Alan Stess helped to mainstream Hispanic media in South Florida by persuading corporations such as Burger King and Southeast Bank to advertise on Spanish-language radio and TV.
By 1987, $490.7million was spent by advertisers in the Hispanic media nationwide. Stess — and his amusingly creative measures — accounted for a large chunk of that change.
And he didn’t even speak Spanish.
He used to say to Joaquín Blaya, former CEO of Univision, “I have to learn Spanish.”
“And they would say, ‘No, you don’t. We need you for your English expertise,’” said his wife, Ina Stess.
Stess, who died Jan. 3 at 79 in Petaluma, California, from pneumonia and complications from Alzheimer’s, would have made the Madison Avenue advertising execs on AMC’s Mad Men seem ordinary at best.
In 1980, when Stess learned that Miami-based Burger King wasn’t advertising on Spanish-language TV, he came up with a billboard for his client, Channel 23, later Univision, that read: “Burger King, You’re Missing a Whopper of an Audience.”
The words were as zesty as the fast-food chain’s onion ring sauce. But it was the methods used by Stess, along with colleagues Frank Schulwolf and Arthur Low, that really commanded attention. Stess had the billboard towed around Burger King’s headquarters during lunch time when he was sure its executives would be walking to their cars.
The stunt worked. Newspaper campaigns followed. English-language companies recognized the spending power of Spanish-language households and began buying ad time on Univision, Telemundo and other media outlets.
He did a similar stunt for now-defunct Southeast Bank, where he had once worked as its director of marketing soon after moving to Miami from New Jersey in 1972.
Southeast’s slogan was “You Can Count on Us.” But apparently, not everyone could count on the local bank. Stess, who by then had his own agency, wrote copy that read: “Southeast Bank, We Thought We Could Count on You.”
Message received. Soon others recognized the importance of advertising to both English and Spanish markets: Saks Fifth Avenue, AT&T, MCI, Vidal Sassoon, Trix Cereal, the former Miami-based J. Byrons department stores chain.
“The campaign he created basically opened the Hispanic market to general market advertisers in a series of ads that were most creative and a very aggressive, guerrilla-type marketing approach. That was the way we got to major advertisers like Clairol, Jackson Byrons, Burger King, Southeast Bank and all those accounts for which we did not exist,” said friend and former business associate Blaya, a University of Miami trustee.
Stess and Blaya once concocted a TV spot that featured a single shot of a Cuban boy eating from a tub of Howard Johnson’s ice cream on a curb in Miami and giggling with glee. Within days of the ad’s airing, local HoJo outlets reported that they were running out of ice cream.
Stess’ print work with Univision led to five ADDY Awards from the American Advertising Federation in 1984. When the federation prepped the ceremonies in Washington, D.C., a rep called Stess’ office and asked, “Who are you guys?”
The “guys” were really Stess and his wife, Ina. He was the creative side; she was the business. They ran Alan Stess & Associates out of their Pinecrest home.
“We met in college at 19 and 20 and we were great together,” Ina Stess said. “Everyone said you’d ruin this fabulous marriage working together and we didn’t. He could do things I could not do and I could do things he could not do so well.”
Stess was born in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, on Aug. 26, 1935, the son of a wholesale candy and tobacco distributor. He graduated from Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, where he met the woman who would become his wife on a blind date in 1956.
“He was just a great guy. He was kind,” Ina Stess recalls.
Two years later, Stess was on Madison Avenue, working in marketing at Best Foods and leading products like Bosco Syrup. At the Richard K. Manhoff Agency, Stess rose to vice president in 1970 and led campaigns for Welch’s products. One such idea landed the company’s jelly jars in countless kitchen cabinets the nation over when the jars were converted into drinking glasses emblazoned with Flintstones and Bugs Bunny characters.
In 1970, he also accepted a special assignment from the State Department to become a short-term consultant to the Agency for International Development, stationed at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi where he participated in a nutrition education program for the government of India.
That year he also met Blaya in New York. “He was my first friend in the U.S. He was a senior executive at one of the big New York agencies, and I had just arrived from Chile and was hired as a salesman for Spanish International Network, which became Univision,” Blaya said.
“The first thing that was special about Alan is he would see me in those days. A senior ad executive did not see media people. He was always intellectually inquisitive and always interested in everything,” Blaya said.
In the 1990s, Stess produced a three-hour documentary for Telemundo, Heroes Hispanos, which earned seven local Emmy awards. The English version was sold to The History Channel, the first time a program produced for Spanish-language TV was sold to a general market network, said Juan Carlos Coto, a former Miami Herald features writer and an executive producer of television’s From Dusk Til Dawn, Nikita and 24.
Stess, Coto said, “was a man who understood everyone had a voice. ... A risk taker who ‘bought Spanish’ and helped ensure an entire underserved segment of media exploded. Univision first, then Telemundo afterward, expanded hugely in Miami because of these initial efforts, which proved the viability of their marketplace.”
The Stesses moved to California in 2001 to be closer to their growing family. In addition to his wife, Stess is survived by sons David and Andrew, grandchildren Finnley and Minna, and sister Ruth Katzen. A memorial will be held at 1 p.m. Feb. 7 at Adobe Creek Funeral Home, 331 Lakeville St., Petaluma, California.
Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.