, “He’d say that rarely but when he did you’d feel great.”
When he left the agency and thanked Gabor, Favat said he replied, “You know kid, I learned a lot watching you.”
Always Looking For The Idea
Gabor closed out his career as executive creative director at Troy, Michigan agency SMZ Advertising before retiring in 2012. SMZ Advertising creative director Victor Spieles wrote a tribute to Gabor on the agency’s blog on November 9. Spieles fondly recalled Gabor’s mentorship, constructive criticism and annual illustrated Christmas cards. During his retirement, Gabor wrote an e-book about his time in advertising, entitled “Peeing With David Ogilvy.”
In 2012, Gabor appeared as part of Google’s “Project: Re-Brief” campaign updating four classic ads. Project: Re-Brief reimagined “Hilltop” for the present day. The updated idea was was brought to life via a vending machine that allowed people to literally buy a Coke for someone on the other side of the world. Gabor appeared excited to be revisiting the campaign and engaging with young creatives. Shortly after entering retirement, he said “I’m retired but I miss the action.”