Jerry J. Siano Sr., 85, of Newtown, who helped lead the advertising agency N.W. Ayer to national prominence, died Tuesday, March 10, of aortic stenosis at his home.

Born and raised in South Philadelphia, Mr. Siano graduated from South Philadelphia High School in 1953. The first in his family to attend college, he was already working at Ayer by the time he graduated from what is now the University of the Arts in 1957.

He began his career working as a designer on high-profile accounts, including United Airlines, Armour Foods, and Whitman’s Chocolates. Two years later, he was promoted to art director.

As he rose through the ranks, Mr. Siano led several famous advertising campaigns, such as AT&T’s “Reach Out and Touch Someone and De Beers’ “A Diamond is Forever.”

He was also one of the creative minds behind the Army’s “Be All You Can Be” initiative in the 1980s, and he played an integral role in the conception of the Absolut Vodka brand, including the name, bottle design, and “Absolut Perfection” ad campaign.

Jerry J. Siano Sr.
Courtesy of the Siano Family
Jerry J. Siano Sr.

In a fiercely competitive field where aggressive, buttoned-down executives were the norm, Mr. Siano had a softer touch, more of a “flipping burgers at the backyard barbecue” quality to his leadership at Ayer, according to those who worked for him.

“Advertising isn’t something that reaches millions at a time,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “It’s a one-to-one talk with a real live flesh-and-blood human being.”

In 1981, a campaign for Army recruitment went slightly astray with a faulty headline that read: “Why should the Army be easy, Life isn’t?” It should have read: "Why should the Army be easy? Life isn’t.”

Challenged by Advertising Age magazine on the gaffe, Mr. Siano said: “I console myself with the thought: ‘Why should life in advertising be easy, Eating crow isn’t?’”

In 1987, Mr. Siano and another Ayer executive took away the $200 million Burger King account, among the largest accounts in the country, from the J. Walter Thompson Agency. The move was quite a coup, wrote Inquirer business columnist Peter Binzen.

Mr. Siano was named chairman of the agency in 1989, two days after Ayer lost the fickle Burger King account, Binzen wrote. It was the first time someone from the creative side of the company had assumed control. He set improvement in creative work as his prime mission at Ayer.

“I hope to make this a much better-known and exciting company,” Mr. Siano, then 54, told the New York Times.

Mr. Siano left Ayer in 1994 and formed a small Philadelphia-based ad agency with boyhood friend Joseph DiLeonardo. The agency opened in December 1997 in a former hoop skirt factory in Old City.

Amplifier Research, a Souderton maker of electromagnet testing equipment, agreed to an advertising account worth $1.5 million to $2 million a year.

“I was impressed with his marketing know-how, and his wealth of experience with lots of clients in the big leagues,” Dick Rogers, Amplifier’s marketing director, told Binzen.

Mr. Siano met Veronica Irene Dunn in high school. They celebrated 60 years of marriage last September. The couple had four sons, two of whom joined advertising agencies.

“I could tell my dad really loved everything he did,” said Jerry Siano Jr. “Growing up, I saw him pour his soul into raising me and my brothers, as well as his work. He truly had an abundance of passion.”

Mr. Siano was also an artist. He was active in the Senior Artists Initiative, an organization dedicated to artists over 55. He produced large abstract paintings and sculptures of figures hewed from wood.

“When Jerry looked at something, he looked at it from two sides — the artist’s perspective and the advertising perspective. That’s a rare talent,” said Joe Caserta, at one time his creative partner.

Besides his wife and son, Mr. Siano is survived by sons Gregory, Scott, and Joseph; seven grandchildren; a brother; and a sister.

Services were Saturday, March 14, in Newtown.

Memorial donations may be made to the American Heart Association, 625 W. Ridge Pike, Building A, Suite 100, Conshohocken, Pa. 19428.