Hal Riney

Hal Riney, the San Francisco advertising man whose iconic and memorable work helped establish the city as a leading creative center for the industry, died of cancer in his San Francisco home Monday. He was 75.

Whether his client was an automobile manufacturer, a wine cooler or the committee to re-elect President Ronald Reagan, no one could put as graceful a spin on Americana as could Hal Riney. He made likable, engaging advertising in a career of nearly 50 years.

Some would say he is best remembered for creating the brand and image of General Motors' Saturn automobile division, establishing a memorable alternative to Detroit car culture in the process. Others would argue he is equally famous for the codgers Frank Bartles and Ed Jaymes, who sing the praises of the Gallo wine cooler that bore their names. Another case could be that his best work came in 1984, when he wrote soft-textured, 60-second montages of Americana, telling stories of swelling national pride, making people comfortable about re-electing Reagan. The ads - titled "It's Morning Again in America" - assured the public it would be folly to return to the days before Reagan's tenure.

Western style

These advertising campaigns and many more had a unique and relaxed Western feeling to them and stood in contrast to so much in a New York-dominated industry. Importantly, Riney's ads prompted marketers to pay attention to the San Francisco ad scene. He narrated many of them, and his gravelly voice is as memorable as the products he promoted.

Before Riney, Howard Gossage had established San Francisco's ad industry roots. Riney's proteges, Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein, who started with Hal Riney & Partners doing "Billy Ball" ads for the Oakland A's, left in the spring of 1983 to establish what is today one of the country's top agencies, and they in turn encourage the next generation of San Francisco creative advertising people.

In fact, Riney's disciples went on to found no fewer than 28 advertising agencies, said Goodby.

"He created an atmosphere and body of work that attracted the highest level of creative people outside New York," said Goodby, co-founder of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco. "Some would say higher."

Throughout his work, Goodby wrote of Riney, "there was an optimistic, perhaps even romantic, vision of America. It was a land populated with people of similar values, small-town Fourth of July parades, and rocking chairs on shady porches. There was little tolerance of fakery and cant. It was this vision he mined in his 1984 campaign for Reagan, and even in his advertising for beer and automobiles."

Hal Patrick Riney was born July 17, 1932, in Seattle and was reared in Longview, Wash., a lumber mill town on the Columbia River. His father was a cartoonist, writer, newspaper publisher, actor, salesman and gambler who was jailed after writing "a check that wasn't the best check he could have written," Riney recalled.

His father abandoned the family, including his mother and older sister, when Riney was 5, but he was an idyllic figure for the young Riney, who kept a photo of him in his office above his Underwood typewriter.

His mother was a teacher who became a volunteer at a fire lookout during the summers of World War II in Washington's Cascade Range - where Riney fell in love with the outdoors.

He graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in art in 1954. After a stint in the U.S. Army, he took a job in the mail room at the San Francisco office of BBDO, then the city's largest advertising agency. He was soon promoted to art director.

Nine years later, he became the agency's creative director. It was at BBDO, in the mid-1960s, that he hired composer Paul Williams to create a theme for Crocker Bank of San Francisco. The song, "We've Only Just Begun," went on to become a No. 1 hit by the Carpenters.

During that time, Riney met Jerry Andelin, the art director with whom he would collaborate until his retirement.

In 1976, Riney opened the San Francisco office of New York agency Ogilvy & Mather. David Ogilvy later said it broke his heart when Riney ultimately left to start his own agency, said Steve Hayden, vice chairman at the New York agency.

"Hal Riney went on to prove just what a massive talent he truly was," Hayden said. "Like David before him, Hal trained an entire generation of stars that continue to dominate the industry to this day, and proved irrefutably that his beloved San Francisco could provide all the talent needed by the world's biggest accounts."

Lee Clow, another famed adman, now global director of media art for TBWA Worldwide in Los Angeles, said, "Hal Riney was one of our fiercest competitors and, personally, one of my greatest inspirations. The man was truly a genius. His voice for storytelling and his art changed the way we think about advertising. His work will continue to inspire us."

Writing at the bar

He may have been considered a genius, but for many he was unassuming. Riney told the story - dating to when he was a member of the 1984 Reagan re-election group called the Tuesday Team - of writing three of the Reagan ads, and a few others that the campaign did not use, in about 2 1/2 hours in a San Francisco bar, Reno Barsocchini's. At the time, the bar was just below his office on Battery Street.

"It was lunchtime, and I remember a guy sitting next to me, one of those guys who hangs around the bar, and he says, 'What are you doing, Hal?' I said, 'Well, I'm writing the president's advertising.' And he thought that was bull- and just snickered," Riney told The Chronicle in 2004.

Riney was a demanding manager. "You had to be on your guard because he always had his wheels churning, a project going on in his head," Goodby said. "There was the feeling he was operating on a higher plane than your presentation seemed to be on. I would also say our sense of humor was wetter than his. He would consider the humor we do a little crass," Goodby said of himself and partner Silverstein.

In 1982, on a trip to Honduras, Riney's Sahsa Air Lines flight was hijacked on the tarmac in Tegucigalpa. Honduran rebels with semiautomatic pistols and bombs rigged with dynamite held the plane. He made a daring escape.

"I just opened the goddamn emergency hatch, jumped out and ran like hell," Riney told The Chronicle that year. "I zigzagged while I ran, expecting shots that never came." Coming home, he circulated a memo to his staff that read, "A belated thank you for your concerns while I was on that airplane. Actually, my research shows that there were 37 in favor of rescue, 29 in favor of blowing up (the airplane) and the remainder undecided."

Goodby recalled that in early 1983, Silverstein had been persistently prodding him to quit the Riney agency and start their own. When the two finally went in Riney's office to give him notice, Riney asked, "What brings you fellows in?" Silverstein said, "Tell him, Jeff," leaving to Goodby the unpleasant task of giving him the news.

"He said, 'If you fellas get tired of making your own coffee over there, you should call me up,' " Goodby said. "I thought that was a sweet reaction."

Goodby omitted mention of the video he made that shows Goodby, Silverstein & Partners on a gleeful pleasure cruise, torpedoed by a vengeful Riney.

In 1985, Riney purchased the Ogilvy & Mather office and renamed it Hal Riney & Partners. It later created the Saturn campaign, centered on the pretty-as-a-picture town of Spring Hill, Tenn., where the car was manufactured, free of the auto industry baggage of Detroit. The tagline was "A different kind of company. A different kind of car," and it was the most successful new model introduction in GM history.

In 2003, the agency was sold to the Publicis Group of Paris and renamed Publicis & Hal Riney.

Hall of Famer

Among his awards, Riney was inducted into the American Advertising Federation's Advertising Hall of Fame in 2002, and the American Association of Advertising Agencies presented him with its lifetime achievement award in the same year.

In his private life, Riney was a doting father who wrote and illustrated hundreds of unabashedly sentimental letters to his children. One of these included a poem explaining that the Easter Bunny was actually a lawyer for a special-interest group who, once a year, assuaged his guilt by distributing candy.

Riney died surrounded by his family, and his death was announced by his wife, Elizabeth Sutherland Riney.

He is survived by his widow and his children, Ben, 21, and Samantha, 19, from a previous marriage.

Memorial gifts can be sent to Save the Children at www.savethechildren.orgor to Earthjustice, for its work to protect Pacific fisheries, at www.earthjustice.org. A date for a memorial service will be announced by the family.